With the removal of Robert E. Lee's statue, what's next for the monuments and New Orleans


Robert E. Lee's statue was removed from its pedestal May 19. - PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
  • Robert E. Lee's statue was removed from its pedestal May 19.

At 11 a.m, a single PA speaker packed into a wagon blasted Ginuwine's "Pony" and Blackstreet's "No Diggity" as a small crowd gathered outside Lee Circle to watch a fourth Confederate-era monument come down.

Robert E. Lee's statue —  16 feet tall, 8,000 pounds, in his Confederate uniform, arms crossed, facing north — would remain on his pedestal, where the statue stood since 1884, for only a few more hours. At a few minutes after 6 p.m. May 19, a crane lifted Lee off the tower to cheers from a growing crowd.

At 3 p.m., Mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed an invitation-only crowd inside Gallier Hall, his period at the end of a nearly three-year sentence arguing for the removal of Confederate-era monuments from New Orleans' public space. In his impassioned 20-minute address, Landrieu challenged the city to acknowledge and reconcile its ugly past while building a more inclusive society. If not, he said, "then this will all have been in vain." Meanwhile, two members of the construction crew tasked with their removal placed the crane's hook to the straps wrapped around Lee's statue.

Lee's removal follows decades of debate and two years of legislation and court rulings over the placement and ownership of the monuments, why they were even erected in the first place, and who gets to decide what to do with them. A monument to the so-called Battle of Liberty Place white supremacist uprising in 1874 was removed April 24. A statue of Jefferson Davis in Mid-City followed May 11. P.G.T. Beauregard's statue outside City Park was removed May 17.

Around 1 p.m., Malcolm Suber with Take 'Em Down NOLA addressed the crowd outside Lee Circle, where 200 people found shade under a couple of trees, or sat along the fence surrounding the Circle K. "After this, we're gonna have a New Orleans street party," Suber said. "We will not let Mitch Landrieu claim this."

Take 'Em Down NOLA has pushed for the removal of the four monuments as well as all symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans, from street names to other statues like Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square, for their roles as slave owners, Confederate supporters, or their legacy of institutionalizing white supremacy. The group feared Landrieu had assumed leadership of the ongoing, decades-long civil rights efforts to remove the statues, which Take 'Em Down NOLA had explicitly taken as its mission statement, an umbrella also aiming at gentrification, crime reduction, poverty and unemployment. "We took a stand for ourselves," Michael "Quess" Moore said. "This is only the beginning of the conversation, but goddamn, we started a conversation."

"We are fulfilling the wishes and desires of our ancestors," Suber said. "[Landrieu] is holding a press conference to brag about this ... But it was Take 'Em Down that was on the front line."
Michael "Quess" Moore with Take 'Em Down NOLA addresses the crowd May 19. - PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
  • Michael "Quess" Moore with Take 'Em Down NOLA addresses the crowd May 19.

Just a few blocks from the crowd at Lee Circle, the audience at Landrieu's address at Gallier Hall included members of the New Orleans City Council and New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison, as well as members of the Freedom Riders and family of Homer Plessy, and City Hall staff — including staff who answer the phones. Landrieu, he joked, had asked them how he's doing. "Well chief," Landrieu said, "they called you everything but a child of God."

Landrieu pointed to the city's "melting pot" of indigenous cultures as its strength — then listed its darker truths: the city was one of the largest slave markets in the U.S., from which people were sent to endure "misery, rape and torture," and a place where thousands of people of color were lynched. To monument supporters who argued removing the statues would also remove history, Landrieu said, "what I just described to you is our history as well."

"They are eerily silent to what amounts to historical malfeasance, a lie by omission," he said. "There is a difference between remembrance of history and the reverence of it."

Landrieu said "the record is clear" with regards to the figures memorialized by the monuments: they honor a Lost Cause following the downfall of the Confederacy "to rewrite history, to hide the truth, which is the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity." The monuments represent an attempt to "rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of the Confederacy." The statues are "not just innocent remembrances of a benign history," but ones that are "ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement the terror that it actually stood for," sending a strong message about "who was still in charge of this city."

Landrieu explained that his perspective shifted on the monuments (which he admitted he may have passed 1,000 times without notice) after conversations with people of color, particularly with Wynton Marsalis, who asked him hypothetically how he would explain Lee's presence above the city to a black child.

"Can you do it?" Landrieu said. "Can you look into the eyes of this young girl and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she feels inspired and hopeful by that statue? ... This is a moment in which he know what we must do."

Landrieu said he understood taking down the monuments "would be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing," he said.

"History cannot be changed. It can't be moved like a statue. What's done is done. The Confederacy lost, and we're better for it," he said, adding that asking people to revere the subjects of the monuments is "perverse" and "absurd."

"Century old wounds are raw because they never healed right in the first place," he said.

Landrieu called the countless contributions to food, music and cultural tradition among many people thought the city's history "proof that out of many, we are one, and we really do love it. Yet we find so many excuses to not do the right thing."

If the city does not carve out a more inclusive future, Landrieu said, "then all of this would have been in vain."

House Bill 71 moving through the Louisiana Legislature could prevent cities from removing certain monuments. - PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
  • House Bill 71 moving through the Louisiana Legislature could prevent cities from removing certain monuments.

Landrieu's vision of the future includes "a chance to create new symbols, and to do it together, as one people," he said.

He once again made clear the place of Confederate icons within it, and promised the city never will consider them in its landscape again. "The Confederacy was on wrong side of history and humanity," he said. "This is history we should never forget or put on a pedestal to be revered."

The night before, as dozens of people gathered at Lee Circle to defend it or see whether the city would prepare Lee's removal in the early morning hours, Landrieu unveiled what's next for the monuments and their spaces.

According to a statement from the city, the statues are being packed up and prepared for storage in a city-owned warehouse space "or secure facilities."

In the coming weeks, the city also will open a request for proposals process for the Liberty Place obelisk, Davis and Lee to "facilitate the open and transparent selection of where they ultimately go and how they can be presented as educational tools with historical context. " The city will only consider proposals from nonprofit and governmental entities, and "all proposals must state how they will place the statues in context, both in terms of why they were first erected and why the City chose to remove them in 2015." The statues also will not be allowed to be displayed outdoors on public property within the city. A public selection committee will make recommendations for the proposals to be approved by the New Orleans City Council.

The Beauregard statue, however, will be the subject of "good-faith discussions" between the City and City Park Improvement Association following legal challenges to its removal. The City Park Improvement Association also will help decide what will replace the statue.

Meanwhile, the area that housed the Davis statue will be replaced with an American flag. And the city plans a water feature at the circle at which Lee once stood. Landrieu hopes to complete construction on the new Circle by the city's tricentennial celebrations in 2018.

Following Lee's removal, a statement from the Monumental Task Committee — whose anti-removal efforts included a lawsuit against the city — said the city's efforts are "more fitting to ISIS tactics than those of the United States of America."

"With the removal of four of our century-plus-aged landmarks, at 299 years old, New Orleans now heads in to our tricentennial more divided and less historic," the statement said.

A crowd of more than 200 waited throughout the day for a sign of Lee tipping from its post. During the nine-hour wait from the construction crew's arrival to Lee's removal, crowds killed time reading, playing hopscotch, jumping rope, or unicycling.

While the PA played NSYNC's "Bye, Bye, Bye," among several songs on a playlist dedicated to goodbyes, two men in a cherry picker ascended to Lee and unlatched his foot from the 30-feet-tall column.

Below, a crowd spread across both sides of Howard Avenue and into the Circle K parking lot. The crane began to move, and the crowd erupted in cheers as Lee's statue wobbled off its pedestal and was lowered to the ground, then hauled away in the back of a long flatbed truck.

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