Lawrence Hatter

By Lawrence Hatter associate professor of early American history at Washington State University

In the searing July heat in New York City, radical militants gathered in a Manhattan park, determined to tear down a statue. Over the past few years, this public monument had become the focus of protests against unpopular government measures, including a shocking act of police brutality in Boston that cost the lives of five civilians. The statue was a frequent target of graffiti. This time, however, it was coming down. With ropes tied around the statue, protesters heaved together, pulling it down. In the frenzy that followed, the crowd decapitated the statue and cut up what remained.

This event in New York almost 250 years ago could almost be snatched from today’s headlines. Over the past few weeks, a popular wave of Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism has targeted statues around the globe in response to the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department. From the felling of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, to a crowd throwing the slave trader Edward Colston into the sea in the English port city of Bristol, protesters have attacked symbols of white supremacy in our commemorative landscape.

Monuments are not history. They may depict historical figures or events, but statues and other monuments use the past to articulate the civic values of the present. Statues demonstrate what it is that we want to celebrate about the past. Statues are about our collective memory; they are not history itself. We can remove statues without erasing the past.

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