Monumentality, Media, and the Rhetoric Surrounding Protest

Monumentality, Media, and the Rhetoric Surrounding Protest

Bria Dinkins

Framing and Rebuking the Language of “Iconoclasm”

Monumental interventions have historically been seen in terms of iconoclasm, destruction and defacement. Historically, the term “iconoclast” was applied to those who attacked these objects, symbols of value or that which were representative and extensions of the institution they wanted to rebuke. More specifically, the term was applied to religious objects. Art historian Dario Gamboni suggests that iconoclasm, while once seen as an acceptable, aesthetic reaction to an object, takes on different meaning when inserted into a legal frame of reference. [1] That is, before iconoclasm became criminalized, it was rather common, even expected, which is why images of iconoclastic acts were painted, engraved and etched—shown as art. [2] Iconoclasm is conflated with destruction of an object and is seen as an extreme response to something. [3] In another sense, iconoclasm is only an attack of sorts or outward rejection of an institution, idea, or value. Historically, scholars have seemed to be interested in the former definition which emphasizes a literal, physical attack on objects— iconic or monumental— that effectively ruins it permanently. But while art historian Joseph Koerner argues that iconoclasts destroy “for no other reason that it exists.” [4] Therefore, iconoclasm is evidence of political contestation. This is what Taussig calls the “public secret,” which describes the phenomenon in which a secret is widely known and understood but cannot or fails to be expressed. [5]

Anthropologist Jessica Winegar specifies this further by explaining how in Egypt, the destruction of monuments may be a way to insert dominance over an “official narrative” rather than allow a regime to “co-opt” its “radical history.” [6] Through destruction, actors force a re-evaluation of space, memory, and protest itself. [7] These scholarly offerings move beyond “destruction” to offer a nuanced expansion on the idea of iconoclasm; they seem to suggest that there may be something more productive happening in the iconoclastic act. These explanations take value not only in the act and the reasons for it but the actual process and the results beyond the object.

I argue that what people would call the “destruction of monuments,” or what has previously been called “iconoclasm,” does not encapsulate or fully describe the set of processes occurring through monumental interventions. I am not advocating for another way of seeing monumental destruction, as much as I am arguing for another way of seeing space, monuments and public deliberation. One of the reasons why “re-making” more aptly describes what is occurring is because it embraces public reclamation, believes consciousness-raising and includes which activities exist outside the physical alteration of the monument. This reclamation is a re-contextualization in its own right—and one that is of service to the collective memory. In contemporary society, “destruction” or “iconoclasm” are not only negatively connotated, but they focus on individuals, individual action and objects rather than processes and collectives. They also focus on the moment of disruption rather than potential futures. The former has become purely descriptive. They flatten and dismiss the dimensionality that is public response and protest.

In general, there seems to be a shortage of scholars who are interested or invested in the complication of the language of iconoclasm itself. Professor of Cultural and Heritage Tourism Sabine Marschall is one of the few who seems to be directly engaging with this problem. She openly complicates “vandalism” and other adjacent words such as defacement, damage, destruction, disfigurement, and desecration, which are used in tandem with the other coded terms including violence, disobedience, and unlawfulness. [8] Instead, Marschall invites us to consider seeing the previous descriptors as modifications, interventions, alterations, and appropriations. Speaking about monuments and socio-political protest in the context of South Africa, Marschall explicitly draws attention to the operations of terminology in crafting understandings of what is happening in protests. By highlighting the connotations of words, Marschall also engages their associated umbrella discourses. In actively shifting language or even drawing attention to discrepancies and patterns in characterizations of interventions we may shift our inherited biases. We can also shift our biases by thinking not simply about words, but alternatives to traditional monuments.

James Young’s exploration of conceptual artists Jochen and Esther Gerz’s Monument Against Fascism (1986) shows some of the possibilities of inviting public participation in collective memory negotiation. The counter-monument, a metal monolith, invited people to write their names and other comments directly on the object. After a period of display, the monolith was lowered into the ground. Young poses the question: “Is it the monument’s unsightly form or the grotesque sentiments it captures and then reflects back to the community” what disturbs people? [9] The monument as a “social mirror” captures the ways in which people respond to the past; the monumental object itself effectively becomes a stand in for the past itself. [10] In this case, as Michael North argues, the public may “become the sculpture.” [11] In creating a counter-monument, the artists allowed people to do what they could not before: interact with monuments and reclaim them as individuals and as publics.

I believe an ephemeral experiment like this one, that challenges the physical and spatial conventions of traditionally made monuments by inviting and anticipating transgressions on space and objects as well as by being temporary, provides a new way of thinking about what monuments can be and what accessible relationships are with them. By providing people the opportunity to physically express and meditate on the history and effects of the Nazi regime, the installation and exercise proved the potency of public deliberation surrounding historical events. It also calls attention to the power of the physical object’s ability to invite discourse and ownership over the narratives surrounding fascism.

News Media, Image, and Self-Understanding

As digital and social media worlds proliferate, scholars continue to have an interest in the discursive digital space itself. [12] Interest in digital space often focuses on the ways that the public constitutes itself online through various social exchanges. For instance, the photograph, and the digital space it circulates in, can deliver visual information about what is going on in different places in the world and give people a place to process and engage with that material. [13] Though this essay is not focused on the images themselves, one way that digital images circulate is as extensions and evidence of textual information found in news articles and their thumbnails. An image on the digital platform and the platform itself can enlist viewers’ attention and unite them through a shared feeling and then, propel viewers to share their thoughts, thus contributing to an online discourse that is tied to a “real” and mediated event. [14]

Kennedy George and Ava Holloway pose in front of the Robert E. Lee monument after civil unrest following the death of George Floyd. Richmond, Va. (June 5, 2020) Photo: Julia Rendleman of Reuters.

“Remediation” is a helpful lens to look through engagement with public acts through their coverage in news media and dissemination on social media. New Media scholars Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin theorized remediation as the way in which media revises itself not by divorcing from previous mediums, but by acknowledging and incorporating the logic of those mediums while re-presenting them in different ways. [15] For instance, photography remediated painting, television and film. It is through these transformations and established relationships that new media gains cultural significance. [16]

This definition of remediation will be helpful for considering the power of images. I believe that these contemporary, colorful, digital photographs of monumental re-makings are remediations of postcards, drawings, paintings, and analog photographs of Confederate monuments. Further, not only do these new images show a reclamation of Confederate monuments in real life, but through their capturing, they also become a reclamation, re-appropriation, and intervention into the body of previous images of monuments and our established visual understanding of them.

Though Meg Stalcup considers the remediation of murals from physical walls to online and digital photographs, she is very interested in the idea of accessibility. Remediation can be the act of making information, visual and otherwise, available to those who can engage with it no other way. Another example Stalcup uses is that of images of crowds of protests which were captured digitally and disseminated, mimicked and engaged with as a collective process. She asserts that images of protest are “created with awareness of each other as part of a ‘virtual event.’” [17] One thing I noted in my research was that the same set of photographs were used across a significant percentage of the news articles that circulated across the partisan spectrum. While this could be because of the nature of news media coverage itself, citation and collaboration, the ultimate effect is that these articles are generating a new idea and image of the Robert E. Lee monument on Monument Avenue. That said, in using the same set of images to characterize the protest in their articles, the news media both solidified and limited the ways we could understand what was happening in Richmond. The most popular image, in proper news media fashion, is meant to be an objective, encompassing view of the monument and the activities around it.

A large group of protesters gathered around the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, on Tuesday in Richmond, Va. The crowd protesting police brutality chanted, “Tear it down.”

This phenomenon of the “virtual event” with images of protest that are “created with an awareness of each other” relates to Gürsel’s analysis of the “ostensibly spontaneous” nature of the Unity Rally in Paris which occurred in response to the Charlie Hebbo attacks. [18] She argues that there were “institutional patterns, social needs and behaviors, technological infrastructures, and iconic templates involving state actors, private individuals, and communication networks” that resulted in the “overdetermined manner in which [the rally] was photographed.” [19] The Unity Rally, a march which was a nationalistic re-assertion of the strength of the French and “peace” to the globe is different in many ways to the set of events which occurred at various Confederate, Colonial and otherwise racist, white-supremacist monuments. In the latter, protests were unplanned and un-marketed; the narrative was being crafted as it occurred. The protests and interventions against monuments were inspired by a chasm within the United States: the history of anti-blackness, colonization, slavery and oppression. But the similarities between The Unity Rally and protests surrounding monuments lie in the lack of diversity of ideas in the coverage surrounding the event. Different media sources still present similar or the same narratives of those events in their coverage.

It is also worth noting that in contemporary news making practice, news media practitioners spend time anticipating news and “screen watching.” [20] In a time where news is so abundant and so quickly captured and disseminated, news sources find out news from other news sources and they borrow information from each other. But what is at stake is this: traditional, mainstream media is not challenging the status quo nor encouraging the masses to think thoughtfully about critical socio-cultural and political events. This observation is in line with political scientist Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community.” [21] Anderson argues that the printing press, and further any type of media technology, through their circulation, gives readers (or viewers) a means to understand themselves and one another through a shared vernacular and its generative discourse. [22] More specifically, print capitalism attracted readers of different backgrounds not only through strategic and efficient dissemination of their texts but through a systemization of their language and the establishment of a certain subjectivity or means of looking or reading. [23] Anderson argues that contemporary nationalism arose through this process of consciousness making. Now, the proliferation and distribution of different forms of news and social media inform the national consciousness.

News and Social Media Converge(nce)

Stalcup uses Graham Meikle’s notion of “unfinished media” to describe the process of media making which opens up a dialogue about future possibilities and which also inspire and fuel movements of their own. [24] I believe that comment sections, either on the article itself, or on Facebook at the article’s posting, is a space for discussing this “unfinished,” incomplete media, which in this case is both the article coverage itself and the topic of interest: monuments, namely their existence, contextualization and the state of being in the future.

Why We Post, a “global anthropological research project on the uses and consequences of social media” defines social media as “technology that affords ‘scalable sociality’” or “provides greater control in communication over both the degree of privacy and size of group, when compared with previous forms of communications media.” [25] However, social media, they point out, can have multiple definitions and is constantly being defined by its users. Anthropologists’ interest in social media comes from this idea of connection and relationships. Anthropologists working on Why We Post believe that social media platforms “have occupied the spaces” between what was previously “either private or fully public” media. Sociologist and professor of journalism, Ashlee Humphreys agrees with this assessment adding, “social media generally goes beyond private, dyadic communication between two people, and it usually happens in a public or semipublic forum.” [26] Humphreys briefly covers “Convergence” in her text, which she describes as “the process through which certain institutional, functional, and user practices have merged into one platform and/or sphere.” [27] Humphreys considers the ways convergence changes the methods through which people communicate. The posting of news media on social media is a convergence itself. News now has a social life and does not exist in a delivered package. In a society where almost everyone has the internet at their fingertips, news is even more accessible. Additionally, in having social media platforms or “system[s] that coordinate[s] the exchange or interaction between two or more groups of people,” consumers of news may comment on it in a public or semi-public manner. [28]

Bonilla and Rosa use #Ferguson as a field site and see it as conduit for personal and collective engagement with remote events and protest. [29] In their analysis, they explain how the digital space can and often does become a displaced field site for the initial field site. In this case, #Ferguson becomes Ferguson itself or at least a proxy for it. They assert how the phenomenon of #Ferguson exemplified not only how the digital platform was used as a discursive and critical space for the processing of the events for those who were privy to it remotely, but that the digital space, the hashtag, allowed people to feel that they were in unity with those who were there through the seemingly simultaneous and instantaneous exchanges of images, news, and personal thoughts. Bonilla and Rosa resist the idea that social media is about “network and community” but rather argue that it is about “individual experiences, practices and socialities.” [30] News media posts on social media provides a space for people to assert their political, ideological and moral opinions to a wide audience that they would not be able to access anywhere else.

Professor of Communications and Media Studies Maria Bakardjieva’s notion of sub-activism is helpful in explaining what Facebook utterances may reveal about political participation. Sub-activism is the way one’s political ideology leaks into daily routine. [31] It is the ways in which politics are expressed in small moments through mostly individual expression and choice, but which can be understood through a political and/or ethical lens. It “is a refraction of the public political arena in the private and personal world.” [32] Facebook comment sections become part of this everyday world and routine. Utterances become a way of expressing engagement with news and, more importantly, with the conversation that happens because of it. In my analysis of sample comments, I could see the relationship between politics and ethics as it informed the performance of personal values through Facebook. Jolynna Sinanan and Gabrielle Hosein argue “the online and offline are seen as interrelated and therefore part of the everyday, where uses of social media platforms are also a moral reflection of a person in a given community.” [33]

But Sinanan and Hosein also offer an additional perspective. Their work in Trinidad was based on the premise that, though it is assumed social media presents more opportunities for political participation, there was not much research on the relationship between the political online self and the public, in-person self. [34] The participation which Bakardjieva calls “sub-activism,” is related to what the two call “non-activism.” To them, the non-activist is someone who actively does not participate in political causes. In the context of Trinidad, non-activists are those who do not want to participate often because they want to avoid the consequences of participating. They found that, in Trinidad, expressing political opinions, especially controversial opinions, could lead to unfavorable social outcomes like social ostracization. [35] In the United States, this is likely different for a whole set of reasons. While one could be socially ostracized or for instance, lose a job, for saying something overtly racist or problematic on social media (in the past or present), people are not generally ostracized for engaging in public political discourse. In Trinidad, a person who engages in public political discourse is an activist. But in the States, individualism is more present than in other countries which emboldens people to offer their warranted and unwarranted opinions. People encourage and purposefully provoke controversial conversations online and in-person. In the States, to be a “non-activist” is not a defining term the way it is in Trinidad. At the same time, as I point out above, many people who came across the articles posted did not comment on them. Perhaps they had nothing to add or did not want to share it. Participating in social media through commenting opens one up for response and engagement—public debate and public critique. It also means that people have information about your political opinions. The cautiousness that surrounds political debate, in some cases, could be related to what communications scholar Zizi Papachariss refers to as civil discourse. [36] After analyzing almost 300 discussion threads in political newsgroups, Papachariss came to the conclusion that civility or “civil behaviors that enhance democratic conversation” was normal and that online communication was symptomatic of what Lyotard called “democratic emancipation through disagreement and anarchy.” [37] But this was before social media had fully developed. Now, social media is considered a threat to democracy. [38]

In “Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption,” Flaxman, Goel, and Roa’s answer the question: Do technical advancements such as online publishing, social networks and web searches expose viewers to diverse perspectives or increase “ideological segregation”? [39] After examining the 50,000 US-based readers, they found that while social networks and search engines did increase the ideological distance between individuals, they also seemed to increase readers’ exposure to news on the opposite side of the political spectrum that they belonged to. But scholars, like those a part of the Omidyar Group, are still concerned about the ways that social media algorithms can perpetuate division and feed into extreme and biased views and contribute to other issues. [40] Social media can encourage “uncivil debate” and lead to unfettered harassment since platforms struggle to determine how to oversee speech. [41] Further, social media platforms have immense power.

Facebook-affiliated platforms are available to “86% of internet users aged 16 to 64 in 33 countries and effectively act as the gateway to the Internet, if not the Internet itself.” [42] It is not only that these social media sites have monopolized the internet space, but they have changed the ways that people consume news. This is partially because these platforms sustain an “attention economy” by targeting individuals with tailored content that guarantees clicks. Political news stories are more shared on Facebook and Twitter than other stories. Further, social media has become a substitute of news, thereby conflating their functions.

In combing comment sections for utterances, I wanted to gain a sense of the discourse surrounding monumental interventions more generally, at the level of the “masses,” in spite of and in response to the news articles. I wanted to be able to understand the ways people perceive themselves and others in relation to the events themselves, in this case, the monumental inventions occurring at Confederate monuments as well as how they conducted and presented themselves in the comment sections.

The previous scholarly literature published on monumentality and iconoclasm, news media, social media and the digital space more generally informs, follows and supports my line of inquiry. In tracing these three main theoretical and conceptual threads, I hope to make clear the lenses from which I draw and situate my observations. The final set of theoretical and historical concepts I trace center around the history of Black protest and associated rhetoric.

Civil Rights vs. Property Rights

Critical race theorist and professor of civil rights and liberties, Cheryl I. Harris traces the origins of “property” as derived from the gatekeeping of whiteness and the privileges of white identity in her essay “Whiteness as Property.” She argues that whiteness itself, which started as an identity marker, came to become a form of property. [43] I argue that in many ways, to act against “property” (in this case, public property) is to act against whiteness—namely capitalism and colonization—and its specific manifestations. These manifestations of whiteness, capitalism and colonization are less tangible than a physical object. They are the over policing of Black folks, the prison industrial complex, red-lining and more.

Harris argues that property “in the founding era included not only external objects and people’s relationships to them, but also all of those human rights, liberties, powers, and immunities that are important for human well-being, including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom from bodily harm, and free and equal opportunities to use personal faculties.” [44] Further she points to the “rights of use and enjoyment.” [45] These very ideas, which permeate the Constitution and its genesis, supported a system of enslavement and white people’s ownership over Black bodies. Black people were deemed 3⁄4 of a human being and could be “used” for one’s “enjoyment” and “well-being” under the notion of granted human liberties at one point. Black people did not enjoy human freedoms and in many ways, are still prevented from enjoying those freedoms.

Harris also argues that this relationship between whiteness and property has lingered. [46] The whiteness of spaces and places is invisible to most people but permeates the language we used to describe property and property rights in the first place. Further, this history has skewed notions of social justice and contemporary understandings of property. “In protecting the property interest in whiteness, property is assumed to be no more than the right to prohibit infringement on settled expectations, ignoring countervailing equitable claims predicated on a right to inclusion.” [47] These expectations may limit the language of protest and reinforce its racialization. To act against a statue of a white man deemed “public property” or even “art” is an act of resistance especially when that man fought to keep Black folks enslaved, as property. Protesters reclaimed an object that symbolizes oppression and were met with a forceful backlash by the police and other individuals. This violent encounter is symptomatic of the fight for space, for expression and for well-being—the same things (and rights) that are supposedly desired by our country. The issue of Confederate monuments in contemporary America visibilized the institutionalized impulse to protect whiteness and property in spite of Black death.

The Robert E. Lee monument and other Confederate monuments are about property. They were erected in defense of white “property”: free labor which came in the form of Black peoples and in another way, to deny Black people property rights and other rights themselves. Whiteness as property extends beyond the monument itself to its built and surrounding environment. In George Lipsitz’s essay, “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness,” he argues that whiteness infers ownership or property. He details how systems of laws and social practices that upheld red-lining, predatory loans, Jim-Crow, the separation of urban and suburban landscapes were responsible for the lasting inequities between Black and white folk. But whiteness was also less visible. Lipsitz asserts that “a fictive identity of ‘whiteness’ appeared in law as an abstraction, and it became actualized in everyday life in many ways. American economic and political life gave different racial groups unequal access to citizenship and property…” [48] These are systems of segregation which allowed for Monument Avenue to be continuously seen as a place of beauty and wealth (and whiteness); it was created and preserved with that intent. Lipsitz’s analysis compliments and furthers Harris’ notion of whiteness by discussing the effects of more contemporary systems and the remnants of older ones. He also notes how these systems are rebranded and new ones are actively created and enacted. He argues, “contemporary racism is not just a residual consequence of slavery and de jure segregation but rather something that has been created anew in our own time by many factors including the putatively race-neutral liberal social democratic reforms of the past five decades.” [49] By explicitly saying this, Lipsitz undermines contemporary excuses that history itself is responsible for racism and not the people and systems of today.

I also want to borrow Lipsitz’ term “race-neutral” to consider the language used to describe monumental interventions. Language is not “race-neutral.” As it relates to discussing “crime,” “property,” and “rights” specifically, one can see discrepancies in both language and images as they relate to the races of the people they implicate. Language and images are used in conjunction to protect whiteness and white people, and on the other hand demonize Black people. This has historically been the case in photography and film. For instance, the classic film, Birth of Nation (1915) was famously responsible for promoting the image of the violent Black folks in contrast to innocent, and fearful white people. White folks used blackface and minstrelsy to tell stories about white fear and Black malice.

Respectability Politics as a Weapon

The use of language and image is related to what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined “the politics of respectability” in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. [50]  A significant area of scholarship in Black social movements, respectability politics refers to the demand that non-white, specifically Black, people present themselves and behave in a certain manner that is appealing and acceptable to white folks and mainstream society. [51] In abiding by and performing these social codes encapsulated by “manners and mortality”, Black people may be able to “redefine themselves outside the prevailing racist discourses.” [52] Respectability politics is a problematic imposition that feeds into Black exceptionalism, the idea that only the Black bourgeois and certain Black folks should be studied or celebrated. The implication is that certain Black lives are more worthy or more deserving than others, thus contributing to the divides within the Black community and perpetuating racist narratives. When Black folks do not present or behave in a way that is deemed “respectable” (hence the politics of respectability), this becomes the excuse for their situation or fate (whether it be death or whatever else). Respectability politics is not weaponized, it is a weapon.

Mikaela Pitcan, Alice E. Marwick, and danah boyd indicate Trayvon Martin as an example of this in their text Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World. In this example, Martin was effectively blamed for his own death because experts asserted that his hoodie—rather than his Blackness— “marked him as a ‘gangsta.’” [53] People responded to this line of argumentation on social media by posting photographs of themselves wearing hoodies. People also participated in the #iftheygunnedmedown movement, in which people would post the photo they would use should they be a victim of police violence. In this social media movement, there was an inherent critique of the ways that photos of murdered Black people, mainly Black men, are weaponized. The media has a history of portraying white perpetrators of violence better than their Black victims, using more or “less ‘respectable’ images” in comparison to the supposed crime. These media representations result in “less empathy among viewers and harsher public opinions.” [54] Through the #iftheygunnedmedown, participants were able to metaphorically and visually reclaim an image of themselves that would be in the hands of the media otherwise.

Tyler Atkins, “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown which picture would they use.” Twitter. August 10, 2014.

In “Ambivalent Frames: Rosa Parks and the Visual Grammar of Respectability,” Katharina M. Fackler articulates a visual analysis of images of Parks and argues that they are informed by an ideology of respectability that Black leaders have subscribed to. [55] Fackler argues that these images of Rosa Parks do not capture “her radicalism and fierce advocacy for social justice,” which is the reason why Parks was selected to be the face of the movement and continues to be an important figure in the civil rights movement. [56] She was strategically chosen because she could perform resistance through respectability. I believe it is not widely taught or known that before Parks refused to give up her seat, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith also refused to vacate their seats. However, owing to their family statuses, occupations, and ways of presenting “they did not fulfill the strict requirements of bourgeois respectability.” [57] Because they were 15 and 18 years old, respectively, the Black male leaders of the movement thought the two girls could not ignite the change that the then 42-year-old Parks could. Further, Parks was lighter skinned, and this afforded her a kind of respectability based on her proximity to whiteness which was, of course, based on colorism, another specific manifestation of white supremacy.

Photo comparison and text used to illustrate the essay “Status and race in the Stanford rape case: Why Brock Turner’s mug shot matters” CBC News (June 11, 2016) Photo: Laura Hahn Fields on Facebook.

Fackler’s “iconography of respectability” and “ambivalent grammar of respectability” provide a helpful frame through which one can see and consider how individuals are represented and behaviors are classified, but also the ways that language is reinforced by image, or the way that image stands in for language and is applied to groupings of people. Respectability politics is related to W.E.B. Du Bois’ “double consciousness” or the theory that Black folks have “this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others…[feeling] his two-ness, —an American, a Negro.” [58] Double consciousness exists on the everyday, even subconscious level. Protest must be carried out in a way that is respectable and Black protesters must grapple with the ways in which they present themselves in protest, taking into account the ways their actions and their image may be used against them. If protesters fail to engage in protest in a way that fails to meet this nearly impossible benchmark, the entire reason for protest may be put into question. Even so, acting a certain way never guarantees a fair consideration. One of the components of this research that is so compelling to me are images of Black joy and Black reclamation that seem to resist respectability while contributing to a seemingly unidentified and unengaged category of protest imagery.

Graffiti & Visibilizing the Public

Graffiti was the monumental intervention that was most considered in the news media and outside of it. Graffiti is a public medium and public action. Graffiti tags have their own social life which exists at the site and moment of use, but which is prolonged through various processes of creation, conversation, and community engagement. Social ecologist Faye Docuyanan identifies the art/vandalism dichotomy which he then centers around notions of property and disruption. She considers how for instance, “taggers” in Los Angeles may be seen as artists, who ultimately work collectively and cohesively. Known as writers and taggers, they have their own voice but they ultimately cooperate in the system of written signs. While a single graffiti tag by itself does not necessarily constitute an artwork, a large grouping of tags as a whole may be seen as such. In this case, graffiti is a shared language that taggers may identify with it. But graffiti is also a language that can be witnessed and appreciated by others; graffiti can characterize a building to people who come across it regularly. Community members can identify infrastructures through this expression. [59]

Anthropologist Doreen Lee, whose research is based in Indonesia, argues that street art—namely graffiti—uses surface as performance space and that this performance gains greater significance through its photographic circulation on the internet. [60] The use of media, and social media in particular, has enabled public art works and collaborative artistic acts, like murals accessible to audiences everywhere. The remediation of public art works—be it graffiti or anything else—on a wall or on the internet, effectively becomes part of the art practice itself, or a consequence of it. Images of graffiti, or of any art, can achieve virality, or widespread circulation due to the use of media. Street art certainly is not enduring, but media and remediation allows for images of the event or artwork to exist in the digital, public sphere. [61]

In regard to physical monumental interventions, we can think not only about the impact of visibility, but how the actual transformation of a monument can be a symbolic, artistic act. A “defaced statue” can become a new monument or memorial, altered by the actions set against it and the small alterations which constitute it, “can be interpreted as forms of sociopolitical protest which are—in the long term—perhaps more significant than an individual’s act of splashing paint at a statue.” [62] Marshall centers the process over the results and the long-term effects. Monumental interventions’ socio-cultural, political and aesthetic possibilities extend beyond the individual act. In seeing the transformation of the Robert. E Lee Monument, we can come to realize the sheer collective power and work it took to transform it. From gray to multi-colored and decorated with voices, from green grass to yellow because of the amount of traffic, we can see how important and essential collective moment is.

All of the interventions at the Robert E. Lee monument can be considered a form of “new genre public art.” Urban and cultural geographer Joni Palmer invokes art historian Rosalyn Deutsch and artist Suzanne Lacy when discussing the process of making art public. Synthesizing their thoughts, Palmer explains that public art is produced as a means to engage “people/publics” and directly speak to and grapple with the community’s concerns. [63] “New genre public art,” a term coined by Lacy, expresses how art can employ a specific site and facilitate an engagement between the work and its viewers. In this engagement, viewers are called upon to consider their own existence in space and these art projects—rather than art objects that people are detached from and expected to view from afar—are often activities or conversations that have the aim of enlisting community members to resolve specific problems that exist there. Artists become facilitators; ownership belongs to everyone. In this way, public art can gather people and come to visualize the public itself.

Screenshot of AiRVA Photo Tweet, Twitter.

What “Law & Order” Really Means

This topic deserves more consideration than I am able to devote to it but is a helpful way of considering how the language of protection and property relates to this idea of “law & order,” both of which are racialized. Historically, the phrase comes from after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater felt that there was a connection between rights for Black folks and crime. In her essay “The Origins of the Carceral Crisis: Racial Order as ‘law and Order’ in Postwar American Politics,” political scientist and African American studies professor Naomi Murakawa asserts “Goldwater conflated civil disobedience with ‘violence in our streets’ and black activists with ‘bullies and marauders,’ and in so doing he contended—subtly but undeniably— that black freedom necessitates a strong ‘law and order’ response.” [64] There is a history of Black protest being considered violent, which is directly connected to Civil Rights. Even though white people have historically perpetrated violence against Black people, the narrative cast blame onto Black people in the late 60s after the Civil Rights Movement when “law and order” became “conflated with racial order” alongside crime policy and the rise in mass incarceration. [65] Segregation was purported to maintain law and order while integration created crime. In many ways, this makes the re-making of Confederate monuments, specifically the ones on Monument Avenue so significant. The monuments, which were and continue to be a symbol of white wealth and white supremacy in a once-segregated, white-only area, were reclaimed by Black people who transgressed not simply the monument but what was and continues to be seen as white space.

Black folks were already dehumanized and presented as violent in media and pop culture, but this imagery and the politically deployed rhetoric used to describe Black folks instilled this sense of fear and of mistrust of Black people. Further, when Black people protest, it is seen as inherently corrupt, tainted, or violent. Black-led protests are “mobs” and without reason. In this relationship, where Black folks were once property and have grained rights, language is deployed to discredit Black social movements. If property is destroyed in protest, Black social movements are further delegitimized. In other words, even if Black folks are protesting, civil disobedience is always violence. If the destruction of property delegitimizes Black people’s fight for civil rights, then (white) property rights are valued more than Black civil rights. Given this and the history of chattel slavery in the United States, civil rights and property rights are seemingly at odds with each other for Black people.

A few years later Richard Nixon echoed the cries for “law and order” declaring himself a “law and order” president. He wanted to appeal to what he referred to as the “silent majority”—those who were not demonstrating. Washington Post contributor, Terence McArdle explains “to many Americans watching the events play out on television, the city had become synonymous with disobedience — both civil and uncivil — and general disorder.” [66] Invoking political scientist Julia Azari who argues that law and order is “often a way to talk about race without talking about race” and McArdle suggests that law and order is racially coded and unevenly applied. [67]

There is also a conflation among law, order and peace, and peace with justice. During the 2020 spring and summer’s protest, President Donald Trump, who had already used the phrase before, used it again when we said: “I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.” [68] This separation and comparison between law and order and peaceful protestors works under the assumption that law and order is called upon when there are violent protesters. So “violent” protestors were faced with law and order— rubber bullets and tear gas. To some, Donald Trump was the enactor of law and order and to others, he embodied the same legacy of hate that the Confederate monuments did.

The history and application of property and civil rights, respectability politics and “law & order” rhetoric contextualize and inform mainstream responses to monumental interventions and general protest in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement. They help explain how Black existence and therefore Black protest is criminalized. On January 6th, 2021, the country was reminded how the framework for thinking about and judging the value and appropriateness of protest is skewed to demonize Black people and protect whiteness and white people. On January 6th, an angry mob of mostly white men attempted a coup at our nation’s capital after Donald Trump lost the presidency. These people felt entitled to space and property (their “America”) enough to threaten the safety and lives of those inside. The government has always served white people and largely been held by white people and more specifically, white men. Why wouldn’t white men who feel betrayed by the government retaliate? I am being facetious here, but there is something to be said about whiteness as ownership over space, land, and structures—specifically those seen as historical or governmental. Perhaps they felt they were expressing their constitutional rights. There are no safeguards for white anger and violence in this country. Respectability politics are reserved for non-white people— “law & order” does not apply to white folks. And of course, this begs the (rhetorical) question, what if an angry group of Black people came to the capital on January 6th? What would the narrative be and what of the fallout?

Bria Morgan Dinkins is a designer for film and theater productions as well as an art historian with a specialization in performance activism and monumental installations. They received their B.A. from Swarthmore College in 2021. They are currently based in NYC.


[1] Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution (London: Reaktion Books, 2018), p. 10.

[2] Gamboni, The Destruction of Art, pp. 8-10.

[3] Joseph Leo Koerner, “On Monuments,” Res 67, no. 1 (September 1, 2017), p. 5.

[4] Koerner, “On Monuments,” pp. 5-20.

[5] Michael T. Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative Stanford (Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 878.

[6] Jessica Winegar, “A Questionnaire on Monuments,” October 165 (Summer 2018), p. 177.

[7] Winegar, “A Questionnaire on Monuments,” p. 177.

[8] Sabine Marschall, “Targeting statues: monument “vandalism” as an expression of sociopolitical protest in South Africa,” African Studies Review 60, 3 (December 2017), p. 203.

[9] James Edward Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 35.

[10] Young, The Texture of Memory, p. 35.

[11] See: James Edward Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 31. See: Michael North, “The Public as Sculpture: From Heavenly City to Mass Ornament,” Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4 (1990): 860-79. Accessed May 10, 2021.

[12] See: Gregory Starrett, “Violence and the Rhetoric of Images,” Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 3 (August 1, 2003): 398–428. See: Zeynep Devrim Gürsel, “Visualizing Publics: Digital Crowd Shots and the 2015 Unity Rally in Paris,” Current Anthropology 58, no. 15 (February 1, 2017): 135–148. See: Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa, “Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States,” American Ethnologist 42, no. 1 (2015): 4–17.

[13] Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa, “Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States,” American Ethnologist 42, no. 1 (2015): 4–17.

[14] See: Gregory Starrett, “Violence and the Rhetoric of Images,” Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 3 (August 1, 2003), p. 400. See: Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa, “Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States,” American Ethnologist 42, no. 1 (2015), pp. 6, 11.

[15] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT Press, 2000).

[16] Bolter and Grusin, Remediation.

[17] Meg Stalcup, “The Aesthetic Politics of Unfinished Media: New Media Activism in Brazil,” Visual Anthropology Review 32, no. 2 (November 2016), p. 148.

[18] On January 7, 2015, Parisian, satirical, weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters became the site of a mass shooting carried out by two brothers belonging to the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda; the shooting was believed to be in response to the paper publishing cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad amongst others.

[19] Zeynep Devrim Gürsel, “Visualizing Publics: Digital Crowd Shots and the 2015 Unity Rally in Paris,” Current Anthropology 58, no. S15 (February 1, 2017), p. 135.

[20] Dominic Boyer, The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), p. 16.

[21] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London New York: Verso, 2016).

[22] Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 41.

[23] Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 41- 44.

[24] Stalcup, “The Aesthetic Politics of Unfinished Media” pp. 151-152.

[25] Why We Post,

[26] Ashlee Humphreys, Social Media: Enduring Principles (Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 7.

[27] Humphreys, Social Media, p. 18.

[28] Humphreys, Social Media, p. 18.

[29] Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa, “Ferguson: Digital Protest, Hashtag Ethnography, and the Racial Politics of Social Media in the United States,” American Ethnologist 42, no. 1 (2015): 4–17.

[30] Bonilla and Rosa, “Ferguson,” p. 6.

[31] Maria Bakardjieva, “Subactivism: Lifeworld and Politics in the Age of the Internet,” The Information Society 25, no. 2 (March 11, 2009), p. 92.

[32] Bakardjieva, “Subactivism,” p. 92.

[33] Jolynna Sinanan and Gabrielle Jamela Hosein, “Non-Activism: Political Engagement and Facebook Through Ethnography in Trinidad,” Social Media + Society 3, no. 3 (July 1, 2017), p. 1.

[34] Sinanan and Hosein, “Non-Activism,” pp. 1-10.

[35] Bakardjieva, “Subactivism,” pp. 91–104.

[36] Zizi Papacharissi, “Democracy Online: Civility, Politeness, and the Democratic Potential of Online Political Discussion Groups,” New Media & Society 6, no. 2 (April 1, 2004): 259–83.

[37] Papacharissi characterizing Lyotard’s argumentation. See: Zizi Papacharissi, “Democracy Online: Civility, Politeness, and the Democratic Potential of Online Political Discussion Groups,” New Media & Society 6, no. 2 (April 1, 2004), p. 259. See: J.E. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

[38] Anamitra Deb, Stacy Donohue, and Tom Glaisyerl, “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?” The Omidyar Group (1 Oct. 2017)

[39] Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel, and Justin M. Rao, “Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption,” Public Opinion Quarterly 80, no. S1 (January 1, 2016): 298–320.

[40] Deb, Donohue, and Glaisyerl, “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?” p. 4.

[41] Deb, Donohue, and Glaisyerl, “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?” p. 4.

[42] Deb, Donohue, and Glaisyerl, “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?” p. 5.

[43] Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993): 1707-791.

[44] Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” p. 279.

[45] Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” p. 282.

[46] Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” p. 290.

[47] Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” p. 290.

[48] George Lipsitz, “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the ‘White” Problem in American Studies’,” American Quarterly. Vol. 47, No. 3 (September 1995), p. 370.

[49] Lipsitz, “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness,” p. 372.

[50] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 185.

[51] Mitzi J. Smith, “Paul, Timothy, and the Respectability Politics of Race: A Womanist Inter(con)textual Reading of Acts 16:1-5,” Religions (Basel, Switzerland ) 10, no. 3 (2019), p. 1.

[52] Kali N. Gross, “Examining the Politics of Respectability in African American Studies,” Politics of Respectability in African American Studies- Almanac, Vol. 43, No. 28 (April 1, 1997),

[53] Marwick Pitcan, and danah boyd, “Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 23, Issue 3, (May 2018), p. 165.

[54] Pitcan, and boyd, “Performing a Vanilla Self,” p. 165.

[55] Katharina M. Fackler, “Ambivalent Frames: Rosa Parks and the Visual Grammar of Respectability,” Souls, 18, no. 2-4 (2016): 271–282.

[56] Fackler, “Ambivalent Frames,” p. 273.

[57] Fackler, “Ambivalent Frames,” p. 273.

[58] W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1968.), p. 2.

[59] Faye Docuyanan, “Governing Graffiti in Contested Urban Spaces,” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 23, no. 1 (May 1, 2000): 103–121.

[60] Doreen Lee, “‘Anybody Can Do It’: Aesthetic Empowerment, Urban Citizenship, and the Naturalization of Indonesian Graffiti and Street Art,” City & Society 25, no. 3 (December 2013), p. 307.

[61] Lee, “Anybody Can Do It,” p. 308.

[62] Sabine Marschall, “Targeting Statues: Monument “Vandalism” as an Expression of Sociopolitical Protest in South Africa,” African Studies Review 60, 3 (December 2017), pp. 209, 216.

[63] Joni M. Palmer, “The Resonances of Public Art: Thoughts on the Notion of Co‐Productive Acts and Public Art,” City & Society 30, no. 1 (April 2018), p. 74.

[64] Naomi Murakawa, “The Origins of the Carceral Crisis: Racial Order as ‘Law and Order’ in Postwar American Politics,” Race and American Political Development, 245–266 (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 234.

[65] Murakawa, “The Origins of the Carceral Crisis,” p. 235.

[66] Terence McArdle, “The Law and Order Campaign that Won Richard Nixon the White House 50 Years Ago,” The Washington Post (November 5, 2018),

[67] McArdle, “The Law and Order Campaign.”

[68] Dan Gonyea, “How Trump’s ‘Law and Order’ Strategy Differs From Nixon,” NPR (June 7, 2020),