Manatee County Ditches Plan to Restore Confederate Monument—For Now
Bradenton this week narrowly escaped becoming the first city in the United States to restore a fallen Confederate monument.
The monument in question, a concrete obelisk engraved with the names of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, was taken down from its place in front of the downtown Bradenton courthouse in the summer of 2017 after backlash from local protests that proclaimed it celebrated a shameful period of American history. The space has stood empty ever since.
However, last month, the Manatee County Commission decided to take a vote on whether to take the monument out of storage and put it back in front of the courthouse—a plan that was estimated to cost taxpayers $40,000. The vote was scheduled to take place this Tuesday, but, last week, with no explanation, the item was taken off the commission's agenda.
That didn’t stop citizens from showing up to the Tuesday meeting to voice their outrage. During the public comment portion of the meeting, a dozen different people took to the microphone to castigate the commission for even considering putting the monument back up.
Many were concerned that the agenda item would be resurrected at a later date. Others were angry that the item was taken off the schedule, because they had planned to take off work for that morning to speak about the topic. Another reminded the commission of the insult of holding such a vote the day before Black History Month began.
“I know that your immediate needs are met,” said Ruth Beltran. “You probably live in nice houses and drive nice cars. But that’s not the reality for this community. Me being here is a waste of our time. We already removed that monument back in 2017. When 2,000 children are houseless in your community, this is the best use of time and money that you can think of? That’s shameful.”
Another speaker asked for the resignation of Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who supported voting on the restoration of the monument. She is also the only commissioner still on the board from when the monument was taken down, an action she voted against. (Baugh was not present at Tuesday's meeting and did not respond to requests for an interview.)
After public comment concluded, Commissioner George Kruse addressed the issue. “I’m hoping that was just people coming to a realization that 99.9999 percent of the comments were negative against it,” he said. Kruse said he voted against entertaining the agenda item and would vote against restoring the monument.
On a phone call, Kruse told me he was disappointed that this discussion was held at all.
“This monument, whether you agree with it or not, came down in 2017," he said. "A lot of monuments came down. The point is, it’s down. No one is putting them up. It just boggles my mind that you’d want to have this discussion.” He told me that the move was especially disappointing considering all the more important things the board needs to accomplish.
“We got a good board that all gets along,” Kruse said. “We got a board that campaigned with each other, a board that has similar, conservative ideologies. We were just in Tallahassee working on infrastructure, foster care and ways in which we can minimizes taxes. This is the stuff we are supposed to be working on. This is creating a distraction that is not needed—a distraction that should never have come up.”
Kruse wants the issue of the monument to come back to the commission for a vote. “It’s just going to be an endless cloud over this board until we get to some resolution," he said. "When it does come back, I’m not going to spend one penny fixing that. Somebody wants to set up a GoFundMe, knock yourself out. I’m not spending taxpayer money to fix that. The best thing to do is what we do with all our obsolete and outdated objects in the county—just surplus it.”
At the meeting, Commissioner James Bearden said he was not in favor of the monument returning to the courthouse. “However, I do not want to erase our history,” Bearden said. “I want to know exactly where we come from.” Bearden said he wants to see the monument go somewhere historical, like Ellenton's Gamble Plantation Historic State Park.
Commissioner James Satcher did not comment on the monument, but said he “wanted to be clear about some of the things we’ve been seeing and hearing. There are big supporters of Planned Parenthood in here. We have people here who are OK with people selling baby parts, but we are not OK with people who want to buy a puppy for their family. It’s important we be clear.” (Satcher came under fire recently for supporting the reversal a ban on the sale of puppies and kittens at pet stores in Manatee County.)
Commissioner Amanda Ballard agreed with Kruse. “I grew up in South Carolina," she said. "I am as Southern as they come, but understand that putting that monument back up is divisive. It's hurtful and not something I want to see. I think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Everyone in the government building that day agreed: The Confederate monument should not go back up. But why was the discussion even put on an agenda in the first place?
Ballard said that she’d like to solicit community input about what should stand in the monument’s place. “I’d like to show our county’s full history with regards to civil rights, slavery, all of those things—possibly putting up a statue of civil rights in Manatee County," she said.
The reversal on the monument happened in the shadow of the death of Tyre Nichols, the young Black man who was beaten to death by multiple police officers in Memphis, Tennessee.
Donna Davis, cofounder of Black Lives Matter Tampa Bay, said she believes the public's focus on monuments is misguided.
“In seeking to take down these monuments, we started somewhere toward the end instead of from the beginning,” Davis said. “When you have an entrenched system of racism that has endured for hundreds of years, you don’t begin with taking down the symbols of all of that murder and theft and slavery.”
To Davis, whatever monument stands in front of the courthouse, whether it’s a Confederate obelisk or a tribute to a Manatee County civil rights leader, little will fundamentally change. More than 100 Confederate monuments have been taken down since 2015. “The number of Black people that are killed by police is exactly the same as it was when this journey began with Dream Defenders in 2012,” Davis said. “We’ve made no ground in that space.”
Davis remembers when Black Lives Matter organizers sought to take down a Confederate monument in Tampa. “People didn’t even know where the monument was," she said. "I didn’t even know where it was. Here was this inanimate object that doesn’t cause racism. It is the result of racism. So we took all this time and money that could have really benefited a lot of the organizations that got involved and used that to move a statue to a different place.”
Davis believes the real work of dismantling systemic racism requires more than just the removal of symbols. It takes consistent hard work and organizing, not just symbolic gestures. “We need community education, anti-racism classes and more,” Davis said. “But we also have to go out of our way to have conversations with people that don’t agree with us. Not tell them to shut up or get in the back. Racism is a white people problem. If we are not talking to white people and not listening to white people, we are not eradicating the ideas and feelings that move people toward racism.”