Only three hours after a black shroud was placed over the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville to honor Heather Heyer, an individual vandalized the shroud by cutting it with a knife. Though police stopped him before he could remove the cover, their tame handling is a stark departure from how other protesters across the South have been treated in the recent past. Shareblue writer Oliver Willis noticed the double-standard and the white privilege at work in his about removing Confederate symbols.
On the afternoon of Aug. 23, a man who said his name was John Mishka walked up to the statue of Lee and started cutting the black tarp while onlookers watched. He was stopped by police, but he was then allowed to hold forth with a group of reporters and onlookers for almost an hour while police looked on.
Willis compared Mishka’s ability to take a large hunting knife to government property and simply be told to knock it off to Bree Newsome, who was arrested for taking down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House in 2015. He juxtaposed a picture of Newsome being arrested with Mishka lecturing a crowd while a police officer looked on.
The highlights one of the core problems in this debate about Confederate symbols, which many consider symbols of white supremacy. Black activists like Newsome frequently face serious criminal charges, while Mishka, on the other hand, stood in front of Lee and lectured the crowd after cutting the shroud.
Newsome, an activist and filmmaker from Charlotte, North Carolina, isn’t the only activist of color who has been arrested for attempting to dismantle symbols of the Confederacy.
After protesters toppled a cheaply-made Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina this August, several arrests were made. One of the protesters arrested, Takiyah Thompson, has been charged with several felonies.
The double standard is painfully clear in the handling of recent protests across the South.
White supremacists and neo-Nazis who were caught on camera beating 20-year-old Deandre Harris at the Aug. 12 rally have been identified but not arrested, but Thompson was arrested as she left the Communications building at North Carolina Central University, according to Essence.
The shroud was meant to honor Heather Heyer, who died protesting white supremacists at Unite the Right on Aug. 12.
The Lee statue has been at the center of controversy several times this summer after Charlottesville City Council voted to remove it back in March. Speaking to onlookers, Mishka demanded a referendum and said that the decision to shroud both Lee and a statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was nothing short of giving in to “loons” and was a “desecration.”
Charlottesville City Council voted unanimously yesterday, Aug. 22, to cover both the Lee statue and a statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson after a contentious meeting where public comment was welcome.
Mishka also fought with onlookers who tried to engage him in dialogue, all of which was livestreamed by Charlottesville’s The Daily Progress.
Mishka’s actions — cutting the shroud, calling it a “desecration,” and then fighting with people who tried to talk to him — are a clear example of how white privilege shields white people from the systemic racism which people of color must deal with every day. It also showcases why misguided attempts to “preserve history” must not stand.
Though Mishka called slavery a “birth defect” of our nation, he deferred to the oft-cited argument that removing these statues is akin to erasing history. He, however, had not been aware that the statue had not been erected in the wake of the Civil War, but almost sixty years later, in 1924, at the height of the “Lost Cause” movement.
Apparently, someone needs to tell Mishka about the existence of books. They’re pretty good at the whole preserving history thing.
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Lisa is a news writer based in Portland, Oregon. She is currently researching and writing about abortion for her MFA in Creative Nonfiction.
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