- The Monuments
- Sound and the Silly Season
1. The Monuments
Did you see LaToya Cantrell’s statement on the Confederate Monuments?
(Remember that silly flack for VCPORA who said LaToya was afraid of some boring stuff?) I am going to re-print it here, in case you are not on that mailing list, or didn’t see it in the papers, and so I can read it again.
This is the week after, though, not the day before, so let’s set up a context. I watched the Council session, expecting funny parts, comic moments (to me, anyway) about Beauregard and General Robert E. Lee, clichés of Southern mythology, crossing swords with people possibly taking idealized moments of admittedly unattractive history frozen in stone and bronze too seriously, thinking you could finesse history by taking them away instead of superseding them
Turned out not to be funny at all.
The public comment session was acrimonious. Cat-calls, cheers, jeers and boos from both sides, interruptions – unruly stuff. I think they had extra security in, but it didn’t turn physical. We could be stuffy and criticize the verbal rowdiness, but it was a measure of the emotion the issue has released.
Looks like the Civil War has not ended for some among us, not just deadly distorted jerks flashing Confederate flags and guns, and getting into mass shooting from time to time, but respectable, upright citizen types as well.
The conversation broke down largely but not completely into a Black/White divide. A noticeable number of White commenters said, Take them down, they are an embarrassment; and a few African Americans said, leave them; they are part of history; deal with the wrong by placing in context. I read the passion and emotion of the those favoring removal as sincere. Removalists, if I can call them that, were by far the most colorful, expressive, interesting speakers. Some great speakers, like Chuck Perkins, managed to communicate those collective feelings convincingly. We were watching strong drama.
I can’t mention them all. But I can’t omit Dyan French-Cole – Mama D. Enchantment. I can’t understand every line she says, but together, it was music.
There were others. I apologize to the fine speakers I am not mentioning.
LaToya Cantrell came in for some rough handling from Black advocates for removal, saying she had betrayed her race and her ancestors. That was out of order – Political Correctness turned upside down. The last speaker made the point for me. He spoke about poor white people siding with a class that oppresses them, not even knowing why or what they are standing for. Supporting oppression of rich over poor, “just because they are White.” In other words, people have to think. The matter is cheapened if it devolves into Black v. White. There are more than two facets to a full sized question. If people have to choose a side based on racial identity, if they are shamed for saying what they think, there is not much purpose to the open discussion.
Some speakers against removal said, with some justification, where does revisionism stop? What about street names? President Jackson was racist to the point of genocide. Take his statue down and change the name of Jackson Square? The current craving for PC and comfort in everything is starting to turn queasy. A Philadelphia school has just banned Huckleberry Finn – an undisputed great book that Hemingway said was the starting point of all American literature that followed – because the 19th century vocabulary of race and slavery made the kids “uncomfortable.” What kind of real learning is going to take place when history and great literature are trumped by “comfort”?
When I was a kid, I got interested in the Civil War for a time. I got a lot of books out of the library. I read about the higher purpose of the North’s cause, and it’s less noble economic causes. About the alleged nobility of the great Southern officers, their courage in battle, grace in eventual surrender and self-sacrificing devotion to their Lost Cause. I tried to empathize, To get into an appreciation of the old Southern Way of Life and the defense of the plantation-centered economy. It didn’t work for me. The old model looked like a fantasy overlay to a horror story. Now I think the school history was trying to bridge George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who had to look good, with the same culture 50 years later, when the whitewash had worn off.
Jim Crow, segregation, systematic humiliation reinforced by lynching cast shame over us all. Ancient slave economies had the decency to be remote were in space and time; the South made us feel queasy, because the backlash of slavery clearly had not ended. It was in our country and time. You could drive to it in a day from Philadelphia. But why would you want to?
In some times and places there were ridiculous gradations of what percentage White a person was, sometimes exploited by “both” races, in the binary division of the time, as in Storyville. In the end, I was no more impressed with the 19th century Southern way of life than I am with the Taliban way of life now. When I was a little kid, I even got to see a bit of the tail end of it in Virginia – separate bathrooms and water fountains. I’m not sure segregation at that level was still legally enforced, but the traces were there. I was just little. I had to look away.
New Orleans was probably different. I suspect the war and Reconstruction finished cornering it into the Deep South, but glimpses of another culture showed through. Storyville toyed with the strange inner demons of White males. Music suffered from segregation, but also played it. The Anglo invasion, Jim Crow and binary racism sent much of the Creole culture into exile.
Now we see racism deeply embedded in right-wing neighborhood associations, in the gentrification process, in the police and “justice” system. One speaker was excellent on New Orleans’ position as the incarceration champion of the world, disproportionately on the backs of the African American population to the point where it is another method of segregation and enslavement. This lingering aftermath of slavery is as shaming as those bathrooms and water fountains in Virginia, and you even have to watch what you say, because White racism has devised a code language of defensive ambiguity. Safest to check who their lawyer is before accusing them in print.
Some of the White opponents of monument removal yesterday were as embarrassing as those separate water fountains. They spoke arrogantly of the Civil War not being about slavery but about States’ Rights – as if there were a difference then. As if States Rights wasn’t code for White supremacy. If slavery or endemic injustice embedded in law were consequences of states’ rights, what difference did it make what you called it? We could say the Taliban is not about suppression of individual rights and brutal punishment, it is about religious freedom. What would that change?
Some spoke about the Confederate generals being brave, capable soldiers; the monuments commemorated their military excellence, not the virtue of their cause. You always have to honor the military, they said. That is a pretty boring idea, too, despite that morning’s ceremonies at Council. Glorifying soldiers without reference to the cause is a destructive cliché in current America, a militarized imperialist country. Now every US soldier backed by incredible weaponry, technology and endless money who menacingly enters a Central Asian village where the US shouldn’t even be is a “hero.” That is not what hero means. I have met men who were partisans in the French resistance when they were young, fighting the Wehrmacht in the forests with no weapons at all, who would not accept that label. The current abuse of the word seems to have started after Vietnam. It isn’t doing us any good.
A chilling thing about these stiff White Sons of the Confederacy was their pride in showing no sympathy for the feelings of the African Americans in the chamber, who were exposing the internalized consequences of these centuries of ugliness in a way we rarely get to see and should have the good sense to value. The Confederate sympathizers, these Deep Southers proud of supposed battlefield bravery and death just blanked the feelings of the people around them. My judgment: they look away to preserve a bubble of illusion. Leaving the monuments in place is a defensible position, but if you seal yourself off from the people around you, your defense is invalidated.
Listening to these guys, I knew that if I spoke or wrote against them, I was up again for the accusation of the fallback refrain, the pedigree. “I am an n-th generation New Orleanian; my great grandfather . . . .” It doesn’t signify much to me, that roots business. It is something like ad hominem against the hominem in question’s great grandad. By my observation, it is used more often – not exclusively but more often – to justify stuff that wouldn’t stay healthy in the light of day than to stand up for good. Edward Douglass White III, the monument on the courthouse steps, was the scion of the establishment since the Revolutionary War and son of a sugar planter, eventually Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a venomous toad of postwar White terrorism. So much for the moral value of pedigree. Won’t stop them saying it.
One of the White opponents, Jason Sutton I think his name was, said that there was no division and no hot emotions on this subject until the Mayor stirred it up for political purposes a few weeks ago – a stunning disrespect to the African Americans in the audience, telling them that their personal and collective feelings about the Confederacy are artificial constructions just installed in them by a tricky White politician. He was getting a lot of catcalls and delay. Not the Roberts Rules, but if anybody deserved it, it was this guy. I don’t think these Confederacy apologists did themselves any good. Their act was repellent to anyone but themselves.
The tone-deafness was not universal. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Westmoreland, a southerner and fighter pilot, said the Confederacy was a lousy cause that brought the USA close to the death of the nation, and no one deserves honor for participating in that treason, whatever his military skill. In the interests of social kindness and unity, take them down, he said.
Whatever your take on memorial sculpture, blocking out the horrors inflicted by the American White class, especially Southerners, on African Americans is simply delusional – a pustulant mental deformity. And stubbornly blanking the validity of the social and personal emotions of many thousands of your fellow residents of this city, including those present in the same room, is repugnant and stupid.
But there were some others, African American, European American and New Orleans American, who thought, Let’s leave the damned statues stand and do something else to put them in their historical place by explaining history since then. Let’s not blank out the post-Reconstruction ugliness: let’s lay some shame on it.
First, let’s refresh on CM Cantrell’s message, then carry on.
December 9, 2015
“I would like to clarify any speculation from the public at large about my position on the monuments.
“I am opposed to the current ordinance before Council that will remove four of the multiple Confederate monuments and memorials of our city. The reason I am opposed is because it was not a community driven process based on the concerns of citizens. This idea was thrust upon the City and the Council from the top down after it was created by a small, select group of individuals.
“There was no movement rising up to demand this action. There was no willingness to take into account people’s outrage about other symbols of racism not included in this ordinance. There was no discussion on whether one or two of the selected monuments might be more offensive than others.
“Rather, it was determined to be necessary by leadership from the privilege of power. This is not fair.
“I also oppose this ordinance because it is a distraction from the real issues I hear about every day that need to be addressed:
- that parents fear for their children who might get shot or assaulted;
- that our roads create a nightmare out of our daily commute and challenge small businesses during the holiday season;
- that over 70% of our citizens pay over 30% of the income for housing;
- that blight remains unresolved in our most challenged communities;
- that our city is in awash in illegal guns;
- that we as a city need to pay our debt to citizens who have been waiting for court settlements for many years;
- that restaurants have had to hire security so that people will be willing to patronize their restaurants without fear of armed robbers;
- that children on playgrounds are unprotected;
- and last but certainly not least, that we have to take radical and immediate measures to have a sustainable future in New Orleans.
“Finally, I oppose this ordinance as it has been written and debated because it divides us into two groups: ‘for’ and ‘against.’ In my many years of working in the neighborhood, my leadership was always informed by a diverse public who provided insights on the way forward. From this inclusive process, we succeeded in rebuilding a community that people had given up for lost.
“As leaders, we need to move New Orleans forward by addressing the needs of citizens and by building the trust and the determination of all of the people to work together so we can become a welcoming, inclusive, equitable, and tolerant city.”
Tough, bold and in view of the flack she took from some of the speakers, that she would have known was coming, brave. Note Ms Cantrell does not say the monuments should never be relocated. She says, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right, and let’s get the priority list in order.
I had some ideas to throw into the ring. I guess it looks like a compromise, but I thought of them in the first days of the Mayor’s campaign. I say it with some diffidence, because as much as I would stand with the African American experience and not that of the apologists for the oppression, I obviously can’t actually share it, Yet with another instinct, I favor the reality of history. I can’t favor whitewashing.
- These statues, whoever they represent, are memorials to the shameful, even criminal intentions and repression that gripped too much of the “respectable” South from 1877 until 1965, when it gradually slithered underground, but is not yet gone. There is a risk of whitewashing that history if you hide the statues away. Would it be better to out it publicly, or give it a place to hide?
- If you take them down, start with Edward Douglass White on the courthouse steps at 400 Royal Street. Even if the city doesn’t own the statue, find a way. The military guys seem to have been decent chaps according to the regional standards of their time. White, however, eventually Chief Justice White, is real short on redeeming qualities. When Lee surrendered, he surrendered. White joined white supremacist underground movements to reinstate subjugation of African Americans through terror and murder. Eventually, as Chief Justice in Plessy v. Ferguson, he capped his career of subverting national law and undermining the fragile beginnings of a potentially decent society by confirming establishment of the hideous Jim Crow sickness, of which the United States is not yet free. (Check Scalia for latest update.)
- For Lee Plaza and maybe the others, consider inaugurating a period to supersede the Lost Cause. Perhaps Recovery or Rediscovery. Found Cause. Surround Lee’s high perch with statues of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Angela Davis, Barrack Obama, Assata Shakur, Julian Bond, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali and James Baldwin. New Orleans likes to identify with music so the choice becomes wider. I would nominate Billie Holiday and Nina Simone for a spot, just to test old Robert E’s stony civility.
- Say what the Confederate statues stand for on clear plaques: not just to commemorate the people they represent and their military service from 1860 to 1865. They commemorate the repellent immorality of the people that put them up. One guy even read out some of their names, as if that was going to improve their standing. Even if you have some respect for Robert E. Lee, it is hard to respect the indecent intentions of the people that stuck him up on that stone pillar. If General Lee of the Lost Cause could return to life for a day or an hour, even he might say, “This exaltation is not right. We were wrong, and we lost.” Let the purpose of the monuments be clear.
- If the explanatory text is too long, so some products of American education can’t get to the end, have an alternative plaque that says: “You lost again, motherfucker.”
- Put up some monuments to the Creole culture, before Anglo White supremacy had re-set New Orleans race politics to Deep South Binary: Black v. White. Without the English North American dominance and the War’s forcing Louisiana to join the Deep South, and Edward Douglass White and the ilk, New Orleans might have come through the upheavals better.
That was my idea. Having seen the passionate animosity of some of our very interesting people Thursday, I might say, if they care that much, let’s do it. But it won’t end the Civil War.
We’ll see what happens tomorrow.
2. Sound and the Silly Season
Talking about music, the noise ordinance must be coming back into the frame. The police are showing signs of the kind of goofy behavior that used to go on in the beginning of the last phase of the Sound Wars, when they got into all sorts of confused, complaint-driven “enforcing,” much of it unconstitutional as well as unconscionable.
After the Paris attacks, NOPD decided that a defense against potential terrorist activity was to open the daytime Royal Street Mall to car traffic. That would show global jihad! Or maybe allow the emergency services to cope with the aftermath faster, if the event was on Canal and the EMS truck was at CC’s having coffee. The thought process behind this is probably one nobody is ever going to admit to or publish details of, so speculation is a reasonable amusement. If the EMS truck had to drive through Royal, not having the movable barriers up might save up to two seconds of barrier shifting, as opposed to several minutes getting around the cars that would be in its way if the street were open to traffic.
Somebody in the police or their boss’s office spotted the silliness of this pretty quickly, so NOPD instructed reinstatement of the daytime mall. But the movable barriers had been chained up and locked to a post. The Royal Street buskers can’t find out who is in charge of them. Commander Walls of the 8th District says his men do not place the barriers. That is for the health department. So MaCCNO called for a demo Sunday morning, and somehow they found the guy with the key.
A MaCCNO director had suggested the street artists bring Jazz Fest chairs Sunday to make their own barrier. That sounded a bit pale to me. I suggest a mini-parade of people in costumes with lots of feathers and a bolt cutter, and a chain-cutting ceremony to the accompaniment of a loud chorus of Iko Iko. Elect the mental wizard who couldn’t find the key as Lord of Royal Misrule. Sober heads say no – somebody would go to jail for destroying city property. I thought, What? Four bucks worth of chain? Bring a spare, give it to the city as a donation.
So are some people in municipal government messin’ with the buskers, or is it just standard ordinary municipal muddle? Time won’t tell. Nobody will admit to anything.
On Frenchmen Street meanwhile, some uniformed crusaders forced the street’s brass band to close down. I believe the reason given was: curfew.
Dum-da-dum-dum. Curfew is a bad law, unconstitutional. The City Attorney tried to get it amended out, but with some rambunctious assistance from VCPORA and that lot, Council balked. The Attorney bypassed the legislative failure, instructing police not to enforce. So what’s going on?
A Frenchmen Street business association hired Pinnacle Security to provide a two man patrol to shut down unlicensed vendors or vendors using technically incorrect sites, and incidentally keep an eye out for any crimes they can deter. But they are only on duty Friday and Saturday night, and the incident did not take place on either of them. NOPD says they didn’t do it, but witnesses say the officers who shut them down were wearing NOPD uniforms. It would not be easy to confuse city police, deputy sheriffs and state troopers, so what’s going on?
That damned elusive Pimpernel. I guess we will never know who the phantom brass band hunters really were.
Then just to make sure we don’t miss the start of Silly Season, several of New Orleans’ Finest in pursuit of their sacred duty to protect us from harm busted a four year old girl’s birthday party in Lakeview at 5.30 on a weekend afternoon. As far as I can pick up from gossip and rumor, some of our best sources, the stimulus was ten (yes, 10) calls to 911 complaining about kids playing guitars in their own back yard. And at least one of the pretexts was, did they have a license for outdoor music? Legal nonsense, of course. You don’t need to involve City Hall in a kid’s party in your own garden. It was not commercial or at unsociable hours. Even the Perdido Palace license selling offices haven’t said you need a rubber stamp from them to play a bit of music at a children’s birthday in a back yard on a weekend afternoon.
So what kind of people would insistently call 911 about a kid’s party in daytime? What aliens live among us? And what is with the cops, who probably thought it a ridiculous expedition but gave in to the complainer anyway? In Lakeview! Down here in the riverside neighborhoods, complaining has been institutionalized. It is a major function of neighborhood associations. They elect special officers to do it professionally. They would scoff at ten 911 calls. Two maximum, then sue for disturbance of the peaceful enjoyment of a blank mind. Go to City Hall with a PowerPoint. Arrange a TV interview and some radio talk shows. Unlicensed kids! What are we coming to? That is not “historical.” And at least four weeks notice of the application, with enough time for public comment, so we can generate another useless rumble. The NAs will demand a licensing process to include at least one off-duty officer for security and surveillance by Sound Check, the Health Department’s new sound police.
So it’s silly season again. Shhh! No music outside. Construction machinery, leaf blowers, weed choppers, heavy trucks, motorbikes – whatcha gonna do? But a guitar or a horn – off to the parish!
Yes, this used to be New Orleans, and still looks like it, but we have moved on.
I take this officious authoritarian farce as a sign that a Noise Ordinance will bubble up again soon. There is something about sound that brings out the absurd in officialdom. Noise ordinances hit the reptilian brain at an even lower level than the Trump campaign.
VCPORA and other advocates for turning chunks of the city into quiet retirement communities and orderly cemeteries will be writing drafts and submitting them to their favorite council members. How they must miss the sunny Clarkson days, when a legislative director could just look at the cover page of VCPORA’s draft and initial it on to Council. Now a tougher breed of CMs send their stuff to the round file and try to write real laws.
© Bob Freilich, December 2015
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