There can only be one centerpiece of your city; should it be an eternal source of conflict?

I’ve probably studied and written more about Confederate monuments than anyone in Lakeland. I know the history of Lakeland’s specific monument and several others around the state. I’m pretty confident in my understanding of the intent of the people who erected them. I’ve worked very, very hard to understand it from their point-of-view. [See this long, deep chapter from my book, Age of Barbarity.] And that intent comes with a large degree of historical and human complexity.

I can also confidently say that the people who raised these monuments gave no meaningful thought to the human complexity of the people who might have objected to these monuments at the time of their dedication. The people who might have objected to Lakeland’s monument in 1910 Lakeland or Florida had no power. And Lakeland and Florida treated them that way. They were at the very literal mercy of the people who built the monuments. All monuments everywhere are about power.

I would like to see Lakeland’s Confederate monument moved to a museum where it could be studied and understood through the prism of history and context of its time. I think these monuments are important to American history in their way. They are evidence of something. This modern period of conflict over them reflects another important moment in American history. It’s also evidence of something. Studying that something, and trying to understand it, is the nature of history.

But what you’ve just read is merely my personal position, based on much thought and research. I’m asking you to put that aside for a moment. I’d like you to consider a much simpler question.

How many symbolic centerpieces can your city have? I can’t see any other answer but 1. Can you?

The definition of a centerpiece is that it’s the centerpiece

Herein lies the core problem of Lakeland’s monument. It’s less the existence than the location. The monument is the centerpiece of the park that is the centerpiece of our downtown that is the centerpiece of our city. It’s ground zero of our city.

And now it’s ground zero for social conflict — forever, as long as it holds that spot. You see this illustrated quite nicely this morning in The Ledger’s collection of monument letters from readers. They sprawl across an entire page in the editorial section, restating the now familiar contours of inflexible argument on this issue. Other than an election, I can’t remember any other divisive topic requiring a page’s worth of curation.

That’s because a large portion of our city sees the monument as hostile to them. They have historical and present day justification for feeling that way (see Charlottesville); another large portion agrees with them and does not want hostility as the centerpiece of the city. Together, these groups are challenging a long unchallenged consensus that was never really a consensus.

The sun in our civic solar system?

I think Ashley Troutman’s well-meaning plan illustrates this conundrum of location nicely. As a sort of compromise, Troutman proposes keeping the statue in place and surrounding it with “contextual monuments of equal stature and dignity that would celebrate the bravery of black Americans who suffered under slavery and systemic oppression.”

Troutman told The Ledger: “If we intertwine these stories we would realize a more beautiful mosaic that is a full American story, a full Lakeland story.”

Put aside the cost of building an indeterminate number of statues of equal stature to the towering Confederate sentry. Put aside the fact that doing so would change the fundamental character of Munn Park, where people come to see each other, not cheap marble or concrete. Put aside the fact that society and history isn’t just about black and white.

Troutman’s plan, for all its good intentions, doesn’t actually address the problem. There is no way to build a monument of equal stature to a centerpiece. It’s either the centerpiece; or it’s not.

Think about the outcome of this plan: Confederate nostalgia is going to be sun of our city’s solar system of honors? Forever. The accomplishments of non-Confederate Lakeland will orbit it? Forever. Think about the symbolism of subservience built into that. Everything built around a centerpiece monument is subservient to it, by definition.

The only way to accomplish what Troutman wants to accomplish is to move the monument so that its placement equals the others. And if you decide to move the monument a few feet so it won’t be the centerpiece anymore, well…

A zero-sum choice

This is a hard issue that is actually pretty simple: either we’re going to keep a bleeding ulcer of conflict as the centerpiece of our city. Or we’re not.

Today, this monument is far closer to relocation than it has ever been. It’s certainly far closer than it was in 1910. But the people who object to its existence, location — or both — don’t yet have the power to move or destroy it. For now, the balance of power still sits with those who would keep Confederate nostalgia as the permanent centerpiece of our city. 

So I want to talk directly to those people of power for a moment:

Your fellow citizens who object to the monument today are much more powerful than they were in 1910, when a protest against it might have gotten them lynched. They are vital parts of Lakeland’s civic life. They are not going to disappear. And objection to the statue carries no real personal penalty for them anymore. Thus, no one will hesitate to object. The only way you can roll them back toward the level of power they had in 1910 is to create fear with retaliation, violence, and force. That’s what Charlottesville was about. All monuments are about power.

You may think the people who object to the monument are whiny. You may think they are wrong. You may think they hate history or even hate America. If you think all that, I think you are wrong. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. It matters what they think.

They can read the loving etchings to “CSA” and “Confederate Dead” with no mention of America. They can rationally infer that the centerpiece of their city is about hating everything they hold dear — from their children to their citizenship to their notions of justice and patriotism. They have legitimate reason to see it as a giant civic middle finger, even if you do not intend it as such. So they will never have any incentive other than violence or fear to stop objecting to it.

By contrast, the feelings of monument supporters are generally not that intense and visceral. And when they are, those people tend to show up with hoods, guns, and chants about Jews. That’s the difference between the historical legacies of power and powerlessness. Adding a marbleized handshake to a marbleized middle finger does not make the middle finger go away, even if you move it out of the centerpiece location. That’s why more monuments isn’t an answer.

The choices before you

If you want the monument to remain in quiet perpetuity, people of power, I see two possible paths of action: 1) convince your fellow citizens to embrace it 2) overpower them endlessly so they fear — or lose the energy — to object. If you see a third option for ending conflict over the statue without moving it, please suggest it.

For #1, what are you going to say to your fellow Lakeland citizens who simply quote the monument’s values back at you?

“The heroic deeds will never fade, from memory’s brightest face, and their brave defense of country and home, is left as glorious heritage.”

What will you say to convince your fellow citizens to embrace that “glorious heritage” and loyalty to a different “country,” one that prized human bondage, as the centerpiece of their American city? What will you say to convince them they are wrong about Confederate heritage and its rightful dominant place in the center of their city?

It wasn’t about slavery or white supremacy? That was a long time ago? Get over it? It’s history? That was just in Charlottesville? We really do like you? It’s my glorious heritage; and I’m more powerful than you, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯? 

Good luck with that.

And when you don’t convince them, what are you prepared to do with your power to beat and silence them? Year after year after year after year after year. Forever. What is keeping that statue and its values as our city’s centerpiece worth to you? How is it consistent with the civic spirit of mutual support and respect we’ve just seen as we recovered together from Irma? Why do we love our neighbors and insult them simultaneously?

What does this fight and the monument’s presence do for you? What exactly do you win when you win? What does Lakeland win?

Those are the only questions that really matter in this discussion.

One comment

  1. Bob Gernert

    So very well stated Billy Townsend. And while I don’t have a direct stake in the resolution of Lakeland’s Munn Park scar, your premis made me value Winter Haven’s Central Park fountain centerpiece all the more.

    I would add that one need only look to Tampa’s resolution of much the same issue to appreciate a most heartwarming example.

    Thank you for your eloquent, logical courage Billy.

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