The ongoing tensions surrounding the fate of four Confederate-era monuments in New Orleans recently reached the national stage — and the local boiling point. On May 7, the last day of tourist-heavy Jazz Fest, a rowdy group of out-of-town white supremacists hijacked a demonstration by local monument supporters at Lee Circle. The locals wanted to stage a peaceful counterpoint to a previously planned march by Take 'Em Down NOLA, a group that supports removing statues of Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The race-baiting interlopers created an ugly scene, one that didn't have to happen.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu first called for the monuments' removal in June 2015; six months later, the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 in favor of that idea. All along, Landrieu said the monuments would be stored until an appropriate place could be found for them — a museum or an outdoor setting where they could be placed in context. While the mayor had a clear vision of taking down the monuments, there has been little clarity on their ultimate fate.
The so-called Liberty Place Monument came down April 24, follow- ed by the Davis statue on May 11. Both monuments were removed overnight in the wake of "very real threats of violence" — and some acts of violence — against city contactors, Landrieu says. Yet, in the more than 22 months since calling for the monuments' removal, the mayor still hasn't said definitively what will become of them, though last week discussions were underway with several possible sites for the monuments. We believe the lack of a definitive plan before now has exacerbated the contentiousness we've seen in recent weeks.
Sadly, in the midst of all this turmoil, none of the city's most prominent business leaders stepped forward offering words of unity, reconciliation and hope. Leaders have a moral and civic obligation to stand up for what they know is right, even in the face of fierce criticism. Their silence on this issue represents a surrender to the forces of division and hatred.
Meanwhile, the statues have become fodder for political grandstanding on all sides. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser publicly asked President Donald Trump to intervene, and state lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it illegal for local governments to move any military monuments. For his part, Landrieu has seen his national profile spike amid talk that he may one day run for president, leading to speculation that he's prolonging the drama for political effect. The mayor also fired a personal broadside at local businessman Frank Stewart, who supports keeping the monuments in place, with plaques adding historical context. The mayor's ad hominem attack against Stewart was so over-the-line that Stewart publicly rebuked him in paid newspaper ads. Landrieu later apologized.
It didn't have to come to this.
The mayor says taking down Confederate monuments will not erase local history but rather allow New Orleans to move forward as one city by no longer revering an ugly part of its history. Taking down the Confederate statues was bound to cause controversy, but to truly move forward together, we need a clear path forward — from the mayor as well as community leaders — and we need it now, not later.