Without their torches and semiautomatics, the alt-righters appeared aesthetically adrift. They had their gloves and flak jackets but, lacking the accessories wielded in Charlottesville, their domineering image suffered. Perhaps this is why they huddled together, diffident, as an estimated 1,000 jubilant protesters poured down Decatur Street on Saturday, August 19, chanting, “We won’t get no satisfaction till we take down Andrew Jackson!” The march, which started a half mile away in Congo Square, came courtesy of Take ’Em Down NOLA—a group committed to removing all of New Orleans’s white supremacist symbols.
As an isolated event, a street protest is theater and choreography designed to keep danger—in this case violence—at bay. The Take ’Em Down organization, led by local luminaries such as the poet Quess? Moore, performed with a disciplined combination of bombast and restraint. It was as if everyone had ingested the same mood-controlling drug. Their weapon was strength in numbers; their weapon was diversity (chant at corner of St. Ann and Royal: “Gay, straight, black, white, workers of the world unite!”). They watched over one another as they marched down Royal, had water available, kept medics on hand, and melded themselves into a collective symbol for nonviolent justice. Affirmation was everywhere. A group of African American hotel employees, taking a break from work, stood in an alley blocked by a gate, held onto the iron bars and yelled their agreement that “Black lives matter.” The alt-righters, unable to dictate the conversation at gunpoint, were hushed by the spectacle. Or thwarted in one way or another: One woman used her umbrella (stenciled with a map of New Orleans) to block the face of a man who kept calling the protesters “assholes” as he stood trapped between the marchers and the mounted police. I asked the woman if she would briefly lift the veil on this angry man. Like a withered wizard behind a curtain he could not control, there, for a fleeting second, he was.
“The logical extreme” is a powerful place. Take ’Em Down NOLA leader Angela Kinlaw gets this. Addressing Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s decision to remove four Confederate statues, she explained that “even though New Orleans has been able to take down four of the racist symbols…the reality is we have hundreds.” Take ’Em Down’s ordinance, adopted on August 17, mandated pushing Landrieu’s initiative to its necessary conclusion by advocating “the removal of [all] white supremacist, confederate, and racist memorials from New Orleans.” City officials balked. They locked up Jackson Square as protestors threatened to handle Andrew Jackson with their own ropes.
In a way, Landrieu asked for this. He noted that removing the statues was about “making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong.” So Take ’Em Down wanted to know why Jackson still stood. A slaveholding ethnic cleanser, the general was as crooked as the dethroned Confederates. Many suggested that Landrieu’s metaphor shouldn’t stop with Jackson. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slaveholders and, in turn, white supremacists.
Rev. Dwight Webster indicated as much when, taking donations, he yelled, “I’m here to collect dead presidents,” adding how he’d prefer “an abundance of Georges.”
Was targeting the founders overkill? Historians have supported removing Confederate emblems while keeping Washington and Jefferson. Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed told NPR: “The problem with the leaders of the Confederacy is not just that they own slaves. It’s that they rebelled against the United States of America and did so in service of maintaining the system of slavery.” The founders also rebelled against a nation, one that ended slavery before the US did. They based this new nation on a constitution that abolitionist William Garrison burned as a proslavery document. Targeting Jackson, activists were, a la Garrison, shifting to the extreme, one that imagines dead presidents toppled from the ground up.
The first people I spoke to in Congo Square were in costume. One man came dressed as a traditional Native American, a corona of feathers around his head. His African American friend arrived as a pirate, perhaps Jean Lafitte. When I photographed the two men, Lafitte brandished his machete and scowled. A third African American man named Andrew Jones had dotted his head and face with a lace-like design. There was something disruptive in this smuggling in of the carnivalesque. As a costume frees the self from reality, so the protest, in the guise of the carnival, distinguishes itself from the world around it. In both cases, space is created to fill with an ideal, a move the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin pegged as the carnival’s subversive power. It’s easy for spectators to greet high-flown protest signs with an eye roll, dismissing the idealism therein, but what outsiders often fail to see is the shifting hierarchy happening beneath the tent. The soft assault on authority—even if in the guise of a choreographed jamboree—was reflected in the unity of Take ’Em Down NOLA’s signage: jesus hates white supremacy; good night white pride—end white supremacy; white supremacy must go—and so on. The upheaval—which, in essence, aimed to turn over NOLA and shake out the detritus of racism—got closer to completion when the mostly white crowd found itself addressed by an all-black lineup of speakers. Quess? Moore told a mass of white folk: “They [‘the enemies’] don’t know the rhythm or the beat to our song. They’d be offbeat if they tried.… They don’t know the rhythm of love. They don’t know intersectionality. They don’t know anything outside of white-hetero-male-patriarchy.” The white-male-hetero-patriarchy cheered. The carnival proceeded, allowing activists to fly their idealistic messages and assume their racially novel power dynamics while believing that these things could happen in reality. And why not? On a hot Saturday afternoon in the French Quarter, if only briefly, they did.
Take ’Em Down NOLA was furious with Mayor Landrieu for not removing the city’s statue of Andrew Jackson. Activist Malcolm Suber, addressing the barricades the city had placed around Jackson Square, told the crowd, “we’re going to stand up and say that you got to get out of the way, let us through.” But Take ’Em Down liked how Landrieu began when, two years earlier, he initiated an attack on Robert E. Lee. The move evoked his father, Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, who changed the name of Beauregard Square to Congo Square in 1974. At the time, a reader of the Times-Picayune wondered, “what will they want next, the destruction of the statue of General Lee, General Beauregard, General Jackson?” But Landrieu fils’ decision to remove Lee was, despite his father’s revisionism, a choice made contrary to traditional mayoral preference. In 1991, Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, an African American, signed the documents to have the Lee monument put on the National Register of Historic Places. The 1993 Monument Nuisance Ordinance, passed by the city council to allow the removal of offensive monuments, was a dead letter for the next two African American–led administrations. In 2015, Mitch Landrieu became the first mayor to use the ordinance.
Curious about the timing of this choice, I met with Richard Marksbury, a Tulane cultural anthropologist and member of the Monumental Task Committee, a group dedicated to preserving New Orleans’s monuments. He was blunt: Landrieu went after the Confederates because he expected a Hillary Clinton victory. A grand gesture for racial justice could only help his political cause. Whatever Landrieu’s motivation, Take ’Em Down is now pissed at him, and the Monumental Task Committee is pissed at him, so he has succeeded by at least one measure of success. What’s clearer is that somewhere between political cynicism and altruism the mayor took aim against an unjust past, fired four bold shots, and left the rest of us to make sense of it. With ire and inspiration, we’re trying.
These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.