The metal figure landed with a clang and such force that it cracked the concrete, said protester Triston Crowl, 26.
“When it came down, we could tell something had happened. This was a moment in history, at least in the city,” he said, explaining his belief that statues of U.S. leaders who served during chattel slavery should not stand. “There should be a line at the Civil War. Every forefather prior to that should be considered a Confederate.”
A review of news reports found at least 150 statues and memorials nationwide have been torn down by protesters or removed for safekeeping by local authorities in the aftermath of the May 25 death of George Floyd, which has sparked a historic reckoning on race and justice and has reignited debate about cultural iconography in the country.
The vast majority of the removed monuments memorialized Confederate soldiers or long-debated historical figures such as Christopher Columbus, whose statue in Baltimore protesters dumped into the Inner Harbor on July 4. In three cases, protesters targeted figures of U.S. presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant — prompting a Twitter storm from President Trump and outrage from those who see the felling of the statues as an attack on American history.
The monuments have also ignited debate among the protesters themselves over where to draw the line on historical figures that some say are too morally compromised to be venerated.
President Trump and his supporters have painted the statue-topplers as a mobocracy that must be reined in. The president has vowed stiffer penalties for such protesters, doubling down on his call for law and order during weekend speeches at Mount Rushmore and in Washington, casting the protesters as vandals, thieves and left-wing Marxists bent on erasing American history.
“Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities,” Trump warned Friday at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, speaking of a “new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.”
The demonstrators’ views range from support for removal of all monuments to an embrace slow-paced community discussion and historical review. Democrats including former vice president Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have tried to draw a distinction between tributes to the Confederacy and protection of memorials to Founding Fathers.
For some demonstrators, it’s not the image of a particular president that is important, but how the leader is portrayed. Last month, for instance, the American Museum of Natural History in New York said it would remove a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt riding a horse and flanked by Native American and African men on foot, an image long criticized as a representation of colonialism and racial supremacy.
But a few have had their sights trained on the slaveholding Founders, attacking statues of Jefferson and Washington in Portland, a bust of Grant in San Francisco and a figure of Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem, which includes lyrics that support slavery.
“There is no point in having these statues. All they do is remind everybody of the history of the United States and its role in perpetuating white supremacy and the institutionalization of anti-blackness,” said Rosario Navalta, 21, a senior at Hofstra University in New York and the daughter of Filipino immigrants.
Navalta is leading a campaign called “Jefferson’s Gotta Go!” to remove a statue of Jefferson at the school. The United States’s third president enslaved more than 600 people in his lifetime and fathered four children with Sally Hemings, a slave who was a teenager when she first bore his children, Navalta noted.
“Jefferson is not ‘the’ father of this nation,” she said. “We cannot sit there pandering to the past.”
Manisha Sinha, a Civil War historian at the University of Connecticut and the author of “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition,” said that the removal of the statues should be done after “thoughtful discussion,” rather than by “indiscriminate” action. Sinha said that by targeting Founding Fathers such as Washington and Jefferson, activists risk playing into the conservative narrative that removal of statues is a “slippery slope” toward an erasure of the country’s history.
“I don’t think we should feed into that narrative,” she said. “We should all be careful and deliberate about which ones should go and which should stay with historical contextualization.”
Confederate statues are in a separate category from others, because they commemorate men who committed treason against the United States to defend human bondage, she said.
For others, such as Jefferson and Washington, who each owned slaves who worked their large plantations, “we should be able to judge them precisely for their shortcomings as well as their achievement,” Sinha said. “We can commemorate certain people for their achievements at the same time being critical of certain actions they took we don’t approve of today.”
Protesters targeted Grant, who led the Union Army during the Civil War and later became the country’s 18th president, she noted. Grant’s in-laws had given him a slave, Sinha said, but Grant eventually freed the man.
“That’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, he was a slaveholder,’ ” Sinha said. “In the end, he did the right thing.”
Oregon activist Lyfe Taverres, 26, was nearby when protesters pulled down the statue of Washington in Northeast Portland on June 18, wrapping the statue in the American flag, setting it on fire and spray painting “Genocidal Colonialist” on it.
“Obviously, there are people who are part of the resistance who don’t understand too much about the history, and some people are taking it out as rage,” he said. The protesters don’t want any representations of anyone who has a “nasty narrative around them as far as racial justice goes or how they treat minorities.”
But, he said, “at the end of the day, there must be a more honorable way to take down these statues than by burning their heads,” Taverres said.
On June 23, Hofstra University announced it was moving a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the prominent campus thoroughfare at the entrance of its student center to the outside of a museum close by. The new location will allow the work of “contextualizing” history to continue while the statue is “out of the way of the community that wishes to avoid it.”
University President Stuart Rabinowitz said in a statement that the school’s “Committee on Representations in Public Spaces” decided to move the statue to a less-prominent spot.
“Over the past few years, the placement of the Jefferson statue, and the history it represents, has been a reminder and consistent source of pain for many of our Black students and allies,” Rabinowitz wrote. “Institutions, like people, evolve, and come to new understandings based on the work and words of activists and leaders.”
Students have been agitating for the statue to be removed since 2018, when activists created a Change.org petition that asserted that the statue should be taken down because Jefferson enslaved 600 people during his life and that his values “aided in the construction of institutionalized racism and justified the subjugation of black people in the United States.”
They now argue that just moving the statue to another, less-prominent, outdoor locale is not enough and say it should be tucked away permanently in a museum. “We want it removed, full stop,” Navalta said.