NEW ORLEANS (CN) – If controversial Confederate monuments slated for removal by the city are instead allowed to remain in place, New Orleans will have to deal with the consequences, including vandalism, a city attorney warned a federal appeals court Wednesday morning.
A three-judge, Fifth Circuit panel was asked to intervene in the matter after a federal judge ruled last winter that four Confederate monuments in the city can be taken down.
The plaintiffs in the case, four southern heritage groups, believe the judge erred in rejecting their request for a restraining order, and want the Fifth Circuit to toss his decision and keep the monuments right where they are.
Deputy city attorney Adam Swensek told the panel that all parties must be prepared for public anger and its consequences if the case is decided in the plaintiffs’ favor.
Something not talked about, Swensek said, is “the injury to the public if this thing can’t go forward.”
Swensek noted that “one injury” to the public if, as the city hopes, the three-judge panel allows the monuments to be removed, is they’ll be denied the ability to “to view the art” of the monuments.
But other injuries are possible are if the court ultimately blocks their removal.
A big risk is vandalism, the attorney said.
“When folks are denied the democratic process, they seek other ways to [seek justice],” Swensek warned.
“This poses a risk to property,” he said.
U.S. Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod made it was clear she disagreed with Swensek’s statement, but the attorney was undeterred, explaining the monument issue has “put the city in a difficult position, where it has to deal with the repercussions of people who feel disenfranchised.”
Swensek said the risk of unintended property damages has resulted in the city having to spend money for guards to keep watch over the monuments slated for removal.
The plaintiffs — the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the Monumental Task Force Committee, and Beauregard Camp No. 130, a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — filed a lengthy lawsuit last December after New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed a controversial ordinance saying the four prominently placed monuments celebrating Confederate heroes could be taken down.
Less than 10 days later, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier issued the 63-page ruling in which he said the city owns the land the monuments are on and it is within the city’s discretion to take them down.
The city moved quickly to try and take the monuments down, but that effort was stymied after the contractor hired to do the work abruptly pulled out, citing death threats made against his family.
The problem of finding a “reputable” crane operator to do the removal still remains, attorneys for both sides said Wednesday. Without a skilled crane operator to perform the removal, there is a risk of damages to the monuments.
“It isn’t that monument removal is unsafe and cannot be performed,” Swensek told the court. “It is that monument removal may be unsafe when performed by someone unskilled.”
Swensek said the city has no intention of removing the monuments without a clear go-ahead from the court.
An attorney for plaintiffs told the panel the city has “alienated” the public by bringing up the issue in the first place.
For one thing, he argued, without a reliable crane operator for the job, removal without harming the monuments is basically impossible.
“The city is, and has, alienated the public,” the attorney said. “The city has no idea how it’s going to take [the monuments] down. The city has no plan to take the monuments down. No plan in place.”
Franklin Jones, an attorney for plaintiffs, told Judge Barbier in January to consider the statues from an artistic rather than political perspective.
“These are priceless works of art,” Jones said. “These are not just monuments you wrap a sling around and move” to another location.
In June 2015, after a gunman killed nine and wounded three others in a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., several southern cities called for the removal of Confederate flags and other symbols from government properties, and it was against this backdrop that Landrieu called for the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans.
During the 60-day public comment period that followed Landrieu’s proposal, two city commissions called for the ultimate removal of four monuments associated with the Confederacy.
The monuments include a 60-foot-tall marble column and statue dedicated to Gen. Robert E. Lee; a large statue of Louisiana-born Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard on horseback; a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis; and an obelisk dedicated to white supremacists who wanted to overthrow a biracial New Orleans Reconstruction government.
The Fifth Circuit panel is comprised of Judge Patrick Higginbotham, a nominee of Ronald Reagan appointee; Jennifer Walker Elrod, a nominee of George W. Bush, and Stephen Higginson, a nominee of President Barack Obama.
The panel did not rule at the conclusion of the hearing and gave no indication when it will.
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