At every year’s end since I’ve been writing columns like this, I’ve looked back over the people and causes I’ve run across and chosen somebody who has made an outstanding contribution to our community as my Person of the Year. This year, I’d like to spread it out a little and tip my hat to everyone who turned out on a hot summer afternoon to draw a line down Seventeenth Street and say no to those who would divide us.
It’s not an easy issue.
One side called what went on during the summer and fall of ’17 an assault on history. The other side called it taking action against historic inequities. A third “side” wedged its way into the long-simmering dispute over removal of Confederate memorials (flags, statues, paintings and the like) and brought it to a boil this year – a mixture of “alt-right,” white nationalist/separatists and outright neo-Nazis who glommed onto the issue as a vehicle to promote their racist causes. This, of course, spawned a fourth “side” – an anti-racist movement aimed at combating the separatists.
The active phase of the 2017 monument war probably started in May when the city of New Orleans removed a towering statue of Robert E. Lee from its 60-foot pedestal and hauled the general off to a warehouse. Tension had built as three statues of lesser heroes were taken down in the preceding weeks, and violence seemed imminent (one of the statue-removal contractors’ cars had been firebombed). Out-of-state protestors were plentiful.
They must have enjoyed themselves, because during the following months, many of the same angry faces started showing up wherever there was discussion of removing Confederate memorials.
Racists of every stripe joined in, and the movement culminated in the undisguised mayhem unleashed in Charlottesville in early August where angry young men marched with tiki torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” One of their number ended up charged with vehicular homicide after he ran down a female counter-protestor. It’s fair to speculate that General Lee would have been appalled.
Shortly thereafter, in Knoxville, there was talk of removing a little-noticed stone obelisk memorializing the Confederate soldiers who died in the battle of Ft. Sanders. The talk didn’t amount to much – perhaps because a monument to Union soldiers sits a couple of blocks away – and Sons of the Confederacy volunteers went to work scrubbing off the blue paint.
But a local political wannabe, a loud and proud racist who has run unsuccessfully for public office a couple of times, decided to organize a “save the monument” rally, and the word went out. Oddly, he canceled his protest plans shortly before the appointed time, but it became clear that something was going to happen, and Knoxville started getting ready.
Great credit must be given to the Knoxville Police Department and its chief, David Rausch, who called in help from other law enforcement agencies and fortified the neighborhood to a level of readiness not seen since the rebels perished in an icy ditch at the base of Ft. Sanders hill in 1863 (or at least since the last time the Vols were competitive with Alabama on a football Saturday).
Dump trucks and bulldozers blocked intersections and closed off the area to all but pedestrians, who were searched before they were allowed to approach the monument. KPD officers isolated protestors and counter-protestors to opposite sides of the street, and there was only one arrest; a woman who didn’t want to give up a mason jar full of what appeared to be water (it was a hot day) was taken into custody. Cops circulated through both sides of the street offering bottled water.
The Arts and Culture Alliance, the Alliance for Better Nonprofits and the Compassion Coalition organized a “kindness” rally that drew hundreds of people to Krutch Park, but the doings on the Seventeenth Street hill drew a crowd 10 times that size. And in the end, there was no violence. Protestors were outnumbered something like 3,000 to 38 – and this includes some who said they were just there to stick up for history.
A few weeks later, some of the same bunch attempted to hold fall rallies in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville. Those cities adopted the Knoxville template and had similarly good results. Knoxville anti-racist organizer Chris Irwin was a participant in those rallies and has become a regional leader in the resistance to such gatherings.
Knoxville wasn’t perfect in 2017, but we were way better than the comments section of the local paper would have you believe.