Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Slow Road or Rad Road to Removing Rebel Statues?

Before police swoop in to make arrests, statue opponents unfurl a Black Lives Matter banner 
State Sen. Lee Harris says the city of Memphis could apply political pressure to get Confederate statues removed from city parks by putting a fence around the parks or by not cutting the grass.

“That would create national news,” Harris said. “I don’t know any politician who does anything unless you box them in.  Politicians are not as courageous as you think.”

Harris made the remarks at a forum, co-sponsored by the Black Law Students Association, at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law yesterday.

Harris was joined on the panel by City of Memphis Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen; private attorney and attorney for Memphis City Council Alan Wade, and private citizen Tami Sawyer, who has spearheaded the #takeemdown901 people’s movement to remove a statue of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a statue of former Rebel General Nathan Bedford Forrest from two city parks. 

As Bruce McMullen explains how the city has never arrested anyone
for protesting, Tami Sawyer goes from eye roll...

To amused...

To miffed...

To, Whatever 

The Tennessee General Assembly passed laws in 2013 and 2016 which shifted power from municipalities themselves to the Tennessee Historical Commission when it comes to renaming city parks and removing Confederate monuments.  Gov. Bill Haslam, who appoints THC members, had officially implored the commission to vote at its Oct. 13 meeting on the city's request to remove Forrest’s statue in Health Sciences Park, formerly Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. 

However, the THC recently said that matter would not be on its agenda.  City of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and McMullen have said they will attend the meeting and encourage the THC to grant the city’s request. 

McMullen and Wade said the mayor and city council are committed to removing the statues, but they want to exhaust all administrative and legal measures, including taking the matter to the Tennessee or U.S. Supreme Court if necessary – rather than the city simply taking it upon its own authority to remove them.

Above: We go all C-Span Lite, with minor editing, to bring you a video of the panel discussion at University of Memphis law school. 

Sawyer expressed skepticism of the city’s level of commitment to get the Rebel monuments out of public space, and at times tensions rose between Sawyer and city attorney McMullen.

McMullen said public sentiment was part of the city’s appeal to the Tennessee Historical Commission, which prompted Sawyer to ask if the city would acknowledge that about 5,000 citizens had signed a petition that has been delivered to the mayor.

McMullen started, then appeared to be searching for an answer, as Sawyer reframed her question and pressed, “Will you acknowledge publicly that we sent to the mayor a petition with 5,000 signatures in support of the waiver?”
Rev. Earle Fisher rallies the crowd
at Aug. 19 rally to oppose Rebel statues

“You said that four times, “ McMullen retorted, before agreeing they had received the citizens’ petition.

At one point Sawyer outlined the timetable of the THC’s quarterly meetings and noted that the matter would still not be acted upon by the THC when national attention came to Memphis April 4, 2018, upon the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Let me correct one point,” McMullen said.

“You can’t correct me; you may edit,” Sawyer replied. 

During a rally Aug. 19 at the Forrest statue, Memphis police arrested seven citizens – some of whom were standing on the marble monument while others attempted to place a Black Lives Matter banner around the feet of Forrest’s bronze horse, King Phillip. 

Sawyer blasted the city for abridging citizens’ freedom of speech, and McMullen claimed no one was arrested for protesting but rather for “violating the law.”  It is unclear which law or laws the city attorney thought were broken or were being prosecuted upon citizens as police charged the catch-all disorderly conduct in all but two cases, and four cases so far have been dismissed in court. The remaining three cases have yet to receive a preliminary hearing.

Arresting officer affidavits in two cases specifically cite: "An unlawful protest was underway."

After that action, Mayor Strickland put out a statement criticizing statue opponents for being “divisive,” and he later convened several local preachers and others for a photo opportunity showing his support for removing the monuments.  In this gathering Strickland did not include Sawyer or others who were on the front lines of #takeemdown901, such as Rev. Earle Fisher, and he called the effort to remove the Confederate statues “our drive.” 

Sawyer says the time is now to remove the statues, and she cited the city’s history of not following laws – such as to integrate schools in the 1950s – when laws conflict with public sentiment. 

“These monuments were put there to intimidate African-Americans,” Wade said.  “That is the very reason they should come down….

“The continued presence of this monument – Forrest notwithstanding;  he was the general and you can laud all his accomplishments – but it’s not about who is there. It’s about why it is there. And it is there to demean African-Americans and continue to perpetuate this distinction in our culture and wealth and everything else.  The continued presence of that thing is a thumb in the eye of our citizens, saying we are still in control and you will never catch up with us.

“That’s the important thing to keep in mind from a social point of view. But as a legal thing, we are going to fight those out,” Wade said. "We believe we have a great likelihood of succeeding." 

“We have made contact with all levels of government that are connected with this effort – the governor, the city and county mayors, city council, the historical commission -- and we have delivered petitions to them with about 5,000 signatures,” Sawyer said.

“This was never a specific attack on Mayor Strickland, and while we sit here and laud his efforts, that’s great, but the protest and the actions were to make a public push for removal and to bring this to the forefront of the administration and city council to have them removed,” Sawyer said.

“As we think about this not just in the legal context but in the historical context, when we go back to 1954 and we were ordered by the Supreme Court (Brown vs. Board of Education) to integrate schools with all deliberate speed.  And it took seven years for schools here to be integrated. And it took 13 parents to file a lawsuit through the NAACP legal defense fund for their kindergarteners to be the ones brave enough to integrate these schools.  The schools they integrated are either closed today, or they are a hundred percent black and Latino, or they are a hundred percent low income.

“In 1951 there was a legal standard to integrate schools and to insure there was no separation,” Sawyer said, “and that there was equality in schools. Our city government chose to ignore that law, because that’s what they thought was right.  And our city government then chose not to engage in the process they were required to do.  Because that’s what they thought their people wanted.

“So I continue to push, as the activist on the panel, and say if the people are saying this is what they want, those that the people have asked to represent them have the power and the right to be radical in making this change.”

Harris said that the movement to take down the statues has gained momentum in contrast to the city’s struggle in 2012 and 2013 to rename the parks that contain the monuments.  When the Tennessee General Assembly passed laws in 2013  and 2016 that usurped the authority of cities to control the monuments, Gov. Bill Haslam “did not have political courage.  He has a way to go, but he has come a long way, and he is now for their removal." 

Harris noted that when he was a member of city council they considered renaming it "Ida B. Wells/Nathan Bedford Forrest Park," awkwardly combining the journalist who exposed lynching atrocities with the slave trader and first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan.  We have supposed how they might have then altered the monument (see photo). 
Can you imagine...?

“We can take a radical path,” Harris said.  “We can close the park, put a fence around it.  We are probably a long way from doing something like that, but that’s a national news story.  That would put so much pressure on the governor and the Tennessee General Assembly.

“We can stop maintaining the parks.  Don’t cut the grass, because the state has said we don’t have control over our parks,” Harris said. “Let it get six feet tall.  That’s another national news story.  To be sure, it hurts us, but it really puts the pressure on Nashville.  There are a lot of levers to be pulled that we haven’t pulled quite yet.”

Sawyer spoke of the racial wealth gap and education inequity between African-Americans and Caucasians in Memphis, and she said the effort to remove the Confederate symbols highlighted those issues. 
Under the boot of the Rebel general

“We don’t go away when the statues come down.  We will continue to bring attention to the racial inequality in this city,” Sawyer said.

There was no audience Q-and-A opportunity, although we had our question ready for the city attorney:
As Baltimore took away its statues and a city official called it putting them under "protective custody" against vandals, how much is Memphis paying to have 24-hour police protection for the two statues, and would it not be better and cheaper to put them in "protective custody" for their own safety? 

No comments:

Post a Comment