Over the weekend, white supremacists gathered at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the city’s plan to remove Confederate monuments, particularly one dedicated to Robert E. Lee. The situation quickly turned violent and deadly after 20-year-old James Alex Field Jr. allegedly drove his sedan into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many more. In an act of solidarity for the protesters who bravely stood up against these symbols of hate, seven activists toppled a confederate statue in North Carolina, which led to their arrests. President Donald Trump, who has blamed the tragic events on “many sides” and refused to call out the white supremacists who were the aggressors, subscribes to the same philosophy embraced by white nationalists. To him, the removal of statues is “changing history.” In a press conference Tuesday, he said, “I wonder, is it George Washington next week?” As many took to Twitter to express whether these monuments have a place in our country, Geraldo Rivera – known for his inane comments – seemingly sided with Trump, and asked whether knocking down Christopher Columbus statues would follow.
But what Rivera, Trump, and white nationalists fail to comprehend is that taking down statues and confederate symbols is about doing the right thing; it’s not about erasing history. Though for those chanting “You won’t replace us,” the motivations are precisely about upholding their sinister views. In actuality, removing monuments, plaques, and other public symbols is about no longer uplifting individuals who categorized African-Americans and other people of color as subhuman. It’s about refusing to extol those who enslaved and committed genocide against groups of people.
Our current contentious debate about removing statues goes back to the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. White supremacist Dylan Roof – who posed with the Confederate flags in several images – opened fire in a black church, killing nine. This led the state of South Carolina to reconsider flying the Confederate flag – which white nationalists also see as a source of pride and not an emblem of racism – at the state capitol, according to Vox. Activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome removed the flag in 2015, which led to her arrest. Soon after, the state took down the flag.
In North Carolina, 22-year-old Takiyah Thompson – who toppled a confederate statue this week – is following the legacy of black women like Newsome. After she climbed a ladder and tied a rope around the Confederate Soldiers Monument in front of the old Durham County Courthouse and before being arrested, she gave a powerful response.
“I think what we did was the best way, and not just the best way, but the only way, because the state and the Klan and white supremacists have been collaborating. Right?” she said. “So what we did, not only was it right, it was just. I did the right thing. Everyone who was there, the people did the right thing. And the people will continue to keep making the right choices until every Confederate statue is gone, until white supremacy is gone. That statute is where it belongs, right? It needs to be in the garbage, incinerated, like every statue—every Confederate statue and every vestige of white supremacy has to go.”
It’s this kind of message we need right now as some argue that the removal of statues that effectively put racists on a pedestal is wrong. Though white nationalist’ arguments are disturbing, they’re not surprising in a country where the legacy of slavery and racism is far from over. Black folks, especially black trans women, are murdered at alarming rates in the United States. Recently, Fox News reported that Trump was considering pardoning Joe Arpaio, a man found guilty for failing to comply with a court order to end traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. And now, white supremacist have planned at least nine more rallies across the country.
The fact of the matter is history itself cannot be erased; it can only be hidden or ignored. And as white nationalists fight for “their history,” they disregard that this country does not recognize its complete history at the expense of black and brown people, and that’s what’s truly dangerous. As Filipino journalist Jose Antonio Vargas said on Twitter, “Most Americans do not know the full extent of US history. And we are living through the consequences of that ignorance and indifference.” It’s why we have so many Confederate statues in the first place; the Southern Poverty Law Center found at least 1,503 government-backed confederate symbols in public spaces. Taking these down is truly the most minimal sign of respect for those who continue being systematically and economically oppressed.
So getting back to Geraldo Rivera’s question, the answer is yes, Christopher Columbus statues should come down next.