Recent unrest has spun from Black Lives Matter protests to police reform to the destruction of property and statues across the nation. Now, after a rash of violent statue removals and vandalism, the president tweeted that he has “authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison.”
Protesters have started tearing down statues across the country. This started with Confederate monuments, since these are associated with the history of slavery in the U.S. However, the issue has become broader as non-Confederate statues and memorials have also been targeted.
On Juneteenth (June 19), a day celebrating the end of slavery, protesters tore down the statue of Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco. Although the 18th president had one slave, whom he freed, Grant led the Union Army to victory and signed the Naturalization Act, which provided blacks with citizenship. He also created the Department of Justice so that the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group, could be prosecuted.
Black Lives Matter protesters also defaced the Lincoln Memorial, a representation of the Republican president who ran on an anti-slavery platform. In Boston, demonstrators ruined the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial on May 31, 123 years to the day after it had been dedicated. This sculpture was a tribute to the black soldiers who fought in the Civil War.
In Denver, a statue honoring the victims of the Armenian genocide was defaced with the words “Cops are the evil” written on the ground. Armenians of Colorado responded to the destruction in a statement:
“Since the Khachkar commemorates the victims of all crimes against humanity, including slavery and state-sponsored racism, it is ironic that individuals who claim to seek justice have vandalized the very monument that honors the victims of injustice.”
Trump Threatens Activists
On June 22, protesters tried to pull down a statue of President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, located across the street from the White House. Infuriated, Trump called for enforcement of the statute that punishes anyone who willfully damages a monument, statue, or structure on public property that commemorates someone who served in the armed forces of the United States.
Critics have called Trump’s announcement all bluster since the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation Act already provides punishment. But the president said, “I will have an executive order very shortly, and all it’s really going to do is reinforce what’s already there, but in a more uniform way,” although exactly how this would happen wasn’t explained.
Protesters tried to copy Seattle’s CHOP zone, attempting to set up a Black House Autonomous Zone (BHAZ) outside the North Lawn of the White House on June 23, but were thwarted. This was just hours after the president’s promise to prosecute those who destroy monuments. He then tweeted out another warning: “There will never be an ‘Autonomous Zone’ in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President. If they try they will be met with serious force!”
Two Points of View
The chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Brandeis University, Chad Williams, said the executive order is concerning:
“How an order like that would actually be enforced remains to be seen. But what this thing speaks to in a really problematic way is the president’s desire to tamp down, to crush any forms of protest and dissent and to weaponize the various apparatuses of federal government, including the military, National Guard, Secret Service, to act as agents of enforcement.”
On the other side of the debate, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton was frustrated enough to send Attorney General William Barr a letter asking for something to be done about the destruction of statues and monuments:
“These criminals masquerade as protestors exercising their lawful right to peacefully assemble, but there can be no right to destroy public or private property. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln – whose Memorial in our nation’s capital was also defaced – ‘there is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.’
Thus, I urge the Department of Justice to bring charges against these criminals. They aren’t exactly criminal masterminds, typically filming their crimes and posting the videos on social media.”
The looters and protesters are testing authority, and the president is putting his foot down. This is likely to be a major issue leading up to the November election, and it’s yet to be seen who will win the argument.