The recent wave of vandalism against monuments across the US dedicated to people or events considered ‘racist’ by protestors have added another dimension of controversy and confrontation to social polarization in the country. People are divided over whether such actions can be considered legitimate, emphasizing the need to debate which people and values should be honoured, or whether they are acts of simple vandalism that discredit and distract from the motives and objectives of the protests, confuse the issues involved and risk provoking more violence as other groups try to protect monuments from being defaced or damaged.
The defacing or removal of monuments has increased in the US over the last few years, to the extent that the monuments themselves have become a focal point for protests and volatile confrontations between opposing groups. In a report on the latest acts of vandalism Fox News comments:
Confederate monuments are a major flashpoint in Virginia and elsewhere in the South. Confederate memorials began coming down after a white supremacist killed nine black people at a Bible study in a church in South Carolina in 2015 and then again after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. LINK
While Confederate statues and statues commemorating Christopher Columbus in particular have been the subject of similar attacks for some time, during the latest wave of protests statues to people or events which could not be considered in any way to be related to current developments have also been defaced and damaged.
During the first week of the protests, photos posted on Twitter by the National Park Service (NPS) showed graffiti on several monuments including the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial and the Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski statue in Freedom Plaza.
Fox News reported that in Birmingham, Ala., a 97-year-old memorial honouring those who lost their lives in World War I was defaced and damaged amid a protest in the public park where it was located.
In Denver, Colorado, a sculpture remembering victims of the Armenian genocide was also vandalized.
“Cops are the evil,” was scrawled on the ground in front of the memorial.
“Since the Khachkar commemorates the victims of all crimes against humanity, including slavery and state-sponsored racism, it is ironic that individuals who claim to seek justice have vandalized the very monument that honors the victims of injustice,” Armenians of Colorado said in a statement. LINK
Such attacks simply serve to discredit the protests and have no conceivable purpose. They also risk provoking violent clashes with groups trying to defend the statues. A report from Philadelphia last week provides one example of this, noting that a ‘vigilante’ group had been formed to protect a statue of Christopher Columbus:
In the last week, protesters threw a Christopher Columbus statue into a Virginia lake. They beheaded a Christopher Columbus statue up in Boston. Just over the Ben Franklin Bridge in Camden, officials removed a Christopher Columbus statue from a city park. And the one down in Wilmington, Delaware, saw a similar end. But here in Philly, there’s a much, much different scene playing out.
Here in Philly, we’ve got men armed with bats, guns and hatchets “protecting” the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza, a small park at the intersection of Broad Street and Oregon Avenue.
The first reports of armed individuals “patrolling” in the park emerged on Saturday. Protesters say they were harassed and, in some cases, assaulted by some of the statue’s defenders. It didn’t take long for police to show up and put barricades around the statue.
(Mayor Jim Kenney commented via Twitter): “We are aware of the groups of armed individuals ‘protecting’ the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza,” Kenney tweeted. “All vigilantism is inappropriate, and these individuals only bring more danger to themselves and the city.” LINK
The phenomenon has also been taken up by protestors in the United Kingdom. On 18 June The Sun reported:
MORE than 100 statues and streets names across the UK have now been put up on a website called Topple the Racists.
Protesters want them taken down because of their racist associations, and a map showing all of the “racist” statues in Britain online include memorials of Captain Cook and Wetherspoons pubs named after slave owners…
The website was published by the Stop Trump coalition in support of the Black Lives Matter protests and maps out more than 100 statues across Britain which pay tribute to slave traders and “racists”.
The group said: “We believe these statues and other memorials to slave-owners and colonialists need to be removed so that Britain can finally face the truth about its past – and how it shapes our present.” LINK
Police in at least some districts have been instructed not to intervene if this could put themselves or members of the public at risk. On 11 June the Daily Mail reported that:
Statues targeted by Black Lives Matter protestors will not be protected by the police if it means putting themselves or the public at risk, a police chief has said.
Essex Police Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington said it was up to operational commanders to make decisions on whether officers should step in to stop damage to monuments but said people’s safety would be prioritised over property.
Mr Harrington, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on public order, said more than 155,000 people across the UK had taken part in almost 200 demonstrations, with 137 arrests…
Statues glorifying slave traders and colonialists have come into sharp focus in recent days, as part of a broader movement inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests that started in the United States following the death of George Floyd on May 25. LINK
While the merits or otherwise of specific monuments may be questioned, the acts of vandalism and destruction clearly do not contribute to the ‘peacefu dialogue’ between different parts of the society and provoke more violence as other groups reasonably try to protect monuments from being defaced or damaged.
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