We agree with the Sons of the Confederate Veterans regarding the monument rally scheduled for Saturday: Boycott it.
F. T. Ratchford, a spokesman for Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 1315, rightly identified the haphazardly organized protests for precisely what they are — pointless and potentially troublesome, regardless of what side of the debate you stand on.
"We are asking all people of good will not to go," Ratchford told PNJ reporter Jim Little. "... We're telling everyone who will listen to us not to go. Boycott it and do not participate in this meaningless act, which is going to do nothing but create friction."
As we all witnessed in Charlottesville weeks ago, a local debate about the propriety of public symbols became a torrent of Nazis, white supremacists and the counter protesters who showed up to shout them down. A white supremacist drove a speeding car into a peaceful crowd. A woman was killed.
And in the end, nothing was solved for Charlottesville.
Now here we are, debating our own Confederate monument in Pensacola. It’s a fair and inevitable argument, even if it bears little fruit for the betterment of our community. We should all be able to agree that neither its presence nor absence will result in tangible improvements to the quality of life for citizens of Pensacola. Here or gone, the monument will not bring higher wages, more job opportunities, better education or stronger, healthier families to our city.
So with a potentially volatile protest on the horizon, it is worth looking back at how the smoldering embers of Charlottesville were stoked in Pensacola. For that, citizens can thank Mayor Ashton Hayward.
In a moment of impromptu social inspiration, Hayward declared in a News Radio 1620 interview last week that he wants the monument to come down. What he did not tell listeners is that he had no meaningful, thought-out plan or process to remove it. Keep in mind, the monuments debate has been playing out all summer in communities as nearby as New Orleans, whose mayor notably led monument removal with an eloquent, powerful and widely-acclaimed speech explaining the city’s actions. Still, grappling with our own Confederate monuments did not become a priority until last week, apparently.
As word spread of our mayor’s public opposition to Confederate symbols, the predictable happened. Outrage and support for the monument swelled and a national controversy became homegrown.
Suddenly, Pensacola became the latest city to join the drama — which, like New Orleans, could have been a noble and symbolic moment. Instead, in the face of some opposition, Hayward’s office launched into a weak walking-back of the mayor’s short lived enthusiasm for monument removal.
"There are some things that need to happen before a statue can be taken down," mayoral spokesman Vernon Stewart said. "This is something that needs to come before City Council."
So much for our “strong” mayor.
Within no time, Hayward went from saying “symbols of hate are not accepted anywhere" to pointing the finger to the city council while offering wordy excuses about the virtues and necessities of adhering to “process.”
Process? This is Pensacola. The Sunday House. The fired fire chiefs. The Longhollow radio tower. The Fish House lawsuit. The Center for Entrepreneurship. The panhandling ordinance, the parking debacle and the Downtown Improvement Board. Since when is our city leadership concerned about the sanctity of rules and process?
Time and time again, this city has consistently skirted or ignored “process.” Yet in the face of controversy, Mayor Hayward clings to it.
If nothing else, perhaps an unintended virtue of the monuments debate will be exposing those public officials who talk a big game, and those who take action to actually back it up. There’s an important difference between leaders and cheerleaders, after all.
The mayor’s opposition to confederate symbols would be admirable if it were substantiated with forethought and a meaningful plan of action. And these mealy-mouthed politics would all be laughable if Charlottesville had not just happened and if these controversies had not been so violent. That’s why Hayward’s whimsical talk radio musings on monuments are cause for serious concern.
If he’s going to take a position on a highly combustible debate, he better have a smart, meaningful plan to follow through. Otherwise, it is entirely possible that his rambling radio rhetoric could result in serious public safety concerns. Indeed, by Thursday morning, the Pensacola Police Department was preparing for the potential of violence.
Which is precisely why F.T. Ratchford is calling for a boycott of the rally that began with the mayor’s surprise proclamation.
"That is not the place or the forum in which to try and reach a compromise," Ratchford said. "All it's going to do is be a bunch of screaming and yelling at each other. And while I have great confidence in our police department, I don't think they're going to be able to prevent what's going to happen."
We pray that nothing happens and echo Ratchford’s confidence in our local law enforcement. It’s just a shame that it is citizens and law enforcement who have to deal with the real life repercussions caused by local politicians and their half-hearted attempts to latch on to a serious moment of national soul-searching.
We encourage Mayor Hayward to attend and meet and greet all those who do not boycott Saturday’s planned rally at Lee Square. What better way to get the direct public input that the mayor now claims the process requires?
We also encourage the Pensacola City Council to allow Hayward to take the lead on this issue going forward. They should relinquish any authority they might have over the monument removal process and allow our strong mayor’s vision to seek out the best course of action for the citizens of Pensacola.
It’s important that our leaders speak out and take a stand on the challenging issues of the day. But it’s even more crucial that they are willing and able to back up their words with action.