It doesn't necessarily follow that a nationwide protest over police brutality would, for some, become a reason to take action against Confederate statues and other controversial monuments. But it has. In just the last week, protesters have knocked down Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Montgomery, Alabama; as well as monuments to Christopher Columbus in Boston and St. Paul, Minnesota.
This is because the George Floyd protests are not just about police violence. They're about structural racism and the persistence of white supremacy; about the unresolved and unaddressed disadvantages of the past, as well as the bigotry that has come to dominate far too much of American politics in the age of Trump. Born of grief and anger, they're an attempt to turn the country off the path to ruin. And part of this is necessarily a struggle over our symbols and our public space.
Another way to put this observation is that police brutality, the proximate cause of these protests, is simply an acute instance of the many ways in which the lives of black Americans (and other groups) are degraded and devalued. And while the most consequential form this degradation takes are material — the Covid-19 crisis, for example, has revealed to many Americans the extent to which black lives are still shaped by a deep racial inequality that leaves them disproportionately vulnerable to illness and premature death — there are also many symbolic statements of black worth, or the lack thereof, out there for all to see.
Confederate statues like the ones in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, or the smaller monuments that mark courthouses and town squares across the South, are visible reminders of a time when white society was nearly united in its subjugation of blacks. Erected decades after the end of the Civil War — as the white South began to codify segregation and disenfranchisement into Jim Crow — these statues set in stone the triumph over Reconstruction and the effort to make the South, and the nation, a democracy. And they marked the spaces in which they stood as essentially white territory.
Confederate monuments were erected to exclude, and they continue to stand for exclusion. In which case it's no surprise that protesters would vandalise and tear them down. In this moment, to knock over a statue of Jefferson Davis is to claim the space for black lives against those who would try to preserve the values of the Confederacy. And to the extent that other institutions follow suit — Congress is debating an amendment that would rename military bases named after Confederate officers — it may reflect a belated recognition that these symbols are not, and cannot be, neutral.
Something similar is happening with the attempt to remove Christopher Columbus from the public sphere. The Italian explorer became an American icon in the late 19th century as Italian immigrants fought to assert their place in American society. But the real-life Columbus was a brutal, violent man who inaugurated the subjugation of natives in the present-day Caribbean and South America. His legacy is one of slavery and genocide, and that's why Indigenous people in the United States have long opposed the commemoration of his voyage. Knocking down statues of the explorer is also an attempt to reclaim public space on behalf of the excluded and ignored. (And it's not irrelevant that the only group more exposed to police violence than black Americans is Native Americans.)
It's unclear how Americans feel about the removal of these statues in this manner, but we do know there has been a sea change in attitudes toward Black Lives Matter. Over the last two weeks, my New York Times colleagues Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy note in The Upshot that support has "increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years." The majority of Americans, by a 28-point margin, now support the movement.
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Concurrent with this shift is a sharp drop in support for President Donald Trump. His average job approval rating is down to 41 per cent, 2.5 points lower than it was on the eve of the protests. His average disapproval rating is up to 55 per cent. And against the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, he is down an average of 8 points, a substantial decline from May. The Covid-19 crisis has harmed him, but it is his antagonistic handling of the protests that has accelerated his downward turn.
The reckoning that is toppling Confederate monuments and fuelling the largest sustained protests in 50 years is also, I think, turning the voting public decisively against the president. The killing of George Floyd, the racially disparate impact of the pandemic and the violent police rioting against accountability have shown millions of Americans what the future may hold if we continue along this path of inequality, exclusion and authoritarianism. And they're pushing back, taking to the streets to reject this rather than sit back and let it happen. What's more, as election season begins in earnest, Americans are going to the ballot box as well. In Atlanta thousands stood in line for hours to vote. It was at once an example of the voter suppression that threatens our democracy and a demonstration of will — a determination to use the vote to try to push this country off its current course.
It was this month, 162 years ago, when Abraham Lincoln accepted the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate and gave his famous "House Divided" speech in Illinois. This wasn't, as is popularly believed, a call for unity in the face of division. Just the opposite. It was an attempt to make clear the stakes of the conflict with the "slave power."
"I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free," he said. "I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."
We cannot be a free and equal democracy and a country of inequality, unaccountable police violence and Trumpist exclusion. We will have to be either one or the other. The protests represent millions of Americans announcing their allegiance to the former. It remains to be seen whether that brings a reaction of similar scope in defence of the latter.
Written by: Jamelle Bouie
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