NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Backlash against a plan to remove
prominent Confederate monuments in New Orleans has been tinged by death
threats, intimidation and even what may have been the torching of a
For now, at least, things have gotten so nasty the
city hasn't found a contractor willing to bear the risk of tearing down the
monuments. The city doesn't have its own equipment to move them and is now in
talks to find a company, even discussing doing the work at night to avoid
further tumult. Further complicating the issue was a court ruling Friday that
effectively put the removal on hold.
Initially, it appeared the monuments would be removed
quickly after the majority black City Council on Dec. 17 voted 6-1 to approve
the mayor's plan to take them down. The monuments, including towering figures
of Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, have long been viewed by many
here as symbols of racism and white supremacy.
The backlash is not surprising to Bill Quigley, a
Loyola University law professor and longtime civil rights activist in New
Orleans who's worked on behalf of a group demanding the monuments come down.
The South has seen such resistance before, during
fights over school integration and efforts in the early 1990s to racially
integrate Carnival parades in New Orleans.
"Fighting in the courts, fighting in the
legislature, anonymous intimidation," Quigley said. "These are from
the same deck of cards that are used to stop all social change."
For all its reputation as a party city of fun and
frolic, New Orleans is no stranger to social change and the tensions that come
with it. It was the site of an early attempt to challenge racial segregation
laws in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case and home to then-6-year-old Ruby Bridges
whose battle to integrate her elementary school was immortalized in a Norman
New Orleans is a majority African-American city
although the number of black residents has fallen since 2005's Hurricane
Katrina drove many people from the city. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who proposed the
monuments' removal, rode to victory twice with overwhelming support from the
city's black residents.
Nationally, the debate over Confederate symbols has
become heated since nine parishioners were killed at a black church in South
Carolina in June. South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its
statehouse grounds in the weeks after, and several Southern cities have since
considered removing monuments.
"There is no doubt that there is a huge amount of
rage over the attack on Confederate symbols," said Mark Potok with the
Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based group that tracks extremist
His group counted about 360 pro-Confederate battle
flag rallies across the nation in the six months after the church shootings.
Such rallies were rare before then, he said.
In New Orleans, things have turned particularly ugly.
In early January, as it beat back legal challenges
seeking to stop the removal, the city hired a contractor to remove the
But H&O Investments LLC. of Baton Rouge soon
pulled out of the job, citing death threats, "unkindly name-calling,"
outrage on social media and the threat of other businesses canceling contracts.
One day, several protesters came while H&O workers
took measurements. Some of the protesters wore materials "with affiliation
to white supremacy groups," said Roy Maughan Jr., a lawyer for the
That same day, Maughan said, "a specific
articulated threat" was phoned into city authorities warning workers at
the monuments to leave for their safety. On Jan. 12, H&O sent the city a
letter saying it was dropping out.
Then, on Jan. 19, a Lamborghini belonging to the owner
of H&O Investments was set on fire. The sports car was parked outside his
office near Baton Rouge, Maughan said.
A national rental crane company the city had hoped to
hire also refused to be involved.
The FBI and local fire investigators declined to
comment. No arrests have been made.
After H&O withdrew, the city opened a public bid
process to find a new contractor — and things got messy again.
When the names of companies interested in the work
turned up on a city website, businesses were reportedly slammed with emails and
telephone calls denouncing their involvement. The protest was organized at
least in part by Save Our Circle, a group touting thousands of supporters who
want a massive monument to Lee in Lee Circle preserved in the spot where it has
stood since 1884.
The city closed public viewing to the bidding process
and has met with contractors without disclosing their names. The mayor declined
requests for an interview.
Michel-Antoine Goitia-Nicolas said his reasons for
supporting boycotts, making calls and joining protests on behalf of the
monuments are personal: He traces his ancestry to Beauregard, a Louisiana
native who led Rebel troops at the opening of the Civil War. A prominent
equestrian statue of Beauregard at the entrance to City Park is slated to be
"It's totally divided this city,"
Goitia-Nicolas said of the city's plans.
Standing next to the Beauregard statue, Goitia-Nicolas
said he was willing to chain himself to statues to stop the removal.
"Our lesson in history is that when we tear down
the monuments of the past we rebuild the errors of our past," he said. He
said he was proud of Beauregard, who he said "never owned slaves."
"Why take it down? Put a statue of somebody
positive in black history right here, in the midst of Beauregard, or in the
midst of Lee. We support that."
Just this month, a state lawmaker began pushing a bill
meant to save the monuments. And on Friday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals granted an injunction sought by opponents of removal. They argued that
lifting and hauling the structures could cause irreparable damage that
shouldn't be risked while appeals are pending.
"With this city, the way things go, it might not
come down," Lisa Huber, a 39-year-old greenhouse gardener, said as she
pondered the statue of Lee atop a 60-foot-high marble column, standing in his
Confederate uniform with his arms crossed, staring down the North.
"I think it should come down, just because of the
symbolism behind it."
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