Mayor Mitch Landrieu held a brief news conference Monday morning on the overnight removal of the Liberty Place monument.
He 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.
And he said the other three monuments scheduled for removal would be taken down in the same manner, adding only that it would happen "sooner rather than later."
The mayor chose to speak in front of a monument to fallen police officers in front of New Orleans Police Department headquarters. He pointed out that the Liberty Place statue was put up in the first place to honor an uprising that killed members of the city's integrated police force during the Reconstruction era.
Landrieu called the Liberty Place obelisk an "affront" both to the United States and "the humanity of millions of Americans."
Early Monday morning crews removed New Orleans' Liberty Place monument commemorating the failed rebellion of a white supremacist militia, the first of four statues slated to be taken from their public perches.
The unannounced removal marks the beginning of the end of a debate that has roiled the city in the nearly two years since Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place and more prominent statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The statue will be stored in a city warehouse until a museum or park can be found where it can be placed in its proper context, city officials have said.
The other statues are expected to be taken down soon, as city officials announced early Monday they had secured the private funds needed for the job. However, the Landrieu administration said it would not give advance notice of those removals and did not provide details on who provided that money, how much was donated, how the ultimate fate of the statues would be or how the city would choose new monuments to replace them.
The lack of notice for the work and the fact it was done under the dark of night upset groups on both sides of the debate, with even those who have fought to tear the monuments down calling it a “cowardly” move.
New Orleans planned to begin removing the first of four prominent Confederate monuments earl…
Malcolm Suber, one of the organizers of Take ‘Em Down NOLA, showed up mid-way through the removal. While he said he was glad the monument, one of about a hundred statues and street and place names the group has called to be removed as symbols of white supremacy, he has previously called for the statues to come down in daylight, with notice and a public celebration.
“The thing I’m amazed at is these people are wearing helmets, flack jackets and covering their faces,” Suber said of the workers removing the monument. “Why should that be necessary in a democratic society?”
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Crews, accompanied by dozens of New Orleans Police officers, rolled up behind the Canal Place parking garage about 1:30 a.m. Monday to begin dismantling the monument to the White League’s failed revolt, a process that took about four hours. Rumors that the city would begin removing the statues about that time had been swirling for days, prompting vigils at both the Liberty Place monument and the Davis statue near Canal Street. But by the time the workers arrived, the last group of monument supporters had left the White League statue to join the larger protest near Davis’ statue.
City officials have said that security has played a role in keeping details about the removals under wraps in light of threats and harassment reported by contractors who had previously been hired or expressed interest in the job. The police department’s SWAT team watched over the removal, with sharpshooters posted in a nearby parking garage and K-9 units checking the scene.
Workers wore bullet-proof vests, helmets and facemasks as they went about the work, which involved lifting sections of the obelisk off the statue piece by piece. The logos on their trucks and equipment was covered in cardboard and the license plates on the vehicles had been removed. One man opposed to removing the monuments told others in his group “we’ll find out who they are.”
At one point, city officials called to criticize a TV station for taking video that they said was zoomed in too close and could reveal the workers’ identities.
But the removal was a largely peaceful process, even as small groups of supporters and opponents began making their way to the site after seeing reports about the removal. The tensest moment came as woman supporting the removal argued loudly with a man who opposed it.
As the monument was being removed Joey Cargol, an opponent of taking down the statues who had been loudly criticizing the police and demanding to see a permit for the work, walked up to Suber. Acknowledging that they were on opposing sides, Cargol said he hoped they could agree the removal itself should have been handled more transparently.
"I know we've disagreed on a lot of things, but this is not the ways things should be handled," Cargol said.
"They could have done this, announced it and let people show their opinion," Suber said. "This is the coward's way."
"It's hard to handle a defeat like this and hard to celebrate a victory like this," Cargol replied.
Landrieu first called for the four monuments to come down in the summer of 2015, after Dylann Roof – a white supremacist – killed nine parishioners in a black church in Charleston in hopes of starting a race war. That led to six months of hearings that culminated in a 6-1 vote to declare the monuments “nuisances” that promoted racial discord because of their ties to a movement known as the Lost Cause, which sought to rehabilitate the image of the Confederacy in the aftermath of the Civil War and re-establish white dominance in southern states.
That removal was delayed, however, as the city found itself tied up in court battles that lasted until earlier this year.
Of the four statues, the Liberty Place monument was largely seen as the most objectionable and Landrieu explicitly described it that way. The monument commemorates a violent 1874 uprising by the White League, which fought and members of New Orleans’ bi-racial police force as it ousted the state’s bi-racial Reconstruction-era government for several days before President Ulysses S. Grant sent in federal troops.
The statues of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis have…
A plaque later added to the monument noted the failure of the rebellion but cast it as a part of reestablishing white supremacy in the state.
The monument has always been a flashpoint and a site of rallies by white nationalist David Duke and protests by civil rights leader the Rev. Avery C. Alexander, something that may have contributed to the security on display.
This is also the second time the monument has been removed. It was taken down from its original spot at the foot of Canal Street during roadwork in the late 1980s and put up again only on orders from a federal court, when it was placed in the less conspicuous spot between a garage and the floodwall.
Much about the process remains unknown. The Landrieu administration did not indicate whether the work itself was done by city employees or a firm hired for the process and did not provide information on how the contract had been procured.
They also did not provide a pricetag for the work. The lone contractor who had bid on removing the other three statues said doing that work would cost about $600,000, more than three times the amount the city had received in an anonymous donation to take down the statues.
In a press release two hours after the statue began to come down, the Landrieu administration said it had secured the funding needed to take down the remaining monuments. But it’s not clear whether it plans to use the bidder on the contract or another firm.
A few miles from Liberty Place, a sizable group also gathered at the monument to Jefferson Davis, just off Canal Street in Mid-City, in anticipation of action there.
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The vigil was organized by the Monumental Task Commission, who circulated a notice mid-day on Sunday that they had "a variety of confirmed leads" the city would be removing the Liberty Place and Jefferson Davis monuments. The vigil group, which grew as large as about 60 people, began gathering shortly before midnight. New Orleans police cruisers were present in the area, but no action seemed imminent at any point toward the statue of the man who served as the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The group remained largely peaceful, with candles lit and most milling about discussing the monument, its history as well as that of the other three slated for removal.
Pierre McGraw, the founder of the Monumental Task Committee, spoke on how his group had refurbished the statue and many others, and his sadness that it could soon be pulled from its current location.
"This city is blessed with a lot of monuments, some truly beautiful monuments done by notable sculptors," McGraw said, standing directly in front of a candle-lit Jefferson Davis. "Any other city would be proud to have these monuments."
Another man, who identified himself as Charles Lincoln, also spoke to discuss a petition and a lawsuit he said he plans to file in an attempt to block the monuments' removal.
"These men were great leaders. They were American patriots. They believed they were doing the right thing and they were heroes," he said. " ... Let's get a new lawsuit. The other has kind of shown signs of biting the dust. But this one, I think, has a real chance under both state and federal law."
Even without Davis' removal, there were some tense moments. One man arrived with a sign that read "Black Lives Matter," upsetting several of the vigil-goers who accused him of being a paid protester.
Chris Daemmrich, who said he is from Austin, Texas, but has lived in New Orleans for 5 years, was blocked by several people as he stood in front of the monument, and eventually had his sign ripped from his hands.
Counterprotester blocked by Jefferson Davis vigil participant. Then angry person rips sign from hands, tears it. pic.twitter.com/htVHl2zdqC— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) April 24, 2017
Another young woman arrived later in the evening, arguing with several vigil-goers before eventually storming off.
After news began to circulate that the Liberty Place monument would be the only one removed on Monday morning, several people shouted that they would return to that area to protest its removal.