The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New Orleans removes a tribute to ‘the lost cause of the Confederacy’ — with snipers standing by

City workers in New Orleans tore down the Battle of Liberty Place monument April 24. It’s the first of four Confederate symbols due to be dismantled. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

On the same day that some southern states were honoring their rebel heritage, masked workers in New Orleans dismantled a monument to that past — chunk by chunk, under darkness and the protection of police snipers.

“We will no longer allow the Confederacy to literally be put on a pedestal,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) said after a 19th-century obelisk honoring what the mayor called “white supremacists” was taken down early Monday.

The Battle of Liberty Place monument, which honors members of the Crescent City White League who died trying to overthrow the New Orleans government after the Civil War, was the first of four statues linked to the Confederacy that are set to be torn down in New Orleans.

Landrieu said that “intimidation and threats by people who don’t want the statues down” prompted him to order the monument removed before sunrise — without prior announcement, by masked workers, on the same day that some other states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day.

After a small group of protesters dispersed about 1:30 a.m., police officers barricaded surrounding streets, and snipers took position on a rooftop above the statue, according to the Times-Picayune. By 3 a.m., workers were drilling into the obelisk’s pale stonework.

Contractors wore face masks, helmets and what one reporter described at a news conference the next morning as “militarylike bulletproof vests.” Landrieu said the workers were disguised for their protection.

People screamed at each other during the dismantling, as seen in video from WWL-TV.

“They didn’t hold a damn vote!” a man yelled.

“It’s beautiful watching it coming down,” a woman replied.

“It’ll be your statue next!” said the man.

Before dawn, the Liberty Place monument was trucked away in pieces.

The next morning, a New Orleans group called the Monumental Task Committee condemned the operation.

“This secretive removal under the cloak of darkness, outside of the public bid, masked contractors, and using unidentified money wreaks of atrocious government,” the group’s president said in a statement. “People across Louisiana should be concerned over what will disappear next.”

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The mayor called the Liberty Place monument the most offensive of the city’s tributes to “the lost cause of the Confederacy.”

It and three other memorials to rebel leaders — Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard — were ordered removed in 2015, after city meetings that the Times-Picayune described as rowdy and sometimes racially divided. Landrieu did not announce when the three other condemned statues will be removed.

There has been more division over Confederate memorials in Louisiana’s neighbor states, which have been wrestling with how to remember their Civil War legacies after a self-described white supremacist massacred black churchgoers in South Carolina two years ago.

The deadly church shooting led to a backlash against Confederate imagery across the South — most notably when the rebel flag fell after 54 years outside the South Carolina statehouse.

During WCSC's live shot, Muhiydin Moye jumped through yellow police tape and hurled himself toward another man, who was holding a Confederate flag. (Video: Live 5 News/WCSC)

Charlottesville, was sued in March by a group trying to stop a similar purge of Confederate imagery there.

So even before Landrieu ordered masked workers to a square in New Orleans on Monday, there was angst across the South about how and if to mark this week’s anniversary of a rebel general’s surrender in 1865.

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“In the immortal words of President Jefferson Davis, please just leave us alone,” a chaplain for a Confederate heritage group in Alabama wrote for last week, defending Monday’s state holiday to honor fallen rebel soldiers. “Let us honor the valor and bravery of our Southern heroes without intimidation and insult,” Barry Cook wrote. Like other defenders of Confederate heritage, Cook portrayed the Civil War as a battle for states’ rights, separate from slavery.

It’s also Confederate Memorial Day in Mississippi, where Gov. Phil Bryant (R) has repeatedly proclaimed April as Confederate Heritage Month.

Several other Southern states also recognize the holiday, including Louisiana, which will do so in June. Cities, however, don’t have to follow suit.

The Confederate flag on display, from 1938 to today

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 21: A confederate flag reflected in the window of a gift shop that sells them in Seligman, Arizona. The Confederate flag (aka the Rebel Flag) can be seen in plain view in almost any part of the United States although sightings are more common in the South. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The monument New Orleans took down Monday marks a battle that occurred several years after the Civil War’s end in which white paramilitaries battled a mixed-race police force, causing deaths on both sides. A plaque removed from the monument in 1989 once hailed “white supremacy in the South,” according to the Times-Picayune.

At a news conference Monday morning, Landrieu read out the names of police who died in the Battle of Liberty Place. He derided their opponents as a “cult” in a statement.

The monument was trucked off to storage, Landrieu said, and will be relocated later, perhaps to a museum. He promised to stick to plans to remove the other three Confederate statue.

“I very strongly believe that we’re on the right side of history,” the mayor said.

But a reporter predicted that anger over the removals would become more intense as news spread of the sneak attack on the Liberty Place monument.

Just before the dismantling began, around midnight, competing protesters had gathered around the condemned Jefferson Davis memorial.

“The United States was built by immigrants, by slaves,” a black woman said.

A white woman replied: “Your tribal leaders in Africa: go take it up with them, because they’re the ones that enslaved you.”

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