By Jeff Snowden
My mentee wanted to know how I felt about the removal of the memorial to the county's Confederate soldiers who were killed during the Civil War from its current location in downtown Athens.
I told him it’s complicated. I don’t think it fully represents what some people think or would hope it to represent. I have a tough time tearing down memorials to dead soldiers who were very possibly forced to fight for a cause they may have not believed in. They may have simply died defending their houses from being burned down. And perhaps more than anything else, when my friend faced off across from the KKK near that spot many years ago, he says “the last thing we were worried about was the monument.”
Yet I get that the monument makes people feel unwelcome and even if that is because awful racists raised many other monuments for intimidation or because those who want the monument removed want to remind others of it (where they may not have noticed otherwise), people still feel unwelcome. That’s reason enough to move it.
It’s also the reason why we should immediately proceed down the street and tear down the "Murmur" trestle. Or burn it. I don’t care either way.
You see, this discussion of what has harmed our black friends and neighbors here in Athens, at least in its current state, is relatively new. As recent as 2006, this community had far different priorities and more than a few of the current challenges the black community faces are resultant of those priorities.
In those years, Athens Grow Green and Bike Athens ruled the political seas and it was a wholesale war on development. Homebuilders were given an ever-growing obstacle course to jump through in order to build houses and the commission pursued a strategy to limit growth in the more rural areas of the county to drive growth in-town. The idea was that dense, walkable communities should be the plan. The sad result is that the density in-town tended to drift towards affordable land and that started the tsunami of gentrification in now formerly black neighborhoods. The limits on lots sizes and denial of city services (like sewer, city trash, neglected roads) stopped the development of affordable housing in the rural part of the county while in-town prices shot up.
No one seemed to care at that time. Well, almost no one.
I remember Charlie Maddox was running for Mayor at the time. Rather than bike lanes and green space, his platform was about job growth, housing and the ability for the average citizen to work with their government. The local press accused him of being an undercover Republican. A fellow candidate stood up and accused Charlie of being in the pocket of the Chamber of Commerce. A local progressive darling ridiculed Charlie’s speech in a slur of racial overtones. A lot of these assassins still live here. They are leaders and darlings of our local progressive scene.
Black leaders being attacked in vile ways seems to be the hobby of our local progressives. If a black leader votes for free bus fare for kids but make the comment that kids should learn the value of a dollar, he gets downgraded by Athens For Everyone. It’s not enough that he votes how they want- he must also think how they want. If the black sheriff does not agree fast enough to defy the federal government, progressives look into ways to cut his budget (which is pretty much illegal persuasion). When a black commissioner writes a letter to the black community but the white progressives don’t like his tone, they hurl insults. Someone called Harry Sims an Uncle Tom on a public forum and someone shot his house up with paintballs. Suddenly they’re calling the black police chief “problematic”. Let’s not even talk about the schools superintendent. You probably shouldn’t Google up any article about Alvin Sheats either.
But that monument? It needs to go.
When one progressive commissioner was asked why she was recommending young white progressive activists for appointments while her district is heavily black, she replied, “They know what those people want”. How is anyone okay with that? And this commissioner was reelected despite the well-known fact she said such a thing. Perhaps voters felt that her other positions on zoning or historic preservation or plastic grocery bags outweighed such a hurtful and dismissive sentiment. Perhaps these issues were just far too important for the majority of voters in her district.
Not all monuments are made of stone.
I remember seeing pleas from County Commissioner Ovita Thornton telling people to avoid the recent Black Lives Matter and World Without Cops protests.
After the curfew was broken and the melee ensued, Ovita messaged again, “this is what some folk wanted from the beginning and stayed downtown until they got what they wanted. This was wrong”.
Perhaps focusing on the trestle that is revered by many as a memorial to R.E.M. -- the homegrown alternative music band that in the 1980s helped to solidify Athens’ place on the music map and featured a photograph of the dilapidated train trestle on its album, “Murmur“ -- is unfair. That doesn’t matter. There is a mountain of monuments to progressive ideals and so many of these policies have driven up the cost of housing, gentrified neighborhoods and diverted funds to the kinds of arts and leisure efforts that are about as diverse as a Vermont lacrosse team. These folks have torn down black candidates and played down black issues for decades and their treatment of black candidates, officials and issues is undeniable.
Black lives should not only matter when they have political value. They have to value all the time. This means progressive ideas might have to take a back seat when they make black communities less safe, less affordable and less stable. Black voices cannot only matter when they agree with chosen ideology. They always matter- not just when they say what you want.
Charlie offered a letter to the Classic City News editor last week. He spoke from his seven-decade experience as a black citizen, pastor, father, grandfather and activist. A popular local progressive replied to Charlie’s letter with an image. It simply said “silence wonk”. Think about that. A black man offers his perspective and he is insulted and told to silence. But it’s the monument that’s offensive?
My mentee asked what is so complicated about how I feel concerning the monument. I told him there’s going to be little progress until we are all willing to tear down our own monuments. It’s easy to belittle what is meaningful to others. It’s much harder to tear down what is meaningful to ourselves and admit that what looks like a point of reverence and celebration to some is a reminder that this town’s history of excluding black citizens is not as far back in time or solely at the hands of certain people (i.e. others)- as some would like.
That trestle is a disaster of endless maintenance, countless carcinogens and legal liabilities. But more than that it’s a monument to a time, place, people and priority that has left a lot of other people out. Oh sure, Athens is an amazing bohemian blue oasis for some people. For others, the closest they’ll get to it physically or otherwise to the trestle is little more than the fact they’ll still have to pay for it. Unlike the Confederate monument, the war the trestle commemorates is still going strong. A few weeks ago, Athens For Everyone recommended a white progressive activist with very little government experience over a black former Cedar Shoals star football player, scholar (at a really tough school) and now talented lawyer. Their rationale is that she was better equipped to bring about “bold change”.
Let there be no doubt what A4E’s monuments are.
That should be what we tear down. Let’s pull down the system of haves and have-nots in the eyes (and budget) of our government. The folks who want to get rid of the police because their community would hardly be touched while folks in other neighborhoods are downright terrified because they know they’ll be the ones to suffer for the unforeseen or ignored consequences. Can we finally pursue an Athens for everyone beyond the slogan and pre-printed sheets of talking points?
Yelling in the air until someone else takes down a monument is apparently easy for a lot of folks. It’s particularly easy if you don’t like the monument or really like the idea of yourself being against the monument. Tearing those monuments, you’ve made to your own ideals and privileges and entitlements- now knowing how lost and destructive your cause actually was? That’s a lot harder.
Last week, the commission voted to raise most citizens taxes despite the recession. In the weeks running up to the vote, some commissioners tried to convince citizens that property taxes are going down while the truth is many will be paying more next year despite the very real hardships many people and businesses are facing. They also approved some public art for the area. Art that will paid for, in part, an increasing tax bill that will force a few more impoverished families from their homes and neighborhoods. An added burden on our local businesses in their own tax bill and the lost customers that decide to shop across the border.
That’s the thing about tearing down a monument. The ones that spring up in their place tend to be awfully similar.
Jeff Snowden in an Athens resident and marketing consultant