Defaced monument to Leopold II, Place du Trône, Brussels, June 2020. Photo: kenzo tribouillard/AFP.

All Monuments Must Fall

Thinking Through the Proposition. By Gene Ray

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A compartmentalized, Manichean, immobilized world, a world of statues: the general who led the conquest, the engineer who built the bridge.
        Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

Centuries of accumulated impunity.
        Patricio Guzmán, The Pearl Button (2015)

Either you have been blind to a truth that my body’s story forces you to see, or you really do mean to honor the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed, and you must at last acknowledge your emotional investment in a legacy of hate. Either way, I say the monuments of stone and metal, the monuments of cloth and wood, all the man-made monuments, must come down.
Caroline Randall Williams, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument” (2020)1

We look forward to a review of this period entitled “All the Monuments Have Fallen.”
        All Monuments Must Fall: A Collaborative Syllabus (2020)2


Any artifact produced in 2020 or 2021 bears the traces of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of the rips and stoppages of normality, the painful separations and interruptions that this crisis of health and social reproduction has inflicted on the forms of everyday life and sociability. It bears these traces whether it wants to or not, if only negatively or symptomatically. So too with this text, and the project of which it is a part. Nor is the pandemic the only crisis that is shaping our experience, our moods and dispositions, our efforts to think critically about pasts, presents and possible futures. In a lucid new analysis of the present moment, feminist and eco-socialist philosopher Nancy Fraser finds this context of multiple or compounding crisis to be nothing less than “epochal” – an allusion to the end of the Holocene. She concisely delineates its main features and effects:

A crisis of ecology, to be sure, but also one of economy, society, politics and public health—that is, a general crisis whose effects metastasize everywhere, shaking confidence in established worldviews and ruling elites. The result is a crisis of hegemony—and a ‘wilding’ of public space.3

Fraser’s notion of a new “wilding” of public space, corresponding to a weakening of consent for the political and cultural leadership of the dominant classes, makes a fitting bridge to the iconoclastic contestations considered here, under the heading All Monuments Must Fall. The quote marks Fraser puts around the term wilding are not explained, but she is likely alluding to an approach advocated by some conservation biologists aiming to slow species extinction in the current planetary meltdown. Climate justice activists have been reworking the terms wilding and “rewilding,” re-inflecting them as concepts for decolonization in light of Indigenous land and water struggles. Joshua Sterling, writing for Uneven Earth, explains:

There is a growing movement, largely allied with anarchist, radical environmentalist, and decolonial practice, repurposing the term rewilding to be a political and cultural project that is more than merely conservation biology, one that thinks about nature with the people in…. Taking cues from, and in alliance with, indigenous peoples, political and cultural rewilders are trying to enact decolonial practices by applying the ideas of rewilding to human beings. This is not looking backwards to an essentialized past but to a hybrid and flexible future of self-willed more-than-human communities, outside of, and after anthropocentric systems of domination.4

In the context of Fraser’s discussion of the current general crisis, then, “wilding” works as a kind of attractor that gestures, firstly, to a new decolonizing alliance of Indigenous and climate justice activists (her text is intervening in debates about eco-politics). The term evokes, secondly, the new winds blowing through what she punningly calls the political “climates of capital”: the general and highly visible unruliness that has spread through public spaces in the United States but also globally, even under pandemic conditions of social distancing and periodic lockdowns.

In the US context, the leftist or “progressive” forms of that unruliness have of course been responding to a seemingly unending series of police killings of young Black men and women, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 being a kind of social tipping point. (An earlier point of intolerability had already been reached in 2014, when the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered a popular uprising.) Throughout the summer of 2020 and well into the fall, leading up to the November US presidential election, millions of people filled public spaces in cities around the world to protest police racism, violence and terror. A conspicuous feature of these protests has been their iconoclastic attack on monumental statues of historical figures associated with white supremacism and settler colonialism.5 The sustained wave of protest was largely organized and led by Black Lives Matter (BLM), which has advanced a powerful indictment of the institutional and legal bases of white supremacism.6 Building on critiques of what Angela Davis has called the “prison-industrial complex” and what Michele Alexander has named the “New Jim Crow,” BLM’s call for the “defunding” of the police and the abolition of the carceral system has inspired a deep-reaching debate on “reparative justice,” the foundations of the US state and national identity, and the construction of historical narrative.7

These critical convulsions took place over a period in which the dire consequences of the neoliberal gutting of national health care systems over decades had become all too clear; and the disproportionate devastation of Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities by the Covid-19 pandemic moreover exposed deadly historical and structural racist biases in access to and the quality of the health care available. All this certainly reflects at the very least, as Fraser suggests, a weakening of neoliberal hegemony and a critical convergence toward the anti-systemic and “anti-capitalist” positions she outlines.8 As markers of this tendency toward convergence, we can note the body of critical work, in the Black Radical tradition, on what Cedric Robinson called “racial capitalism,”9 as well as the “decolonizing” emphasis of BLM’s alliances, which date back at least to the participation of BLM activists at the camps of Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock in 2016.10 Today prominent BLM allies include Decolonize This Place, Red Nation and the Antifa networks.11

Globally, massive occupations of public space have of course long predated the Covid-19 pandemic, and, especially across Latin America, have included a strong feminist and anti-patriarchal dimension; these, too, have continued despite health fears and decreed separations. About the potentials of all this, it can be said that the de-legitimation of neoliberal ideology can only be welcomed as a necessary, if fraught, development, for this ideological crisis is a condition of possibility for the counter-hegemonic pathways beyond the “general crisis” of capitalism that Fraser identifies.12

It must be noted, however, that the general upheaval or turbulence Fraser observes is not only or simply animated by new collective struggles for social, racial and climate justice. In that same US context (and spilling beyond it via globalized social media in uncontrolled and unpredictable ways), there is no avoiding the presence as well of a white-supremacist and ethno-nationalist movement of reaction: a toxic mix of elements including Trump supporters, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and armed militias and fight clubs such as the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boyz and Three Percenters, along with, at the extreme, terrorist cells and networks such as the Base. These reactionary formations, which have their analogues in European countries (when they do not actually operate internationally, as some do) are a further development of a transborder neo-fascist cultural and political resurgence; the armed parts of this mix constitute a paramilitary force that now aims itself at Antifa and BLM activists, as well as at progressive politicians and media personalities.13 (As Luigi Fabbri had already perceived in his 1922 reflection on fascism, such forces operate in support of a general “preventive counter-revolution.”14)  That these polarized divisions do indeed portend a wild unruliness or disordering of public space was confirmed most recently by the January 2021 storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters (among whom were members of all the reactionary groups and militias named above), a riot that resulted in at least five deaths. In this light, the “wilding” of public space that Fraser notes is not simply an attractor but is also a sign of ambivalence and of a sharpening of social and political antagonisms that calls for careful critical reflection.

Regarding BLM and its decolonizing and antifascist allies, these forces for racial, social and climate justice are leading from below an iconoclastic contestation of victors’ history (as Walter Benjamin would deem it).15 Victors’ history (from above) recodes social domination as the origin and emergence narratives of “imagined” national communities.16 Its representations and optics insidiously (when not deliberately) elicit admiration for and identification with the victors (“empathy” for them, as Benjamin calls it), thereby discouraging and demoralizing the defeated and silenced, and enforcing an obedient conformity. The white-supremacist, settler colonial and patriarchal perspectives of victors’ history have not gone unchallenged.

In academic contexts, critical historians and scholars have long worked to liberate the past from these biases favoring current regimes of domination. These “History Wars” as they are sometimes called, have episodically spilled over into public debate – for example in the infamous censorship of critical historical elements of the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the US atomic terror bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.17 But BLM and its allies have effectively moved the history debates from the ivory towers to the streets and squares, where monuments to Confederate generals, slaveholding or slave-dealing founding fathers and genocidal frontier heroes have the function of enforcing historical amnesia and perpetuating immunity for atrocities. One protest-form increasingly used by BLM and its allies since the intensification of this struggle in 2017 (following events discussed below), can be named with precision: iconoclasm, the contesting of dominant images, has a long history in religious conflict but has also accompanied all radical political struggles.18

Iconoclasts are wrongly accused of wanting to erase or cancel history and tradition: their point is rather that victors’ history cannot claim clean hands and calls, against itself, for reckonings of justice. Iconoclasm is thus much more about remembrance than about forgetting; its symbolic force dissipates the amnesia of the institutions, the concealing operations of a violence that covers its own tracks. The contemporary critics of iconoclasm are displeased and perturbed by what remembrance from below digs up, for it exposes the immanent terror of foundations and the intransigent refusal of justice.19


Backgrounds and Precursors

This striking phrase “All Monuments Must Fall” openly looks back to the 2015 “Rhodes Must Fall” protest movement that successfully removed a monumental bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town. Rhodes, a principle colonizer of southern Africa and an architect of apartheid, made a vast fortune in gold and diamond mines. With the wealth accumulated through his diamond company De Beers and other extractive ventures, the British imperialist reinvented himself as a philanthropist; the scholarship fund he established had gone far in “whitewashing” his name and legacy. In their campaign to removal Rhodes’ statue from the CTU campus, students used a plurality of protest strategies, including online activism, occupations, civil disobedience, property destruction and iconoclasm. After removing the statue, students went on to organize an anti-tuition “Fees Must Fall” campaign, as well as a wider movement to decolonize education. In 2016, Rhodes Must Fall spread to the United Kingdom, targeting the statue of Rhodes in the High Street façade of Oriel College at the University of Oxford, where Rhodes had established a well-known scholarship fund. To date, powerful donors and patrons of Oxford have fended off this statue’s removal with threats to withdraw their financial support. But this struggle continues.20

Defaced bronze, Cecil Rhodes Monument, Cape Town, September 2015. Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikipedia.


Red paint spattered Theodore Roosevelt monument, American Museum of Natural History, New York, October 2017. Photo: Scott Heins/Gothamist.


Meanwhile, in the United States, the beginnings of the current iconoclasm can be located in Indigenous protests of settler colonial genocides and land grabs.21

In public spaces across the US, celebratory monuments depict atrocities against Indigenous nations as victories and the perpetrators of those atrocities as heroes. Indigenous iconoclasm against such monuments goes back at least to 1971, when six activists of the National Indian Youth Council spilled blood red paint over the bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History, in an American Indian Movement (AIM) affiliated action.22 (The 1940 monument depicts a heroic Roosevelt on horseback, followed on either side by two attendants, one Indigenous and the other African, who carry Roosevelt’s guns for him. The statue was the object of artist David Hammons’ critical irony in his 1991 installation Public Enemy at the Museum of Modern Art. From 2017 on, the monument and museum were targeted repeatedly by activist groups including Monument Removal Brigade, American Indian Community House and Decolonize This Place; an “Anti-Columbus Day Tour” in 2018 filled the museum with around 1000 protesters.23 In June 2020, the museum finally conceded to remove it.24) The triumphal celebration of settler colonial culture in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the “Discovery of the New World” by Christopher Columbus, provoked a wave of Indigenous protest and iconoclasm up and down the Americas; this wave has never ended. For the Indigenous, the captain-navigator symbolizes not progress but the start of 500 years of European invasion, occupation, enclosure, genocide and extraction.25 Columbus himself, they remember, installed an atrocious and extractive system of forced labor on Ayiti (so-called Hispaniola) and shipped off some 5000 Indigenous people to Spain, to be sold as slaves. Estimates of the Indigenous population of Ayiti on Columbus’ arrival range from several hundred thousand to over a million; by 1514, there were just 32,000 Taíno people left alive.26 As branded cities and the culture industry prepared to capitalize on the 500th anniversary celebrations, and as planning for similar celebrations of diverse Spanish conquistadors around the Americas got underway, Indigenous resistance intensified. The widespread iconoclastic attacks on settler colonial memorial statues began in earnest at that time and continue to this day.

Empty plinth of Christopher Columbus monument toppled during BLM protest, Richmond Virginia, June 2020. Photo: Kris Graves/National Geographic.


In June 2015, activist Bree Newsome Bass climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse in Colombia and removed the Confederate battle flag that was the state’s official state flag.27 She did this ten days after a 19-year old white supremacist had entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and massacred nine worshippers; in the days before, the killer had posted on his website photos of himself posing with his weapons and a Confederate flag. Newsome’s protest action, widely reported on mainstream media, provoked an intense public discussion about the symbols of the Confederacy, that failed attempt by slave-holding southern states to break away from the United States and found a separate nation based unambiguously on plantation slavery. The US Civil War (1861-65) ended with the military defeat of the Confederate “Rebels” and abolished the institution of slavery. However, “Reconstruction” policies aiming to grant freed slaves full civil rights were blocked by a fierce campaign of terror and violence directed at Black communities and white reformers.28 The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was formed at this time, in the year after the Civil War ended. The Confederacy, its “sons and daughters” would boast, “lost the war but won the Reconstruction.” The new, post-slavery legal system institutionalizing white supremacism came to be known as Jim Crow. A romanticizing ideology of plantation slavery – the myth of the so-called Lost Cause or Rebel Cause – was produced and culturally disseminated through novels and films such as Birth of Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939). Throughout the southern states, ideologues of the Lost Cause gained control of state governments and filled public spaces with some 700 monuments honoring Confederate leaders and generals, such as Nathan Bedford Forest, who went on to found and lead the KKK. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, when schools, street names and other public symbols are added, there were at least 1747 Confederate symbols installed in US public spaces in 2019.29 Most of these date to the early twentieth century, from roughly 1900 to 1930, and peaking in 1910, the year after the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a leading civil rights organization in the United States. Factor in all the situations in which the Confederate battle flag is officially displayed or privately carried in public spaces, and it becomes clearer how saturated US public space is with unambiguous symbols of white supremacism. The Confederate flag is such a potent condensation of traumatic historical violence that carrying it into public space is comparable to carrying a Nazi banner. And indeed, these flags are often carried together by fascist and white supremacist groups. Bree Newsome Bass’ brave action had immediate effects; within a month, South Carolina had formally removed the Confederate flag from its state Capitol, and a national debate about the removal of Confederate symbols elsewhere began to gain momentum.

As public calls for removal of offensive monuments multiplied and as many city and state governments agreed to comply, a reaction from the right was mobilized to defend the Confederate statues and symbols. This is the context in which a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, became a flashpoint for a major confrontation. The bronze equestrian statue had been commissioned in 1917 and dedicated in 1924, during a resurgence of the KKK; this so-called “Second Klan” aimed to repress new demands for civil rights from Black veterans returning from World War I. The statue was erected in a public park also named after Lee. In March 2016, the Charlottesville City Council was called on to remove the monument and re-name the park, and in June, the statue was tagged with graffiti reading “Black Lives Matter.” Stalling, the City Council appointed a commission to look into the matter. Finally, in February 2017, a decision was taken to remove the Lee monument and to rename the park “Emancipation Park.” Numerous rightwing groups immediately filed lawsuits to halt the removal, and in May, a judge issued a temporary injunction protecting the statue for six months. Eleven days later, neo-Nazi Richard B. Spencer led a small torchlight rally at the site of the statue. On 8 July, the KKK held a rally at the site of another Confederate monument nearby. The 50 or so Klansmen were countered by many hundreds of antifascist and antiracist demonstrators. Police dispersed the counter-protesters and arrested 23 of them. Overnight, the statue was attacked with red paint. All this set the stage for the infamous Unite the Right rally on 11 and 12 August 2017.

Defaced Robert E. Lee statue at Duke University Chapel, August 2017. Photo: William Snead/Duke Photography.


Unite the Right was a much larger and better organized show of force, gathering together hundreds from groups from across the country and across the far-right-to-fascist spectrum.30 Demonstrators displayed an abundance of fascist and racist symbols, including both Confederate and Nazi flags; while most were armed with shields, clubs and street-fighting gear, pistols and assault rifles were also visible. On Friday night, before the main, permitted demonstration on Saturday, about 250 white supremacists held an unannounced torchlight march through the campus of the University of Virginia, chanting “White Lives Matter” and “Jews will not replace us.” At one point this crowd trapped and viciously attacked a small group of mostly student counterdemonstrators next to a memorial statue of Thomas Jefferson (one of many slave-holding US presidents, as well as the main author of the US Declaration of Independence).

The main rally the next day largely unfolded in chaos. Whether by plan, blunders, or both, law enforcement failed to keep white supremacists separated from counterdemonstrators, and melees broke out continuously. The antifascist contingent prevented the Unite the Right rally from marching anywhere or gaining control of public space, and so the main rally was effectively shut down. Not without a killing, though. Early in the afternoon, a white supremacist drove his car at high speed into a street filled with antifa counterdemonstrators, killing 32-year old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. While the murder and violence caused some supporters and sympathizers to distance themselves from the event, President Trump notoriously defended the rally in numerous tweets and public statements full of dog whistles, mixed messages and false moral equivalences.31 As for the politics of memorials to the victors of history, Trump mocked the critical contestation of dominant culture but also showed that he understood perfectly the aim and reach of such contestation: “Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?” And again: “George Washington was a slaveowner. So will Washington now lose his statues?”32

This review of the events at Charlottesville in 2017 throws into relief the two tendencies that have characterized iconoclastic contestation since then. First, monumental statues to the victors’ history and dominant culture, above all those clearly celebrating white supremacist or settler-colonial values, become flashpoints for confrontation between the iconoclasts (BLM and its allies) and the monuments’ self-styled defenders (groups from across the far-right spectrum, usually aligned with law enforcement). The antiracist and decolonizing character of the iconoclastic intent often tends on the ground to get over-coded into battles between fascists and Antifa. Since Charlottesville, the open carrying of firearms by the vigilantes of order, in hyper-mediatized mock rehearsals of civil war, has grown to proportions that have astounded the world. Second, the protests have confirmed and strengthened the alliances between BLM and Indigenous and decolonizing allies, so that iconoclastic attacks on settler colonial heroes and symbols now largely converge with attacks on Confederate and white supremacist figures. At any protest against police terror and killing, the same groups might be collaborating to topple a statue of Columbus or General Lee. And these statues are at least becoming a bit harder to find. By Southern Poverty Law Center’s count, 167 Confederate statues and symbols were removed from public spaces in 2020 alone.33

The art press has closely followed the iconoclastic dimension of these developments, in reports that have generally been approving.34 The Brooklyn-based online magazine and forum Hyperallergic has been especially diligent in covering iconoclasm and related interventions, and in mapping the overlaps between these and decolonizing forms of institutional critique, such as that mounted against the 2019 so-called “Tear Gas” Biennial at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.35 Visual culture scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff has written very lucid coverage of iconoclastic actions, openly endorsing and amplifying the call for all monuments to come down.36 Mirzoeff has also coauthored texts and articles with MTL Collective (Amin Husain and Nitasha Dhillon), affiliated with Decolonize This Place.37 The collaborative online syllabus “All Monuments Must Fall” is unsigned, but reportedly was the work of a Baltimore group that includes a professor at a Maryland art college. The posted introduction to the compilation of reports, texts and video relating to the new iconoclastic struggles indicates that a first version of the syllabus went online in 2017, following the events at Charlottesville; the present online version, updated in 2020, contains materials postdating the George Floyd uprisings. The syllabus makers do betray a rather close knowledge of the history of art and its radical critics: they deem the détournement of their title (from “Rhodes Must Fall” to “All Monuments Must Fall”) to be a “Situationist provocation.” Add in the syllabus form itself and a stranded reference, in the introduction, to the classroom, and the impression is left that the online compilation may be the initiative of an art or art school contingent.38 And why not? The interest of the art world here, it seems to me, has several reasons: aside from, or in addition to, a genuine indignation at continuing police terror and a solidarity for BLM and its allies (which should not be underestimated), there is an obvious affinity here: the iconoclastic gesture is image-work and visual intervention – indeed is an exemplary instance of détournement or critical repurposing of existing artifacts, which artists are well-equipped to appreciate and admire. It could be, then, that some artists might even be involved, here and there. (Whether or not Courbet was actually responsible for organizing the toppling of the Vendôme column during the brief but luminous days of the Paris Commune, he had certainly, as an artist, imagined and wished for that event).39 In Richmond, Virginia, for example, light projection artist Dustin Klein sells prints of his projections on the city’s Robert E. Lee monument to support BLM and other local groups.40 If such projections (iconoclasm by light) qualify as “iconoclasm lite,” they still reflect a transgression of the normal rules enforced in pacified public space and a destabilization of boundaries between art and activism in those newly de-pacified terrains. And it goes without saying that the institutions of what is called the art world are monuments of a special kind (“relatively autonomous,” as the phrase goes), but monuments just the same. Art, like dominated nature, awaits our collective liberation.

Dustin Klein projection on Robert E. Lee Monument, Monument Avenue, Richmond Virginia, June 2020. Photo: Dustin Klein.


From Public Space to Common

Go back twenty years, say, to before the Arab Spring and Movements of the Squares, before Occupy and the Indignados, in order to remember what public space was like, what it had functionally become, under decades of neoliberal plunder of the public, during which that conformity imposed by victors’ history apparently prevailed unchallenged in any massive way. In public squares and spaces everywhere, then, a person crossed the shadows and strolled under the steely-eyed gazes of oversized heroes, sitting in saddles or striding boldly, arms in hand. A walker in any city in Europe, or North or South America, or indeed wherever cities have been “modernized” on the European model, moved about under surveillance by a vast throng of warmongers, conquistadors, capitalist slavers and empire-builders, cast in bronze, raised on stone plinths and often thrust up even higher on horseback. Dense blocks of congealed ideology, material metaphors for the myths of national origin and capitalist progress, these giant protagonists silently reenact the battles and conquests, the frontier seizures and imperialist rivalries, the ethnic and racial exclusions of the social order. This is what their monumentality consists of, these massively heavy things that speak and perform with the authority of brute built facts: they enforce even as they help to construct and found, or ground, the national “thing” as the victors enjoy it, the dominating and exclusive “imagined communities,” with their gaping disparities of wealth, power and privilege, their approved identities, their insiders and outsiders, designated winners and losers.41 By their very occupations of place, these vanquishers on plinths help to establish public space in the first place: a force of violence, after all, is required to enclose, evict and clear out the old urban commons, in order to open up and then hold open spaces now recategorized as public, as properly administered from above, and properly backed by state powers of violence and terror.

The knee-jerk militarization of public space after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, did not disturb the monumental infrastructure. Indeed, it could not, for these statues do work that no battery of surveillance cameras or eyes in the sky can ever hope to do. Cameras empowered with facial recognition algorithms, drones, satellites: these tools of enforcement operated at distance never quite deliver the “full spectrum” dominance and security that they claim. The suspicion remains, that the new technics of vigilance at bottom betrays that secret fear of all ruling classes, their fear of justice from below, of real events of reckoning. It can be doubted that public space can ever fulfill its social functions with those tools alone. Bronze statues, by contrast, are a kind of ersatz boots on the ground, which every occupation requires, learning again the hard way. In the very ostentation with which those frozen monumental vanquishers celebrate the old victories, they are bold enough assertions of impunity and warnings to would-be insurgents. So long as the statues are left alone, victors’ history holds. As a demonstration of (anxious) ruling class confidence to the city’s inhabitants, this emplacement of a whole machinery of visual and material allegory is meant to impose the pacified stillness of a space in which nothing unpredictable, wild or unruly will dare to occur. A “right to insubordination” cannot even be imagined there (until it is, of course). As static fixities in an ever more anxious world, the local monuments are reassuring anchors of consent, that conformity which ceaseless works, as Benjamin argued, to overpower and overwhelm the history and traditions, the habits, customs and feeling-structures of the oppressed, converting these into affirmation of established power. They cheerlead the victors in the long (intersectional) class war, and warn the excluded, neglected and sacrificed to shut up, look down and keep to their places. But there are limits to this this kind of intimidation and insult, which reveal themselves in time.

The oldish feel of monumental statues, which seem better attuned to the pace and habitus of the earlier imperialist and colonial metropole, evidently does not erode victors’ confidence in the apparatus of positive monumentality: statues cast in the heroic key were added steadily to public spaces throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, and were not displaced by the new state-commissioned “negative memorials” of history from above.42 Neoliberal structural adjustments, then, did not much alter the terms or justifications of monumental occupation.

While the public spaces of cities were thrown open to the privateers, just as public lands were thrown open to the loggers, miners and frackers, the neoliberal ideologues merely tweaked the old-liberal rhetoric of the eighteenth-century “bourgeois public sphere,” rendering even more harsh and heartless the indifference intrinsic to the old promises and pieties (there is nothing gentle about gentrification). Under austerity and generalized precarity, ordered, sanitized, pacified public spaces remain the marked-up spaces of “freedom”: designated “free speech zones” and penned-in enclaves for permitted demonstrations assert but no longer try to prove that this freedom does actually exist in cages. The acceptance of public administration, for as long as it holds, would be the real proof of pacification, of consent for the elimination of all wildness and unruliness – and all unlicensed forms of enjoyment and community – through enforcements and more or less violent integrations.43 But pacified public space, in which citizens, if not all residents, are presumed to be happy, grateful and unified (as members of the favored, official imagined community), is of course triumphalism passing itself off for fact. (“What is offered is not Italy,” as Horkheimer and Adorno wryly observed, “but only visual evidence that it exists.”)44 The operations of pacification never entirely succeed. Victories turn out to be short lived and subject to subversion and reversal. Dominance devolves into endless, general counterinsurgency or preventive counter-revolution, the outcome of which is never a given. The remembrance of the defeated, which should no longer be possible in the accelerated “postmodern” (after the much-noted loss of historicity, depth and critical reflection45), nevertheless flares up again and again, in every case already resistance, already a refusal of victors’ impunity, as in the echoing of the streets in the culmination of Sean Bonney’s iconoclastic poem: “say no justice no peace and then say fuck the police.”46 The bucket of red paint, the portable disc grinder, the ropes and chains and hammers and levers, the iconoclastic crowd and its indicting citations of past atrocities: what are these but the very refutation of forgetting and pacification? And what, to echo Brecht, is the crime of toppling a monument to impunity compared with the crime of erecting one?

“Rewilded” public space, then, in all its polarized ambivalence, can perhaps best be conceived as the tumult that accompanies the reclaiming of a common: a struggle and knowledge common, to begin with, and perhaps, later, more than that.47 Iconoclasm is its call, in this moment, and justice is its proposition.


This essay, as well as “Justice Afoot” and “Ode to an Empty Plinth,” was developed over several years, from 2019-2021. Parts and earlier versions were presented as talks at the Laboratory for Research in Art and the Public Sphere and occupied Department of Architecture of the University of Patras in November 2019; at the Amsterdam School for Heritage, Memory and Material Culture, University of Amsterdam, in March 2020, and at the 2020-21 CCC Critical Studies seminar at HEAD. Many thanks to the respondents on those occasions and to the readers of these essays in draft form, especially Sarah De Wilde, Panos Kouros, Christa-Maria Lerm-Hayes, Sylvain Menétrey, Eliana Otta, Yiannis Papadopoulos, Anna Papaeti, Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and George Sotiropoulos.




  1. “I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South. If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”
    Caroline Randall Williams, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument,” New York Times, 26 June 2020; online: .
  2. “All Monuments Must Fall. A Collaboratively Produced Syllabus,” 2017-2020; online: .
  3. Nancy Fraser, “Climates of Capital: For a Trans-Environmental Eco-Socialism,” New Left Review 127 (January/February 2021); online: .
  4. Joshua Sterlin, “Rewilding,” Uneven Earth, 8 February 2021; online: .
  5. Activist and researcher Emily Gorcenski tracks the fall of monuments on the website “When They Came Down”; online: .
  6. See the BLM website; online: .
  7. See Angela Y. Davis, The Prison-Industrial Complex, Audio CD (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2001); Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003); Michele Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness [2010], 2nd Edition (New York: New Press, 2020); and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016).
  8. “Only by addressing all major facets of this crisis, ‘environmental’ and ‘non-environmental’, and by disclosing the connections among them, can we begin to build a counter-hegemonic bloc that backs a common project and possesses the political heft to pursue it effectively. This is a tall order. But what brings it within the realm of the possible is a ‘happy coincidence’: all roads lead to one idea—namely, capitalism. Capitalism, in the sense I shall define below, represents the socio-historical driver of climate change, and the core institutionalized dynamic that must be dismantled in order to stop it. But capitalism, so defined, is also deeply implicated in seemingly non-ecological forms of social injustice—from class exploitation to racial-imperial oppression and gender and sexual domination. And capitalism figures centrally, too, in seemingly non-ecological societal impasses—in crises of care and social reproduction; of finance, supply chains, wages and work; of governance and de-democratization. Anti-capitalism, therefore, could—indeed, should—become the central organizing motif of a new commonsense. Disclosing the links among multiple strands of injustice and irrationality, it represents the key to developing a powerful counter-hegemonic project of eco-societal transformation.” Fraser, “Climates of Capital.”
  9. The Black Radical tradition (the phrase may also be Cedric Robinson’s) is self-evidently anti-colonial; its anti-capitalism is strongly attested, from W.E.B. Du Bois to C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis, the Combahee River Collective, and bell hooks, to name just a few figures. On racial capitalism, see Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition [1983] (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 2-3 and 9-43.
  10. Ashoka Jegroo, “Why Black Lives Matter Is Fighting alongside Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters,” Splinter News, 13 September 2016; online: . See also Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019), pp. 13, 254-55.
  11. See online: and .
  12. It would be necessary to remember that 2019, before the Corona pandemic took hold, was widely observed as a “year of global protests.” See for example Joshua Clover, “The Year in Struggles,” Commune (3 March 2020); online: . Mainstream liberal media, too, is full of wide-eyed looks back at the turbulence in public space; see for example Robin Wright, “The Story of 2019: Protests in Every Corner of the Globe,” The New Yorker, 30 December 2019; online: .
  13. On the post-Vietnam mutations and decentralizing strategies of the armed “White Power” militias and networks, see Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
  14. “Preventive counter-revolution” aims not to roll back an accomplished revolution but to preempt and violently repress transformational movements and potentials before any revolutionary event can happen in the first place. Luigi Fabbri, The Preventive Counter-Revolution: An Essay by an Anarchist on Fascism [1922]; online: .
  15. Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” [1940], trans. Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, in Selected Writings, volume 4, 1938-1940, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, and trans. Edmund Jephcott et al., (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2003), pp. 389-400. See especially thesis seven.
  16. The classic account of nationalist “imagined communities” is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition (London: Verso, 2016).
  17. See Barbara Kruger and Phil Mariani, eds., Remaking History, Dia Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture, Number 4 (Seattle: Bay Press, 1989); and Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Henry Holt, 1996).
  18. In 2009, Sven Lütticken argued that in contemporary iconoclasm religious fundamentalists have “resacralized” the critique of idolatry established by the “image ban” of critical theory as Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer had developed it; this resacralized attack on the idols is nevertheless carried out within the logic of spectacle. This argument is interesting as a framework for approaching the iconoclasm of the Taliban or the visual strategies of Al-Qaeda or Isis but seems too far from the contestation of victors’ history and national foundations that motivates the protesting of monuments by very different social groups and movements today. Lütticken, Idols of the Market: Modern Iconoclasm and the Fundamentalist Spectacle (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).
  19. For a cogent refutation of the charge of history erasure in the contemporary context see Priya Satia, “Fascism and Analogies: British and American, Past and Present,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 16 March 2021; online: . And for a compelling defense of the iconoclasts’ case, unfolded from the protests demanding the removal of the monument to Leopold II on the Place du Trône in Brussels, see Claire Debucquois, “Red Hands: Copper, Tin, Paint, Poems, Plants,” New Left Review 127 (Jan/Feb 2021); online: .
  20. A. Kayum Ahmed, “#RhodesMustFall: How a Decolonial Student Movement in the Global South Inspired Epistemic Disobedience at the University of Oxford,” African Studies Review, volume 63, number 2 (June 2020): 281-303; online: . See also Alexandre Publia, “South African Students’ Question: Remake the University or Restructure Society,” Abolition Journal (26 December 2016): 136-164.; online: .
  21. Settler colonialism is a form of colonial domination organized to ensure continuing access to Indigenous lands for the settler state and society; it aims to eliminate Indigenous nations as an impediment to such access, historically by a genocidal combination of exclusion and assimilation, more recently by what Glen Sean Courthard calls an asymmetrically negotiated “colonial politics of recognition.” Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Masks, White Skin: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). See also Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Studies, vol. 8, no. 4 (2006): 387-409; and Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  22. Roosevelt, who was US president from 1901 to 1909, was an ideologue of American empire and “manifest destiny” (the claim that white Americans have a moral right to conquer and settle the lands of Indigenous nations, in North America and beyond). In the 1971 action, the iconoclasts also tagged the monument with the graffiti “Return Alcatraz” and “Fascist Killer.” See Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Once More, the Monuments Must Fall,” on the Face Forward, 2 June 2020; online: .
  23. Zachary Small, “Around 1000 People Attend Anti-Columbus Day Tour at American Museum of Natural History,” Hyperallergic, 8 October 2018; online: .
  24. See Claire Voon, “Activists Splatter Red Paint on Roosevelt Monument at American Museum of Natural History,” Hyperallergic, 26 October 2017; online: ; and Hakim Bishara, “After Years of Protest, Theodore Roosevelt Statue Will Be removed from American Natural History Museum,” Hyperallergic, 22 June 2020; online: .
  25. See Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and other Cannibals: The Wétiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism and Terrorism [1979] (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008); and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), pp. 3-4 and 197-98.
  26. Russel Schimmer, “Hispaniola,” Yale University Genocide Studies Program; online at .
  27. Greg Botelho and Emanuella Grinberg, “Woman Climbs Pole, Removes Confederate Flag,” CNN, 27 June 2015; online: . For a video interview with Bree Newsome Bass and a discussion of her views on iconoclastic protest, see “Goodbye, Columbus: Bree Newsome Bass on the Movement to Topple Racist Statues Across the Globe,” Democracy Now!, 16 June 2020; online: .
  28. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 [1935] (New York: Free Press, 1998).
  29. Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy”; online: .
  30. White supremacist groups participating included League of the South, Identity Dixie, Identity Evropa, Spencer’s National Policy Institute, the Daily Stormer, Nationalist Front, Traditionalist Worker Party, various branches of the KKK, Vanguard America, Nationalist Socialist Movement, Anti-Communist Action, at least four armed militias, the fight clubs Proud Boys and Rise Above Movement, and the terrorist group Atomwaffen Division. Some of these formations, like Rise Above Movement, did not survive the arrest and prosecution of its leaders. A reorganization of the spectrum took place in the aftermath of the rally, especially after the failure of the sequel. One of the best dissections of the rally is the 2018 YouTube essay made by Shaun, “The True Alt-Right”; online at .
  31. He condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” and conjured up a “very, very violent alt-left.” He went on: “…you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” “Read the Complete Transcript of Trump’s Remarks at Trump Tower on Charlottesville,” Los Angeles Times, 15 August 2017; online at .
  32. Quoted in David Jackson, “Trump Defends Confederate Monuments: ‘You Can’t Change History,” USA Today, 17 August 2019; online at
  33. South Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “2020 Confederate Symbol Removals”; online: ; see also Valentina Di Liscia, “Over 160 Confederate Symbols Were Removed in 2020, Study Shows,” Hyperallergic, 8 March 2021; online: .
  34. See for example Claire Selvin and Tessa Solomon, “Toppled and Removed Monuments: A Continually Updated Guide to Statues and the Black Lives Matter Protests,” ARTNews, 11 June 2020; online: .
  35. In addition to the Hyperallergic reports already cited, see Aditya Iyer, “A Toppled Statue in Bristol Reveals Limited Understandings of What Decolonizing Requires,” Hyperallergic, 10 June 2020; online: ; and Hrag Vartanian, “After Kanders: Reflecting on the 2019 Whitney Tear Gas Biennial,” Podcast, Hyperallergic, 7 October 2019; online:
  36. Nicholas Mirzoeff, “All The Monuments Must Fall #Charlottesville,” Face Forward, 14 August 2017; online at: ; and “Once More, The Monuments Must Fall,” Face Forward, 2 June 2020; online: Mirzoeff advances a highly pertinent critique of dominant “complexes of visuality,” transcoding histories of resistance into a “right to look” that is “for a right to the real”: “The right to look confronts the police who say to us, ‘Move on, there’s nothing to see here.’ Only there is, and we know it and so do they.” Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 1.
  37. Hrag Vartanian, “Amin Husain and Nitasha Dhillon on Working to Decolonize the Art World,” Hyperallergic, Podcast, 25 September 2020; online:
  38. “The Situationist provocation of our 2017 title hoped to see such a movement emerge in other settler colonies and the metropoles that created them…. The materials are gathered by topic and there are far more than any one class could use or read.” “All Monuments Must Fall. A Collaboratively Produced Syllabus,” 2017-2020; online: .
  39. On the record, and for that Courbet was charged with the crime, after the restorations of counter-revolution, and sent the bill for the reconstruction of the column – more than 300,000 Francs. Pursued by this debt, the aging artist slipped away to Switzerland, the story goes, and died there. A tale for the pacifiers, which to throw off a spark or two of truth would have to be brushed “against the grain.”
  40. Alexa Welch Edlund of the Richmond Times-Dispatch captured a short video of one of Klein’s projections and posted it on YouTube; online: . For an interview with Klein and images of his other projections, see Jessica Stewart, “Powerful BLM Video Projections Help Reclaim Controversial Robert E. Lee Monument [Interview],” My Modern Met, 28 July 2020; online: . See also the countermemorial augmented reality project of the artist-activist group Movers and Shakers NYC, in Joshua McWhirter, idris brewster and Glen Cantave, “A Monumental Shift,” Guernica, 15 March 2021; online at .
  41. Fraser provides a relevant gloss on some of the structuring intersections of social order: “The ecological is also entangled, finally, with capitalism’s constitutive division between exploitation and expropriation. Corresponding roughly to the global colour line, that division marks off populations whose social-reproduction costs capital absorbs, through the payment of wages, from those whose labour and wealth it simply seizes, without compensation. Whereas the first are positioned as free rights-bearing citizens, able to access (at least some level of) political protection, the second are constituted as dependent or unfree subjects, enslaved or colonized, unable to call on state protection and stripped of every means of self-defence. This distinction has always been central to capitalist development, from the era of New World racialized chattel slavery to that of direct-rule colonialism, to postcolonial neo-imperialism and financialization. In each case, the expropriation of some has served as a disavowed enabling condition for the profitable exploitation of others.” Fraser, “Climates of Capital.”
  42. Exemplary of the negative monuments is Peter Eisenman and Bruno Happold’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, dedicated in 2005, close by the Brandenburg Gate, US Embassy and Commerzbank in Berlin. On the emergence of negative and sublime memorial strategies in art, see Gene Ray, “On the Mattering of Silence and Avowal: Joseph Beuys’ Plight and Negative Presentation in Post-1945 Visual Art,” The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, numbers 49-50 (2015): 8-38.
  43. Aside from Benjamin, the Frankfurt Institute theorists were not especially focused on the problem of so-called public space, but Adorno’s discussions of “administration” and “integration,” as key tendencies or social logics of what he called the “total social process,” are clearly of relevance here. Adorno deployed these terms in innumerable variations, but always emphasizing the endpoint towards which they tended. For example: “Genocide is the absolute integration.” Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), p. 362.
  44. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002). I have slightly modifed the translation here, rendering Augenschein as “visual evidence,” in contrast to Jephcott’s “evidence.”
  45. “Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.” Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), ix. Jameson’s stimulating reading of the cultural mutations that correspond to neoliberal ideology and the fully globalized, multinational stage of capitalism remains a kind of landmark of Marxist cultural analysis and evaluation. It is an interesting and important problem to clarify what is still convincing in his account and what now appears, in its turn, outdated. Historicity, it would seem, has made a comeback, despite the ongoing rage for deranged “cognitive mapping” in the form of conspiracy theories. And then, of course, there is the matter of “nature.”
  46. Sean Bonney, “Corpus Hermeticum: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” in Letters Against the Firmament (London: Enitharmon Press, 2015), p. 29.
  47. For indications and premonitions of the common, as recently theorized, see Massimo De Angelis, Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism (London: Zed Books, 2017); Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Common: On Revolution in the 21st Century, trans. Matthew MacLellan (London: Bloomsbury, 2019); and Stavros Stavrides, The City as Commons (London: Zed Books, 2016).