May 8, 201708:00 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
The Monuments: Where Yesterday Went Wrong
Wikipedia-Infrogmation of New Orleans
What happened yesterday did not need to happen. Usually, the second weekend of Jazz Fest is one of the most glorious weekends of the year. People dance and sing on a common field. This year there was an especially contagious outbreak of Stevie Wonder worship. As usual, the Jazz Fest was a multi-racial love-in, something seldom experienced by high-ranking politicians who most often see race in terms of precinct charts.
On what should have been a joyous day there were protest marches over the freakin’ monuments issue. Sure, people have a right to protest, but too bad that streetcar service had to be shut down denying transportation to throngs that might have wanted to ride the rails to the Jazz Fest. Businesses in Central City no doubt suffered. An issue that never once benefited from rational debate was reduced to extremists, many from out of town, yelling at each other.
When the monuments removal ordinance was first introduced in 2015 Councilmember Latoya Cantrell originally announced that she opposed the proposal because, as quoted by the newspaper Nola Defender, “it was thrust upon the city and the council from the top down after it was created by a small, select group of individuals.” She also complained, “It was not a community driven process.” Cantrell, who earlier had supported removing the Jefferson Davis monument, ultimately voted the mayor’s way, but was not happy about the way it was handled. Neither was Councilmember-At-Large Stacy Head who cast the one no vote.
Nevertheless, the 6-1 vote, based on the verbally challenged claim that the statues were a “nuisance,” was used by the administration as a sign of strong support. Truth is, when an issue has potential racial undertones lawmakers get weak kneed. Instead, had the mayor proposed a committee do a thorough and intelligent study of the issue, the council would likely have voted for that by a 7-0 vote. When the final vote was taken the mayor was in the chamber urging the action. Since then the council has been out of the picture. The monuments have become the mayor's issue. And please, no on should count the public hearing at the council meeting as a true discussion. It was more of a raucous shouting match that included a distinguished local artist, who supported the monuments, being escorted out of the chamber.
Last week, the mayor said that only 35 percent of the people in the city support the monuments. Polls, like economic impact studies, depend on the wording. My own internal gut hunch poll is that before this issue was brought up perhaps 95 percent of locals were not even thinking about the monuments, directing their concerns instead to crime, jobs and bumpy streets.
In 1992 the then mayor, Sidney Barthelemy, and the council showed far more leadership and less executive bullying, when there was another racially sensitive issue—a carnival anti-discrimination ordinance introduced by Councilmember Dorothy Mae Taylor. There were the usual passionate speeches, but the leadership had the wisdom to create a select, bi-racial, blue ribbon committee to study the issue. It was a nasty, contentious job (full disclosure, I was appointed to the committee), but after a while there was a compromise that ultimately became law. Taylor made her point but the people had a chance to be heard too. No one felt left out.
Not so with the monuments issue, which has been handled with the delicacy of a Sherman tank. Worse yet, some really good people, who have long supported the community and who care about its preservation, have been hurt.
Too bad the whole process was all verdict and no trial.
Note to Readers:
Preparations are already in place for the Jeff Davis statue to come down. Next up will be the two monuments that people care about the most, Beauregard and Lee, each of which had a distinguished post-war history. Here is my blog from last week about Beauregard.
Also, some of the most intense reporting has been done by a conservative Baton Rouse based web site called The Hayride. Here is an article from this past weekend about the ownership of the monuments. I cannot vouch for the figures given, nevertheless it is interesting reading.