May 192017
 

After protests over the election of Donald J. Trump as President on Wednesday evening, a city employee begins pressure washing a “Black Power” slogan from the Robert E. Lee monument in New Orleans on Thursday morning. (Robert Morris, UptownMessenger.com)

A monument supporter waves a flag with the Confederate battle emblem at the site of the Jefferson Davis monument in early May. (photo by S.L. Alexander for UptownMessenger.com)

By S.L. Alexander

We recently marked the 47th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and although I’ve never skipped a year, I must admit I no longer have the stamina for more than one day’s attendance. But the weather this day (after two of the fest days being filled with thunderstorms) was unbelievably perfect–60s and 70s, gentle BabyCakes–er, zephyrs (it’s only the local baseball team has morphed names).

The 12 music stages included many types of music — jazz, Cajun, Dixieland, gospel, some country, some folk, a bit of rock — but the predominant genre, this being, after all, a New Orleans heritage festival, was the outgrowth of what is now called rhythm and blues, but back in the day even in New Orleans was referred to on the radio as “race music.” Walking back to the car at the end of the day, I noted with a chuckle the scores of bicycles chained to the fence underneath a sign clearly ordering NO BIKE PARKING, and I was feeling very happy and mellow when we got into the car parked on Jeff Davis Parkway. Heading back toward Uptown, my pleasant musings were abruptly interrupted by the sight of about a dozen protesters with giant Confederate flags, across the street from the Jefferson Davis monument, which was protected by a temporary chain link fence and eight NOPD squad cars filled with armed cops. My spirits plunged. I’ve been here nearly three decades, and the only Confederate flags I’ve ever seen in New Orleans before were at the Civil War (nee the Confederate) Museum.

As a longtime journalist and a recently certified New Orleans tour guide, I don’t usually express my opinions on the news. I don’t sign petitions, don’t put up campaign yard signs, don’t post my thoughts on Facebook. Following doctors’ orders, I won’t discuss the new administration, not even the issue which sets me afire, the growing threat to the existence of a free press, noted in our very Constitution as vital to a continued democracy. But remembering my PTSD therapy after the federal flood caused by the 2005 levee breach after Katrina (which I like to refer to as “the late unpleasantness”), I now feel the need to vent a bit of pent-up emotion repressed since last November: these demonstrations would have never happened until now.

I know the intentions of Mayor Mitch Landrieu were noble: after a Confederate-flag wielding zealot shot up a church in South Carolina in 2015, His Honor decided that four New Orleans monuments to the glorious past must come down — not only the one many would interpret as commemorating a racist event, the battle of Liberty Place, but also those to PGT Beauregard at City Park, Jefferson Davis on Jefferson Davis Parkway, and the iconic Robert E Lee at, well, Lee Circle.

In the past year-and-a-half since then, the controversy over “why” and “whether” and, if so, “how” the monuments should come down grew against the background of a most divisive Presidential election. I respect the passionate claims on both sides of the monuments issue — arguments for keeping them, e.g., those outlined by some prominent citizens who have taken out angry, full-page ads in the local papers, as well as of those who see the monuments as politically incorrect, outdated symbols. But I’m not a native New Orleanian, my ancestors weren’t even in this country in 1865, and I have no personal opinion either way (and it would be moot in any event: as of this writing, three of the four scheduled to be removed are already down, with preparations afoot to remove Lee as well).

But my heart is heavy with the collateral damage of the controversy and what it is destroying here where many identify as a sort of mixed race of New Orleanians by cultural appropriation, if not literally, since we all eat the same New Orleans food, we listen to the same music, and all cheer for the Saints. No one had thought the monuments our most pressing problem, as we’re all much more concerned with the horrendous crime rate and with trying to rebuild the city streets still torn up from the late unpleasantness in 2005, not the one 150-plus years ago.

And since these Troubles have begun, some folk are now demanding the changing of the names of scores of streets here, and maybe someday Washington there, while those openly-armed, admittedly “outside agitators” threaten locals leaving the celebration of our mixed heritage by waving Confederate flags at them, bringing visions of Alabama in the ‘60s to mind. All I can think of is, this never would have happened before last November’s election. What hath been wrought? Poor New Orleans, preparing for our 300th birthday next year, poor U.S. of A., poor weary, weary world. Even in New Orleans, can we no longer spend even a couple of carefree weekends dancing, united, rejoicing in our heritage together?

S.L. Alexander is a journalist and book author, recently retired from the faculty of Loyola University and can be reached at SLAlexander@courtroomcarnival.com.

  • Ryan

    This article is shameful. You personally seeing Confederate Flags for the first time has absolutely no bearing on anyone’s true attitudes towards race or the history of the civil war. Bringing things to the surface is not a cause of anything, it is simply revealing the reality of peoples’ worldviews. Just because that reality is ugly is not an argument for hiding it. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”

    “Can we no longer spend even a couple of carefree weekends dancing, united, rejoicing in our heritage together?” are the words of someone with so much privilege that they have deluded themselves that see no evil, hear no evil = there is no evil.

    Instead of saying you have no personal opinion either way, and then writing a couple thousand words lamenting “the controversy” (which, by definition, means your opinion is that there should be inaction; i.e., that the monuments should stay up), try thinking about how you personally feeling uncomfortable is a reflection on you, not on those who have the courage of their convictions and don’t want to freeze this city in amber to preserve your false idea of what New Orleans is.

    • s.l.alexander

      Hi Ryan, my sincere thanks for your comment. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts.

      Leaving the specifics of the monument controversy to those who were born in New Orleans and/or have deep emotions on either side, I was just trying to suggest my sadness at seeing that the dramatic collapse of traditional bipartisan modes of expressing political differences (publicly, at any rate) on the national scene seems to have seeped down to the local level and encouraged some to view hate speech and threats by the fringes on both sides as acceptable alternatives to more carefully considered political speech and civic activism so crucial to our democracy. Thanks again, take care.

      • R P

        You have an excellent point. I have detested the militant Tea Party types all during the Obama years during which they were active and, to me, a very disruptive, if not destructive, force on the greater civic fabric. I view these SJW types who have now seemed to swing into action and have been much involved with pushing for these purges of politically incorrect memorials in the same vein. Will this city ever be the same, as in not hung up on what’s politically correct but treasuring art, culture, historic things and being authentic and true to itself? Who knows? Moreover, on a broader level, there is very much a question of free speech being essentially shut down. You can’t go on a college campus as a conservative speaker these days without risking being assaulted. You can barely do comedy — ask Jerry Seinfeld.

        • s.l.alexander

          Hi, RP, sincere thanks for your comments.
          I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • Linda Cornish Rioux

    Thank you S.L. Alexander..

    • s.l.alexander

      Hi, Linda Cornish Rioux, my sincere thanks for your comment. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • H. J. Bosworth JR.

    Thank you for a thoughtful article. It seems that there were outside agitators that helped start the mayor’s wheels in motion to do this in the first place. Thanks for nothing useful! And other imported agitators came to town to protest the mess and the influence of the initial agitators from afar!

    • s.l.alexander

      Hi, H.J. Bosworth, Jr, my sincere thanks for your comment. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • Owen Courrèges

    “What hath been wrought? Poor New Orleans, preparing for our 300th birthday next year, poor U.S. of A., poor weary, weary world. Even in New Orleans, can we no longer spend even a couple of carefree weekends dancing, united, rejoicing in our heritage together?”

    Mayor Landrieu has made that a great deal more difficult, and it wasn’t for the sake of noble intentions. This was a stupid, narcissistic crusade, and it will be a source of division and acrimony for some time.

    • s.l.alexander

      Hi, Owen Courreges, my sincere thanks for your comment. I appreciate (as always) your taking the time to share your thoughts.

    • R P

      The mayor writing a column in a sort of national news outlet — the Washington Post — bears out that this was not about any deeply-held principle but more of a grab for attention.

  • Turlet

    Most of this article is garbage, but it is true that this never would have happened before the election. The Democrats were bad before, but literally went insane afterwards. They are not interested in things like law, history, or the Constitution. Violence, destruction, and a lot of foul language are the order of the day. Centrist Democrats are probably still the silent majority within the party, but their number dwindles everyday. It is hard to “rejoice” in our heritage when it has been torn down by cranes and masked men.

    • s.l.alexander

      Hi, Turlet, sincere thanks for your comments. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • reality check

    I too do not place political signs in my yard or on my vehicle, and I rarely place my thoughts on the internet. However, being a native white Southerner with ties to Southern ancestral generations dating back before the Civil War, I have admittedly been internet active in the monuments controversy. My reason for doing so is that the symbolism of the Lee and Beauregard monuments in their military attire were symbols to me of the Confederate war dead. My white friends and relatives, liberal or conservative, who also have ancestral ties to the South think likewise of this symbolism of military Confederate monuments. Of course the symbolism the Mayor invoked was one of racism and white supremacy. His repeated implications were that if you were a Lee or Beauregard monument supporter then you were a racist and white supremacist. His uncompromising intentions in this regard I have found to be less than “noble”. In fact his racist supremacist manner has been downright divisive.

    Interestingly, the Memorial Holiday we are about to celebrate had part of its origins in the South. The U.S.Department of Veterans Affairs Memorial Day history page states one of the first memorials “occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers… Nearby were the graves of Union solders, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.” The site goes on to state that “after World War I the day was was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.” Anyone would have a hard time refuting the Civil War was an American war for both sides.

    • s.l.alexander

      Hi, Reality Check, sorry for delayed response, I was out of town for Memorial Day holiday, appropriately enough.

      Sincere appreciation for your thoughtful comments. Perhaps you can add your informed opinion to the dialogue of those considering the future of the monuments that were removed as well as any future actions that might be taken.

  • reality check

    And the “noble” mayor’s witch hunt for racist, white supremacist monument supporters begins. Even if you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    http://www.fox8live.com/story/35501915/principal-fears-losing-his-job-after-monument-post-goes-viral
    .