Dear Decaturish – DeKalb County commissioners can do nothing about Confederate monumentAfter the Stand With Charlottesville candlelight vigil on August 13. 2017, in Decatur, Ga., attendees gather to discuss the controversial "Lost Cause" monument in Decatur Square.
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Well, it was a valiant effort, but it looks as though there’s absolutely nothing that the DeKalb County Commissioners can do about the Confederate monument that sits in the heart of Decatur’s town square. Despite widespread community support and a near unanimous vote to remove the statue by the commissioners seven months ago, the obelisk still stands like a giant, symbolic middle finger to all black citizens and non-treasonous Americans who frequent Decatur’s town square (Commissioner Nancy Jester was the lone holdout, citing the tried and true “slippery slope” argument). After the vote, the DeKalb County Commissioners sought proposals from any parties who might be interested in relocating and displaying a monument that honors and reveres a group of rebels who once waged war against the United States, bringing about one of the darkest and most violent eras in American history. Surprisingly, no one has stepped forward to claim it to date. The commission is now at a standstill on this issue.
Typically, a community could just tear down a musty old statue that no longer reflected the values of the community at large. But unfortunately for us, our elected representatives over at the Golden Dome felt so strongly about honoring a treasonous movement that sought to strip black people of all human dignity that they passed a law protecting Confederate monuments. The Georgia statute goes out of its way to specifically praise the “bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause” (reminder: their “cause” was the preservation of slavery and rebellion against the United States). No veterans of other wars are singled out this way in the statute. Considering that a state law must pass with a majority support in both the Georgia house and senate, and then be signed into law by the governor, there must have been a lot of people in the Golden Dome who were really proud of that Confederate “cause” (again, slavery). It would be easy to dismiss such a law as a vestige of a bygone era when our state legislators were not as socially conscious as they are now. You know, if it weren’t for the fact that this law was passed in 2001.
By the way, has anyone heard of the First Amendment? It’s the part of the Constitution that prohibits the state from enforcing criminal or civil punishments against its citizens for engaging in their right to freely express themselves. For example, the First Amendment protects a community’s decision to install art, sculptures, and statues that it feels reflect the values of the community at large. Additionally, the First Amendment would also seem to protect a community’s decision to remove a statue or piece of art if it were no longer reflective of the ideals and values of that community. Could you imagine if a state passed a law forcing its citizens to respect and revere a certain group of people under threat of criminal prosecution? I mean, a hypothetical law like that would seem to be just a little unconstitutional, and would probably not withstand any type of honest judicial scrutiny.
Is anyone familiar with a gentleman by the name of John Lewis? On May 24, 1963, John Lewis was arrested for using a “whites only” bathroom at a Jackson, Mississippi bus station. John Lewis was fully aware that it was illegal for a black person to use a “whites only” bathroom, but he went ahead and did it anyway! Even though it was illegal! He must have decided that a racist and unjust law was not worth observing. As a result, he spent 44 days in prison. It was a bold act of defiance that we could use a lot more of these days.
In another aside, has anyone ever heard of the concept of prosecutorial discretion? It’s a legal concept that gives prosecutors nearly absolute and unreviewable power to choose whether or not to pursue criminal charges against a particular defendant. In DeKalb County, we are very fortunate to have two talented, experienced women who serve as our District Attorney (Sherry Boston) and Solicitor General (Donna Stribling). Under the doctrine of prosecutorial discretion, these two prosecutors have a great deal of discretion in deciding which cases get prosecuted, and which ones don’t. Hypothetically speaking, it would be incredibly difficult to imagine either of these two women aggressively pursuing a case against someone who fails to observe a law that is almost certainly unconstitutional and based in racism if that situation were ever to arise.
The city of Memphis, Tennessee was recently successful in removing statues of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Remarkably, there was a Tennessee state law nearly identical to Georgia’s that prevented the removal or destruction of Confederate statues from public lands. But how could they have removed the statues in the face of a state law that said that they couldn’t? It turns out that the city of Memphis was so committed to removing it, that they worked hard and came up with a creative way around the state law. They conveyed the statues to a private shell entity for a token sum. After the conveyance, the Confederate statues were no longer publicly owned, the Confederate statute no longer applied, and the statues were rapidly removed. It was a creative way to get around an unjust law firmly grounded in racism. It’s amazing to see what a city can accomplish when it is motivated and actually wants to take action.
It’s a real shame that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to get rid of the Confederate monument in Decatur’s town square. I want to thank our DeKalb County Commissioners for exploring all avenues and exhausting all options before deciding that we were are completely powerless in the face of Georgia’s Confederate Statue law. You fought the good fight.
Thomas R. DeSimone