On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first publicly read in New York City.  Copies of the document were making their way up and down the colonies. Upon hearing it, a crowd made up of “soldiers, sailors, blacks, and a few lower class citizens,” much like the crowd that included Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre, descended upon a statue of King George III located at Bowling Green in lower Manhattan.1Marks, Arthur S. “The Statue of King George III in New York and the Iconology of Regicide,” The American Art Journal 13 (Summer 1981): 62. The 4,000 pound gilded statue made of lead had been erected six years before in celebration of the king’s repeal of the Stamp Act. King George III was depicted in a Roman toga, styled after Emperor Marcus Aurelius, mounted on a horse in all his imperial grandeur. Somehow many of the local New Yorkers did not feel grateful for the public gift, and soon after its installation, the local officials issued anti-graffiti and anti-vandalism edicts to protect the monument. The statue was a lighting rod, and on July 9, 1776, lighting struck. Upon hearing “all men are created equal,” the crowd pulled the statue down with ropes and broke it up into pieces. Immediately most of the lead was converted into bullets to support the revolutionary cause.

Take note as historians such as Manisha Sinha have, that “[African Americans] were a part of the revolutionary mob led by the Sons of Liberty that took down King George III’s statue in New York”  (p. 47, The Slave’s Cause). This fusion aspect is often hidden but has been critical to successful social change in the United States. The statue of King George III came tumbling down in the midst of a revolutionary movement. The next day, George Washington privately expressed disapproval, wishing the crowd had let the “proper authorities” handle this sort of thing. Regardless of his misgivings, Washington would soon be leading these same forces into battle against the British Crown. What appears to be “riots” and “mob action” in one light may be transformed into acts of visionary courage under revolutionary conditions.

What appears to be “riots” and “mob action” in one light may be transformed into acts of visionary courage under revolutionary conditions.

Today, the location where King George’s statue once stood in lower Manhattan is a stone’s throw from the Wall Street Bull, which under current circumstances receives 24/7 protection from the NYPD. The city is spending plenty of resources to protect the idol of Wall Street — the American version of the “Golden Calf” from the book of Exodus. We might recall in Exodus 32:7-8 that “…the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned aside from the way I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf and have bowed down to it, sacrificed to it, and said, ‘O Israel, this is your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.””

It is not hard to imagine how the Wall Street Bull could become a target. As of this past week, 47.25 million workers have filed for unemployment over the past fourteen weeks. The extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits ends on July 31 unless Congress extends the support. The eviction moratoriums soon will be expiring across the country and state budgets will soon reach a crisis situation. Hunger, homelessness and economic desperation will likely explode in days to come unless Congress passes another huge relief bill. With the bulk of the relief going to Wall Street in response to the current economic crisis, the Wall Street Bull may find itself in the Hudson before long.

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Wall Street Bull
The Wall Street Bull under protection from the NYPD while protesters march nearby.

Today, the removal of monuments is happening both as a result of popular direct action and pre-emptive actions taken by the “proper authorities.” While the Bull is protected, meanwhile uptown the American Museum of Natural History has announced its intent to remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt. The mayor’s office stated: “The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior.” The case of the AMNH Teddy Roosevelt sculpture doesn’t just have to do with objections to the actual, historical figure (although there’s plenty of material with which to work when it comes to Teddy Roosevelt), but is just as much about the artistic composition of the sculpture itself. Let the readers judge for themselves:

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Teddy Roosevelt statue in NYC
The Teddy Roosevelt statue at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.

The removal of Teddy Roosevelt (by the “proper authorities”) stands alongside the beheading of Christopher Columbus in Boston and the de-handing of a statue of Louis XVI in Louisville, Kentucky. Let it not go unsaid that the real King Louis XVI actually lost his head as a result of a revolution. It is worth noting we have spilled the banks of just removing Confederate and Lost Cause monuments. Bigger questions of our shared history are being raised. There is a significance here to the fact that the catalyst that set masses in motion came from the lynching of a working class black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, plenty north of the Mason-Dixon line. As a result of the action taken on public monuments, we are hearing predictable questions such as “What’s next?” and “Where do we draw the line?” For example, Meghan McCain, daughter of the Arizona senator and co-host of The View, was troubled to hear of the removal of Teddy Roosevelt, and wondered if Mount Rushmore would be next. What is behind these questions is the argument that monuments are erected to commemorate or preserve cherished history. Likewise, as this logic goes, to remove a monument is to erase history.

What is behind these questions is the argument that monuments are erected to commemorate or preserve cherished history...In fact, most of these monuments were erected to cover up history.

In fact, most of these monuments were erected to cover up history. The massive heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln carved into the face of Mount Rushmore stand right in the middle of sacred land stolen from the Lakota in the Blackhills/Paha Sapa.2https://www.startribune.com/the-real-history-of-mount-rushmore/388715411/?refresh=true It is worth noting that the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, was the same artist originally commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy to carve the monument on Stone Mountain in Georgia. Borglum became a member of the Ku Klux Klan. And he must have been a piece of work, because the organized White Supremacists of the day found him too difficult to work with. What makes Borglum fascinating is how he authored monuments to Abraham Lincoln, General Phillip Sheridan, as well as the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and how he contributed to the monumental justification of land theft from indigenous peoples as well as the subjugation of black people under Jim Crow.

These statues and monuments are meant to control black and indigenous folks through terror and triumphalism — yes — but they’re also meant to control masses of white folks through expressions of nationalism built on an all-white, cross-class unity. The function of these monuments, in most cases funded and dictated by the ruling elites, is to educate the white masses as if to say “we’re all in it together” to the exclusion of others. The message here is that “True Americans” identify with and celebrate Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and even Robert E. Lee.

These statues and monuments are meant to control black and indigenous folks through terror and triumphalism — yes — but they're also meant to control masses of white folks through expressions of nationalism built on an all-white, cross-class unity.

Studying the work of Borglum helps shed light on the deep relationship between nationalism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy, which are told in part through the monuments all over this country. It is not surprising therefore to see Borglum’s most famous work at the center of the current political polarization. There is no mistaking Trump’s intent or meaning in choosing to celebrate Independence Day at Mount Rushmore on July 3. Weeks ago, he tweeted, “I am pleased to inform you that THE BIG FIREWORKS, after many years of not having any, are coming back to beautiful Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Great work @GovKristiNoem and @SecBernhardt! #MAGA”. In spite of concerns of the threat of spreading COVID-19 at mass gatherings, and in spite of concerns about sparking a massive fire in the ponderosa pine forests surrounding Mt. Rushmore, Trump has too much invested in the distorted moral narrative that white Christian Americans are “true Americans” to miss this opportunity. He did not create this narrative, but he wields it for his purposes.

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Mount Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore sculpture by Gutzon Borglum, built in the middle of sacred land stolen from the Lakota.

At the core of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is the understanding that we are in a battle with the evils of racism, poverty, militarism, ecological devastation and the distorted moral narrative built on white supremacy and Christian nationalism. Here is a moment for seeing clearly the distorted moral narrative wielded by powerful forces. At the same time, it is an incredible opportunity to educate and organize around a different vision. To invoke Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, it is a time to connect the “statues” to the “statutes” — the policies and laws impacting people’s lives in material ways. On the actual physical terrain of the United States of America, there are actual physical monuments intended to fortify and propagate ideas that legitimate this distorted moral narrative.

We are in a battle of theologies as well as ideologies. This complex of theologies and ideologies is clothed in history, culture, and symbolism. These monuments embody notions of race, religion, rights (e.g., property over human beings), and rugged individualism to name just a few. Protestors have taken direct action on the monuments of obscure Confederates such as Albert Pike (Washington, DC) and Jim Crow Redeemers such as Edward Carmack (Nashville, TN), men who actually played significant roles in the establishment of white supremacy. These protesters in pulling down these statues have done more to educate masses of people on who these men really were than decades and even centuries of monumental silence and general indifference. Carmack was responsible for the mob destruction of Ida B. Wells’ newspaper office, and Wells almost certainly would have been lynched if that same mob could have laid hands on her. Pike served in the officer corps of the Confederacy and was a fine example of President Andrew Johnson’s pardoning and vindicating the defeated Confederate leadership after the Civil War. Colston, based in Bristol, England, made a fortune off of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and covered it up with philanthropy.3https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/09/us/confederate-statues-removed-george-floyd-trnd/index.html

I have given tours of Wall Street for over a decade, where I reflect on the Statue of Liberty, the various monuments in Battery Park including the tribute to the Manhattan Purchase, the Wall Street Bull and so on. It has often struck me how, in so called ordinary times, most of us hustle past the statues and monuments that populate our landscape. Most of the time, they fade back into the noise of everyday life. No one would argue we are living in “ordinary times” at this moment. When I think about “ordinary times,” I also am reminded of the “normalcy” some folks desperately wish we could return to. In those times, it seems to me we were walking past 700 deaths by poverty and racism per day without seeing it — millions of incarcerated people, millions of unhoused people, millions of people in crisis. The fate of these monuments should be deeply connected in our minds to the deep, transformative change that can only come with a movement to end poverty, racism, militarism, ecological devastation, and the distorted moral narrative that continues to promote, as Pem Davidson Buck once described it, “the assumption of the God-given right to mistreat others.”

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