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Public Space and Robert E. Lee

Public Space and Robert E. Lee

Peter Wilson looks at the problem of statue removal

Many of us are familiar with events surrounding the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville in August last year. It was erected in 1924. The city council decided to remove the statue in March 2017, after the park in which it was situated was renamed. The removal prompted demonstrations, which were met with counter-protests.

The “Unite the Right rally” on 12th August saw the convergence of self-proclaimed neo-Nazis and other far-right affiliates. The protests over the statue’s removal were seeped in anger, with demonstrators attempting to scare anyone who disagreed with them. One woman was killed and many others were injured. The protestors had latched onto Lee as a figure of white supremacy and were ready to meet counter-protest with violence. This fatal clash highlights divisions present in American society today.

The protests in Durham the following day took a different form. They saw the swift removal of an unnamed statue dedicated to “the boys in grey”. The statue overlooked the old courthouse in a diverse, medium-sized city with a checkered past. It was removed without counter-protest or any political fallout. We should be under no illusion that statues misrepresenting the Confederacy which have existed for less than 100 years should be scrutinised. However, the hasty activity in Durham brings into question how one should analyse the protests, as they are a response to the violence seen in Charlottesville.

The protests are a stark demonstration of political polarisation today. History has become a political arena. The issue was raised in a recent Atlantic article. Reference was made to the recent trend of radicalisation in America. The article stated that for every Nazi protesting a statue’s removal, a student is radicalised. The idea of the activity of one radical group being met with the growth and development of another is worrying. We want a society in which people can peacefully disagree with each other, rather than one in which nothing is agreed on at all.

Conversation surrounding statue removal has been alight in England for several years. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Cape Town in 2015 led to the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes at University of Cape Town. In the South African context, it was an understandably oppressive monument. The campaign spread to Oxford the following year. Stephen Fry likened the removal to something out of 1984. Fry would go on to say Cecil Rhodes was “undoubtedly a monster,” but the idea of removing his statue was “stupid”. One might “occasionally throw an egg at it” but that, ultimately, “life is complicated”. Stephen Fry was echoed in the sentiments of Cambridge professor Mary Beard after the university decided to keep the statue.

As Fry suggested, statue removal is a simple solution to problems posed by the intricacies of history. There is something to be said for understanding the whole story (the good, the bad, and the ugly). If those at the Unite the Right rally could have appreciated a different context, things would not have turned violent.

In August, Donald Trump said “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” What can we learn from events a few months ago?

We need to look at the root causes of such strong feelings of adoration and hatred towards certain symbols. Rhodes seems to have revealed a British “blind spot” regarding our colonial past. For Charlottesville, we should consider the central role the statue played in extreme-right gatherings. The conversation surrounding Durham has gone towards the Daughters of the Confederacy group, which sponsored a particular narrative of the Confederacy in the South of the United States throughout the Jim Crow era.

As to whether we should get rid of these monuments, the solution is not straightforward. We certainly can’t address these statues in a vacuum. We can and should, however, learn from recent events. The Robert E. Lee Statue taught the public a lesson, which has led to national conversation in America about its civil war.

I would like to encourage further discussion of polarising issues such as this. I do not know whether we should get rid of contentious statues, but I believe it is up to the public who share that space to decide in a non-violent manner.

Polarized Politics on Rare FM has tackled this issue, and will be addressing many others every fortnight Monday 5-6pm. If you would like to participate in a discussion or ask a question please contact: peter.wilson.15@ucl.ac.uk.

Featured image: Wikimedia

Peter Wilson
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