The boiling anger that exploded in the days after George Floyd gasped his final breaths is now fueling a national movement to topple perceived symbols of racism and oppression in the United States, as protests over police brutality against African Americans expand to include demands for a more honest accounting of all American history.
In Portland, Ore., demonstrators protesting against police killings turned their ire to Thomas Jefferson, toppling a statue of the Founding Father who also enslaved more than 600 people.
In Richmond, Va., a statue of Italian navigator and colonizer Christopher Columbus was spray-painted, set on fire and thrown into a lake.
And in Albuquerque, N.M., tensions over a statue of Juan de Oñate, a 16th-century colonial governor exiled from New Mexico over cruel treatment of Native Americans, erupted in street skirmishes and a blast of gunfire before the monument was removed today.
Across the country, monuments criticized as symbols of historical oppression have been defaced and brought down at warp speed in recent days. The movement initially set its sights on Confederate symbols and examples of racism against African Americans but has since exploded into a broader cultural moment, forcing a reckoning over such issues as European colonization and the oppression of Native Americans.
In New Mexico, it has surfaced generations-old tensions among indigenous, Hispanic and Anglo residents and brought 400 years of turbulent history bubbling to the surface.
“We’re at this inflection point,” said Keegan King, a member of Acoma Pueblo, which endured a massacre of 800 or more people directed by Oñate, the brutal Spanish conquistador. The Black Lives Matter movement, he said, had encouraged people to examine the history around them, and not all of it was merely written in books.
“These pieces of systemic racism took the form of monuments and statues and parks,” King said.
The debate over how to represent the uncomfortable parts of American history has been going on for decades, but the traction for knocking down monuments seen in recent days raises new questions about whether it will result in a fundamental shift in how history is taught to new generations.
“It is a turning point insofar as there are a lot of people now who are invested in telling the story that historians have been laying down for decades,” said Julian Maxwell Hayter, a historian and associate professor at the University of Richmond.
He said that statues removed from parks and street corners could be teaching points if they are placed in museums, side-by-side with documents and first-person accounts from the era.
“Let’s say you put a Columbus statue in a museum and you show students the way Columbus was lionized in a history textbook and you have them read ‘Devastation of the Indies’ by de Las Casas,” he said. “Then you have to ask, why were people invested in telling this particular version of Christopher Columbus’ history?”
The calls to bring down monuments have spanned far and wide, in large cities like Philadelphia and rural places like Columbus, Miss., touching both relatively obscure historical figures and deeply revered cultural symbols.
In Raleigh, N.C., the statue of a former newspaper publisher who was also a white supremacist was removed today. In Sacramento, a tribute to John Sutter, a settler famous for his role in the California gold rush who enslaved and exploited Native Americans, was taken down this week. And in Dallas, construction crews recently removed a statue of a Texas Ranger, long seen as a mythical figure in Texas folklore, amid concerns over historical episodes of police brutality and racism within the law enforcement agency.
The push has largely been welcomed by activists from the Black Lives Matter movement who see Confederate and other monuments as reminders of the oppressive history that created the reality they are battling today. But some of them worried that the focus on historic symbols would do little to keep attention on the more pressing issue of ending the brutal treatment of many African Americans by the police.
“I don’t know if I would say a distraction, because I think people definitely have the ability to be nuanced,” said Alisha Sonnier, a 24-year-old mental health advocate from St. Louis who is concerned that taking down statues could be an “easy appeasement.”
“The statue being removed is not going to keep anyone from dying,” she said. “It’s not going to save a life.”
Cleon Jones, a 77-year-old activist in Africatown, Ala., formed on Mobile Bay by the last known shipment of slaves to the United States from Africa, said he felt frustrated by the notion that progress toward equality could be stalled by rancor over Confederate monuments.
“We’ve got to move forward, not look back,” he said. “As long as we are dealing with these statues, we’re not moving forward.”
The focus on removing statues has revealed deep civil divisions far outside the Black Lives Matter movement that are hundreds of years in the making. It has spurred a backlash among Italian Americans who have long regarded Columbus as a point of pride, and also among some Hispanics in New Mexico, who celebrate an era when Anglos did not dominate public life in New Mexico.
“We need to have a broader discussion about our history,” said Christine Flowers, a 58-year-old Italian American immigration lawyer, who was among a group that gathered to protect a statue of Columbus in Philadelphia.
But she added, “It is indefensible to try to erase that history by pulling down something that is very dear and very symbolic for the culture of Italian Americans in Philadelphia.”
In Columbus, Miss., a largely African American town, county officials voted Monday to keep a towering monument to Confederate soldiers — “our heroes,” it calls them — on the courthouse lawn despite mounting calls for its removal.
“It’s a good time to learn some history,” said Trip Hairston, a white county supervisor who opposed removing the monument. “I don’t agree with all that history, of course, but it is what it is — it’s history.”
It was an argument that left many of those pushing to remove the statue perplexed. “It’s commemorating and celebrating a lost battle — I don’t understand,” said David Horton, 28, a lifelong resident of Columbus who first fought against a Confederate monument as a seventh grader at Robert E. Lee Middle School.
“These are things I have to endure all my life as a young African American man living in Mississippi,” he said. “It’s always made me feel inferior, it’s always made me feel like I shouldn’t hold my head up.”
The statues debate has once again focused attention on Columbus, the voyager who emerged as a symbol of Italians’ contribution to American history in the late 1800s, a time when discrimination against Italians was rampant. But many in recent days are also talking about how his arrival signaled the beginning of a violent European colonization that resulted in a cross-Atlantic slave trade and the genocide and displacement of many indigenous peoples.
In Philadelphia, supporters went to court to block the removal of a Columbus statue after another statue, of Frank Rizzo, a former mayor known for discriminatory policies, was removed by the city this month in the middle of the night. “You just can’t let the mob rule,” said George Bochetto, a lawyer who filed the petition.
In Minneapolis, where the demonstrations over Floyd’s death ignited new protest movements in dozens of cities, many said they never expected them to grow into an international reckoning over racist symbols. Still, they said, it was only a matter of time before the latest police killing of a black man led to something more lasting than previous protests.
“It’s kind of like a wound that has a scab,” said Teron Carter, 49, standing across the street from Cup Foods, the deli near Floyd’s fatal encounter with the police. “A wound that has a scab is still a wound, it’s just that the scab is on top. And if you scrape that scab a certain way, it reopens the wound.”
He attributed the scope of the burgeoning movement to built up grief and to the energy of young people who simply are not willing to put up with walking by Confederate and other statues each day.
“It’s not just an isolated city event,” Carter said. “Now everybody saw the opportunity and said, ‘If we don’t get in there and talk like Minneapolis is talking, then we aren’t going to be heard.’”