Citizens offer testimony, some of it contentious, to Confederate monuments commission

The Commission to Review Baltimore's Public Confederate Monuments heard varying public testimony on Tuesday night about what the city should do with its four monuments, proving to be the most contentious event yet in the course of the committee's evaluations.

Even nearly an hour before the hearing began, heated discussion between opposing factions could be overheard while waiting in the line for the metal detector at City Hall. This heated atmosphere came to a head during public testimony—in particular during an outburst from Dennis Saunders, of Columbia.

When a committee member advised him that his testimony had exceeded the time limit, Saunders barked, "I'm the only defender of the Confederacy in this entire room! Wouldn't you like to hear a little bit more?!" This outburst elicited a chorus of exasperated sighs and boos from the audience, enough of whom yelled "NO!" to apparently convince Saunders to end his ill-received testimony.

One man in the audience yelled to Saunders that he should "Go back to Howard County!" Saunders took exception and offered to settle the matter outside. The committee members' calls for order quickly restored a more congenial attitude to the room.

Despite Saunders' earlier claims, there was in fact a contingent of Confederate supporters in the room who gave testimony shortly afterward, including "Commander" Jay Barringer of the Maryland Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Barringer urged the preservation of the current Confederate monuments on the somewhat convoluted grounds that they represented the least of Baltimore's problems, asking "What's truly offensive: four monuments or 328 murders this year? What's truly offensive: four historical monuments or thousands of heroin addicts in a city known as a heroin capital? What's truly more offensive: four monuments to history or fourth graders who can't read history?"

He then asserted: "Crime, illiteracy, and drugs: these are monuments of failure and dysfunction that are truly offensive and demand removal. Now we encourage the leaders of Baltimore to focus on the ugly edifices of murder, drug addiction, and ignorance. Rather than tear down existing monuments, build up new monuments and augment the rich artistic and historical heritage of Baltimore."

A number of citizens advocated for the relocation, recontextualization, removal, and even outright destruction of Baltimore's current Confederate monuments, the Lee and Jackson Monument, Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument, Confederate Women's Monument, and Roger Brooke Taney Monument.

Although the details of their proposals varied widely, everyone from eighth-grader Saratu Kehinde to Johns Hopkins University professor Bruce Barnett agreed that they deplored the monuments in their current configuration.

Of the more moderate suggestions were calls for plaques or additional statutes to provide context for the current monuments, moves to museum locations, and even a proposal by Carol Hall to construct a "garden of ignorance" to house a group of statues including the Confederate monuments.

Among the more ambitious proposals was that of Thomas Copelan, who advocated for auctioning the monuments in the hopes of raising money for Baltimore social programs. Copelan suggested that as much as $10 million could be raised through such efforts and compared memorializing Confederate figures to memorializing the likes of the British who fought at Fort McHenry, the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor, the Nazis, the North Vietnamese, the North Koreans, the Taliban, or ISIS.

"There are no monuments anywhere in Baltimore City for any group, any person, or any nation who fought against the United States of America except for the Confederacy," he remarked. "This is a double standard and should be corrected."

When asked by commission member whether the Confederate figures might be an exceptional case because they were Americans, Copelan replied: "Well, when you secede from the United States of America and you decide to fight against the soldiers of the United States of America, you're no longer an American, you're a Confederate."

This pronouncement received thunderous applause.

Even more aggressive proposals were put forth, including a suggestion that "all these monuments should be removed to an honored place: at the bottom of Baltimore Harbor" and a plea for Baltimoreans to "use our own physical power to break them to pieces."

It remains to be seen what proposal the commission will deliver to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake this January, but there's no lack of material for them to look over in the meantime and no shortage of strong feelings for them to consider before the final meeting next month.

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