Editor's note: This column from Stephanie Grace was published several days before the Liberty Place monument was taken down.
In hindsight, it's easy to list the ways that New Orleans' endlessly rehashed decision to remove four Jim Crow-era monuments from city streets could have been handled more delicately.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his allies, who argue that the three monuments honoring Confederate leaders and a fourth commemorating a Reconstruction-era white supremacist uprising have no place on the streets of a modern, diverse city, could have had a more open public discussion before announcing which monuments they would target.
The statues of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis have…
They could have paired that conversation with a discussion of what more appropriate symbols should rise in their place. That way, instead of focusing attention on the imminent emptiness of the prominent traffic circles Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard now loom over, the focus would have been as much on what the city would gain at the end of the process.
And they could have had a plan in place to preserve, display and explain the context of statues of Lee, Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, so that those who value them as either art or historical artifacts would have been reassured that they weren't headed for the nearest warehouse or landfill.
Still, the time for "coulda, woulda, shoulda" is over. The process that led to the decision was both proper and typical of what happens in a representative democracy, in which individual governing decisions are made by elected legislators and reviewed by courts.
That's exactly what happened this time. The mayor made a proposal, and the City Council voted 6-1 in late 2015 to enact it. Opponents spoke out at several public hearings before the vote, and some later filed their objections in court, which upheld the city's decision. This is how our government works, locally, in Baton Rouge and in Washington.
Yet somehow we're still debating it all. For the second year in a row, lawmakers from other parts of the state are maneuvering to circumvent the city's home rule authority and mandate that the monuments remain in place. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser has written to President Donald Trump and asked him to invoke the federal Antiquities Act to save Lee and Beauregard, anyway. When he speaks in public, Landrieu continues to field requests that he put the matter to a public referendum, even though a vote of just New Orleanians would be unlikely to go the other way.
Landrieu got that exact question at a recent Bureau of Governmental Affairs breakfast speech. His answer focused on the larger themes of the debate, about how the monuments represent a historical moment in time but conflict with the city's enduring values, about how weird it is to honor people who took up arms against our country and lost, about the inarguable role preservation of slavery played in the conflict, and about how the future does not belong to "sleepy Southern towns" that waste their time revering the Confederacy. He also mentioned the process, basically saying that people had elected him to speak, and he spoke.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu insisted that security concerns justified taking the obelisk down in the early morning hours and without warning, rather than scheduling any kind of public ceremony...
All of which brings us to where we are now.
Ongoing tension has now spilled over into the technicalities of the removal. Potential contractors report instances of intimidation, which is likely why only one responded to a recent request for proposals. Last week, there were rumors that the city planned to take down one or two of the monuments overnight without advance public notice; opponents mobilized on social media and nothing happened, but an unnamed city official told The Advocate that threats to city workers and contractors are causing security concerns.
Leaders of one staunchly anti-monument group, Take 'Em Down NOLA, have called for the monuments to come down in the light of day amid a public celebration. That second part is a bad idea. The city is making enough of a statement just by removing the statues; rubbing it in won't help the healing that's clearly needed.
But the removing them during the day, with plenty of advance notice and appropriate security, makes a lot of sense. Doing so would reaffirm the move's fundamental legitimacy. And it would send the message that threats and thuggery are no match for the rule of law.