A little more than 20 years ago I was invited to the University of Virginia, Richmond, in the United States. This is the main university of the most important state of the former Confederacy and, as such, it is located in the same city that once served as the capital of the pro-slavery states. A colleague took me for a walk around the city, and as we were going by a beautiful avenue lined with monuments, he explained that they were “our generals of the Secession War—those who died are looking to one side, those who survived, to the other.” And he got me thinking. Not only about such statues, but also about the fact that the victors allowed them to be built, and my colleague used the term ‘secession’. Civil War implies a division in one singular political body, that is, the Northern position, whereas ‘secession’ implies the right of the states to separate only through the votes of its inhabitants. In fact, the most striking thing was that after almost 150 later, the war was still alive.
Without the aforementioned, it is impossible to understand why movements like Black Lives Matter and antifa have been destroying different monuments all across the United States. The campaign started in Philadelphia, where the demonstrators got the city hall to remove the statue of the former Democrat mayor, Frank Rizzo. The “good” Frank, who had ruled the city in the 1970s, was responsible for many unsavory things, such as the first militarization of a police force, opposition to school desegregation in his district and the violent repression against the Black Panthers and the Black liberation organization, MOVE.
Since beginning in Philadelphia, the issue of statues has become its own epidemic. Demonstrators have attacked statues of Confederate generals in Southern cities, including those which I had once seen. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and many others were removed, destroyed or vandalized with different epithets. In some other places the statues of the pro-slavery presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson shared a similar fate. Statues of other figures, like the father of American expansionism, Theodore Roosevelt, and the “Saint” Junípero Serra, a Spanish friar, who was the example of the forced evangelization of Native Americans, were also targeted. And let’s not forget the attacks on the statues to Christopher Colombus and the discussion about replacing the four presidents sculpted onto Mount Rushmore, which is a national monument, with four more “inclusive” individuals.
Not surprisingly, Trump’s supporters stood up to defend “national values.” They criticized these acts, as Democrats and liberals worried about the emergence of “violence,” (yet, how would they describe what the police force did to George Floyd?) On the other hand, thousands of people spoke out in favor of all these demonstrations. What nobody seems to see is that this is not just a dispute about statues, urbanization or violence. It isn’t about historical memory either. Despite what Pierre Nora may think, the statues do not create memory. What they do create is an official history. It doesn’t matter whether common people—that is, the citizens—know or don’t know who the people that the statues commemorate actually are. In fact, most people from the city and the province of Buenos Aires have no idea who Mario Bravo, Coronel Díaz or Maza even are, and these are all names of famous streets.* The point is these names on streets and the statues erected set the parameters of history, and define who is of “acceptable” or praiseworthy character in our heritage. Let’s think about why Buenos Aires doesn’t have a street named after the great anarchist avenger Simón Radowitzky but it does have one named after the police colonel Ramón Falcón.
It doesn’t matter whether people know who these people are, what matters is to set boundaries on our historical appreciation; hiding certain characters, while highlighting others. In a way, statues are complementary to history books. As stated in one of the most widely influential official books, “The Challenge of Freedom:” Towards 1815, two classes had disappeared, and the United States was a nation of middle class people, with middle class goals.” There was no waste, especially because in 1815 there were almost 4 million slaves that certainly did not belong to the “middle class.” History books tell that colonial societies almost didn’t have class differences and were moving up socially. Statues confirm that.
Destroying statues means challenging official history and getting back what was hidden in American societies. And since the official history is the main foundation to legitimate a dominant class, trying to modify it really is a challenge for freedom.
*Mario Bravo was a famous Argentine writer; Coronel Diaz, a military general and Manuel Vicente Maza, an assassinated governor of Buenos Aires.