Take ‘em Down NOLA

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Take ‘em Down NOLA is a New Orleans organization.

History/activism

In May 2917, an equestrian statue of the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard was also pulled down by authorities. Along with the removal of a monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, which commemorated a Reconstruction-era insurrection by white supremacists, three of a planned four monuments have been taken down. At the forefront of the effort to have the statues removed is a group of young, black activists known as Take ‘em Down NOLA.

Michael “Quess” Moore, an educator, poet, and playwright, has become one of the faces of this movement. When he moved to New Orleans, Moore, originally from Brooklyn, attended a lecture by two black New Orleans historians, Malcolm Suber and Leon Waters, to whom he attributes the development of much of his political education. Suber and Waters, who run a tour in New Orleans called “Hidden Histories,” have made it their mission to bring to light the parts of black history in the Crescent City that you won’t find in your typical textbook.

“Malcolm and Leon had this kind of pedagogy that was integrated into organizing work and a Marxist/Leninist framework … then taking that and integrating it with black history and what it meant for black people to live under systemic oppression,” Moore says, shaking his head as if he should have made the connection himself long ago. He says they pointed to those monuments of Davis and others and told him, “‘Okay, this shows you what the state thinks about you; this shows you what the state thinks about the system that oppressed your ancestors and how they still feel about it to this day.’” He pauses and raises his hands on either side of him. “Long story short, it just all clicked for me.”

Moore is far from alone in this sentiment. For Angela Kinlaw, a co-founder of the organization who works as an educator in New Orleans, the relationship between the monuments and an enduring racism is clear. “Symbols are used to bond people around cultural values, ideas, political ideologies, and those ideas show up in systems that are protected by the state,” she told me early one morning before attending the graduation ceremony for her students. “When we look at our environment and we see that all of the major street names, all of the most revered monuments, all the parks that these kids and families are playing in … All of this stuff is messaging, all of this stuff is psychological, all of this stuff has an impact.”

For Kinlaw, Moore, and many young activists in New Orleans and around the country a painful confluence of events—Trayvon Martin’s death, Ferguson’s uprising, Dylann Roof’s massacre—created a storm of political outrage that has started to convene around enduring symbols of white supremacy, like the Confederate monuments. Dylann Roof’s 2015 attack on members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, which led to the removal of a Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House, may have been the final catalyst needed to push for the removal of the monuments in New Orleans. At the same time, to see the Charleston massacre as the sole cause would negate the work that activists in New Orleans have been doing for years.

Take ‘em Down NOLA began as a loose collection of activists, many of whom had been involved in other local and national racial justice organizations like the Black Youth Project. Moore describes it as “a black-led, multiracial, intergenerational coalition,” with a strong emphasis on intersectional awareness. He reminds me the organization wouldn’t exist without Kinlaw and other women who have been on the frontlines of this work. “Even our elders, as an intergenerational coalition, I watch get somewhat of an education on this,” he says. “[Men] gotta learn how to step back, right? Because that’s what damaged a lot of the movements in the past.”

We the people of New Orleans demand that the Mayor and City Council take immediate action to remove all monuments, school names and street signs dedicated to White Supremacists. These structures litter our city with visual reminders of the horrid legacy of slavery that terrorized so many of this city’s ancestors. They misrepresent our community. We demand the freedom to live in a city where we are not forced to pay taxes for the maintenance of public symbols that demean us and psychologically terrorize us.

Kinlaw emphasizes that when the group says all, it means all.

The organization identified more than 100 statues, 24 streets, seven schools, and two hospitals that it says pay tribute to slavery. These include Tulane University, named after Paul Tulane, who was the largest donor to the Confederacy in New Orleans; several schools named after John McDonogh, who was a prominent slave owner in the city; and Governor Nichols Street, named after a Confederate general.

After the Charleston massacre, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of four statues: Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and the monument commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place. “Those were easier to stigmatize because they were all in the Confederacy,” Moore notes. I ask him about the possibility of removing the statue of President Andrew Jackson—a slaveholder who also presided over the Trail of Tears—in the middle of the French Quarter. Moore laughs, “When it’s Jackson, now you’ve gotta have a larger conversation.” But it’s a conversation the activists want to have, as they see these four statues as only the beginning of their work to remove tributes to and namesakes of confederates and enslavers throughout the city.

The role of the activist has never been to ask for what seems politically feasible, but that which is morally incumbent. After Ferguson, in 2014, the group began holding events at Robert E. Lee’s monument, initially as a means of giving people the space to vent, grieve, and heal. Soon, however, the group saw an opportunity for political education. Activists learned about the 1811 slave revolt, the struggle for civil rights in the city, and the previous work that had been done throughout the 1980s and 90s to change the names of 23 schools so they were no longer homages to Confederates. These forums were often led by local historians like Suber and Waters, and they urged the young activists to think of their work as being both in conversation with and an extension of the work that had been done by their predecessors.[1]

References

  1. [https://newrepublic.com/article/142757/young-black-activists-targeting-new-orleanss-confederate-monuments The New republic The Young Black Activists Targeting New Orleans’s Confederate Monuments, BY CLINT SMITH May 18, 2017]