The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Controversial memorials are surprisingly easy to pull down. Fixing the world that built them is harder.

Attacks on statues of enslavers, Confederate generals and others reflect the symbolic place they hold worldwide in the history of and fight against racism. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Wednesday afternoon, Mike Forcia drove to a Twin Cities-area Home Depot to buy two ropes — one black, one yellow, both nylon — to be delivered to the Minnesota State Capitol grounds in St. Paul and tied around Christopher Columbus’s neck. The statue of the Italian explorer was placed there in 1931 to commemorate, according to its plaque, “the merging of the cultures of the old and new worlds,” a colorful euphemism for the conquest of indigenous people. Then, at Forcia’s command, 20 Native American activists in a crowd of about 200 took the ropes and began to pull.

“For just a split second, as it was tightening around his neck, I thought, ‘Those ropes are going to snap,’ ” says Forcia, 56. “But then a second later, they pulled again. It tightened up and over he came.”

He said he could hardly believe how quickly it happened. For years, Forcia, who is Anishinaabe, had been lobbying the government to have the statue removed. He had gone through all the official channels. All he got in return was frustration and delays.

But this week, as he watched activists bring down controversial statues in Britain, Belgium and several U.S. cities, he realized the official channels were a losing game.

“I was talking to some elders and they said, ‘That’s not how you do it. You can’t be passive anymore. It has to be done,’ ” he says.

It took only two minutes of pulling before Columbus discovered the sidewalk.

Christopher Columbus statues toppled in Minnesota, beheaded in Boston, attacked in Richmond

Statues of colonizers, Confederates and known racists are coming down across Europe and America — some pulled down by descendants of people oppressed by the subject depicted in the statue, some just another job for crane operators and truck drivers, who spirit them away in the dead of night. The renewed effort to remove statues that represent dark chapters of history emerged from waves of protests over police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and extended to symbols of systemic racism.

“I believe it’s a paradigm shift that’s happening right now,” Forcia says. White people are “losing their ability to say this is history and this is how we write it, and this is how we teach it. . . . We need a true history of this country in order to heal and to fix that shaky foundation, that sick foundation, that the country is built on.”

The statues, it turns out, are built on a shaky foundation, too. A motivated crowd and a few ropes or chains will easily bring them down. Protesters in Richmond tore down a statue of Columbus and rolled it into a lake — and the next day, brought down a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Boston protesters beheaded a Columbus statue, which was later removed by contractors. In Belgium, protesters burned and vandalized statues of King Leopold II, who brutally colonized the Congo. One week after a Tennessee statue of Edward Carmack, a politician and newspaper editor who supported lynchings, was taken down by protesters, singer Taylor Swift tweeted in support, saying that replacing the statue would be a “waste of funds.”

“Taking down statues isn’t going to fix centuries of systemic oppression, violence and hatred that black people have had to endure but it might bring us one small step closer to making ALL Tennesseans and visitors to our state feel safe,” she tweeted.

Elsewhere, city governments and Confederate ancestry groups are opting to remove statues themselves, before the protesters do it. The Carolina Panthers removed a statue of the football team’s former owner, Jerry Richardson, who has used racial slurs. Philadelphia removed a statue of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo, who was known for aggressive policing of the black community. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for the removal of the 11 Confederate statues in the U.S. Capitol building.

Some statues will face legal battles, and political pressure.

“This woke mob could very soon be coming for any one of you,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday. “Are we going to tear the Washington Monument down? Are we going to rename it ‘the Obelisk of Wokeness?’ ”

It was an 1895 statue of British slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, that set off this recent wave of iconoclasm. During a June 7 Black Lives Matter protest, Bristolians pulled the statue from its base, rolled it down the street and dumped it in the river.

Britons cheer toppling of slave trader statue but are divided over tagging of Winston Churchill as racist

“They were probably pulling it for five seconds before I jumped in” and grabbed a rope, said one protester who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared legal repercussions. When it came down, about 30 seconds later, he says, “it was the most exciting moment ever. Everyone just cheered and screamed. I just thought, ‘finally.’ ”

People knelt on the statue in homage to Floyd, or danced around it. The protester, a black man in his late 20s, said multiple generations of his family had called for the statue’s removal over the years. Standing amid the protesters, he noticed that some of the city’s older black residents who had come to the rally were crying with happiness.

“Knowing we were the start of that chain reaction — knowing that streets are being changed, statues being taken down all over the world — this is probably the proudest moment in Bristol history ever,” he says.

Iconoclasm — the destruction of images and icons — is “a phenomenon that happens whenever there’s a revolutionary moment,” says James Simpson, a Harvard English professor and author of “Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition.” “And in a revolutionary moment, the surest, quickest way to attack the old regime, to attack the old dispensation, is to attack the monuments.”

It has been practiced all over the world, from the Egyptian and Byzantine empires, to the Reformation era in Europe, to the modern destruction of statues of Soviet Premier Vladimir Lenin, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi.

Iconoclasm is powerful — and cathartic for those who do it — because the images or statues themselves hold great power. Simpson points to the etymology of the word “representation,” meaning “present again.” For us, he says, “image always has profound significance because it is never something merely from the past. Representations are alive, and they’re really dangerous.”

They’re tenacious, too. If the statues themselves are flimsy, the governmental and societal bolts that keep them in place are strong, as some activists have learned.

Mayor Sadiq Khan urged people to avoid central London on June 13, as the city prepared for potential confrontation between protesters and far-right groups. (Video: Reuters)

For Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and organizer of Monumental Justice Virginia, a group lobbying for the removal of Confederate statues, it has been a four-year battle that has yet to meaningfully pay off. Throughout numerous public hearings, a blue-ribbon commission, months of historical research and legal battles, statues that are the target of Monumental Justice’s work in Charlottesville and elsewhere in Virginia remain standing. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has announced plans to remove a Richmond statue of Robert E. Lee that has been vandalized in recent protests.

Schmidt sympathizes with protesters who don’t have the patience she does. But she still believes that official channels are the way to go.

“Since the state put these statues in place and has maintained them with public funds all these years, and they’re in a public place, I really think that it’s important politically and morally for the state to take them down,” she says.

Watching jubilant protesters tear down statues with their own hands has left Sara Patenaude — co-founder of Hate Free Decatur, in Georgia — torn. She longs for the city’s Confederate monument, an obelisk, to come down swiftly. But doing it herself with other activists feels like “jumping to the end point,” she says. “It was never just about the monument. We have always been of the opinion that removing the monument is not enough if the systems are still in place” that contribute to white supremacy. (The day after she was interviewed for this story, a DeKalb County judge ordered the obelisk to be removed and placed in storage before June 26.)

The question now is what to do with the damaged statues, as well as the plinths and pedestals that underpin their ghosts. Some have been given back to the Italian American and Confederate groups that paid for their display, and others, like the Colston statue, will eventually be exhibited in museums. Proposals for their pedestals have ranged from the silly — fill them all with those inflatable wavy-arm guys you see at car dealerships — to calls for them to be replaced with statues of black leaders. On Instagram, the artist Banksy posted a sketch of a potential use for the Colston statue: He’d like to use it, he wrote, to build another statue: one of people hoisting the old statue off its base.

Forcia hopes that the Native American community in Minnesota will be able to choose a replacement statue, and that the site will become what he calls “a sacred spot for our people.” After the Columbus statue came down, Forcia turned himself in to the police. The Minnesota State Patrol has announced that he will face charges. He plans to ask the governor for a pardon.

But before he went to the station, Forcia climbed onto Columbus’s pedestal. He wanted to see what the statue could see.

“I told the people, ‘Chris had a pretty good view up here for the last 80 years,’ ” he says. “But I said, ‘Tomorrow we can say, as Native people, we are still here. And he is gone.’ ”