The sense of anticipation built in Judiciary Square on Juneteenth 2020, as protestors tied ropes to a statue of former Confederate General Albert Pike in an attempt to bring it down.
“One, two, pull! One, two, pull! One, two, pull!”
The crunching thud the statue made as it came down backwards—headfirst—was met with mass euphoria. Protestors jumped up and down on the felled statue, screaming in celebration while debris flew wildly through the air.
Glenn Foster, an activist who grew up in the D.C. area and witnessed the statue toppling, knew he’d seen history unfold in front of him.
“It was like we really took freedom and justice into our own hands. We didn’t wait for the National Park Service. We didn’t wait for a long line of congressional approval or anything like that. We did it ourselves,” says Foster, a 21-year-old rising senior at Harvard University. “Justice really starts for Black people with tearing down the symbols of our oppression and demanding that they will no longer wait for the government to give us our change.”
The toppling of the Pike statue was part of a broader movement. As protests for racial justice broke out last year following the murder of George Floyd, statues symbolizing colonialism and slavery became the center of protestor’s ire around the world.
In Bristol, England, a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, the presence of which had long divided residents, was pulled down with rope before being dragged to and dumped in the River Avon.
350 miles away in Antwerp, Belgium, a statue of King Leopold, whose reign oversaw the death of as many as 10 million people in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was burned and removed from a public square.
Bringing down the Pike statue built momentum toward removing other problematic statues in D.C. Days later, protestors tried to topple a statue of former President Andrew Jackson, a former slaveholder whose policies also lead to thousands of Native American deaths, in Lafayette Square. The next day, the center of attention was a controversial statue of President Abraham Lincoln, standing over and emancipating a Black slave kneeling down at his feet, on Capitol Hill.
Foster was front and center at the June 23 protest at the Emancipation Memorial. On a searing hot day, during which police had already fenced off the statue to prevent it from being toppled, Foster stood at its base with a megaphone and called for protestors to return two days later.
“[The Pike toppling] really invigorated me to do it with the Emancipation Memorial in the same way,” he says. “I just felt like … we can actually create some change. We can actually get rid of these symbols of oppression and not wait for the government because the power does rely on the people.”
But a year later, the Lincoln statue remains in place, as does the rendering of Jackson. For many, the fact that last summer’s momentum has stalled is no surprise.
“This empirical, structural, colonizer project of the United States of America has been around for a long time. And it’s a movement [to challenge it] and that takes time,” says Maurice Cook, an activist and the executive director of Serve Your City, a D.C.-based education and service organization.
Before the Albert Pike statue came down last year, few in D.C. knew much about it. Located near the courthouses at the intersection of 3rd Street NW and Indiana Avenue NW, a few blocks north of better known federal buildings and monuments, it often escaped attention. Still, some long-time residents had been aware of the statue for decades. Protests calling for Pike’s removal first arose in the early 1990s in light of his alleged links to the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2017 renewed interest in the statue led to the District’s Congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, introducing a bill calling for its removal from the federal land it sat on. Norton introduced the bill again in 2019.
Last year, even after the statue had been toppled, Norton moved forward with her effort to ensure its permanent removal, reintroducing the bill in July and getting it passed by the House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee in October. The statue currently sits in storage under the watch of the National Parks Service.
The effort has stalled there for now, despite Norton reintroducing the bill once more this February, along with similar bills to remove the Jackson and Lincoln statues to commemorate Black History Month.
But Norton, a Democrat, feels confident her work will finally bear fruit with her party now in the majority in Congress.
“With Black Lives Matter, with the reckoning that’s going on throughout the country right now, I’m looking forward to getting [the bills through].”
Still, given the momentum gathered last summer, some are impatient with how long the process is taking.
“I think that it’s important that we hold our congresswoman and our congressmen accountable when they make promises. And that when they say they’re going to fight on our behalf in these spaces, we give them the timeline of when we expect change,” says Foster, who runs communications for The Palm Collective, a collective organizing around Black liberation and other issues.
“That’s kind of what I’m pushing now with my organization, is ensuring that with Congresswoman Norton and so many others, that we’re not just saying things to quell the rebellion and quell the anger, and actually say, ‘OK, you’re going to push us forward with the timetable. Is it going to be removed? Is it going to stay?… Or are you just going to forget about it altogether?’ Sometimes we prioritize symbolism and pass off promises as structural change.”
Even if D.C.’s controversial statues were to go, the debate over what to do with them remains. Though Norton understands the emotions that led to the Pike statue being pulled down last year, she feels keeping it in storage serves little purpose and would rather see it in a museum.
“I want it to be on view. I want people to know who Pike was. A confederate general. He was not a well-known figure, you know, but I believe that his statue helps us tell the story of America,” she says.
Cook, however, believes that story is already clear.
“I’d like to throw [them] in the river,” he says in reference to what happened to the Colston statue in England,” he says. “I mean all you have to do to understand historical context is look at the overwhelming majority of the presidents of the United States. Look at the overwhelming majority of the Supreme Court Justices. Look at the overwhelming majority of members of Congress over the course of the history of the United States. Any of the Fortune 500 CEOs. You can Google these things and see their head shots. You don’t need a museum to see what this thing actually looks like.”
On the day Foster, Cook, and others wanted to see the Emancipation Monument come down last summer, the fence around the statue and heavy police presence weren’t the only impediments to their cause. Not everyone in the neighborhood—including other members of the Black community—agreed it should come down. Among the arguments for keeping the statue are an interpretation that the African American man in the statue is actually rising up from his chains, and that the memorial was paid for by freed slaves wanting to commemorate emancipation and holds sentimental value to their descendants.
What most seem to agree on is the need for conversations around monuments like the Lincoln one that place them in the appropriate historical context. That’s something Foster says he’s learned over the past year, after different opinions about the Emancipation Memorial within the community forced him to rethink his own role in the conversation.
“Sometimes you come into a space and assume you kind of know the law of the land. … I had to talk to the neighborhood leaders who have been trying to get the statue down, and talk to the neighbors who grew up with it being there and feel comfortable with it,” the 21-year-old says of his evolution.
“I think the important part about being an organizer is not just trying to be so demonstrative, but rather saying, can you have a conversation about why it came to be in the first place?… Why do we have a black man looking up to white man? What does that represent? And how does that really play into the national conversation of race?
“Black people had no input on the design of this memorial. But because of that … it should really be in a place where black history is uplifted correctly and accurately.”
As part of his personal journey as an activist, Foster says he’s no longer as focused on D.C. statues as he was last summer, realizing there are bigger and more pressing issues the Black community faces. In the eyes of Cook though, those issues are all linked.
“[Statues are] just one of the many manifestations of this debasing of black bodies. And so while I may not be ‘working on the issue’ directly, I’m always working on the issue. And whether that is in the form of housing, education, health, transportation, economics—it’s all linked. It’s all just ingredients in one big recipe.”
Though Cook doesn’t expect any overnight change, he’s confident the Emancipation Statue, which he finds incredibly problematic, will inevitably come down.
“It’s a blatant manifestation of this ideology that we should be saying black people should be thankful for the gift of being allowed to survive,” he says.
“This white man who said he didn’t care whether or not, you know, people were enslaved or not. He just wanted to keep the union together. I mean, he said this. So it wasn’t about his sense of morality or racial justice. In fact, he used us in order to be able to win the war.”
As the one year anniversary of the Pike statue coming down was marked earlier this month, so too was the first federally recognized Juneteenth holiday, to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved Americans.
And while the day was marked with festivities across the city and the nation, the way the holiday was announced—rushed through with just one day’s notice in the wake of Congressional legislation—seemed tokenistic to many.
“Have you ever seen them so fast? I haven’t, and I’m 50 years old. I didn’t know it was possible,” says Cook sarcastically, who also referred to the official recognition of the holiday as a “symbolic gesture made by the system to be able to demonstrate, without sacrificing anything, that they’re willing to co-opt and work with people expressing grievance to the system.”
The idea that the official recognition of Juneteenth has done little to change the everyday issues facing Black Americans has only been underlined in D.C. by an incident earlier this month in which a private security guard dragged a Black woman down a flight of stairs by her hair at Nellie’s Sports Bar on U Street NW.
Protests outside the bar, which many say has a history of discriminatory behavior towards Black people, forced it to close temporarily.
“It really speaks to the fact that we need community collective understanding that this is a widespread issue of brutality not just happening by police, but also happening by White-owned establishments. I think it’s important for us to really just have a conversation about whether we’re holding every single layer of our society accountable when it comes to the brutality we as Black people face,” says Foster.
“Juneteenth is now a national holiday, but there have been no anti-lynching bills passed no voting rights acts passed, no police acts passed that help Black people. But yet we can pass Juneteenth with a unanimous decision.”