A raucously argumentative and, at times, barely controlled crowd clashed in the New Orleans City Council chambers for close to four hours Thursday, hurling accusations and insults as they battled over whether monuments honoring Confederates or white supremacists have a place in the city.
The debate set the stage for a council vote next week on the statues, which have been a major source of controversy in the city since Mayor Mitch Landrieu called this summer for their removal.
Little new ground was covered during the hearing that hadn’t already come up at three previous meetings on the topic by various city committees, and if any minds — either on the council or in the audience — were changed, it was not apparent.
Landrieu called in June for removing four monuments: statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at the entrance of City Park and Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Jefferson Davis Parkway, plus a monument on Iberville Street to a brief but bloody post-Civil War rebellion — known as the Battle of Liberty Place — by the White League against the state’s biracial Reconstruction government.
Throughout a hearing that stretched from about 4 p.m. to 7:40 p.m., supporters of keeping the statues cited personal connections to the monuments or the role they play in the city’s landscape. One speaker said the statues are so linked to the historical charm of New Orleans that without them one might as well “nuke the city of New Orleans completely.”
Many argued that removing them would be essentially whitewashing history.
“We all know slavery was wrong, but it did happen,” Gary Mason said. “Our history is sometimes painful, but it makes us who we are in order to educate our children.”
Those seeking to remove the statues, however, said they represent the racism and oppression of the Confederacy and later the Jim Crow era and indicate continuing implicit support for such attitudes. They tied those historical issues to ongoing discrimination faced by black residents and to high rates of poverty and unemployment in the black community.
“Those men who tried to defeat the United States of America (during the Civil War) should not be honored,” Tyrone Walker said.
The council is expected to vote on an ordinance allowing removal of the monuments at a special meeting that will start at 10 a.m. Dec. 17.
While Councilwomen Stacy Head and LaToya Cantrell said this week they will not vote for the ordinance — though both said they consider it a fait accompli driven by the Landrieu administration — a majority of the council is still believed to favor the measure. No council members expressed their personal views during the hearing.
The two sides’ arguments were largely divided by distinctly different views of the monuments: whether they are themselves history and worth leaving up as signs of remembrance, or at least cautionary reminders, or whether they are really examples of propaganda aimed at bolstering white elites in the city in the years after Reconstruction and, even today, are continuing symbols of white supremacy.
Those calling for removing the statues said that, unlike a historical site or a museum that places history in context, the statues glorify individuals and groups who specifically fought to keep black people as slaves.
“If there’s one thing we learned today, it’s that symbols have power; they’re instruments of power,” the Rev. Shawn Anglin said in supporting the monuments’ removal. “They’re symbols of power — white power. They do not convey history; they convey Jim Crow.”
Council President Jason Williams had called beforehand for a respectful discussion, but there was little of that in evidence Thursday. Those on either side shouted out from the audience as their opponents spoke at the microphone, repeatedly drowning out those with whom they disagreed.
“I was hoping a day of public comment with no vote might yield some discourse,” Williams said during one of several times council members had to halt the proceedings and call for audience members to stop shouting. “This is not a rally.”
Two people were ejected by New Orleans police.
One, artist George Schmidt, compared removing the monuments to something the Islamic State would do. He then turned and gave the middle finger to the crowd as he said that removing statues was something that “Muslims, Jacobins and communists” did.
Later, an audience member was removed by officers after repeatedly shouting that people should “fight” speakers who opposed the removal of the monuments.
Before the hearing started, both sides staged competing rallies outside City Hall.
Supporters of the statues, carrying Confederate flags, faced off against a group that included labor activists and others carrying signs calling the statues “racist.”
Two groups opposed to removing the statues, the Monumental Task Committee and Save Our Circle, had presented a petition with what they said were 31,000 signatures earlier this week. An analysis of the petition by the Landrieu administration counted about 4,500 signatures from residents of Orleans Parish.
Those two groups have called for adding interpretative plaques to the four monuments and erecting statues to other causes, rather than removing those that exist.
Richard Marksbury said removing the statues would open a Pandora’s box of troubles, setting off calls to take down any statue in the city that any group had a grievance against, including statues of Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square and city founder Bienville in the French Quarter and a monument to the Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalry who fought in the West, that Marksbury said could offend Native Americans.
Their fight, opponents of the statues said, is not about history but about a legacy of oppression and hate.
“They were erected in the spirit of white supremacy,” Caroline Carter said. “That spirit continues to carry a toxic energy in this city.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.