On September 20, 2022 the Washington Monument was one of many recent “victims” of vandalism. That following Wednesday, the west side of the monument was closed in order to clean up the “vulgar, anti-government” phrase written in red paint: “HAVE YOU BEEN [expletive] BY THIS?” The man responsible for the graffiti, Shaun Ray Deaton, was arrested, but upon questioning claimed that the graffiti was a “cry for help” for the government to support other unhoused folks like himself. However, it seemed much of the media’s focus remained on the integrity of the monument as opposed to Deaton’s pleas for mental health and housing resources (The New York Post, Washington Post, Forbes, etc.). The inattention to Deaton’s protest is more troubling when one considers the exorbitant amount of money going toward monuments. In February of 2020, NPR reported that billionaire David Rubenstein (co-founder and chair of The Carlyle Group) has donated hundreds of millions to the National Park Service for monuments and museums in the DC area (including 10.3 million for the Washington Monument in 2015). This overwhelming funding persists on the state level: In 2022, the National Park Service reported that in Rhode Island alone, approximately four million dollars were used to maintain historical sites including the Roger Williams National Memorial. The focus of billionaires and the government on funding public commemorative works is what Rubenstein dubs “philanthropic patriotism”: the preservation of monumental sculpture as “reminders” of America’s great “origin story” for the supposed benefit of its citizens.
With so much money going towards national heritage sites, it is understandable that the invested parties are protective of their monuments. But vandalism of monumental architecture is nothing new. As recent as October 1, 2022, the H.P. Lovecraft memorial in front of Brown University’s John Hay Library was scribbled over with the words “RACIST HONKEY,” reminiscent of a similar attack on the infamous Columbus statue in Providence, Rhode Island (built by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty) in 2019. The red paint dripping like blood off of the Columbus statue, combined with a sign that proclaimed “STOP CELEBRATING GENOCIDE,” is one of many similar protests against monuments depicting white men who perpetuated racism and genocide (for example, Robert E. Lee, King Leopold II, and Edward Colston). This is a productive form of protest capable of producing change in the monumental landscape: Vandalism indicates that the citizens are ready to move past the monuments of the past, and it has the possibility to democratize America’s methods of preserving history.
First, we must understand the difference between vandalism as protest and vandalism as hate speech. While these symbolic protests are intended to catch their audiences’ eye and force them to become uncomfortable with the monumental landscape, some defacement of public property is meant to instill fear in others as opposed to spotlighting a previous wrong. The repeated vandalism of the Emmett Till memorial by white college students exemplifies this misappropriation of protest, resulting in the plaque being replaced four times before being permanently swapped for a bulletproof sign. In contrast to the primarily symbolic nature of painting a monument red to signify blood or laying a noose by its feet, those who have desecrated Emmett Till’s memorial nodded to violence, posing in front of the monument with guns. Considering the very real violence enacted against Black Americans to this day, as well as the fact that the memorial depicts a boy who was brutally murdered in as a result of that white violence, there is no credible comparison to be made between vandalism for the sake of protest and vandalism for the sake of terrorizing.
With that in mind, what is the point of viable discourse at the American monument? To answer this, it is important to consider the monumental landscape as it currently persists. Monument Lab is a nonprofit dedicated to “[illuminating] how symbols are connected to systems of power and public memory.” In 2021 they released the National Monument Audit, a comprehensive data analysis of the monumental landscape: They found that out of 50,000 conventional monuments, half of the top 50 most memorialized individuals were slave owners; meanwhile, just five of the top 50 were Black and/or Indigenous. In a nation that is steadily becoming more multracial and less white, as well as one that continues to grapple with its legacy of white supremacy, it is fitting that a monumental landscape built to reflect early 20th century ideals no longer fits the accepted status quo. Marginalized people’s rage at these bronze and granite statues depicting “great white men” is not only expected but necessary: As the demographics of America evolve, so too should the landscape we inhabit. After all, if monuments are physical manifestations of our most powerful institutions and enshrine a collective memory, then the public has a right to play a central role in creating that memory.
Moreover, viable protest does produce change. Just this year, the recently formed Committee for Public Works in Providence recommended the permanent removal of the previously vandalized Columbus statue, and it is currently sitting in an undisclosed location waiting to be privately auctioned. After heated debate, where tensions rose to verbal blows during public hearings, the removal of the statue in June of 2020 was met with cheers of joy from many community members, as well as some murmurs of disapproval. Yet, as Special Committee Member Becci Davis notes, the lack of restrictions on who can purchase it may mean it will be placed somewhere else where it will, “be able to cause more harm.”
So what do we do with these displaced monuments? Should we keep them tucked away into a dark corner forever, left to be remembered only through news clippings and photographs? Or should we allow people to display them privately and foster a possible secular religion centered around hate? I propose a compromise between forgetting and remembering: reimagining the monumental landscape through art installations. Financially supporting artists of color in the area to respond to this country’s troubling legacy allows Americans to choose how they want to experience the monumental landscape; the temporary nature of art installations means that we can engage with monuments in an ever-evolving manner that reflects our dynamic populace, acting as our nation’s mirror as we hopefully reconcile with our longstanding relationship with white supremacy. Filling the hole left by the removal of these monuments with works of art approved by the community through similar committees to the one in Providence may finally begin the process of healing for many folks of color who had to live under the hateful watch of these figures.
For many, monuments act as glimpses into the past, a steadfast reminder of bygone eras and moments of national pride, while for others they act as permanent fixtures of white supremacy. In both experiences the monument is static, unchanging even as the nation around it transforms itself—this does not have to be the case. Even if the National Park Service washed away Deaton’s mark upon the Washington monument, the imprint on the minds of those who saw it still remains. It is possible that Deaton’s graffiti made a passerby pause, reflecting on the role the Washington Monument and its namesake has played in their lives. That in itself is a disruption of how we have been conditioned to view monuments. By changing the face of a monument (whether that be through art or vandalism) we question its integrity, and remind ourselves that history is not static. The legacy of these monuments to “great men” may forever be contested, and America’s even more so, but the public has a right to play a role in shaping that legacy. It is not enough to remove monuments from public space: We must democratize the process of building a monumental landscape through the active engagement of its citizenry, honoring the impactful capabilities of both art and protest.