Trump, Pelosi at loggerheads over Confederate monuments in US South

A vandalised monument to Unknown Confederate Dead is seen in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 10, 2020, as protesters around the country rally against racial inequality.
A vandalised monument to Unknown Confederate Dead is seen in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 10, 2020, as protesters around the country rally against racial inequality. © Dustin Chambers, Reuters

President Donald Trump on Wednesday ruled out a change to US military bases named after Civil War Confederate leaders, pushing back on pressure to rid public places of monuments honoring the once pro-slavery South.

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"These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great A merican Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom," Trump said in a tweet.

"My Administration will not even consider renaming these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with," he wrote.

 

'Respect our Military!'

The importance given by Trump to keeping bases like Fort Bragg in North Carolina as they are was underlined by the decision of press secretary Kayleigh McEnany to read out the tweet and to give printed copies of it to White House reporters.

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She called the push for change an "absolute non-starter."

Demand for renaming such installations has gathered momentum in the wake of mass protests across the United States against police brutality and racism against African-Americans.

Ten bases honouring generals from the secessionist South, which lost the Civil War and its struggle to preserve slavery, are in the spotlight. They include the famous Fort Bragg, Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Benning in Georgia.

Anger from anti-racism protesters has also focused on statues of southern Civil War heroes, the Confederate flag, and most lately statues of explorer Christopher Columbus, who opened the Americas to European settlement.

A statue of the navigator was beheaded in Boston, police said Wednesday. Another was toppled in Virginia.

Similar attacks on statues of historical figures seen by activists as celebrating racism and slavery have taken place in Britain and Belgium.

On Wednesday US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said 11 statues of Confederate soldiers or officials should be removed from the US Capitol.

"Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to these ideals" of American democracy and freedom, the top Democrat in Congress wrote to a bipartisan committee.

"Their statues pay homage to hate, not heritage," Pelosi added. "They must be removed."

Not heroes? 

Defence Secretary Mark Esper had indicated earlier this week that he would be at least open to a "bipartisan discussion" on base renaming. 

The Navy, meanwhile, said that it was outlawing Confederate flags – still popular in southern states – aboard all its ships and other facilities.

"The order is meant to ensure unit cohesion, preserve good order and discipline, and uphold the Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment," Admiral Michael Gilday said. 

On Wednesday the stock-car racing company NASCAR announced it too was banning Confederate flags because they run "contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment."

The logic to Trump's declaration that the southern generals' names represent US "winning" habits has been questioned, given that Confederate leaders were defeated in their devastating war of rebellion against the country that today's military serves.

Retired army general and former CIA director David Petraeus, who himself trained several times at Fort Bragg, called the generals "traitors."

"The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable," he wrote in a piece published in The Atlantic magazine on Tuesday.

In addition, "most of the Confederate generals for whom our bases are named were undistinguished, if not incompetent, battlefield commanders," he said.

Who else gets banned? 

McEnany said that Trump sees the issue as part of a broader conservative complaint against efforts to challenge long unquestioned views of American history, including the painful legacy of slavery.

"Where do you draw the line here?" she asked, listing revered early US presidents who were slave owners – though long before the Civil War was fought to decide whether the practice should continue or not.

"Should George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison be erased from history?" she asked, also bringing up the decision of HBO Max to temporarily remove the 1939 Civil War romance "Gone with the Wind" from its streaming.

According to McEnany, renaming bases would be unpatriotic, given that they have been staging grounds for many US army deployments and wars.

"To suggest that these forts were somehow inherently racist and their name needs to be changed is a complete disrespect to the men and women" who deployed, she said.

Christopher Columbus statues felled

A group of protesters pulled down a statue of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on Thursday.

The 10-foot bronze statue was pulled from its granite base by several dozen people led by a Minnesota-based Native American activist outside the state Capitol, documented by news photographers and television camera operators.

"It was the right thing to do and it was the right time to do it," the activist, Mike Forcia, told Reuters.

Native American activists have long objected to honouring Columbus, saying that his expeditions to the Americas led to the colonisation and genocide of their ancestors.

Saint Paul neighbours Minneapolis, and the two are commonly referred to as the Twin Cities.

Forcia said he was advised by a Minnesota state trooper that he could expect to be arrested in the coming days and charged with criminal destruction. A city crew removed the statue, which was broken at the base.

According to a website for the Capitol, the monument was created by sculptor Carlo Brioschi and dedicated in 1931 as a gift to the city from Italian-Americans in Minnesota.

On Tuesday, a monument to Columbus erected in Richmond, Virginia, in 1927 was vandalised and thrown into a lake. In the early hours of Wednesday in Boston, the head of a statue of the explorer was removed and broken.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

 

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