NEW ORLEANS—Pastor Marie Ortiz told me she had a dream, the day before last, in which the Holy Spirit commanded her to go to Lee Circle. So she went, alone, and anointed the steps. Then she looked up at the 133-year statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, bronze arms crossed over the center of New Orleans, and followed through on the second half of the Holy Spirit’s request: she pointed up at Lee, and commanded him to leave.
Ortiz, 77, has fought to rid the city of Confederate statues since the ’70s. In the moments after Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed a December 2015 ordinance calling for the removal of four local monuments—one honoring a rebellion of former Confederates, the others immortalizing Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Lee—she can be spotted in a photograph of the day at the City Council chambers standing behind the democratic mayor, hand-in-hand with a leader of local coalition Take ‘Em Down NOLA, an organization dedicated to removing all symbols of white supremacy, arms raised in victory.
The first of the four monuments ordered to be taken down was at Liberty Place, an obelisk dedicated to a violent uprising of White Democrats against city integration. Threats of violence led the city to bring down the monument in the middle of the night.
The rest of the monuments are slated to be taken down within the month, according to Landrieu, though dates and times are not being publicized for fear of retaliation and protests. In the meantime, Take ‘Em Down NOLA planned a second line, or a traditional brass band parade, to “Bury White Supremacy,” for Sunday. The day was meant to be one of celebration. The second line route would travel from from the city’s Louis Armstrong Park across from the French Quarter to Lee Circle, a roundabout in the center of the city. But after protesters guarding the Davis memorial clashed with antifa on Monday evening, alt-right groups (and notorious former KKK-member and Louisiana politician David Duke) began calling for monument defenders to show up en masse to stake out Lee Circle and take a stand in the modernized “Battle of New Orleans.”
I got to Lee Circle at 11 a.m. on Sunday and found about 50 men—some with Confederate flags, others with black-and-white Southern Nationalist flags—patrolling the steps of the marble steps of the monument, which lead up to the 60-foot tall column supporting Lee.
A 20-something guy with a long-sleeved white shirt, thick black pants and elbow and shoulder pads paced the grass with a bullhorn shouting out: “Where is the red guard? Where are the commies? Where are the antifa?”
“If anyone wants to punch a Nazi, I’m here,” he added, and the crowd giggled.
The streets around Lee Circle were closed off by the police after “credible threats” of violence from either side. Snipers from the Louisiana state police crouched on top of the gas station directly across from Circle. A man with a Pepe the Frog patch and two “Anti-Communist Action” patches was interviewed by a film crew, but only after double-checking that they weren’t BuzzFeed.
“They’re destroying our history,” he told the camera, presumably referring to liberals. “Before we know it, they’ll be blowing up Mount Rushmore.”
Nearby, a man with a navy T-shirt with a Confederate flag alternated between hoisting signs reading “I’m here for the violence” and “Black lives don’t matter.”
Back on the sidewalk, separated from the flags and signs, a trio of guys in cream-colored “PPOL” (Preamble Patriots of Louisiana) shirts and POW MIA baseball caps hung back, watching the scene. They were here to support our constitutional rights, they explained.
“We want it to stay with people’s freedom to express,” Les Hanners, 42, a carpenter from about an hour north of the city, told me. “But we’re not with the racists.”
To take down these type of statues is a sort of regression, he added, and part of the general distortion of history; the Civil War, he noted, was not about slavery at all at the get-go, and instead an economic battle.
By the end of the day, I would hear this sentiment—that the war was not about slavery to start, and therefore should not be remembered as such—repeated by multiple men in camouflage and bandanas and self-identifications ranging from anti-white genocide activists to patriots.
As we talked, a man with a Confederate flag came to blows with a “patriot” in silver armor and an American flag tied like a cape. It was not yet 12:30 p.m., and those sent to defend the stoic Lee were already splintering. The only three arrests of the day came from that brief altercation, before Take ‘Em Down had even left Louis Armstrong Park.
“Got any straight white male millennials out there called Nazis?” the bullhorn man shouted. Next to me, one of the PPOL supporters remarked that he needed to be “flushed out of there.”
In the midst of the brief commotion, a man in a black “Welcome to Hell: New Orleans” t-shirt and full-on devil horns had set up in the street with a bike affixed with a rusty grocery cart in the middle. Inside the cart, a speaker played tinny instrumentals, and a case of PBR sat on top. The man swayed in the street to the music, can in hand, and it felt, for the first time that morning, that I was still in New Orleans.
“Have you been paying attention to the songs he’s playing?” a man named John McCusker, a longtime photojournalist for the two major papers in the city, who stood nearby in a straw hat and bright orange linen shirt, asked me. I had not, I said, and McCusker, who is retired but out at Lee Circle because he “loves a good shitshow”—ticked off the playlist: a selection of Mexican and Spanish folk songs, and New Orleans staples by black musicians. “Summertime” began to start.
“I don’t see this as erasing our heritage,” he argued of taking down the statues. “Our heritage was a fucked-up heritage. It was the original placing of the statutes that was erasing our heritage”
The timing of the placement of the Lee statue in 1884 was significant. The statue was dedicated the same week that Rex, one of the largest and most prominent Mardi Gras Krewes (an organization or group of people that put on parades or balls during Carnival season), first met with Comus, a Krewe with a history of discrimination that had held a “Aryan Race”-themed ball two years prior.
At the 1884 ball, Mildred Lee, Robert’s daughter, was declared the Comus Queen, and Davis and General A.D. Hill were present. It was “one big reconstructed neo-confederate event,” McCusker explained.
Or in other words, a giant, week-long middle finger from the Confederacy, less than two decades after defeat.
I finally headed over to the Park, where Take ‘Em Down had gathered in Congo Square, a spot known as a historic meeting point for slaves on Sundays beginning in the 18th century.
The thing about New Orleans—and I say this, admittedly, as a recent transplant still unabashedly and probably naively enamored with everything about the city—is that it feels like nothing here can be done without music, and nothing here can be done without soul.
So when it came time for the Second Line to move out of the gates of the park, under the bright bulbs illuminating “Armstrong,” they did so to “Every Praise” blaring from a black truck. And as the parade turned off the busy thoroughfare and into the narrow streets of the French Quarter, the brass band started up and did not stop for nearly two hours and two miles.
Six black women, all in their 60s and 70s, led the charge with a red and white sign reading “Power to the People.” Ortiz was one of them, and she clutched the beaded cross around her neck for much of the walk.
Behind them, one woman held up a “Justice for Alton” poster, and another crew trailed with a long white strip of fabric with “Bury White Supremacy” painted across.
The march moved through a tourist-heavy route as they approached the crowd waiting at Lee Circle. On the corner by Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, one of the oldest structures in New Orleans, a cluster of tourists gathered, to-go cups in hand, to watch the parade pass. A man in a straw fedora and plastic novelty beads nodded his head from the side, then joined in, moving to the music in that instinctive, thoughtless way one moves when you hear the type of horns that make the half-finished drink in your hand vibrate on a certain note.
“This is a celebration, y’all, come celebrate with us,” shouted Angela Kinlaw, an organizer holding the bullhorn at the front of the crowd. She marched with large earrings in the shape of Africa, and with an unbridled smile on her face at times; the statues were not down yet, but something had been done. The parade took its time going down major streets in the French Quarter, past shops with names like “Coyote Ugly Saloon” and “Fashion 4 U!” selling giant neon drinks and novelty t-shirts.
“One day, your kids are going to ask, ‘Mama, Daddy, were you in New Orleans the day white supremacy came down?’” Kinlaw called out. Across the street, a garbage collector in a neon vest abandoned his trash can and began dancing.
I walked ahead of the parade and back to Lee Circle, where still, they waited. The crowd—now 100-strong at most, heavily male, all white save for one man—began to don black helmets and masks, expecting violence instead of music. A man in a T-shirt reading “Diversity is Genocidal Myth” held a cane upside down, sharper edge in one hand. An anti-monument crowd had gathered around the barricade protecting the pro-monument crew before the second line reached the site. An onlooker, a 70-something black woman in full polka dots, who declined to give her name but did admit that there was something from Bourbon Street in her icy cup, teased a now-sunburnt Southern Nationalist who said he was from Arkansas.
“Well you should have kept your flags back in Arkansas!” she shouted. Someone in the anti-Lee crowd hoisted a sign reading “Spell Tchoupitoulas or GTFO,” alluding to a well-known (and tricky to pronounce) street in the city, and the pervading sense on both sides that most protesters were not from around here.
A bald man in a full black uniform threw up his arm in a “Heil Hitler” salute, and the surrounding response was so visceral—I staggered back, and the women next to me immediately shouted and flicked him off—it was like he had thrown something into a crowd. Someone held a giant TRUMP flag on the pro-monument side of the grassy hill. Kinlaw led the group into the half of the knoll cordoned off for their side, and after about five minutes, pleaded with her crowd to not let the other side disturb them, and to peacefully march back to Congo Square together. Two elementary-school age girls held signs reading “This tenth-generation Southerner says take ‘em down” and “My 5th great grandfather fought for the CSA and I say take ‘em down,” calling for Lee and his Confederate comrades to be gone in the city,.
Those who wanted the statues taken down outnumbered the supporters by at least double, and police later estimated that the crowd reached 500. The Confederate side waited, still, as the man with the grocery cart speaker started playing “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” and the crowd began to sway.
Ortiz left the crowd and made her way back to her car in the shade cast by the 5 p.m. sun; nearly six hours later, the crowd that had staked out at Lee Circle was finally retreating.
“Every time I ride past this, I think, ‘Lord have mercy, get him down,’” she told me. “My grandchildren are here now, and he is still here.”
“And what I’ve been through, to get to this point has caused me to sweat,” she said, fingering her cross again. “And every time I sweat, it makes me think of my grandparents, sweating.”
Her voice cracked.
“Out there, working in the soil, working for those lazy bum thug Confederates. And you can quote me on that.”
And with that, she walked off, as the next generation shouted and marched under the same Lee she has spent four decades fighting.
Jacqueline Kantor is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans.