Growing up in Chicago, the giant Christopher Columbus statue was a well-known feature in Grant Park. It is now gone. Mayor Lori Lightfoot moved to end the violent protests through an act of surrender. She unilaterally ordered the removal of statue. Problem solved? No, the problem was mob action to remove the statue and Mayor Lightfoot just yielded to violence which left many police officers injured in its wake as well as a number of protesters. Indeed, before the removal, Lightfoot’s own home was targeted after she spoke with President Donald Trump about the use of federal officers to deal with the crime surge in the city. The protesters were demanding the defunding of the Chicago Police Department. My concern is that this was an act that confirmed that rioting and violence can prevail. In the end, it was not the statue but the rule of law that was at issue in Grant Park. Both were lost in the dead of night.
As on so many other unilateral decisions by mayors, the action was taken without pre-warning and in the middle of the night. The concealment of the operation befitted the character of the decision.
Many will applaud this action. Some do not like Columbus or just like Lightfoot. Many in my large Chicago family are Lightfoot fans. Others agree with the criticism of Columbus as a historical figure, criticisms raised particularly by the Native American community that he is a genocidal figure. However, this is not about the merits of the removal decision. Most of us would welcome a debate over the removal of such statues and would seriously consider the merits of removal. I have been participating in such discussions for years.
My objection is how this was done. This will not be seen as an act of principle as much as an act of surrender by the most extreme groups seeking to destroy public art and memorials. It is yielding to mob action and comes dangerously close of mob rule over such questions.
This is why an Antifa leader recently declared “we are winning.” It is because politicians like Speaker Nancy Pelosi have shrugged off the destruction of statues in declaring “people will do what they do.” Now, Mayor Lightfoot is saving them the trouble of toppling statues. She will do it for them in a plea for peace.
I do not believe that most of those who oppose the statue support violent action, but the protests were violent. People were injured. Efforts to pull down the statue were stopped by the Chicago Police Department. They did not, as was the case in Washington, D.C., make the “tactical decision” to stand by and watch a mob destroy a statue. They held the line between collective active and mob action in such controversies.
As I have previously written, there are statues that should be removed but it is important that such decisions are made collectively and with circumspection:
Two decades ago, I wrote a column calling for the Georgia legislature to take down its statue of Tom Watson, a white supremacist publisher and politician who fueled racist and antisemitic movements. Watson was best known for his hateful writings, including his opposition to save Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager accused of raping and murdering a girl. Frank was taken from a jail and lynched by a mob enraged by such writings, including the declaration of Watson that “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working class Gentile.”
Yet today there is no room or time for such reasoned discourse, just destruction that often transcends any rationalization of history.
As many on this blog know, I love my home city and I am proud of its history. I am not opposed to reexamining that history and changing those elements that are not worthy of public honor or distinction. However, I seriously doubt that the same violent groups that sought to topple this statue would allow such a debate to occur in Chicago. Moreover, few academics would risk speaking in favor of preserving such a statue at the risk of being attacked or labeled a racist. We are losing the ability to speak to one another; to have a conversation on such issues. There is only the simple physics of the age of rage: force and motion.