It began with calls to remove Confederate generals.
But since the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, two weeks ago, the anger from the left over monuments and public images deemed racist, insensitive or inappropriate has quickly spread to statues of Christopher Columbus, former Philadelphia tough cop Mayor Frank Rizzo, Boston’s landmark Faneuil Hall, a popular Chicago thoroughfare and even Maryland’s state song. An Asian-American sportscaster named Robert Lee was pulled from broadcasting a University of Virginia football game so as not to offend viewers.
The disputes over America’s racial past and public symbols have proliferated with dizzying speed, spreading to states far beyond the Confederacy and inspiring campaigns by minorities and political progressives across the country. But along the way, they have become to some an example of politically correct sentiments gone too far, with the potential to mobilize the right and alienate the center.
Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist, said his party was “driving straight into a trap Trump has set,” because President Donald Trump seeks to shift the focus away from comments he made about white supremacists to his charge that opponents are trying to “take away our history.”
“While I understand the pain those monuments cause,” said Begala, who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton, “I just think it in some ways dishonors the debate to allow Trump to hijack it.”
New disputes seem to be springing up daily.
In a Democratic mayoral candidates’ debate in New York on Aug. 23, Mayor Bill de Blasio did not rule out removing Manhattan’s 76-foot Columbus Circle monument as the city reviews “symbols of hate.”
Philadelphia placed barricades and guards around a statue of Rizzo, loathed by some African-Americans for his harsh tactics toward blacks in the city, after protesters surrounded the bronze edifice and a city councilwoman, Helen Gym, wrote on Twitter, “Take the Rizzo statue down.”
Rizzo, who died in 1991, cultivated a law-and-order image as a police commissioner that included raiding gay clubs and once forcing Black Panthers to strip naked in the street.
“Just because Philadelphia wasn’t a part of the Confederacy doesn’t mean we get a pass,” Gym said in an interview. She is less concerned about turning off voters who support the president than in rousing members of the Democratic base, including minorities, who did not vote in November.
“My concern is about the number of people who stayed home, who felt government doesn’t speak for them,” she said. “I’m trying to show government can be reflective in a time of anguish.”
In Chicago, a campaign is underway to remove a monument to Italo Balbo, an Italian air marshal, which fascist dictator Benito Mussolini presented to the city in 1933. Balbo Drive is a well-known street in the heart of downtown.
In Boston, there are calls for renaming historic Faneuil Hall because Peter Faneuil, who donated the building to the city in 1743, was a slave owner and trader.
Columbus, who, most Americans learn rather innocently, in 1492 sailed the ocean blue until he discovered the New World, has undergone a revisionist treatment in recent decades because of his impact on native peoples.
In Baltimore, a Columbus monument more than 200 years old was defaced Aug. 21 in an act captured on video as a man stood with a sign reading “Racism: Tear it down.” In Detroit, protesters gathered Saturday at a Columbus statue.
In New York, de Blasio, responding to the violence in Charlottesville, last week announced a 90-day review of “all symbols of hate on city property.” He specifically mentioned a sidewalk marker on Lower Broadway to Henri Phillippe Pétain, a French collaborator with the Nazis.
“This is complicated stuff. But you know it’s a lot better to be talking about it and trying to work through it than ignoring it,” de Blasio said, according to The New York Post.
Many argue that issues surrounding Confederate monuments are not complicated at all.
“We’re not offended by your heritage,” said state Rep. Justin T. Bamberg of South Carolina, who is black. “We’re offended that states and local governments, by erecting these monuments on public property that belongs to everybody, are paying homage to people who wanted to keep part of the population in slavery.”
But some Southern blacks are not sure monuments are the best issue to fight over.
Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and civil rights leader, has argued against calls to remove the enormous carved tableau of Confederate leaders on Stone Mountain, Georgia, and other Confederate monuments, saying those disputes make more enemies than friends and distract from more substantive issues.
“I personally feel that we made a mistake in fighting over the Confederate flag here in Georgia, or that that was an answer to the problem of the death of nine people to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina,” he said, referring to the deadly shooting at a landmark black church in Charleston in 2015. He added, “I’m always interested in substance over symbols.”
Others say fighting over symbols is even less fruitful when the symbolism is far murkier, like Christopher Columbus. Democrats have cautioned about a rush to remake civic landscapes, in some ways echoing Trump but warning that his use of the issue is intentionally divisive. “Making what happened in Charlottesville about monuments is distracting,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told CNN on Wednesday.
McCaskill is running for re-election next year in a state Trump won decisively, and she echoed the Democratic leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who last week pumped the brakes on calls to rid the U.S. Capitol of Confederate statues. He said Trump and Stephen Bannon, then the president’s chief strategist, were “trying to divert attention” from the president’s refusal to offer a full-throated denunciation of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists whose rally in Charlottesville led to the death of a counterprotester.
Supporters of white nationalist groups maintain that a fervor to tear down monuments only builds their ranks. “It’s a tragedy these monuments are coming down, but every time antifa overreacts, it’s making friends for Confederate heritage,” said Kirk D. Lyons, a North Carolina lawyer, who has been professionally and socially tied to some of the nation’s most visible hate groups. (He denies that he is a white supremacist and describes himself as “a Christian attorney of Southern ancestry.”) Antifa is shorthand for anti-fascist activists.
In polls taken since Charlottesville, majorities of Americans favor keeping Confederate monuments intact, although there are sharp splits by race and party affiliation. Pluralities of Democrats and blacks favor removal, while whites and Republicans oppose altering the status quo. Support for changing street names and other less tangible symbols falls off sharply. That has not stopped Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly from trying to change lyrics to the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” a mid-19th-century ditty that calls on Maryland to join the Confederacy.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who watched neo-Nazis march on his own campus, said the left seems to have once again become focused on symbolic issues rather than the ones that most voters care about.
“Democrats have a big problem with white blue-collar workers,” he said. “What does this have to do with the lives of white blue-collar workers or for that matter of America’s blue-collar workers? They have let Trump and even the white supremacists take the issue away from what it ought to be, this radical racist element growing in American society.”
This week, Charlottesville covered its Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park, and another of Gen. Stonewall Jackson, in black shrouds.
Of course, many people argue that what’s important is doing what’s right, not necessarily which side wins politically. And Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, argued that in the most pressing state contests, November’s election in Virginia for governor and other state offices, it’s not at all clear that the left loses by fighting over the statue of Lee and other monuments.
“The groups most likely to vote in presidential elections in Virginia and not show up the next year are younger voters and African-American voters,” he said. “Both of those groups have been highly charged by the incident in Charlottesville. That’s going to work to the Democrats’ advantage.”