At Lincoln Park, Generations Disagree Over Statue Removal As Protests Enter Fifth Week (WAMU 88.5)
Disagreement over the fate of a statue depicting Abraham Lincoln standing above a formerly enslaved man was the centerpiece of a Friday night protest on Capitol Hill.
Following a week-long petition campaign to bring down the Emancipation Memorial for what many say is a racist depiction of a freed Black man, more than 200 people gathered in Lincoln Park for a rally hosted by Freedom Neighborhood, a group of young activists, and Marcus Goodwin, the author of the original petition and a candidate for an at-large D.C. Council seat.
A group of historians and reenactors — the Female Re-Enactors of Distinction, which is affiliated with the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington and the African-American Civil War Museum — had scheduled a teach-in about the history of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln at the same time.
By 7 p.m., protesters began delivering speeches. Most spoke in favor of removing the statue, and the crowd cheered for people who spoke about the importance of recognizing the agency of Black people in gaining their own freedom from slavery. But others, particularly the group of historians, objected to calls for the removal of the statue, calling instead for adding historical context or erecting other statues that would offer a counterpoint.
Others felt that the dissension was a sign of the protest movement’s continuing energy.
“Especially going into the fifth week of protests, you’re seeing a lot of different groups and different people that share similar ideas just converging, and naturally those are going to clash,” said Jamaal, a D.C. resident who’s been going out to protests for the past month.
“The division honestly is kind of encouraging, because what you’re seeing now is people taking this serious, and they have different ideas and different understandings of what is going on that needs to be done. Those conversations can end up getting pretty rough, but they’re being had,” he said.
At times, protesters shouted down dissenting voices or argued amongst themselves about whether to allow the group of historians to present their perspective. During several moments, a generational divide was evident between younger activists and older people in the park.
“You have people out here dressed up, trying to reenact stuff, you got people talking about putting [it] in a museum — no. We want that sh*t burned down,” said Freedom Neighborhood founder Glenn Foster, to cheers from the crowd.
“May I speak?” broke in Marcia Cole, an older woman who was impersonating Charlotte Scott, the freed woman who began the donation drive to fund a statue memorializing Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in 1865.
“No, because it’s not your event,” Foster replied.
“You young people would not be here if it wasn’t on the backs of us old folks,” an older Black man shouted. He identified himself as related to the freed man depicted in the statue.
The tension began to disperse when another woman, one of the Freedom Neighborhood speakers, took the bullhorn and requested permission to speak from the older Black people in the crowd.
“I’m not going to stand here and let people divide between older and younger,” she said, to cheers. “We need to have this conversation from a compassionate place.”
Cole, the reenactor, eventually got her turn on the bullhorn.
“That man [in the statue] is on one knee. That man is rising,” she said. “He’s not in submission, his back is not bent. Look at him — his face is looking skyward. He’s looking forward to the future of freedom.”
Some protesters shushed others while Cole was speaking. “Yo, yo, there’s an elder talking, show some respect!”
Outside of the tense discussions in front of the statue, Carolivia Herron, a classics professor at Howard University, said she wants to see the statue stay in the park — it’s where she took her first steps as a toddler 73 years ago. She’s among the group of historians and reenactors who took part in Friday’s demonstrations, though she didn’t do any reenacting herself.
Carolivia Herron, a classics professor at Howard University, took her first steps as a toddler in Lincoln Park 73 years ago. She wants to see the statue remain.
Margaret Barthel / WAMU
“I think we should have a call and response and have a conversation in which we can incorporate what it is that came before, but find a way to answer back to it without destroying it, which I think is an African American gift,” she said.
Among the many who said they’d like to see the statue gone from the park, there was disagreement on how to accomplish that goal.
Foster, of Freedom Neighborhood, highlighted both the physical and legislative action that needs to take place. At one point, he said, “when the media tries to spin this later tonight as a failure, they are lying…we will be out here until that motherf***** comes down,” and at another “Once we get past the ‘how do we take it down’ and worry about ‘why is it up?’ and have those conversations, I think we’ll be able to supersede that process and get that legislation done and get what we need in terms of justice of having the statue torn down.”
Instagram posts from Freedom Neighborhood have hinted at the group’s intent to bring down the statue “by any means necessary.” “We won’t say it, but you know what we hope to achieve,” read a post in advance of the Friday rally, which also included information for protesters in case of police confrontations and arrests.
But other young protesters wanted a more careful approach, advocating for putting pressure on legislators. Antonio Mingo said he came down to Lincoln Park to try to keep the tenor of the protest peaceful. He didn’t want to give the police “an excuse to start doing stuff.”
“I’m all for the statue coming down in the right manner,” Mingo said. Speaking to the crowd, he advocated for a shift in focus: from Lincoln Park to Capitol Hill, where he said activists could push for real change.
Calls for the Emancipation Memorial’s removal received renewed attention over a week ago when candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council Marcus Goodwin started the petition claiming it depicts “degrading racial undertones.” It currently has nearly 6,000 signatures. In Boston, members of the community have also called for the removal of a replica statue that sits in Park Square.
On Tuesday, it appeared protesters in the park were going to attempt to bring down the statue down like they tried to do with one of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square earlier this week. At the time, they said they would try to bring it down Thursday, then it was pushed to Friday. Before then, protesters brought down and burned an 11-foot bronze statue of Albert Pike and the only remaining outdoor monument of a Confederate general.
Workers with National Park Services installed concrete barriers and tall black fencing around the Emancipation and Mary McLeod Bethune memorials shortly after in anticipation of Friday’s protests, according to the Hill Rag. (The latter is the first statue of an African American or a woman erected on public park land in D.C.) The fencing is scheduled to come down on July 31.
Also on Tuesday, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton announced she will introduce legislation to place the statue in a museum.
Congress authorized the park to be named Lincoln Square in 1867, but it wasn’t until years later that efforts to erect a statue commemorating the former president were kickstarted by Charlotte Scott, an African American woman from Virginia.
Scott donated the first five dollars she owned after being freed toward a fund to build a memorial in honor of Lincoln. The campaign for the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln, as it was called, was not the only one at the time collecting funds to build a statue honoring Lincoln, but it was the only one solely soliciting contributions from freed slaves (the organization collecting funds was, however, managed by a white-run war-relief agency). The monument was built in Germany in 1875 and shipped to Washington the following year.
The evening’s demonstration ended mostly peacefully and with minimal police presence. At one point, protesters pushed out right-wing political activist Jack Posobiec from the park, who has since tweeted he filed a report with US Park Police and is pressing charges.
Earlier in the evening, President Donald Trump tweeted he canceled his trip to Bedminster, NJ., this weekend to stay in Washington and oversee the night’s demonstrations, adding that he would do what is necessary to keep people safe from “arsonists, anarchists, looters, and agitators.”
During an appearance on The Kojo Nnamdi Show Friday, Mayor Muriel Bowser said she would do anything in her power to prevent Trump from directing MPD under the city’s Home Rule Act, which allows the president to command the city’s police force for 48 hours during an emergency.
“I think the roots of that provision and the negotiations for Home Rule were racist then, and they are now. I will do anything in my power to prevent that, including not following such a directive,” she said.