Home Opinion Toppled statues: Honestly examining Wisconsin’s public memory of race and racism

Toppled statues: Honestly examining Wisconsin’s public memory of race and racism

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Lady Forward lies fallen on the Capitol Square. Photo supplied.

This editorial reflects the views of its author, and not necessarily those of Madison365, its staff, funders or board of directors.

On Tuesday night in Madison, marchers took to the streets to protest the arrest of local organizer Yeshua Musa, who was violently, illegally detained by police for using a megaphone in public. The crowd gathered in front of the courthouse, chanting and demanding Yeshua’s release. This protest was not spontaneous but rather the organized, continued effort of Black Lives Matter actions planned nationwide in response to the slaughter of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and the too-long list of Black Americans murdered by police every year. 

In the name of safety, both for the protesters themselves and for the communities they’re fighting for, the organizers asked that no video or photographs were taken at the event, as police often use these post-protest images to identify and make arrests. It seems State Senator Tim Carpenter attempted to take a video and (perhaps unknowingly) put protesters’ lives at risk. Though the organizers were clear with protesters that the action should be completely non-violent, Carpenter was unfortunately attacked after continuing to film against the protesters’ will. Once organizers realized what was happening, they dispersed the scuffle and medics tended to Carpenter’s injuries immediately. As the night went on, two statues fell. 

In the morning, as Wisconsin residents awoke to the news of the toppled statues, I noticed an outrage begin to form. Frighteningly, I found this outrage fomenting through the Facebook statuses and think pieces published by people who talk of equality, who proudly vote Democrat, who may even have yard signs that say Black Lives Matter. 

Compared to a monument of Robert E. Lee, and for many Democratic voters of Wisconsin and America more broadly, these downed statues seem like symbols of a liberal America, a progressive America. The unfortunate reality is that these people were angrier about toppled statues than stolen Black lives – and that these angry people are white like me. Once examined more deeply, these statues and the white desire to defend them reveal a deeper truth about American racism which implicates more of us than just those flying the confederate flag.

Forward to where?

Protesters removed the “Forward” statue, a depiction of white lady liberty bringing the enlightenment of westward expansion, and a statue Hans Christian Heg, a Norwegian-American Union Civil War Colonel. The monuments stood at opposite corners of the Wisconsin State Capitol.

The “Forward” Statue is named for the state motto, established in 1851 at the height of midwestern colonial expansion, as white settlers moved west. The Federal Government massacred the Ojibwe Nation as they forced them out of the Wisconsin territory and stole their land for settlement. With this in mind, the ambiguous word, “Forward” takes on a darker meaning. As Brian Ward wrote in a Facebook post the morning after the statue’s removal, “The term “Forward” which has been adopted by the many Wisconsin progressives, falls in line with the idea that settler colonialism was progress and the White man brought civilization.”

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, “Forward” was sculpted by a white woman named Jean Pond Miner for the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Columbus’s arrival – an event that famously excluded Black people, except for those used as racist caricatures for product advertisement. So who was “Forward” meant to include? What does it mean to have such a monument guarding Wisconsin’s alabaster Capitol? This statue’s history cannot be disentangled from the monument itself. White Americans’ defense of such a statue is in fact a defense of something much darker; a desire to believe an American mythology that does not contain the capacity to acknowledge the violent histories of racism, exploitation, and Native genocide entangled in the white liberals’ most precious symbols. 

 

A Mythology of the Civil War

The second downed statue was that of Hans Christian Heg, paraded as a “Civil War Hero” by local news outlets. Heg was an abolitionist who morally opposed slavery, though the statue was commissioned by a Wisconsin-local Norwegian-American group who wished to celebrate Heg’s immigrant heritage more than his anti-slavery activity. In remembering him, we have to look at all parts of his legacy. 

Heg was both an abolitionist and a settler-colonist, involved in the famous “Gold Rush” that displaced and later caused the murder of Indigenous people in California. If one wishes to defend Heg, one must reckon with his full complexity. If one wishes to celebrate the American abolition of slavery, one must also reckon with a Civil War history that does not exonerate the Union of its deep racism. What better example of this than white Wisconsinites preferring to commemorate abolition by celebrating white abolitionists like Heg instead of Black historical figures?

Given Heg’s abolitionist views, many critics of the protest have seen his statue’s removal as senseless. But when we look to the world that we truly wish to build and the figures we truly wish to commemorate, I am certain that we can do better than a statue of Heg. And besides, I feel quite certain that a true Abolitionist would appreciate the removal of a white statue for the sake of Black liberation.  

 

Memory matters

The history of these monuments are important for many reasons. First, understanding the statues’ histories helps acknowledge that protest organizers are not interested in random acts of destruction but are demonstrating a more nuanced and antiracist understanding of U.S. history than their critics. Secondly, discussing these monumental histories illuminates the sad fact that even our country’s more progressive, “enlightened” monuments are not yet liberatory. 

Across the nation, confederate monuments have fallen; either by local elected officials or through the democratic will of the people. Yet the action that took place yesterday at the Wisconsin Capitol removed two statues whose symbology is not of the explicitly racist, slave-owning confederacy, but represents another dangerous and insidious America in denial of its taste for white supremacy. It is unwise to worship idols of an America that insulate the white public from facing the legacy of slavery in police brutality and settler colonialism.

Though there may be an urge to do so, you do not need to defend these figures. The contrary; to protect Black Lives means understanding American history in its fullness and dreaming up the country we actually wish to build.  It is easy to deride statues of the racist confederacy, but especially in a place like Madison, Wisconsin, it is more meaningful, to topple symbols of white liberal hypocrisy. Liberal white people must avoid the trap of being Martin Luther King’s “White Moderate.” Taking down these statues is an expression of belief that white people can and must do better, can and should be part of the project of liberation.

Given the history and symbolism embedded in these statues, it is grotesque that their removal has evoked more ire from white liberals than the actual murder of Black people; including murders that are close to home. Madison resident Tony Robinson was murdered on Willy Street by white police officer Matt Kenny. Kenny remains on the Madison Police Force to this day, but rarely have those expressing dismay over the statues expressed the same level of concern over this police murder. Why should a protest that damages property be seen as more violent than police murdering Black people? Who defines what constitutes ‘violence’? These statues are on their surface progressive, but digging deeper means being more honest about the legacy of violence they protect. 

Symbols give us something to hide behind. To be outraged about the removal of statues demonstrates that one is more devoted to protecting an image “progressiveness” than honestly acting as a progressive. Being progressive should mean being anti-racist: examining and standing against the ugly reality of violence, brutality, and economic disparity against Black and Brown people present in the liberal bastion of Madison, Wisconsin; a city with the most non-for-profits per capita in the country in a state with greater racial economic disparity than most places in America. Standing in solidarity with Black and Brown Americans means looking this hypocrisy in the face. It means not criticizing Black protest organizers for removing symbols of White liberalism but rather coming down to join them in the streets, demanding justice for our fellow Americans murdered by police. 

Solidarity means coming to the courthouse to demand Black activist Yeshua Musa be released from his violent, unlawful arrest. It means showing up for justice for Tony Robinson, demanding the firing of Officer Matt Kenny. It means supporting Freedom Inc.’s local work to get cops out of classrooms, making learning safer for Black and Brown children who are at risk of incarceration from in-school officers. It means standing with Black and Brown organizers’ calls for safer communities through defunding the police. It means believing that another, safer world is possible and acting so those dreams become reality.

This moment in the American present demands a more holistic, complex, and frankly, more painful reckoning with American history. Just as the movement to “Defund the Police” has given us the chance to reimagine what public safety can look like, in the empty space where those statues once stood, organizers are inviting us to imagine what could flourish in now-open space. I am grateful for that opportunity.