Just blocks from the 2015 Essence Festival, where civil rights leaders are gathering to discuss what’s next in the Black Lives Matter movement, a crowd of a nearly 100 protesters stood in the unrelenting New Orleans heat Saturday to demand action around a subject that’s been gaining steam in the wake of the Charleston church massacre.
Demonstrators burned a confederate battle flag in a charcoal grill beneath a towering statue honoring confederate general Robert E. Lee. The statue and other monuments to Confederate leaders that pepper the city, they demanded, must come down. “Down, down with the racist monuments. Up, up with the people’s empowerment,” the crowd chanted in unison.
At the base of Lee’s figure, which stands atop a 60ft column in a sprawling and immaculately kept circle also named after the general, two organizers of the protests ripped and burned a confederate battle flag that was purchased from the Confederate Memorial Museum, located just steps away.
The flag, according to an organizer who identified himself only as Quess, cost $22. As the flag crackled in the charcoal grill, local trumpeter Mario Abney performed a jazzy melody and the crowd jeered and hooted. It was a far cry from Fourth of July barbecues taking place elsewhere in the United States.
The national campaign to drive symbols of the confederacy out of the American mainstream was lent a sense of urgency by the shooting of nine black Americans in Charleston, South Carolina in June. The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, posed with a confederate battle flag in images posted online alongside a racist screed.
In the wake of the massacre, the South Carolina legislature moved to remove the flag from outside its statehouse — a previously unthinkable act in a state where support for the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage still rides high.
It was a bitter-tasting victory for a decades-long movement that had been gaining traction even before the shootings. Activists in New Orleans have won a series of concessions over the years — the moving of a monument commemorating a bloody battle that many black residents felt glorified white supremacy; the removal of the names of confederacy figures from a handful of schools. And last week, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he wanted to rename Lee Circle and remove the statue. The change will likely coincide with the city’s tri-centennial celebration in 2018.
But the protestors at Saturday’s march and rally don’t want to wait that long. “We don’t need any more dialogue, we need demolition,” said Rev. Marie Ortiz, a veteran activist in the New Orleans area. Earlier, Ortiz told the crowd she’d been pushing for the removal of confederate symbols since her early 30s. She wants a figure of New Orleans Civil Rights leader Rev. Avery Alexander to replace Lee.
“If his words were sincere and he meant it, it doesn’t matter when he takes it down. Now is the time to do it,” the 75-year-old said.
Ortiz was among those who marched from New Orleans’ Canal Street Ferry Station to Lee Circle Saturday. The group trekked down New Orleans’ Convention Center Boulevard just past noon, occupying the same sidewalks and streets as cheerful tourists in town for the 21st annual Essence Festival. Many stopped to take pictures and chant along in solidarity.
The group later veered onto Magazine Street, which houses the National World War II Museum, weaving in and out of clusters of confused tourists. Once they reached the statue, the protestors sang, chanted, and signed a petition calling for the immediate removal of Lee’s statue and others found throughout the Big Easy, including a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States.
“There are monuments like these all over the city and these symbols create the environment for police brutality and oppression,” said Quess, the organizer who led the flag-burning. “Black lives really don’t matter if there are all of these monuments to our former oppressors.”
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