Turning Rubble and Memory Into Seeds: Visions of Democracy in Monument Removal

Frierdich, Matthew, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Balfour, Lawrie, AS-Politics (POLI), University of Virginia

If social movements to remove monuments to racist, colonial, or otherwise oppressive figures from the past are successful, does the removal of such monuments risk undermining such movement’s other demands for structural change? The dissertation argues that social movements must negotiate, challenge, and fight against the slippage of monument removal being addressed as a policy end to the exclusion of monument removal operating as an opening for democratic transformation. The Take ‘Em Down New Orleans (TEDN) and #RhodesMustFall (RMF) movements raise new questions about contesting the language of public memory as it is claimed for state legitimation and activist instigations. Thus, the first chapter examines how social movements rely on public memory in their attempts to dismantle structures of race without fully allowing sympathetic state institutions to pull activist efforts into the realm of official public memory. Focusing on TEDN and RMF situates this interplay between local politics and memory protests within the conditions of race and capital. Studying these cases together reveals the creativity and tensions that emerged in their different challenges to sympathetic, if flawed, public institutions and how their protests took on different characteristics of their national legacies of race, colonialism, capital, and democratic institutions. The second chapter focuses on overlapping concepts of monuments and monumentality to consider how the specificity of monument removal offers creative alternatives for contesting the limitations placed on racialized bodies. The third chapter turns to RMF to examine how “fallist” politics connect colonial pedagogies to struggles for worker justice and gender equality. Fallists turn against institutions of higher education in order to express these grievances and find ways of channeling disruption and betrayal into more radical understandings of democracy. And the final chapter turns to TEDN to examine its connection to longer tradition of Black left organizing against police violence and how this presents challenges for situating monument removal in relation to state leadership. The chapter considers how the dynamics of popular toppling brought out this tension during the 2020 George Floyd protests and how it leads to both creative mass engagement and also a dissolution of TEDN’s political cohesion.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
monument removal, memory activism, Take 'Em Down NOLA, Rhodes Must Fall, Black memory, monumentality
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