Columns » DiverseCity

Opinion: Let’s reflect on our public spaces — and our racist past


The first weekend of local protests, some folks painted “BLM” on Palmer’s statue. - HEIDI BEEDLE
  • Heidi Beedle
  • The first weekend of local protests, some folks painted “BLM” on Palmer’s statue.
In response to the police brutality captured on video May 25 in Minneapolis, a fire of righteous indignation has exploded into a global justice movement for Black lives. In efforts to quell the anger, federal, state and city governments have moved quickly to adopt legislation requiring more officer accountability, agency transparency, data collection, defunding of police departments — and the toppling or removal of statues memorializing settler colonizers, slave-owners and traders, and other legacies of the Confederacy.

Writer Christine Emba wrote in The Washington Post about the removal of these monuments, saying, “statues and obelisks celebrate the questionable heroes of a racist past, and the protests have spurred reconsiderations of these memorials in Congress and in legislatures around the world.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has vowed to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In Belgium, a statue of King Leopold II, the looter of the Congo who was responsible for the deaths of 10 million Congolese, is also being removed. But protesters are not waiting on government bureaucracies; they’re taking it to the streets. A statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was torn down by protesters in Tennessee. In Portland, slave-owner Thomas Jefferson’s statue was also toppled. In Denver, the Stapleton neighborhood is being renamed because of former Mayor Benjamin Stapleton’s affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan.

Here in Colorado Springs some protesters spray painted BLM (Black Lives Matter) on city founder General William Jackson Palmer’s statue (you know, the one smack-dab in the middle of Platte Avenue?). I found the irony of this tag’s message to be particularly profound.

General Palmer was born in Delaware and later moved with his family to Philadelphia, where he learned the abolitionist ideals that he brought with him when he settled in Colorado Springs.

According to the book The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region: “No doubt his ideas had some impact on the community… [b]ut, Colorado Springs drew its growing populace from the South and other parts of the country where the notion of equal recognition for Blacks was not accepted... Black people expecting equal opportunity [in Colorado Springs] did not find it.”

Colorado Springs participated in de facto segregation — an unofficial understanding of where Black people could and could not live. “By 1800 [Black families] mainly occupied scattered dwellings situated south of Pikes Peak from Nevada east to Wahsatch [Avenue, which was the city limit.]”
The irony is that Palmer moved here to create a health sanctuary. The area that grew from those “de facto dwellings” is now what we recognize as the Southeast part of the city, which experiences starkly evident health disparities as compared to the rest of the Springs.

Colorado College recently hosted a panel on racism, policing and protesting and experts in education, sociology, ideology, English/Black revolutionary thought, and African American religions participated. These scholars discussed how they work to dismantle racism through their individual disciplines, and they spoke on historical monuments across the country.

Dr. Christian Sorace said in response to efforts to preserve historical American monuments, “Stop the sanctimonious bullshit. Statues tell us how we collectively imagine ourselves as a public. ... Public space is not some kind of neutral background, but is a statement about the kind of society we live in.” His point is we need to push our imaginations to envision a society without white supremacy and the transfer of institutional power. One of the core themes of the discussion was to rethink what we mean when talking about “violence” as it relates to inanimate objects, like statues of Confederate leaders.

Dr. Florencia Rojo stated in that same panel, “Not all acts of force are violent.” She said she encourages her students to “think critically about who has the power to enact violence.”

Can protesters truly be “violent” toward statues? Or are they simply responding to the memorialization of the violence done against them?

As we look at the way protesters react to these monuments, we have to have honest conversations about our racist past and how we remember it.

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