Many Confederate Monuments Aren’t Historical, But Political

arizona confederate flagOpponents of the removal of Confederate monuments like to ask where it will stop, and claim the removal of any Confederate monument from public property is a threat to all of America’s historical monuments. But there’s a significant difference between Confederate monuments and flags that are used to commemorate history and those used to honor the Confederate cause.

Arizona’s Jefferson Davis Highway Monument

The Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway is a good example of something that’s not a historical monument, but a political statement in support of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis wasn’t a Confederate soldier, but the president of the Confederacy – the political leader of a violent rebellion. After the South lost the Civil War he didn’t give up and was a proponent of the myth of the Lost Cause, a continuing propaganda campaign that claims the old South had a superior culture and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights. In other words, the causes for which the North and South fought were morally equivalent – the South just happened to have lost the war. Furthermore, Davis was an unrepentant white supremacist until he died in 1889.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) began promoting the idea of a national Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913. They were organized in 1894 to ostensibly honor the memory of Confederate veterans, and have successfully promoted the Lost Cause and succeeded in erecting numerous Confederate monuments and memorials across the country. The Jefferson Davis Highway project was their response to the dedication of the Lincoln Highway, an attempt to suggest that Davis’ historical status should be similar to Lincoln’s.

The UDC succeeded in getting individual stretches of U.S. highway dedicated to Davis, and after the federal government began regulating the nation’s highways in 1926, the they asked that a single route be officially designated across the entire country. But their request was denied because highway officials found that their Jefferson Davis Highway was in reality just a “a collection of routes.” But the UDC didn’t give up and for many years continued to get various stretches of highway across the country dedicated to Davis on a piecemeal basis.

Jefferson Davis Highway monument, AZ
(Jeff Burgess)

In 1943, for example, the UDC succeeded in getting a Jefferson Davis Highway monument erected along a highway near Duncan, Arizona, near the state line with New Mexico. Then in 1961, as part of their participation in Arizona’s Civil War Centennial commemoration, they succeeded in getting the state’s portion of U.S. 80 designated as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. The monument, however, wasn’t located along U.S. 80, so the UDC got it moved it to its present location along U.S. 60 east of Apache Junction, which was part of U.S. 80 back then.

The Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops

The Jefferson Davis Highway monument wasn’t the only Confederate monument the UDC erected in Arizona. On January 8, 1961, Arizona’s Governor Paul Fannin announced the official opening of the state’s Civil War Centennial commemoration, including a plan to erect a Civil War memorial at the state capital.  Fannin was a conservative Republican and an ardent supporter of Arizona’s Senator Barry Goldwater, who opposed Federal enforcement of school desegregation in the South. During his 1960 election campaign Fannin called civil rights protest marches and sit-ins “un- American.” So it isn’t surprising that the UDC was able to hijack Arizona’s Civil War Centennial commemoration. In fact, they took advantage of the Civil War centennial to build several new memorials to the Confederacy across the nation.

On the same day that Gov. Fannin made his announcement, for example, the UDC succeeded in having the Confederate flag fly over the state capitol building. Later that year, as previously mentioned, the UDC got Arizona’s stretch of U.S. 80 designated as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.

Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops, Phoenix, AZ
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops (Jeff Burgess)

But their biggest achievement in Arizona was having the new Civil War monument at the state capital dedicated solely to Confederate troops. Its construction began in front of the State Senate building in 1961, but it wasn’t dedicated until February 14, 1962, as part of the state’s 50th birthday celebration. It wasn’t enough, however, for the UDC to dedicate a Confederate memorial on the anniversary of Arizona becoming a U.S. state. They also used the occasion to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Confederacy’s official declaration of the short-lived Confederate Territory of Arizona  on the same day in 1862. Arizona’s Secretary of State Wesley Bolin spoke at the dedication ceremony. After Bolin died in 1978 the legislature created Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza and most of the monuments at the capital, including the Confederate troop memorial, were relocated there.

The plaque fastened to the Confederate memorial reads:

MEMORIAL TO
ARIZONA CONFEDERATE TROOPS
1861-1865

This seems innocuous enough for it to be considered a historical monument, and not a political statement, as there were men from territorial Arizona that enlisted and fought in the Confederate army. But there’s also an inscription on the base in front of the memorial that reads, “A NATION THAT FORGETS ITS PAST HAS NO FUTURE.”

A speech given by Grace McLean Moses at the UDC’s 1962 national convention sheds some light on this phrase’s purpose and meaning. She described the Confederate soldier as being “touched by the divine hand of Providence” and “a knight in shining armor.” After the Civil War he “sought to pass on to future generations the ideals, manners and code of conduct for which the South has been justly renowned.” Then she warned that our nation stood at a crossroads of history and “we find America lacking in those qualities which made her great and without which she cannot hope to endure.”

Those qualities, she explained, were the ones that glorified the Confederate soldier: “Let us stand fast, in a world of change and unrest, for those high ideals for which they gave so much. Only then shall we truly honor them. It has been written that ‘a nation that forgets its past can have no future.’ It is our labor of love to make the memory of the Confederate soldier eternal.”

The speech was a thinly veiled criticism of the growing African-American civil rights movement and the Federal government’s enforcement of desegregation in the South. The fact that her speech included the same phrase that’s inscribed on the Arizona Confederate monument shows that it was part of a nationwide political strategy. The UDC, in fact, intentionally exploited the opposition to the civil rights movement in order to increase its membership during this time.

The UDC
Confederate Gen. Francis Bartow marker, 1936
Confederate Gen. Bartow marker erected in 1936 by the WPA & UDC on the First Bull Run Battlefield, VA. (Jeff Burgess)

The UDC is not just a bunch of “nice old ladies.” Since their beginning, they have been a national political organization that has vigorously promoted the revisionist history of the Lost Cause in a myriad of ways. By 1914 they had nearly 100,000 members and on Jefferson Davis’s birthday they unveiled a controversial Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. In the 1920s the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union veterans, complained that the UDC had succeeded in getting public school American history books altered to remove any suggestion the Union cause in the Civil War was morally superior. During the Great Depression the UDC succeeded in getting the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to use public money to construct numerous Confederate monuments throughout the South. They have also been accused of manipulating the narratives that were collected from elderly former slaves by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project.

Furthermore, the UDC publicly supported the Ku Klux Klan as late as 1936, claiming the KKK had saved the South from Reconstruction after the Civil War. And, as discussed above, the UDC opposed racial desegregation in the South in the 1950s and 60s. The activities held during their annual statewide meeting in Phoenix in 1939 provide an example of what they’ve been about. The entertainment portion of their meeting included the singing of the song “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” The song’s lyrics are:

Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born.

The UDC’s most visible achievement over the years has been to erect hundreds of Confederate monuments on public property. A 2016 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center found there are 1,503 public Confederate memorials across the U.S., even after those on Civil War battlefields and in museums and cemeteries are excluded. Most of them were erected during the Jim Crow area, and more recently, in opposition to the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

The Efforts to Remove Arizona’s Confederate Monuments

The execution-style murders of nine black people by white supremacist and Confederate sympathizer Dylann Roof at the historical Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, prompted Arizona State Representative Reginald Bolding Jr., D-Laveen, to call for the removal of the Jefferson Davis Highway monument from public property. Bolding was the only black member of Arizona’s legislature.

“In light of everything that has happened…we can’t go through our daily lives honoring symbols of hate, symbols of separation and symbols of segregation right now,” said Bolding, surrounded by like-minded activists at the state capital in Phoenix.

Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey subsequently said that he would ask for a governmental review of the marker because he’d rather see the state’s highways named after Arizonans. But Phoenix’s Arizona Republic newspaper reported on May 28, 2017, that Gov. Ducey never asked the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names (ASBGHN) to consider removing the monument or renaming the highway.

In August of 2017 three proposals to remove the name Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway from the stretch of U.S. 60 east of Apache Junction were received from the public by the ASBGHN. The board held a public meeting to discuss these proposals on September 25, 2017. The board’s staff presented research which indicated there probably wasn’t a Jefferson Davis highway anywhere in Arizona anymore, and that the status of the Jefferson Davis monument on U.S. 60 is the responsibility of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), as it’s located in the public right-of-way.

On October 4 the group Progress Now Arizona delivered petitions with more than 1,000 signatures to Gov. Ducey’s office demanding he advocate for the removal of Confederate monuments on state property and for the changing of the name of the Jefferson Davis Highway.  They also delivered 100 letters of support from Arizona NAACP chapters, religious leaders, and multiple history and ethics professors from NAU, ASU and the U of A.

Then on October 13 the Arizona Department of Transportation issued a letter wherein they stated that their official position is that a Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway no longer existed anywhere in Arizona, and that, in their opinion, the Jefferson Davis monument along U.S. 60 is privately owned. Subsequently, on October 23 an ADOT spokesperson said that the agency’s director believes the monument should be relocated to private property because it keeps getting vandalized, and Confederate groups, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, periodically gather around it to conduct ceremonies that could create safety problems because the monument’s in the public right-of-way. Nothing has happened since then, except that the monument was vandalized again in November.

As for the Confederate soldier memorial at the state capital, on June 5, 2017, several of Arizona’s black leaders called for the removal of all six of Arizona’s Confederate monuments, including the three located at veterans’ cemeteries. A spokesman for Gov. Ducey responded that their complaint about the Confederate soldier memorial on the Wesley Bolin plaza was misdirected at him because the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission is in charge of the plaza’s monuments, even though the governor appoints two of the commission’s members.

When Gov. Ducey was asked about the issue on August 14, 2017, he said, “We fought the Civil War and the United States won the Civil War. We freed the slaves and we followed up with civil rights after that.”

The Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops was vandalized with paint on August 17. “I think it’s absolutely irresponsible and non-productive. It does absolutely nothing to promote the cause of removing symbols of hate in the state when individuals take matters into their hands and vandalize state property,” said Rep. Bolding in response to the vandalism.

The on August 19 Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star newspaper reported that Ducey claimed he has no legal role in deciding the future of the memorial. The Legislative Governmental Mall Commission’s chairman Kevin DeMenna explained that’s because the commission doesn’t have the legal authority to remove the monument from the plaza, so it would require the Republican-controlled legislature to pass a bill to authorize it. Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, and Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, agreed. Rep. Mesnard added that it would be good to have a public conversation about each Confederate monument on state property when the legislature reconvened in January 2018, but it never happened.

At the February 14, 2018, meeting of the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission State Representative Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, a non-voting advisory member of the commission, asked chairman Kevin DeMenna, to consider putting a discussion about the mall’s Confederate soldier memorial on a future commission agenda. She explained that many Arizona voters had told her they don’t like the memorial because they believe it honors the Confederate cause, and that a public discussion about it could be useful. Chairman DeMenna was noncommittal and soon gaveled the meeting to an abrupt close. The topic was not included in the commission’s subsequent meeting agenda.

Which Confederate Monuments Should Be Removed?

The real problem with removing Confederate monuments from public property is deciding which ones should remain because they are truly historical, and which ones should be removed because they glorify the Confederate cause. The  SUVCW, which is the  official successor to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), has tried to address the issue. Its members are descendants of Union soldiers that served during the Civil War – white and black.

SUVCW leaders issued the organization’s official policy on Confederate flags and monuments in August 2017. They condemned their use by hate groups, but called for the protection of Confederate “veterans” monuments, and supported the flying of Confederate flags at Civil War battlefields and in museums. They also told their members they are free to express whatever personal opinions they might have about the issue, but they can’t to do it in the name of the SUVCW, and all inquiries from the press should be forwarded to their national office for an official response. It’s obvious that the SUVCW is reluctant to endorse all types of Confederate monuments, or flying the Confederate flag in any situation.

A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in a public park, for example, might be a historical monument if it’s located on a battlefield where Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fought, or in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.  But if it’s located elsewhere, it could be considered a political statement. The Memorial to Arizona’s Confederate Troops also falls into this gray zone. At first glance, it appears to be a simple monument to the Confederate troops from Arizona, but its history and the inscription in front of it indicate that it’s a political statement.

Americans have the right to make these sorts of decisions about the public monuments displayed in their communities. The complaint that removing a Confederate monument from public property amounts to erasing history is nonsense. In fact, when the monument glorifies the Confederacy, its removal actually serves to reinstate history by refuting the myth of the Lost Cause.

Updates

On April 5, 2018, Gov. Ducey signed Senate Bill 1179, which authorized a monument to Arizona’s black Buffalo Soldiers on the Wesley Bolin plaza. The bill was introduced by Democrats, but received unanimous support from the legislature’s Republicans, even though none of them were willing to support a simultaneous effort by the local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) to authorize a Union soldier monument on the plaza.

On May 3, 2018, Gov. Ducey signed Senate Bill 1524. One of its provisions abolished the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission and delegated its authority to the Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA). Instead of public hearings held by a diverse commission, the review of new monuments authorized by the legislature for Wesley Bolin plaza will now be handled by ADOA’s administrative personnel. This provision was opposed by Democrats in the legislature.

On June 4, 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that more than 1,700 monuments, place names and other symbols honoring the Confederacy remain in public spaces.

On October 2, 2018, the Madison, Wisconsin, City Council voted to remove a Confederate memorial from a Confederate prisoner of war cemetery and relocate it to a museum because it was not a gravestone but a political statement.

On October 15, 2018, the Associated Press reported they had discovered that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was spending millions to guard Confederate cemeteries.

On November 3, 2018, I gave a speech titled, The History of Confederate Monuments in Arizona, at the fall meeting of the local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

 

Confederate Monuments Are a Result of Historical Revisionism

robert e. lee
Robert E. Lee (Wikipedia)

After white supremacist Dylan Roof executed nine black people during a Bible study session at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, it was discovered that he had a website with links to Confederate sites and a photo of him proudly holding a Confederate battle flag.

South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley responded by calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from a flagpole on the state’s Capitol grounds. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she said. “The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something we cannot stand.”

The flag had been erected in 1961, officially as part of the state’s Civil War centennial celebration, but really as a symbol of Southern opposition to the growing African-American civil rights movement.

On June 23 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in on the topic by saying that the flag should be taken down and put in a museum. This was before Steve Bannon took charge of Trump’s election campaign.

On July 9 Gov. Haley signed legislation authorizing the removal of the flag and the following day a large crowd applauded as it was taken down.

Governor Haley’s success in getting the Confederate flag removed encouraged others across the U.S. to call for the removal of Confederate memorials in their communities, including people in states as far away as Arizona.

The growth and success of these local initiatives angered right-wing extremists. Earlier this year they responded to a decision by the Charlottesville, Virginia, city council to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a municipal park, by organizing a Unite the Right protest rally to be held in Charlottesville August 11-12.

The U.S. Department of Homeland (DHS) security notified local law enforcement officials on August 9 that the protest would likely result in violence. They warned that white supremacists and anti-fascist “Antifa” extremists had clashed twice before in Charlottesville over the removal of Lee’s statue, at a white nationalist rally on May 13 and a Ku Klux Klan gathering July 7.

On the night of the 11th a procession of far-right protesters that included white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and right-wing militia members marched through the city’s University of Virginia campus. They chanted Nazi and white supremacist slogans while carrying lit tiki torches and briefly scuffled with counterprotestors before the state police broke it up.

Things got much worse at the next day’s protest. There were more protestors on both sides and the far-right protestors included people carrying Confederate flags and wearing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps and giving the Nazi salute while shouting, “Hail Trump!” The police failed to prevent violence from breaking out, a local state of emergency was declared, and the situation became deadly when a far-right protestor named James Alex Fields Jr. purposely drove a car into a crowd of counterprotestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. (A police helicopter also crashed on route to scene, killing two state troopers.)

President Trump didn’t say anything publicly about the events in Charlottesville on the first night of the right-wing protest. But he responded to the second day’s violence by telling the country that he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” His speech was widely criticized for failing to explicitly condemn white supremacists and Nazis, and his repetition of the phrase “many sides” created an inference that he put them on the same moral plane as the counterprotestors.

He responded to the criticism by defending himself in a speech on August 15 wherein he said that he’d already condemned neo-Nazis, but not all of the right-wing protestors in Charlotte had been neo-Nazis or white nationalists. “You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said.

Trump also seemed to defend the right-wing protestors by sympathizing with their reason for organizing the march – the city’s plan to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee.

“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” he said. “So, this week, it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

At a rally he held in Phoenix, Arizona, a week later he repeated this excuse, telling the crowd that, “They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history.”

A subsequent national poll found that 54 percent of Americans agreed with Trump that Confederate monuments “should remain in all public spaces,” while 27 percent said they should be removed, and another 19 percent said they didn’t know. (Unfortunately, the poll failed to identify whether or not the respondents lived in former Confederate states.)

A closer look, however, shows that Trump’s argument isn’t based upon facts. For example, after the South was defeated in the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was against monuments to the Confederacy. When he was invited to the Gettysburg battlefield in 1869 to help place granite monuments to mark the positions that had been held by Confederate units during the battle, he declined. “It is wisest, morever,” he wrote, “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

A comprehensive report, issued in 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) shows that many Confederate monuments aren’t really historical markers, but attempts by neo-Confederate groups, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy, to help promote the Lost Cause, a longstanding historical revisionism campaign designed to portray the Confederacy as a benign entity. Proponents of this myth claim that the old South had a superior culture and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights. In other words, there was a moral equivalency to the causes for which the North and the South fought the war. The Confederacy just happened to have lost the war. Civil War historian Edward H. Bonekemper III has called the Lost Cause, “the most successful propaganda campaign in American history.”

I presume that some of the people who want Confederate monuments maintained simply feel that we shouldn’t be tampering with history. But in 1967 the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) changed the word nigger to Negro in 143 geographical place names. And after World War Two, the new German government outlawed the public use of Nazi symbols. Were those changes wrong?

I’m not saying that all Confederate monuments should be removed, just the ones that primarily serve to glorify the memory of the Confederacy. General Lee, in fact, advocated for just one type of Confederate memorial. “All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen,” he wrote in 1866.

The graves of Confederate soldiers should, of course, be maintained. So should historically oriented Confederate monuments at Civil War battlefields. But even these concessions may have been frowned upon by most of the Union soldiers that survived the Civil War. In 1869 former Union soldier William T. Collins wrote an eloquent policy statement for distribution by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the largest Union Army veterans organization. His purpose was to explain why the GAR was opposed to allowing the graves of Confederate soldiers in public military cemeteries to be decorated on Memorial Day.

We strew flowers therefore on the graves of our comrades, and prevent their being strewn in the national cemeteries at the same time, on graves of such rebel dead as may be buried therein, not because we cherish any feelings of hate, or desire to triumph over individual foes, but because we seek to mark in this distinction and manner the feelings with which the nation regards freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, Republican principles and those of a slave-holding oligarchy.

We are ready to forgive – we hold no malice – but we will never consent by public national tribute to obliterate the wide gulf that lies between the objects, motives, and principles for which we fought and our comrades died, and those for which the rebel armies banded together, and for which their dead now lie in numerous graves.

They were brave, and we know it – none can better appreciate that fact than those who fought against them. But mere courage never ennobled treason. It cannot turn slavery into liberty, nor make despotic intentions desirable and to-be-applauded virtues. Our refusal to decorate rebel graves marks not hatred of their occupants or friends, but our undying hostility to the ideas for which they fought and died. To do less than keep this distinction fresh in the national mind is to undermine the republic itself. – William T. Collins

I don’t propose that we should resume the practice of preventing the graves of Confederate soldiers from being decorated. But reconciliation must be based upon honesty, not the falsehoods embodied in the Lost Cause. Former Confederate Col. John S. Mosby felt this way when he wrote a letter in 1907 in which he complained that proponents of the Lost Cause mythology were distorting history by downplaying slavery as the cause of the Civil War.

What other country on Earth, I ask you, would allow memorials on public properties to a traitorous rebellion that cost the lives of more than 360,00 loyal soldiers, and wounded at least 280,000 more? A dare say none. The hundreds of Confederate monuments that exist today, especially those dedicated to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, are a testament to the effectiveness of the propaganda that promoted the historical revisionism of the Lost Cause.

The removal of monuments that glorify the Confederacy doesn’t create a slippery slope that endangers all of American history. It’s easy to tell the difference between a monument to the Confederacy from one that isn’t. Nor will their removal solve the daily problems of Americans, including the black people who still suffer in poverty due, in part, to the legacy of slavery. But sometimes there are more important things than money, and cultural symbols matter. The truth is that the removal of Confederate monuments from public places isn’t an attempt to “take away” our history, it’s a way to begin to dismantle the historical revisionism that led to their creation. It’s a way to restore the truth – something that Donald Trump often ignores when it’s convenient for him.

Updates

On June 4, 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that more than 1,700 monuments, place names and other symbols honoring the Confederacy remain in public spaces.

On October 2, 2018, U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen announced at a news conference in Charlottesville, VA, that four members of a militant white supremacist group from California had been arrested on charges they traveled to Charlottesville last year to incite a riot and attack counter-protesters.

Donald Trump’s 2017 Phoenix Rally

dumb trump
(Jeff Burgess)

The biggest difference between President Donald Trump’s August 22 rally at the Phoenix Convention Center and the campaign rally he held there in the summer of 2015 was the number of anti-Trump protestors outside of the building.

I am proud to say that I participated in both protests, but was disappointed by the small size of the one at Trump’s 2015 rally. Looking back, I attribute it to a mistaken presumption that Trump had no realistic chance to win the 2016 presidential election. Also, the outdoor temperature that day was 106°F. The outdoor temperature at the recent rally was the same, but this time it didn’t stop thousands of people from showing up to voice their displeasure.

But even though we were there to protest, our overall spirit was joyful because of the camaraderie we felt from being with so many other Americans who also believed that Donald Trump’s presidency has been an unprecedented disaster for our country. There was almost a fun, carnival atmosphere, with lots of clever signs, inspiring music, and potent chants, like “Walk of Shame” directed at the people filing into the convention center to hear Trump speak. I especially enjoyed the guy who wandered through the crowd with a small amplifier slung over his shoulder broadcasting a recording of Trump saying, “Grab them by the pussy,” in an infinite loop. The giant inflatable figures of Trump and Joe Arpaio, wearing a KKK outfit and prison garb respectively, were pretty good too – and had obviously taken a lot of work to make.

trump phoenix protest 2017
Trump protest signs, Phoenix Convention Center, August 22, 2017 (Jeff Burgess)

The diversity among the anti-Trump protestors was a stark contrast to his supporters on the other side of the police line across the street. They were almost entirely white people – more than 99%. But the Trump protestors seemed to encompass almost every demographic in the U.S. The were, of course, many Latinos because of Trump’s support for Arpaio. I found the Native American protestors especially effective because they reminded everyone they have been subjected to oppression longer than any other group in America.

The news media made a lot out of the fact that a handful of troublemakers provoked the Phoenix police into unleashing tear gas and flash bang grenades on all of the remaining protestors near the end of the event. Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams defended her officers actions, but many of the people who were still protesting peacefully said the police overreacted and gave them no warnings.

I didn’t see what happened. I was in a nearby restaurant having an ice-cold beer by then because I couldn’t take the heat any longer – having been outside for more than an hour and a half. (It is difficult to describe how quickly the Sonoran Desert’s summer heat can debilitate you.) But I can say that 100% of the protestors I encountered were peaceful, and that’s the most important thing to remember about the protest.

Among the tiny minority in the crowd that weren’t joyful were four young white people, one with a very long hillbilly beard, that trailed each other through the crowd dressed in faux combat clothes, wearing armored vests and carrying AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles across their chests. I wondered why they were carrying what I presumed to be loaded weapons, and I overheard other people wondering the same thing. The four of them had completely neutral expressions on their faces and didn’t look directly at anybody as they passed through. Who did they think they might have to shoot?

There was also a very small group of people dressed from head to foot in black, wearing helmets, dark sunglasses, and bandanas to hide their faces. They were standing still, at attention, in an ominously tight formation, and the rest of us looked upon them with suspicion and gave them space. I presumed they were an Antifa group. But if they were, I think it was odd that their black and red flag looked like the flag used by Ukrainian fascists.

Almost all of the Trump supporters across the street were in a line to enter the convention center. Some of them yelled back at us and gave us the finger as they slowly passed by on their way into the building, but most of them just watched us, seemingly surprised at the size and enthusiasm of our protest.

donald trump supporters
Trump supporters, Phoenix Convention Center, August 22, 2017 (Jeff Burgess)

But there was also a very small group of pro-Trump demonstrators gathered on the corner. They had some hateful signs and one fellow had a very loud electrically amplified megaphone. He used it to almost unceasingly shout insults at anti-Trump protestors. Some of the things he said were so awfully racist that people, including myself, gasped and asked the person next to them if he’d really just said what it sounded like he’d said. I noticed that one of the black policemen keeping the different protestors separated dropped his head and shook it in response to one of the guy’s most racist rants. I wondered what, exactly, that policeman was thinking.

I think that the police behaved well and performed their duties objectively – at least during the time I was at the protest. I had several polite and friendly discussions with officers on the edges of the crowd, where they seemed to like to stay. I’m sure, however, that there will be some investigations into their conduct at the end of the event. I hope there will be an independent one that answers all of the questions about what happened.

In the meantime, my only criticism of the police is that I think they should have tried to do more than simply keep the two sides apart. I know they had a difficult job, but why, for example, did they seem to be ignoring the people dressed like wannabe militia walking through the crowd with AR-15s? Why didn’t they seem concerned about the Antifa squad that appeared poised for mayhem? And why didn’t one of them go over and talk to the guy who was literally trying to incite a race riot by screaming horrible things through his megaphone?

I realize there were First Amendment and Second Amendment issues involved, but I can’t help but wonder if the protest would have stayed peaceful if the police had been a bit more proactive. I’m not saying they should have made any preemptive arrests or told anybody to shut up. But it seems to me they could have at least tried to initiate some communication with all of the protestors to try and reduce the tension.

Updates

In November 2017 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona sued the Phoenix Police Department in order to collect public records regarding its use of force on protesters during President Trump’s August rally.

On November 30, 2017, the Phoenix police released several videos of the police taking action against protestors at the end of rally.

On January 29, 2018, the Phoenix Police Department released a report wherein they admitted they failed to provide adequate warning to peaceful protesters before they abruptly released “pepper balls,” which released a gaseous irritant, deployed pepper spray, tear gas, and fired foam batons into the crowd.

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