Santa Fe’s shattered obelisk is a towering issue in this November’s city election.
Mayor Alan Webber can’t avoid the topic, since he let a mob rip apart the 152-year-old Soldiers Monument.
Webber’s command staff removed all police officers from the Plaza so criminals could do as they pleased. Better to avoid injuries than to deter vandals from smashing the monument, Webber said.
The mayor abetted a criminal element that shared his political base’s distaste for the obelisk. Webber says he was angered by the mob violence, even though he enabled it.
Against this ugly and destructive record, Webber tries to portray himself as the one politician who did something about a monument that some people wanted to destroy.
The mayor wrote these lines in The New Mexican’s Sunday edition: “The obelisk is a proud symbol for some and a cause of tremendous pain for others with its racist description calling Native Americans ‘savage Indians.’ That’s why Santa Fe mayors have struggled with the obelisk for decades, dating to the 1970s when the City Council actually voted in favor of removing it the first time. But no one took action.”
Webber isn’t much of a researcher. His account doesn’t begin to tell the whole truth.
The City Council voted in July 1973 to remove the obelisk from the Plaza. But the councilors then reversed their decision in a unanimous vote.
They listened to historians who said removing the Soldiers Monument would hide the past, not illuminate it.
In addition, David King, the state planning officer in 1973, said removing the monument could jeopardize federal funds the city was in line to receive for restoration of the Plaza, a National Historic Landmark.
King favored putting an explanatory text next to the obelisk. The monument honored Union soldiers who stopped the Confederacy’s westward advance in New Mexico, and it also lauded a militia that fought “savage” Indians.
Some people didn’t like the state’s explanation that the monument was a reflection of its time. A vandal with a chisel erased the word “savage” from the monument in 1974, something Webber did not mention.
The mayor says he decided the obelisk had to be moved to keep the peace. He enacted his plan to extract the monument under cover of darkness. A crew with a crane tried to pull it away but stopped in fear of damaging the monument.
With a windy passage in his Sunday piece, Webber defended his decision and patted himself on the back: “Knowing there was a credible threat of violence and in the context of the summer of racial reckoning, I made the call that it was time to move the obelisk and the statue of Don Diego de Vargas to avoid a clash of violence that was brewing while we took time to have the hard conversations we need to have together about how to recognize our shared history in the city. After 50 years of city leaders talking about what to do with the obelisk, I made the tough — and I think, just — decision.”
Absent from his self-serving statement is the reality that Webber’s failed plan emboldened the criminals who later wrecked the obelisk. With ropes, chains and hot tempers, the mob threatened public safety with no resistance from police.
Had Webber studied the city’s history, he would have known that moving the obelisk had always been rejected after what he termed “hard conversations.”
- Early 1960s — Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oliver La Farge joins a citywide discussion on the Soldiers Memorial. “It is altogether too easy to brush such simple things aside, brushing our predecessors aside along with them, in favor of a Madison Avenue version, chocolate-peppermint flavored for tourist consumption,” La Farge said. This was only one episode of vigorous but nonviolent debates about the monument that occurred decades before Webber moved from Boston to Santa Fe in 2003.
- March 1981 — The Plaza Use Committee recommends that the City Council retain the obelisk. Thomas Merlan, the state historic preservation officer, said relocating the obelisk to make way for a gazebo and bandstand would destroy the historical integrity of the monument.
August 2000 — Peter Wirth, president of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, enters another community discussion. “Proposals to remove the obelisk appear to be based on a desire to rewrite history, removing the more shameful portions. We can only learn from mistakes if we are familiar with our history,” Wirth said. A liberal Democrat, he is now majority leader of the state Senate.
Webber claims he listens to all with an open heart, that he tried to remove the obelisk only after discussions with many people.
As he campaigns for reelection, Webber says the city will begin a reconciliation process “later this summer” to have “a long-overdue conversation.”
He ignores that many who cared about Santa Fe initiated and held productive discussions long before he arrived.
Webber didn’t defuse the threat of violence. He ignited it. Now he has to live with that piece of history as he seeks a second term.