NewsStreet Scribe

Toppling Statues Is an American Tradition

This mid-19th Century painting by Johannes A.S. Oertel depicts American colonists pulling down a statue of King George III.

On July 9, 1776—just days after the Declaration of Independence was signed—an angry crowd of protesters in New York City toppled an equestrian statue of King George III. Revolution was in the air in the American colonies, and protesters against British tyranny struck at symbols of the hated monarch of the British Empire who ruled his colonial outposts in what would become the United States. To the king and his occupying troops, the destruction of the statue was treason against the crown by an angry mob. To the colonists then and to historians now, the toppling of the regal statue was a patriotic act that combined symbolic protest with real resistance when rebellious colonists melted down lead from the statue to make bullets for use against King George’s occupying forces of Redcoat soldiers during the American Revolution.

Fast forward nearly 250 years to the America of today. Revolution is in the air again, along with the stench of tear gas. Statues topple in cities across the nation, and a despised and imperious president in the White House is using fear and anger in America as a prop for his re-election campaign to avoid being toppled by American voters in November. The upcoming presidential battle between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden promises to be a bizarre and nasty affair in a nation gripped by pandemic, protests and economic collapse. Violence and vandalism will play right into the hands of Trump’s campaign, and already his television and online ads are warning that Americans will be unsafe if a Democrat gains the White House. Trump hopes to win a second term with a Nixonian call for “law and order” and appeals to a “silent majority” of voters. While President Franklin Roosevelt told a worried and weary Depression-era America that, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” the slogan for the lawless and disorderly Trump administration could be “we have nothing but fear itself.”

Trump is stoking fears of urban violence to rally his base for the Nov. 3 election by placing federal troops in Portland, OR and other American cities where peaceful protests and violent anger have flared in the aftermath of the police killing of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis earlier this year. In California, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff said, “I’m furious that Oakland may have played right into Donald Trump’s twisted campaign strategy. Images of a vandalized downtown is exactly what he wants to whip up his base and to potentially justify sending in federal troops that will only incite more unrest.”  

Other mayors and governors in states targeted by Trump’s troop invasions have decried the administration’s actions. Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller blasted the proposed deployment, saying, “There’s no place for Trump’s secret police in our city. If this was more than a stunt, those politicians would support constitutional crime fighting efforts that work for our community, not turning Albuquerque into a federal police state.” In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan said of Trump’s troops, “There’s no question that the actions in Portland have escalated things, not just in Seattle, but nationwide.”  

Meanwhile, across America, the same self-styled “conservatives” who have long claimed to be against big government and for state’s rights seem to have no problem with their president using paramilitary forces against American civilians while ignoring the wishes and warnings of governors and mayors. It is telling that in 1994 the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union held a joint press conference to decry the militarization of this nation’s police under the “war on drugs” and the “war on terrorism.” Today, the ACLU has condemned the secret police actions in Portland and elsewhere, while the NRA has remained with the Trump camp. 

Civil rights icon John Lewis was laid to rest in a restless nation recently. His life of nonviolent resistance to injustice and fascist trends in America was an example to citizens of every nation. In his 1998 autobiography Walking With the Wind, Lewis wrote words of warning that apply more than ever in Donald Trump’s America: “We cannot let this continue. We cannot have a very few people visibly and luxuriously living in excess while the rest of the nation lives in fear and anxiety. We cannot afford to have two societies, moving further apart… such disparity is a recipe for disaster.”