Citizen-led initiatives scored big wins in the midterms. But now this form of direct democracy is under attack.
The city council of Alexandria, Virginia voted on September 17 to change the name of a highway named after Confederate President Jefferson Davis and to seek the state legislature’s permission to move a statue of a rebel soldier from a busy thoroughfare in the city’s historic center.
Prior to the council’s unanimous vote, residents lined up to give their views on how to handle the city’s Civil War past. Among those in favor of getting rid of the Confederate symbols, the debate seemed to be as much about 2016 as it was about the 1860s.
Alexandria, just across the Potomac river from Washington, D.C., was a major slave-trading hub in the 19th century and today the city remains marked by high levels of racial economic inequality. Median income for the city’s African-Americans is less than half that of white residents, and whites are more than twice as likely to have a college degree.
During the public hearing, I was particularly struck by a statement by Dylan Raycroft, a young man who was born in Alexandria and now runs a small business there. Raycroft cited Alexandria’s current economic and educational gaps in a blistering critique of an advisory commission recommendation to leave the Confederate soldier statue in its current location. As a compromise, the commission had suggested adding more signage to put the statue in context.
Raycroft’s argument is worth quoting at length:
“The idea that adding context alleviates the issues with the statue ignores the heart of the problem. This country was founded and built on the stolen labor of stolen persons. For centuries, our European ancestors profited from a system of bondage that stole the most sacred rights of liberty and self-determination from our African ancestors.
That system was abolished at the greatest cost our country has ever paid. But after 12 generations of human beings enslaved at their moment of birth, five more generations were born into Jim Crow laws that afforded not the slightest legal recognition of equality to black Americans.
Now a scant two generations later, the suggestion of additional context is just an effort to whitewash that crime. This statue has more than enough context. It marks the point where our Confederate soldiers left for war. Yet it stands flanked by the historic streets and townhomes that were built with the profits from the sale of tens of thousands of human beings only four blocks away.
That context says that white men who died to allow white men to enslave human beings hold a higher place of honor in our city than the tens of thousands on whose stolen lives this city was built and flourished.
To those who feel the sting of inequality and find themselves priced out of this city, which has been their home for generations, and who struggle to get a decent education for their children, this statue says ‘this does not belong to you.’ It says that ‘we stole it from your ancestors and now we’ll steal it from you too.’
And for those who believe that everyone should share in this city’s wealth, it says, ‘whose side are you on?’”
After several hours of testimony and debate, the council agreed with Raycroft that leaving the statue in its current location, where thousands of motorists pass it each day, was unacceptable. They voted unanimously to try to move the statue to a local history museum.
First, though, they will need to get approval from the Virginia General Assembly. And earlier this year that august body passed a bill further strengthening prohibitions against cities and counties removing war memorials. While Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed the legislation, the state legislature has sent a clear message as to whose side they’re on.
Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project and is a co-editor of Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies.