Not All Acts of Confederate Monument Vandalism are Equal

This morning I learned that the Texas monument, located on the Wilderness battlefield in Virginia, was recently spray painted with some colorful language. It’s the latest in a long string of incidents that extends all the way back to the war itself. Plenty of people are outraged, including Chris Mackowski, who shared his thoughts about this latest incident at Emerging Civil War.

Texas Monument at the Wilderness Battlefield

Mackowski makes a number of compelling points, but I disagree with his central argument:

Regardless of where you stand on the topic of Confederate monuments, there are two essential points here. First, vandalism of any sort is bad, and we should certainly hate to see it at a National Park; and second, nowhere in the swirl of controversy over Confederate monuments have I heard anyone credible seriously suggest that such monuments are in any way out of place on national battlefields.

Fundamentally, we miss a great deal concerning the political import of acts of vandalism if we simply reduce them all to the same category. Certainly, the word choice for the Texas monument is problematic, in part, because the intended message is unclear. There isn’t much of anything to reflect on and as a result it is easily dismissed as a senseless act of vandalism.

But what about other examples of vandalism? Consider the Confederate monument in Charlotte, North Carolina that was vandalized in 2015 with the names of the nine Charleston murder victims. Should this be treated as the same sort of vandalism that was committed at the Wilderness or is there something more to learn and consider here?

I brought this example up with a group of high school students yesterday and they offered a number of thoughtful interpretations. One student suggested that the original inscription reflected the idealism and ideology of the white community while the spray painted names revealed an “uncomfortable reality.”

Consider for a moment the more recent example at UNC-Chapel Hill, where Maya Little covered the “Silent Sam” monument with red paint mixed with her own blood. Here is how she explained it:

I smeared my blood and red ink on the statue because the statue was lacking proper historical context. This statue, Silent Sam, was built on white supremacy. It was built by white supremacists. It was built by people who believed that Black people were inferior and wanted to intimidate them. So these statues were built on Black blood. These statues symbolize the violence toward Black people. Without that blood on the statue, it’s incomplete, in my opinion. It’s not properly contextualized.

In doing so Little acknowledged the very dedication ceremony of this monument, which included a speech by Julian Carr, who shared a story in which he admitted to ‘horse-whipping a black woman on campus shortly after the war.

There is a great deal to learn from just these two examples of vandalism. You don’t have to agree that vandalism is appropriate. You can call for the prosecution of its perpetrators but we should be able to recognize that monuments can serve as rallying points for calls of justice and a reckoning with the past.

As for the perpetrator of the vandalism in the Wilderness, perhaps he/she should have spray painted a few words from Texas’s Declaration of Causes of Secession:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

Better yet, run off a couple hundred copies and place them in a small box next to the monument to remind visitors that these men didn’t just fall out of the sky one day and start shooting at one another.

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14 comments… add one
  • andersonh1 Jun 13, 2018 @ 11:55

    Is this vandalism acceptable? Is it “a call for justice and a reckoning with the past”?

    “…. the Lincoln bust was spray-painted black two weeks ago, then vandalized again two days ago. In the second incident, the bust was “covered in tar, wrapped in roofing paper and set on fire,” the alderman said, noting that Chicago Police are investigating.”

    • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2018 @ 12:04

      I would love to know more about the intention behind the vandalism. Thanks for sharing.

  • Josh Jun 11, 2018 @ 5:44

    Any vandalism, no matter the motivation, is unacceptable.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2018 @ 3:06

      So you also disapprove of tearing down the monument to King George III in NYC on the eve of the Revolution as well as the monument to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad?

  • Dudley Bokoski Jun 2, 2018 @ 14:48

    I agree with you, vandalism has been around long before the internet. But the internet validates all sorts of behavior that once was simply thought of as inappropriate. I think people of all sorts of viewpoints can, without much looking, find someone who would agree with their actions. The internet also creates an audience and feedback that a pre-internet vandal wouldn’t have gotten. They can sit at a safe distance and read comments and reactions and admire photographs of their work. Before the internet a person who committed such an act would just have to go back to the scene to gauge the results. I wouldn’t say the internet causes all vandalism, but it is a tool someone could use to enhance their experience of it.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2018 @ 15:44

      The internet might provide “validation” for the perpetrator, but I still don’t see that it makes it any more likely.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jun 2, 2018 @ 13:45

    Since the internet age arrived we all have the opportunity to express our opinions outside face to face conversation. That is democratizing and a good thing. But it probably has fostered a sense of an unlimited right of expression and an exaggerated sense of self importance. I would imagine the person who spray painted the monuments believed they had some right to do so and that their expression was important enough to justify vandalism. Maybe it is inevitable that unfettered social media expression in cyber space will “go viral” and cross over into physical acts in the real world. Once that starts happening the whole concept of a “flash mob” will take an ugly turn. The rule of law and persistent, relentless civility are the only correctives.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2018 @ 13:52

      Why should I believe that social media has anything to do with recent acts of vandalism given that it is nothing new? Thanks.

  • James F. Epperson Jun 1, 2018 @ 11:01

    There is a lot that could be said. Vandalism is still vandalism, and I frankly think that is all this is. The act you described in your post involved vandalism, but also was a species of civil disobedience/protest. IMO, a key element of such an act is taking ownership of it, as Maya Little apparently did. Acting anonymously, as was done in the Wilderness, reduces it to simply vandalism, nothing more. Might it have been more? Of course.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2018 @ 11:17

      Excellent point, Jim.

  • Shoshana Bee Jun 1, 2018 @ 7:34

    I normally avoid the monuments discussions, however, because this has taken place at a National Military Park, I feel that it stands apart from the usual “let the community decide”. Since national parks are part of my community, in this case, I have a say.

    This is not a monument in the sense of a marble statue venerating a lone figure. I rather view it as akin to a headstone memorializing those of the aforementioned Texas Brigade whose blood was spilled on the battlefield. It is practically a desecration to deface this monument.
    The hue and cry as to “what to do with the monuments” has overwhelmingly been to “put them in a museum”. I view our National Military Parks as outdoor museums. My guess is that the cretin who did this damage has probably never set foot in a museum, thus, the point is lost.

    Regarding monuments located on venues such as college campuses: yes, I believe that a whole different purpose and message has been foisted upon the populace with these placements. However, as this difference was lost on the individual who vandalized the Texas monument, so it will be lost to the monuments discussion in general, as the opposing sides will move farther apart.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2018 @ 10:32

      It’s not that I necessarily disagree with you, but why should national parks be thought of as “outdoor museums?” I ask because they were certainly not established as such. And even if you do consider them as such, this doesn’t exhaust the other ways in which Americans can interpret them. Thanks for the comment.

      • Shoshana Bee Jun 1, 2018 @ 11:14

        First of all, I wish to thank you for advancing the conversation as civil discourse, rather than the usual acrimony that overtakes conversations on this topic.

        Why should National Parks be thought of as “outdoor museums”:

        More specifically, I mentioned National Military Parks, and I did so on purpose. The reason being is that the artillery displays, the placards, the ranger walks (acting in the part of de facto docents) all remind me of a museum. There is an attempt to preserve and educate much like a museum. However, I do not get this same feeling when I go to any national park, such as Yosemite.

        This doesn’t exhaust the other ways in which Americans can interpret them:

        Indeed. However, there is a long travel between “interpretation” and “vandalism”. I fully embrace the evolving nature of these parks — offering the example of what was once Custer Battlefield National Monument (not a NP but useful for example) It began as a place to venerate Custer, but over time and with intense reinterpretation, it is now a place that is all-inclusive and tells the whole story of the battle — reflected in its new name of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2018 @ 11:16

          Thanks for taking the time to follow up. Much appreciated.

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