Comment: Statues aren’t history; fences aren’t democracy

Both — Confederate monuments and the fence around the Capitol — came down recently to sighs of relief.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

Those gusts of wind y’all felt over the weekend? Those were about 10 to 15 knots of exhale.

From Charlottesville, Va., to Capitol Hill, folks bracing for the worst — workers and residents who lived through violence and bloodshed — stiffened and waited for the metal manifestations of so much American hatred to be removed.

In Washington, D.C., the huge metal fences that encircled the nation’s Capitol after the Jan. 6 riots were taken apart, panel by panel.

And in Charlottesville, the bronze statues that were rally points for the deadly Unite the Right march in 2017 were hoisted off their pedestals by cranes.

The two scenes were vastly different.

“The Capitol grounds were meant to be used as a park, a place for sledding, a place to come and enjoy the open air, and we want it to return to that use,” D.C.’s nonvoting Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said, encouraging the removal.

There were news releases and news alerts. Folks came in from the suburbs to see the fence go down; the mood was a July Fourth redux. Capitol Hill residents and their dogs returned to their routines and runs. Picnic blankets unfurled. There were no signs of insurrection.

“I may have teared up a little running through the people’s plaza and Capitol grounds,” said Jill Cashen.

The Capitol Hill resident of two decades kept stopping on her run to help families take photos in front of the iconic dome they couldn’t get close to for six months.

The workers who took the fencing down were treated like rock stars, if rock stars wore shades and yellow safety vests. Passersby cheered as each panel clanked in place on a stack.

It was different in Charlottesville.

The fight over what to do with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue — erected 97 years ago — took years. It involved court battles, public debate and the notorious weekend of violence, when emboldened white supremacists crawled from their basement lairs and descended on the city.

At one point, the city had a huge tarp put over the statue, creating a ridiculous blob elevated on a pedestal that solved nothing. You can’t hide America’s bloody history under a tarp.

Charlottesville didn’t go the way Baltimore did in 2017, when workers removed controversial statues in the middle of the night with little fanfare or pushback.

On July 7, the City Council approved $1 million to remove three statues. Emergency funding was signed to hire Team Henry Enterprises LLC, the company that removed controversial statues in Richmond last summer.

The date and time of the Charlottesville statue removal initially were kept quiet. Then on Friday, city officials finally announced that removal would be Saturday.

No one wanted to give anyone too much time to plan anything.

It was tense early Saturday. Trucks and cranes that rolled into Charlottesville’s historical streets to do the job had all their logos, numbers and names covered by masking tape and cardboard.

“I received threats from Confederate fetishists throughout the years,” said Kristopher Goad, a Richmond resident and activist who came to Charlottesville for the occasion. He spoke to some of the construction workers who told him they were nervous. “So I can only imagine how much [hatred] a person would receive from being the [one] with the job of removal.”

The vests in Charlottesville were bulletproof, worn by police officers protecting the workers. The owner of the company doing the work, Devon Henry, got so many death threats when the company did the statue removals in Richmond last year, he told the Associated Press that he began wearing one too.

Henry’s crew is good at what they do. In a matter of hours, they got Lee and Stonewall Jackson off their pedestals and onto trailers. They were trucked out of town to storage and met with unadulterated cheers and farewells.

The next day, they removed the statue of explorers Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea near the downtown courthouse and the statue of Revolutionary War general George Rogers Clark riding a horse toward three unarmed Native Americans on the University of Virginia campus.

The city unclenched, a few objectors posted their sad, old arguments about erasing history and culture. As if teachers, books, museums, historical sites, documents and documentaries didn’t exist, and a poop-covered statue surrounded by ragged bushes and paper-bag bench warmers was the sole repository of all Civil War information.

The mood in D.C. was complicated.

Both liberals and Trump supporters decried the fence and supported its removal, one group fearing the militarization of society, the other insisting the Jan. 6 rioters weren’t so bad.

At least one Trump supporter tweeted a hint about returning to D.C. “Patriots — time for another party. The Capitol fence is almost down.”

“It’s too soon,” some worried, pointing to the false claims that Trump will somehow be reinstated president in August and the failure of Congress to come up with funding for the Capitol Police.

Not soon enough, I say.

Fences — as we’ve heard, in other contexts — can be scaled. Safety and freedom aren’t the byproducts of captivity and are not part of the plan for democracy. Just like statues aren’t history.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

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