Washington, D.C. — Protesters on Tuesday rallied for the removal of a memorial celebrating President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves during the Civil War.
The Emancipation Memorial, erected in 1876, has long been the subject of controversy. Although financed entirely by freed slaves and dedicated by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in a ceremony attended by President Ulysses S. Grant, its detractors charge that the black person depicted is a racist caricature. And Marcus Goodwin, the 30-year-old independent running for the district City Council who organized the event, said it’s time to retire the statue.
“We should be on equal footing with Abraham Lincoln,” Goodwin said as several hundred people arrived at the memorial in Lincoln Park. “As great and monumental a person as he is, we can do a lot better in terms of revisiting a 144-year-old statue that, even in its time, was not appropriate.”
Goodwin, and many other people, allege that the composition of the statue is racist: It depicts Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, while a curly-haired slave, crouched and shackled, rises to his freedom. Goodwin said that’s a paternalistic reading of history and not consistent with the representation many black people want to see in statuary.
“We don’t see a man rising,” he said. “We see a man on his knees: He’s in shackles — he’s not even wearing a shirt. And yet, there’s the magnanimous Abraham Lincoln standing above him, who is proud, upright, and in a powerful position.”
As Goodwin explained his dissatisfaction with the memorial, adding that he launched an online petition signed by nearly 5,000 people, a white woman stood up in front of the growing crowd. She introduced herself as Joanne Hatfield, a longtime resident of the neighborhood where the statue is located, and explained that she doesn’t want to see it taken down without a procedural, community consensus.
The crowd immediately started booing her and chanting to drown out her words.
“Black lives matter! No justice, no peace! Black lives matter!” they shouted.
Goodwin paused from his discourse and turned to look at Hatfield. He attempted to restart several times, but the chanting crowd made it impossible.
Eventually, he gave it up and chuckled.
“I love that they’re just ripping her up,” he said.
Goodwin joined in the chanting, and reporters swarmed Hatfield. When she said that removing it would erase an important part of American history, the crowd became angry.
“Go home, Karen! Go home, Karen!” the crowd chanted, using a slur often directed at busybodies.
“It shouldn’t be taken down by mob mentality,” she said. “It should be discussed. I’m just trying to be peaceful.”
Those statements were too much for the crowd to bear. After rebuking the press for paying attention to Hatfield in the first place, they forced her away from the memorial.
As she walked away from the crowd, Hatfield spoke with a cracked voice, and her eyes welled with tears. The crowd cheered while she left.
“I just don’t think we should hide history,” Hatfield said, adding that while painful for some, the memorial is important to understanding slavery’s legacy.
The crowd continued to press around the memorial, and Glenn Foster, a black activist, rose to whip it into a frenzy.
“If you are angry and frustrated, get into that anger,” he said. “You are allowed to be angry.”
As Foster spoke, heaping abuse on police forces, white people, and Abraham Lincoln, a black woman in the crowd interrupted him.
“Are you trying to divide us or bring us together?” she asked. “Because it seems like you are abusing this situation.”
Foster disagreed. She pushed back. It developed into a heated argument, with nearly the entire crowd shouting its input.
The woman accused Foster and activists like him of deepening racial divides.
“I keep hearing, ‘white people, white people, white people,’” she said. “Well, let’s get mad at God if that’s the case. Because he’s the one who divided us up in the first place. You want to get us deeper into this situation without making a difference.”
This statement, like Hatfield’s attempts at peaceful discourse, set off the crowd. They booed the woman until she left. Foster resumed his speech, excusing her interruption as the work of someone who is mentally “disempowered.”
In fact, he added, she is a perfect example of the disempowerment that came from celebrating Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves in the first place.
“This statue right here embodies the white supremacy and the disempowerment of black people that is forced upon us by white people,” he said, pointing upward. “That is why we are tearing this statue down.”
But, not right then. Tomorrow, next week, maybe. Soon, Foster said. Just as soon as all the police clear out.
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