Irony filled the last week. Santa Fe’s mayor was sued for his part in the destruction of a city monument honoring Civil War soldiers, while Juneteenth reaped more attention than ever.
Juneteenth, the newest federal holiday, and the shattered Plaza obelisk have much in common.
Each dates to the 1800s. Both marked the end of slavery.
The difference is Juneteenth is being extolled for shining light on an epic chapter in American history. The obelisk is in pieces, wrecked by a mob enabled by Mayor Alan Webber and his cowering police force.
Until now, only pockets of the country have celebrated Juneteenth. It’s a commemoration of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to spread the word that Black people were free at last.
Juneteenth events were not an integral part of Santa Fe’s culture or history. The Plaza obelisk was, and it had parallels to Juneteenth.
Three panels on the 152-year-old obelisk paid tribute to Union soldiers in New Mexico who stopped the Confederacy’s westward advance. Their valor in combat helped win the war and free the slaves.
In discussing the obelisk one recent day, Webber ignored that it honored brave soldiers, most of them Hispanic, who helped preserve the union.
He spoke only of the fourth panel of the obelisk. It commemorated soldiers who fought against what the monument author called “savage” Indians.
“A horribly racist inscription,” Webber said.
Many of Webber’s supporters wanted the obelisk destroyed or removed on that basis.
They preferred covering up a shameful part of history rather than studying it to make sure nothing similar happens again.
Did the mayor himself want the obelisk wrecked to appease his political base?
Webber said he was angry when vandals tore down the obelisk. But his words don’t match his inaction and complicity in their lawlessness.
Santa Fe’s police department was well-staffed to keep the peace on the Plaza as a mob assembled in hopes of wrecking the obelisk. Instead, Webber’s police commanders withdrew all the officers, enabling criminals to rip down a monument layered in history.
Webber called the decision a wise one. Why, people might have been injured if police officers actually did their job by serving the public interest and protecting public property.
A Hispanic fraternal order, Union Protectíva de Santa Fé, sued Webber on grounds that the mayor broke laws to protect the obelisk. It stood in a city park that’s also a National Historic Landmark.
Virgil Vigil, president of Protectíva, said Webber dishonored Union soldiers by allowing criminals to maul the obelisk. Vigil told me Webber won’t listen to him or his board of directors, so they want a judge to order the restoration or rebuilding of the obelisk.
Webber called a news conference of his own to play defense. He denounced his critics and legal opponents as people who want to “promote anger” and divide the city, as if the mayor pulled everyone together by allowing mob rule on the Plaza.
In Webber’s world, dissent is disloyalty. People who don’t share his views can’t possibly have Santa Fe’s interests at heart.
Webber’s way is a lot like former President Donald Trump’s style of claiming any criticism of him was fake news.
Away from the cameras and microphones, Webber has to know the double standard by which his police selectively ignored the law caused a deep divide.
“This town seems to operate, in almost every decision, under the precepts of excuse and enable,” reader Jim Fisher wrote to me.
A similar assessment came from a man from South Carolina who says he and his family have visited Santa Fe for 20 years.
“We are very familiar with the Plaza and the obelisk. We were shocked to see how brazenly it was torn down,” the man wrote in an email to me. “Yes, an argument could be made for its relocation. But these so-called protesters weren’t interested in compromise or due process. Instead they exercised an extreme heckler’s veto.”
Another reader, Mark H. Cross, made another point: “The offending word ‘savage’ has not appeared on the obelisk since 1974,” when someone used a chisel to erase it.
Santa Fe resident Mel Takaki was the most concise.
“Turning history around will never work,” he said of the mob and its enablers.
Takaki was mayor of Pueblo, Colo., 50 years ago when Black residents asked him to sign a proclamation supporting a Juneteenth celebration in that city. Pueblo, my hometown and Takaki’s, too, had a population of about 100,000, only 1,000 of whom were Black people.
Few in the city had ever heard of Juneteenth until Takaki and Black ministers joined together to promote it.
Takaki was a mayor who knew his city, its prejudices and possibilities. He saw the end of slavery in America as a historic chapter to be remembered, not destroyed.