When Activism Came to My Hometown

Monuments to racism, hate and prejudice must be removed, writes Larry Moneta, but only through legitimate, law-abiding processes.

August 17, 2017
Toppling of a Confederate monument in Durham, N.C.

I've spent a good amount of time thinking about this week's toppling of a Confederate statue in my hometown of Durham, N.C.

Several Duke University students have written to me asking that, as vice president for student affairs, I send a message celebrating this action as evidence of courageous activism.

But this week we also witnessed the vandalism of a Holocaust memorial in Boston, and, as a child of Holocaust survivors, I can't avoid making a connection between the two actions.

Can we think of one as activism and the other as vandalism? Some would argue we can and should, but I'm not able to accept that reasoning.

I absolutely want monuments to racism, hate and prejudice removed -- either destroyed or relegated to museums with appropriate historical representation. But I want their removal through legitimate, law-abiding processes.

I understand that unethical government actions -- like gerrymandering in North Carolina -- stack the deck against progressive movements, but that just means we have to fight harder to change those laws, however long that may take. In fact, we need active voters, and they need inspiration to vote -- like getting monuments they hate removed.

I’m also reminded that, to many who legitimately feel overwhelmed by persistent acts of violence, oppression and hate, suggesting that immediate action be delayed and redirected to interminable political processes is frustrating and perceived of as equivalent to inaction. I’m certain that in Germany in the 1930s, my parents and many others would have preferred anarchy to what transpired. But partly because of those memories and because of my belief in an America that cares, I’m more optimistic that emboldened, effective and legal actions will prevail.

Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose works are now archived here at Duke, said, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I take this charge seriously and hope that what we saw in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend and throughout the country in the last few years will serve as a wake-up call for each of us and for our nation.

I’m old enough to remember effective grassroots movements in the 1960s and ’70s in support of civil rights and in opposition to the Vietnam War. Certainly, those efforts preceded today’s social media campaigns that are laced with anonymous diatribe. But we have ample evidence of the power of thoughtful, intelligent and focused efforts to counter oppression and injustice.

Without a doubt, what’s needed today will require far more time, money and energy than simply posting on Facebook or writing a check. We need young people committed to supporting candidates and willing to run for elective office themselves. And, yes, sometimes we need protests and vigils and rallies. But lest we emulate those whom we decry, we need our actions to be mindful of safety, ethics and laws.

When we take the laws into our own hands, we legitimize the same behaviors by those who seek to harm us. So, in good conscience, I can't endorse this week's behaviors. I hope that we focus our collective actions on having every elected seat up for challenge in 2018 filled with people who decry white supremacy, anti-Semitism, racism and every form of bias and hate. Our future depends on it.


Larry Moneta is the vice president for student affairs at Duke University.


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