The protest to save Lee Circle didn't begin well.

At about 2:30pm on a cloudless and searing Saturday afternoon in New Orleans, a small band of self-proclaimed Southern patriots came to fight for their general, Robert E Lee, who stands atop a 60 foot marble column in New Orleans' Central Business District, gazing towards his former foes in the North.

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Cars drove around the circle passing the protest and its fluttering Confederate flags. Many honked their horns. As one car stopped at the traffic lights, the white women inside presented their middle fingers out of their windows and jeered, repeatedly yelling "f**k you" at the protesters.

A young Confederate supporter yelled back "f**k you too" and was immediately yanked around to the back of the statue, out of view of the two news cameras in attendance. Other members of the protest were urged to remain civil and remember their "Southern hospitality".

It was unclear who had organised the rally, but it was clear that, whoever it was, they hadn't wanted the Confederate flags there. Advocates for the statue of General Lee spent the morning trying to disown the protest on Facebook. Everyone was worried that the media would conflate Confederate imagery with the recent murder of nine African Americans in a South Carolina church by white supremacist Dylan Roof.

Thomas Taylor, the commander of the Louisiana Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), said they would normally carry Confederate flags, but urged any members attending to carry only American flags. It was Save Our Circle, not the SCV, Taylor said, that had organised the rally.

A Save Our Circle member responded shortly thereafter, insisting that the group was not, in fact, involved. The member went on to say the rally was "about a political stance against 'Political Correctness' of politics attacking the battle flag and Southern heritage". He urged the SCV to remove any mention of Save Our Circle from the page. Since the exchange, his posts have been deleted and mention of Save Our Circle has been removed, awkwardly, from Taylor's comments.

Attendees at the rally decided to bring - and proudly display - their flags anyway.

And there was a multitude of them: not only the well-known battle flag, the 'Stars and Bars', - although there were several of those – but also the third political flag of the Confederacy, which essentially features the Confederate battle flag in the corner of a white flag with a red stripe down the side, and the Taylor battle flag, which is an inverse Confederate battle flag. Also present were the flags of secessionist states, Louisiana and Mississippi, along with two American flags.

Steve Alvarez, a swarthy and barrel-shaped man reminiscent of Elvis with a deep Louisiana drawl, tried to get things back on track. "We felt we need to exert some kind of a voice to the public about the total idiocy of taking all this stuff down," he said. "The problem is they haven't studied history enough to know about the whole event of the Civil War. There were black brothers that fought alongside the white Confederacy."

For Alvarez and many like him, the statue represents "history, not hate".

Protesters gather around a statue of Robert E Lee. 'I'm offended by a lot of stuff in life, but I simply deal with it and move on,' said one member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. 'This statue should not come down and it will be over my dead body' [Roopa Gogineni]

'Know your history'

Sometimes one of the hardest things to have in the US is an honest debate. American opinions are rarely discussed; they tend to be shouted from soapboxes down onto the angrily opposed or frustratingly indifferent public. And perhaps the hardest debate of all is the one about race, equality, and history.

The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, wants Lee taken down. He has called the statue and three others around the city – those of Confederate General PGT Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, as well as the Liberty Monument – symbols of white supremacy. "Symbols really do matter, and symbols should reflect who we really are as a people," he said.

Landrieu has convened a series of discussions on the monuments and other such symbols, including street names, through the Welcome Table.

For the past year, the city's Welcome Table initiative has been inviting citizens to group discussions on race and community. They are intended as forums where residents from diverse backgrounds and from across the city could sit with each other and share their perspectives.

And the city is now using them to help decide on how to deal with the Confederate monuments.

But those assembled at Lee Circle dismissed the discussions as illegal and exclusive. They were angered by the mayor's decision to hold talks about the monuments behind closed doors.

Landrieu said that the discussions, which were designed to be inclusive, would ask "whether or not those symbols ever really reflected who we are or who we were".

But while the mayor had stated that he would like to see Lee Circle replaced in time for the New Orleans Tricentennial celebrations in 2018 when announcing the discussions, many in attendance at the first round in July called for them to remain.

Russell Robinson raises his right fist, a symbol of Black Power, near a protest to protect monuments of Confederate leaders [Roopa Gogineni]

So at the circle, under General Lee and the blazing sun, the protesters tried to have their own debate. Alvarez reminded the crowd - which mostly consisted of the protesters themselves - that any civilised society that didn't honour their ancestors wouldn't be around for long.

Anyone who was interested in speaking was allowed to do so. One woman, who said she laid a wreath at the monument every year for Lee's birthday, told the crowd: "I'm offended by a lot of stuff in life, but I simply deal with it and move on. This statue should not come down and it will be over my dead body."

The crowd erupted in applause and murmurs of approval. But one onlooker stood shaking his head. Russell Robinson, a black man wearing dark sunglasses and a scowl, stood with his arms folded, unhappy about what he had been hearing.

When another speaker reminded listeners that black soldiers fought for the Confederacy, Robinson muttered "by force".

Eventually, he was invited to speak by Alvarez. As he stepped up, Robinson raised a fist in the air. "You see what I'm about. Y'all are a bunch of liars and a bunch of thieves. Y'all hide behind sheets."

"Know your history, son," shouted one of those in the crowd.

"I know my history," Robinson replied, "You know your history," and the debate collapsed into a cacophony of rebuttal, not all of which was calm or polite:

"If it wouldn't be for us, your kind would not have lived because they would have starved to death by now," said someone in the crowd.

"Your ancestors sold your other ancestors into slavery," said another.

"What did you say about slavery?"

"You heard me."

"Guys, it's not about slavery."

With temperatures rising and the debate on the brink of chaos, Alvarez stepped in and ushered Robinson off the stage. "You've had your say."

Tilman Hardy, whose ancestor was a Buffalo Soldier, was one of two black people speaking to the protesters. 'I hope you understand that this particular symbol was put up when people who look like me didn't have a choice in the matter,' he said. One protester asked him whether he still honours his own ancestors, despite the atrocities committed by Buffalo Soldiers against Native Americans [Roopa Gogineni]

Shortly after Robinson, the only other African American in attendance (aside from the writer) was invited to speak.

Tilman Hardy, an architect by training and the host of a Sunday talk show on WBOK, introduced himself. Hardy is a compact man with ramrod-straight posture, a bald head, and bright, excited eyes. As he recounted his family history, the protesters listened with rapt attention. 

Hardy is a veteran and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He explained that he was descended from a long line of soldiers, including his great-grandfather, who served with the Buffalo Soldiers. 

"I understand your passion behind symbols," he said. "I hope that you understand that this particular symbol happened to be put up when people that looked like me didn't have a choice in the matter."

But someone quickly jumped in. "You can have yours, just don't take ours." Agitated, the crowd resumed its rapid delivery of bullet points to prove the decency and necessity of the statue. After minutes of excited shouting, the protesters were again shouted down by leaders in the group.

Unnoticed symbols

Norman L Thomas Sr, the grand marshal of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the oldest African American carnival krewe in New Orleans, leads a second line during the Louis Armstrong Festival. When asked about the Confederate monuments, Thomas said: 'I ignore it. I knew it didn't stand for nothing for me' [Roopa Gogineni]

It's ironic that a city so obsessed with its history should avoid debates around issues of race and the symbols of the Confederacy, but for a long time, much of the public had simply not engaged with the statues or their meaning. Many still aren't engaging.

Not far from Lee Circle, in the world-famous French Quarter, tourists and residents alike were thronging the stages at the Satchmo Festival – named after the renowned New Orleans jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The thousands passing through the festival stood as a sharp reminder of the mere dozens at the circle.

New Orleans has always celebrated its diversity, but the city's culture is, at its core, African American. The music and the celebrations all looked towards the city's old and storied African American communities for inspiration. But that inspiration springs forth from some of the most marginalised and segregated areas: the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, the Treme and Hollygrove.

Religious figures stand outside Saint Augustine Church in the Faubourg Treme neighbourhood in New Orleans [Roopa Gogineni]

There is so much distrust among African Americans of the city's largely white leadership that many in the Lower Ninth Ward suspected the government of intentionally rupturing the levee and flooding the area during Hurricane Katrina. And many are angry at how little progress has been made in rebuilding the area. By some estimates, only one in five residents have returned since the storm. And while richer, whiter neighbourhoods, like Uptown, were rapidly rebuilt, many others still struggle.

Symbols of Louisiana's dark history are abundant in New Orleans, but many simply don't register. The fleur-de-lis symbol used on New Orleans' city flag and the helmets of the New Orleans Saints Football team were also used in southern Louisiana to brand runaway slaves.

Many people, black and white, simply don't notice and, when these symbols aren't noticed, they don't offend. Some supporters of the Lee Monument say this is why the statute should stay.

"Look at the world famous Mardi Gras club, the Zulus. Where did they get their name from?" asked Alvarez. "The most feared tribe in Africa that conquered all the other ones. That's their heritage. But if they really look at it - they were the ones that started selling their brother Africans to the slave trade. So is the Zulus gonna change their name? I don't think so."

 

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is New Orleans' largest African American krewe – the local name for organisations that put on Mardi Gras parades. The day after the rally at the statue, the Zulus took part in the Satchmo Festival. They gathered to lead a second line jazz parade from St. Augustine Church to the Old United States Mint in the French Quarter.

Feathers in hand, Grand Marshal Norman L Thomas Sr was chatting with other members, waiting for the show to begin.

The conflation of Southern Africa's Zulus and the American slave trade has little basis in fact, and Thomas Sr wouldn't comment on Alvarez's statement. But he also had little interest in whether or not Lee's statue came down.

"I used to often wonder. I grew up in this city. I didn't even know the Confederacy even came to Louisiana, so it had to be the people here that were putting those monuments in," he said. "[I] ignore it. I knew it didn't stand for nothing for me."

Installations and projections

An architecture exhibition commemorating the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina asks: 'What's next for New Orleans?' [Roopa Gogineni] 

Thomas Sr is, like many New Orleanians, uninterested in discussing symbols of the past. But even as the city carries on with its merry-making, the monument debate seems to spring up.

Just hours after the Confederate protest, the Contemporary Arts Center held it's annual White Linen Night in the downtown Arts District, just one block from Lee Circle. Galleries along Julia and Camp streets opened their doors as patrons dressed in white roamed – drinks in hand – between the stages set up for music.

On the circle itself, an exhibit set up by the American Institute of Architects showcased the architectural history and potential future of New Orleans. On the wall, a whiteboard invited patrons to contemplate "What's Next for New Orleans?" In one space a note read: "Remove Lee's monument – it does not represent the spirit of New Orleans." Next to it, another read: "Do not erase our past like ISIS," referring to the group known for the destruction of historical monuments and beheadings in Iraq and Syria.

On Julia Street, residents occasionally paused as they passed the windows of the George Schmidt Gallery. Inside, an installation was lit up. It was a mannequin standing next to a canvas that read: "No Lee, No Me. Save Our Circle", in brush strokes. The mannequin held a paintbrush in one hand while the other raised a middle finger towards the audience. Some laughed and pointed if they noticed, others were less amused.

The Take 'Em Down NOLA group projected images of the scarred backs of slaves onto a monument to Confederate General Robert E Lee [Roopa Gogineni] [Daylife]

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As the White Linen Night wound down, another group was preparing its own installation. Back down at the Lee Circle, a group representing #TakeEmDownNOLA was projecting images onto the grand column. Images of slave ships and the scarred backs of slaves were presented alongside quotes about slavery. The projection pointed out that Lee Circle was called Tivoli Circle for 70 years before being changed to Lee Circle in 1877.

Much like the Confederate protest earlier that day, there were only around 20 people in attendance. Around the circle, passers-by occasionally glanced up before continuing towards Julia Street and White Linen Night.

Despite this, one of the organisers stood, dressed in white, admiring the success of the projection. He asked only to be identified as Brian, saying, "I'd like to put on more of these."

He said the projection was meant to signify resistance to the monument and its symbolism without actually defacing it. In one of the quotes on the monument, runaway slave Wesley Norris described being whipped on Lee's orders. "Not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, General Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done."

According to Brian, the mantra of "history, not hate" doesn't adequately address the monuments. "Of course we need to remember what's bad about our past, but it shouldn't be lionised," he said as he craned his neck to look at the statue.

'We can choose to change'

Tilman Hardy hosts his weekly radio show. Having attended two opposing demonstrations around the Robert E Lee monument the previous day, he focuses the discussion on the gulf in public opinion. 'There are a lot of folks who are for taking the monuments down. There are a lot of folks who are trying to keep them up. And there are a lot of folks who just don't care' [Roopa Gogineni]

Every Sunday at the WBOK studios, Tilman Hardy kicks off his show, The Core Hour, by reading one of the 42 laws of Maat, the Egyptian goddess of justice and truth. To choose one, he simply matches up the number of the week with the correspondingly numbered law.

On week 31, the day after Hardy had his debate on the steps of the Lee Monument, he read Maat's 31st law: "'I have not exaggerated my words when speaking.' Basically, tell the truth," he chuckled.

Hardy encouraged his listeners to call in, but on that summer day, like most summer weekends, New Orleanians had their minds on fun. As he spoke, Grand Marshal Norman Thomas Sr was leading his Zulu Krewe and the gathered revellers up Rampart Street towards the Satchmo Festival. The phone lines stayed quiet. Even Hardy's co-host, Mike Ballard, was running late.

Undeterred, Hardy pressed on, reliving his encounter for his listeners. At one point, one of the Confederate protesters, who said she was part Native American, had asked him whether he considered the Buffalo Soldiers - who fought Native Americans in the late 19th century - a symbol of oppression. The protester told Hardy she wasn't offended by symbols of the Buffalo Soldiers and urged Hardy not to see Confederate monuments as oppressive.

"I have to also listen to the stories of Native Americans as they tell these stories about how our ancestors, the Buffalo Soldiers, actually oppressed them and negatively impacted their community."

The nature of a city is change. Buildings, parks, bridges and monuments are built and torn down every day. Historical preservation is, in essence, an act of curation that not only preserves the culture of a city but also defines it. Co-host Ballard, who is a member of the Louisiana Landmarks Society, said choosing to remove the monuments was choosing to redefine New Orleans without the Confederacy.

"We can choose to change, we can choose to be better," he said. "The city of New Orleans has a 300-year history. The Confederate States of America only lasted for four years. So for that one-and-a-half percent of our history, you get the monument there?"

"But what a four years it was," chuckled Hardy. He and Ballard riffed like this for the better part of an hour, waiting for calls that didn't come. And while Hardy had his opinions, he urged whoever might have been listening to keep an open mind.

"A lot of folks are torn on this. There are a lot of folks who are for taking the monuments down. There a lot of folks who are trying to keep them up. And there are a lot of folks who just don't care. But I don't think any of those is going to get us across the finish line together. We have to be creative."

This article appeared in a special issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine on race in the US. Download it for iPads and iPhones here and for Android devices here.

Source: Al Jazeera