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Monumental Task Farce: The Last Stand of the Lost Cause

The e-mails received by Lt. Gov. Nungesser’s office reveal a much more complicated truth about the real power behind the opposition and about New Orleans itself. 

By Lamar White, Jr.

According to a trove of public records obtained exclusively by The Bayou Brief from Lt. Governor Nungesser’s office, during the first four months of 2017, Nungesser received e-mails from more than 220 people urging him to do whatever he possibly could to prevent the City of New Orleans from removing four controversial monuments. Three of the monuments honor men who betrayed the United States and fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy.-Confederate Commanding General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard—and a fourth monument commemorates the victory of white supremacists in a massacre known as the Battle of Liberty Place.

Those in favor of preserving the Confederate monuments had their say during nearly two years of intense public debate, hours of testimony from citizens in front of the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission, the New Orleans Human Relations Commission, and the New Orleans City Council, among the tens of thousands of words spilled in newsprint, and during more than a dozen court hearings. After all this, opponents of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s decision to remove four public monuments celebrating the mythos of the so-called “Lost Cause” knew they had only one play left, and they knew that Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who is statutorily in command of the state’s office of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, was the only person capable of completing that last-second, Hail Mary pass—a letter to President Donald Trump.

If they didn’t act and act quickly, these four monuments, which had each been a part of the New Orleans landscape for more than a century, would likely be out of the public’s sight forever, relegated to sit indoors at a yet-to-be-determined museum or university or to languish in obscurity behind the walls of a nondescript warehouse. 

The vast majority of state, national, and international media coverage concerning the removal of these four monuments focused on the public demonstrations and protests, particularly during the final weeks before they were finally and unceremoniously taken down. Throngs of white supremacists and Neo-Nazi sympathizers, most of whom were not from the city of New Orleans or even the state of Louisiana, camped out for days and often entire nights in what appeared to be less like a vigil and more like a tailgate party.

To the press and, as a result, to most of the world, these were the putative faces of the opposition: Unabashed and proud racists, burly and unkempt men who carried weapons like fashion accessories. They were people who showed up from all over the country for an opportunity to dress up in costumes or crass t-shirts and yell at passersby a distorted version of history they likely learned from the most toxic echo chambers of the Internet and talk radio.

No doubt, some of them came to New Orleans looking for trouble and seeking out confrontation. Some may have hoped to rough up some of the locals in this majority-African American city, but because the protesters’ message was so incoherent and their only uniting factor rage, they instead fought one another. It is an understandable response to witness these scenes, watch the videos, or look at the photographs of these protests and believe that these are the real opponents of New Orleans’ decision to remove four old monuments. Certainly, they tell a compelling and revealing part of a broader story.

But the e-mails received by Lt. Gov. Nungesser’s office reveal a much more complicated truth about the real power behind the opposition and about New Orleans itself. 

The first thing that stands out about the e-mails sent to Nungesser’s office is the startling lack of crazy rhetoric. The people who took the time to write the Lt. Gov. were not those whom one would expect. The vast majority of them were professionals in New Orleans—real estate brokers, wealth managers and investors, college professors, lawyers, and architects who wrote to express their opposition to the removal of the monuments.

Among these emailers were Frank Stewart, a prominent local businessman, Andree Faget Pitard, the granddaughter of Mignon Faget and a former State Assistant Attorney General, Patrick Huete, the Commanding Officer of New Orleans’ ROTC programs, Everard Marks, the owner of a large pipeline company, and Sharon Rodi, an attorney and former partner in the national law firm Adams and Reese. 

If you live in New Orleans and have followed the ongoing saga from the beginning, many of these names likely are not surprising, but when considered in their totality, they are a reminder that the real fight had nothing to do with David Duke or out-of-town white supremacists.

Instead, it had always been between Mitch Landrieu, the white, Democratic mayor from a Louisiana political dynasty, and a small contingency of white conservative elites, many of whom had supported Landrieu’s campaigns and felt both betrayed and disrespected by what they perceived to be a capitulation to the demands of African American activists—what they considered political correctness run amuck. The protracted battle over these four monuments was about much more than saving or removing old statues. It was also about who should get to define New Orleans. 

It is impossible, aside from a few exceptions, to know exactly who financed the opposition, which undoubtedly spent a small fortune in legal bills and social media outreach.  But it was the Monumental Task Committee, an organization that led the opposition, who launched a public GoFundMe campaign with the goal of raising $50,000. During the last eight months, they have collected less than $8,000.  The largest donations, both $500 each, came from a preservationist in Jackson, Mississippi named Zee Nobles and Scott Gottsche of New Orleans.  

Gottsche, a real estate investor, is married to prominent New Orleans attorney, Kelly Longwell, the director of the New Orleans office of Coats Rose. During the last five years, she and her husband, both active socialites, have contributed more than $31,000 to the campaigns of New Orleans-area politicians, including $1,100 to the campaign of Mitch Landrieu. 

The Monumental Task Committee is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and according to a spokesman who identified himself only as “Ross” on the organization’s Facebook page, they have not been required to file 990 disclosure forms with the IRS because they have received less than $200,000 in donations and have less than $500,000 in assets. Still, if Mr. Gottsche is any indication, the organization enjoyed the financial support of at least a few people with deep pockets,  providing money they would need to have any hope in their quest to save the four monuments from removal.

More than a year before turning to Nungesser, these opponents understood that there was only one place in which the law ordering the removal of these monuments could be defeated, once and for all, and it wasn’t on the streets. To have any chance of victory, the organized opposition would first have to make their way to the Hale Boggs Federal Building-Courthouse on Poydras Street, an imposing brutalist structure built in 1976, and into the chambers of U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, the same man responsible for finding BP guilty of gross negligence and recovering billions in damages for their role in the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. 

Only hours after the City Council approved the removal, four different organizations, led by the Monumental Task Committee, filed suit against the City of New Orleans and requested an injunction be granted to prevent the removals.

Their legal argument wasn’t novel: Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and former Louisiana State Representative David Duke had made an almost identical claim when New Orleans sought to remove the monument commemorating the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, which expressly celebrated the Crescent City White League’s insurrection against the federal and state governments and the massacre of at least seven military officers and six civilians. In 1989, that monument was placed in storage while the City made repairs to Canal Street. Upon the project’s completion, the City attempted to declare the monument a nuisance and donate it to a museum. Duke sued, arguing that because the city’s project relied on federal money, the monument should remain in public view, which it did, technically, when it was eventually relocated in between a nondescript parking lot and a rail line at the foot of Iberville Street.

More than two decades later, the team of lawyers representing the Monumental Task Committee and those three other organizations attempted to make a similar but even more absurd argument, telling the court that because these monuments were located nearby or adjacent to federally-funded streetcar lines, they should be considered “effectively a part” of the streetcar system and thus protected.

The irony here is impossible to ignore. Apologists of these monuments are almost universally insistent, even passionate, about two things: that removing these objects from prominent public spaces is tantamount to “erasing history,” and that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Confederacy was not fighting over the institution of slavery. Instead, they argue, the Confederacy was fighting to guarantee the sacrosanct rights of individual states to govern themselves without undue interference from the federal government.

In other words, this logic supposes that the Confederacy was strongly in favor of the rights guaranteed under the 10th Amendment, despite the fact that the rebels tore up the Constitution, seceded from the Union, and formed their own federalized system of government.

The monuments’ apologists may truly believe that the Confederacy was fought over the issue of state’s rights—and not slavery—but when their duly elected City Council and their duly elected Mayor exercised their legal authority to remove city-owned monuments from city-owned property, they attempted to convince the court to transfer control from local government and to the federal government.

Still, that is not the most egregious argument that pro-monument organizations made to the court in cases that dragged out for nearly a year and a half.

They claimed, more than once and presumably with a straight face, that their 14th Amendment right to equal protection was violated because the City of New Orleans did not subject each and every monument in the entire city to the same scrutiny. Judge Barbier had to remind these organizations, repeatedly, that monuments are not people, writing:

Finally, to the extent that Plaintiffs argue that the City violated their equal protection rights because all similarly situated monuments were not treated alike, this argument also fails. Here, the challenged ordinance does not distinguish between classes of individuals or groups. The monuments ordinance applies to all classes of citizens and it does not have a disparate impact on members of a suspect class.” Foxx, 157 F. Supp. 2d at 593. Further, “the Equal Protection Clause ensures the equal protection of persons, not monuments.” Id. The City is not required to “choose between attacking every aspect of a problem or not attacking the problem at all.”

It isn’t just professionally and ethically dubious for a lawyer to argue that a monument of Robert E. Lee—an inanimate object—should enjoy the same equal protection rights as an American citizen. It makes a mockery of what the 14th Amendment was principally designed to enshrine in our Constitution: Equal civil and legal rights to all African Americans in this country. The 13th Amendment ended slavery, but the 14th Amendment codified a belief in Americans’ shared humanity.  

The 14th Amendment represents everything that the Confederacy fought against. 

Over the past two years, critics of Mayor Landrieu attacked him for caring more about monuments than violent crime.  In his failed bid for governor, former U.S. Senator David Vitter attempted to make the issue a centerpiece of his campaign, hoping to appeal to white voters in Central and North Louisiana, who were much more outraged by the monument efforts in New Orleans than the majority of white people who actually lived in New Orleans. Col. Rob Maness, who has twice lost U.S. Senate campaigns, urged his fellow Republicans in St. Tammany Parish to boycott the city entirely, pretending to speak on behalf of all American veterans. The day after Col. Maness’call for a boycott, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a major veterans organization, selected New Orleans as the host city for its next national convention.  

Conservative bloggers on fringe websites published a series of widely shared but entirely false conspiracy theories alleging a secret deal between Mayor Landrieu and John Cummings, the owner of the nation’s first-ever slavery museum, to relocate the monuments to the museum’s campus—as if a museum intended to communicate the humanity of enslaved people could be an appropriate context in which to display gilded monuments of men who sought to perpetuate slavery. 

Others feigned outrage at the city’s efforts to raise anonymous private-sector donations through a foundation in order to offset the costs of removal, not because they would prefer the project to be completely paid for by taxpayers (quite the contrary), but because they wanted to know the identities of each and every person who has contributed. These are not campaign donations; they are donations from people who simply want to help with a public works project without fear of retribution or violence. 

After the City of New Orleans hired its first contractor to assist in the removal of the monuments, his car was torched. On the day that the Jefferson Davis monument was removed, a representative from a Facebook group of more than 15,000 members, many of whom have expressed support for white supremacist causes, posted the home address of a friend of Mayor Landrieu, who had attended a fundraiser at the house earlier in the evening. The poster encouraged people to show up to protest late in the evening, hours after the event had ended, the crowd had shuffled out, and the Mayor’s friend was home alone with his family.

Contractors and city employees who were tasked with removing the monuments wore masks, and with the exception of the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument, worked in the middle of the night. Conservative critics lambasted Mayor Landrieu and the city government for hiding under the cover of darkness. Then, a day after the removal of the P.G.T. Beauregard monument, a commenter in that same Facebook group published the names, titles, and addresses of  several contractors and city employees they could identify at the scene. 

There was a legitimate reason to be as cautious and as discreet as possible. 

Landrieu’s critics accuse him of stoking unrest, inviting controversy, and unnecessarily spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for what they believe to be a vanity project undertaken for purely political purposes. This version of the story seeks to delegitimize two different city commissions, the city council, the mayor, and the courts. 

The process of removing those four monuments did not take nearly two years because of action or inaction by the city government. The war of attrition was waged by a contingency of white New Orleanian conservatives who bankrolled a team of lawyers to use the court system as a way of dragging out the controversy for as long as possible, even if it required making absurd arguments. In so doing, they forced their own city government to spend thousands of dollars and countless hours defending in court a series of obvious legal truths: The monuments were the property of the city and not the federal government, statues of people are not actual people entitled to equal protection, the monument removal followed the democratic process.

The longer this debate continued in courts and the media, the more opportunity there was for opponents to build up outrage. The aim was to scare city officials into submission, to force them to indefinitely call off their plans due to concerns public safety. That didn’t happen. 

Today, all four monuments are finally out of sight and the threats those involved in the removal have subsided, and The out-of-town protestors have gone home, with the exception of a dwindling, rag-tag group of white supremacists hovering near the former site of the Jefferson Davis monument.  Even those conservative New Orleanians who helped finance the opposition are ready to bury the hatchet. 

Billy Nungesser’s letter to Donald Trump went unanswered. 

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