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By Mark Anthony Neal
As protests go, the pulling down of Confederate monuments is low-hanging fruit. They are largely symbolic acts directed at symbols that, by and large, have long been relegated to unread history books and museums. But low-hanging fruit can also be poisonous.
State laws passed to protect these monuments—to weaponize them—are now being used to undermine the work of social justice activists and quell resistance. The “Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act,” was passed by the North Carolina state legislature in July 2015, roughly a month after activist Bree Newsome brought down the Confederate flag at the State Capitol in South Carolina in response to the shooting deaths of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C. by Dylann Roof.
Newsome’s act became a social media moment that inspired many other acts of resistance— including Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest.
The 2015 law is also the subtext of the recent arrest of Takiyah Thompson, a 22-year-old North Carolina Central University (NCCU) student, who was among a group of activists and protesters who helped bring down a Confederate monument in the city of Durham earlier this week. Additional protesters have subsequently turned themselves into authorities.
A day after footage of Thompson scaling the structure to place the rope that was used to pull it to the ground went viral, she was arrested by Durham County sheriff’s deputies. Thompson was charged with four counts, including two felony charges for participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 and inciting others to riot where there is property damage in excess of $1,500. That the sheriff’s deputies patiently waited for Thompson to finish speaking at a press conference arranged on NCCU’s campus, speaks less to their recognition of her first amendment rights as it was public show of the sanctity of state laws.
Yet what these Durham activists understand is the fact not all laws are just. Indeed, the very states that have enacted laws to protect Confederate totems from removal by local municipalities and individuals, also understand that not all laws are just.
Durham’s Black city manager dubbed the protest “unlawful and inappropriate” and there were many, who, while affirming the goals of the takedown, were less supportive and even critical of the means in which the monument was taken down. Yet, if the Civil Rights era activists would have been able to use Twitter or Instagram 60 years ago, they likely would have used hashtags like #unlawful and #inappropriate, which would have been entirely appropriate in the context of struggles against laws that were unjust and absurd.
Rosa Parks broke an unjust law to challenge the treatment of Black people on public transportation in the South. When four students from North Carolina A&T sat at a “Whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro, they were pushing back against an unjust law—also a reminder of the role that HBCUs play in cultivating political consciousness among young Black people. Every enslaved African that chose to leave a plantation, under the cover of the night and live their lives as fugitives, knowingly broke, what they correctly deemed unjust laws. Indeed, there have been few examples of successful social justice movements that did not include the breaking of unjust laws, from the challenging of unlawful assemblies to illegal work stoppages. Generations ago, we quaintly named such activities as “Civil Disobedience” and can be traced to the writings of Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s.
The tearing down of the symbols and trinkets of the confederacy might seem like low-hanging fruit, but when we are more concerned as a society about the treatment of formed pewter than about the treatment of people forced to live under the policies and tactics shaped by those symbols, then it is indeed time to take a stand. After a successful fundraising campaign Thompson was freed on bail hours after her arrest. It was a reminder there are some willing to stand on the side of justice.
Mark Anthony Neal is chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @NewBlackMan.
Originally published in Cassius Life, Aug. 17, 2017.