As the crane hoisted Confederate general Robert E. Lee away from the tall column on which he had stood for 133 years, a cheer rose from the crowd. Watching through the window of my seventh-floor hotel room, I felt a surge of elation as the statue of the commander responsible for the deaths of more United States troops than any other in history was lowered onto a flatbed truck. The long-awaited removal of the monument came as a relief to me—a Southerner by birth, a Southern historian by trade.
The monuments had been coming down in New Orleans at a pace of about one per week. Care was being taken not to tip off the public as to where and when the next removal would occur until the last possible moment. When a close friend called to tell me that the P.G.T. Beauregard monument—the third of four slated for removal—was coming down in a matter of hours, I threw my things in the car and raced south from Memphis, where I live, to New Orleans, where I was born.
I reached the city a few hours later, shortly before 4 am. I had just missed the removal of the monument of the mounted general, a Creole favorite son who had ordered the first shots on Fort Sumter in 1861. The crowds had already dispersed, leaving only a few dozen cops. They told me that four arrests had been made, one of them an agitated man who had rushed the barricades screaming, “It’s wrong! They can’t do it!” They gang-tackled him and packed him off. Otherwise, it had been fairly uneventful, especially compared to the scene at the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue a few weeks earlier, when it appeared matters might erupt into serious violence between local anti-fascists (“antifas”) and a contingent of removal opponents, many of whom had journeyed from distant locales likes Oklahoma and Arkansas. (The first monument to be removed had been an obelisk celebrating a 1874 coup d’état in the city by a paramilitary organization called the White League.) At the Beauregard removal, however, confrontations had been fairly minimal. In fact, one officer described it to me as a “party atmosphere.” Many people from the neighborhood around the entrance to City Park, where Beauregard stood watch, brought lawn chairs and bottles of merlot to observe the proceedings.
That first night in New Orleans, I met with a small group of cheerful young antifa activists at a tavern in the neighborhood of St. Roch. None were willing to give their names for attribution, however, because some had already been harassed by angry right-wingers. Many were the victims of doxxing operations in which their identities were revealed online. According to the right-wing smear campaign, these anti-monument activists were on the payroll of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other “evil, well-funded outside forces” (as one pro-monument leader later put it to me). “I’ve been waiting on my check for months, and I’m starting to get pissed,” one of them joked. Later, Quess Moore, one of the leaders of the grassroots African American–led coalition Take ’Em Down, which spearheaded the push for the removals, told me that he’d been accused by one local radio shock jock of being on the payroll of George Soros. “I had to go look up who Soros was,” he said.