On Monday, Oct. 12, 2020—Indigenous Peoples Day—the obelisk at the center of the Santa Fe Plaza was reduced to a pile of rubble.
As is surely well known by now, the demolition occurred following days of escalating conflict between onlookers, a core group of determined Tewa women activists and police officers who, on Monday, eventually left the scene altogether. Afterwards, using tow ropes and chains, protesters pulled the monument down. I was present, and while I never entered the fray with the police officers, never wielded a chisel nor touched a rope, when the first segment of the obelisk collapsed, I cheered. When the next stone section plummeted, I cheered again.
I don't apologize. I regard the action that occurred on that most apropos day to have been healing. Yes, many object to the obelisk's dismantlement on the grounds of law, procedure and policy. Many say conversations between the city and the activists should have continued. It's too easy to point out how many historic civil rights actions—Rosa Parks not surrendering her bus seat, for example—violated legal policy, but it's pertinent to point out that Mayor Alan Webber issued a statement in June promising the obelisk would be removed. He called it "the right thing to do." He spoke at an event on the Plaza, solidifying that promise.
But then Webber made no visible further efforts to carry through or reaffirm his commitment. He didn't seek to clarify issues over who owned the obelisk with the Native Americans who regarded the structure to be a symbol of oppression. During this bizarre period of silence, tensions built. And following an initial peaceful day of demonstrations beginning Saturday, Oct. 10, Webber called in police to break up protesters on the night of Sunday, Oct. 11. A volatile conflict became an inevitability.
Now unfortunately, Webber has chosen to seek retribution by conspiring with the police to impose criminal penalties and seek "help rounding up people as we identity them." This is a petty course of action that demeans the complexity of the situation. Criminalization perpetuates a cycle of repression, resentment and acrimony, while an act of benevolence has the capacity to soothe these tensions.
Yes, I think the mayor should be a -better statesman, be thankful no one was severely hurt, adopt a philosophical attitude and forgo all criminal penalties. Besides, on a practical level, all the king's horses and all the king's men won't put the obelisk together again. I encourage public officials to remember the spirit of Martin Luther King. If it seems odd to call on MLK in association with property destruction, check the record. You'll find that while King opposed destruction, he also opposed weighting rioters with criminal penalties and blame.
King called the prevalent rioting in the late '60s "at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality." He deemed rioting "the language of the unheard." The protesters who toppled the obelisk made legitimate efforts to speak their cause via peaceful protest for years. They'd been promised results. Native Americans instead received nonchalance, dithering and inaction. They were silenced, compounding hundreds of years of silencing.
Which brings me to the subject of healing. For me, a Black American, healing entails understanding a phenomenon which has been called "social death," in which entire communities feel negated. It is the collective weight of whole populations having been rendered voiceless. Social death also describes an impact that lasts for generations whenever another innocent victim, say, George Floyd, dies, because so many others have died for reasons along the same lines, under similar circumstances. Each time it happens, the marginalized re-experience social negation, each time they die a little bit, too.
It is pernicious gap that precludes closure, both on the sociological level, and on a personal level. I might read an article attempting to blame Tamir Rice, Eric Garner or Breonna Taylor for their own deaths. I might get into an argument over how much blame lay with the victims rather than the police officers who have not been prosecuted. These daily slights revive feelings of social death.
It has always been ironic to me that movements, such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter or Native American activism are simplistically associated with violence or extremism. These movements are primarily about healing. They seek criminal justice reforms, identify sexual predators and protest hurtful monuments because these movements refuse to accept that trauma will be an inevitable aspect of daily life.
There is very little worse that Webber could have done from the vantage point of healing historical trauma and social negation than to have extended a boon only to inexplicably snatch it away.
I don't believe the tragedy on Indigenous Peoples Day 2020 was the property destruction—the tragedy was that public officials did not use the day to apologize for decades of failure to legally erase the words "Savage Indians" from one of the obelisk's plaques (something which also had to be accomplished by community vandalism in the 1970s) and to sponsor a respectful removal accompanied by speeches encouraging all Santa Feans to appreciate the justice and inevitability of such an action, one made while hopefully looking toward the future. Sad that we'll never know how that might have been, but healing and reconciliation tomorrow hinges on empathy and understanding today.