The obelisk was a divisive monument, and in the context of our current historical moment, the divisive rhetoric over its meaning has only deepened. The debate over its removal is an important one, but its recent destruction has posed a more critical question: How does this, or any other difficult problem facing our community get resolved?
The destruction of the obelisk subverted the legal mechanisms that allow each of us as equal citizens to advocate for our positions. Even for those who believe that the obelisk should have been removed, recognize that the next gathering of people who wish to force their will upon the community will not necessarily share those same values. Once we open the door to vigilanteism and criminality to achieve our own ends, we should not be surprised when those who disagree with us resort to the same tactics.
There are times when subverting the political system is justified. Political power can become so corrupted and hegemonic that citizens may have no other option but to resort to criminality. This is clearly not one of those moments. The mayor of Santa Fe himself advocated for the removal of the obelisk. The Entrada during La Fiesta de Santa Fe was dropped only a couple of years ago in a clear win for those advocating a greater awareness of Native history. That change showed very clearly that working within the norms of democratic politics yields results. Those who have advocated for the obelisk’s removal are not a fringe minority group who can justify criminal action as an undesirable but necessary stand against an intractable political power. On the contrary, those in favor of removal have powerful allies at the top of city government and a strong cultural momentum on their side.
The people who destroyed the obelisk had several options for achieving their goal. They could have worked through the channels of government, petitioning the mayor and city council directly. They could have protested peacefully, advertising their concerns to the public and building a broad coalition to put pressure on city officials. These paths take determination, self-sacrifice, and humility. They take into account the basic fact that no matter how strongly you feel about an issue, there are many other people in your community whose perspectives matter no less than yours. The people who tore down the obelisk chose instead the most expedient option. Time will tell if their short term victory brings others to their side, or turns others against them.
Did the obelisk commemorate Union soldiers who fought against slavery, or soldiers who contributed to the genocide of Native People? Should controversial monuments be torn down to reflect our modern values, or retained as instructive symbols of our history? We can disagree over these questions, and believe strongly that the other side is wrong. But we should not allow our passions over any one issue to distract us from our higher obligation to the democratic process through which these questions get resolved. It is the fundamental role of citizens in a liberal democracy to foster a political culture, and sustain political institutions that allow us to disagree over divisive issues without tearing our communities apart.
Going forward, the best way to heal the rift that this action has created in our community is for those groups and individuals who have publicly advocated for the obelisk’s removal to come forward and strongly condemn the way in which it was removed. Demonstrate that although we will have strong disagreements over our city’s history, traditions and symbols, that we can still stand together on the principles of democratic politics.
Dylan Weller is a woodworker and a graduate of Carlos Gilbert Elementary.