[Marxism] Racist defacing of Joe Louis Monument in Detroit

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Thu Mar 4 05:48:53 MST 2004

The practiced desecration of public monuments is one
with a long and dishonorable history. And racists
sometimes don't even know that they are racist, so
deeply are these attitudes engrained in the culture
of the United States of America. They are oblivious
to what they are doing and what it signifies.

In Cuba, there's a very famous incident which took
place in 1949, when a bunch of drunken US Marines
climbed on a statue of Jose Marti in Havana's Parque
Central. One of them urinated on the statue and thus
a gigantic protest erupted. Fidel, Raul, Alfredo
Guevara and Lionel Soto organized an honor guard to
protect the statue and a protest demonstration the
next day. It's a key incident in the island's long 
history and its independence struggle because it
became an organzing and protest focus. 

You can read about it in detail in Lionel Martin's
one of the best books ever written on the history
and the political strategy of Cuba's Revolution.

One of the points Cubans make with great pride in
this period is that that no US national symbols 
have ever been defaced in Cuba. They have protests
against US policy regularly, but no disrespect is
ever shown for for such things as the flag, etc.

Walter Lippmann, CubaNews list

March 4, 2004 
In Detroit, a Blow
To 'The Fist' Touches
A Sensitive Nerve

Controversial Sculpture
Is Defaced With Paint;
Vandals Deny Racism

DETROIT -- At about 4 a.m. on Feb. 23, Brett J. Cashman
took a stand as an angry white man facing down a clenched
black fist.

For two months, he says he had watched Detroit's
murder-rate rise. Citizens here were being slain at the
same rate as soldiers in Iraq -- about one per day. Last
month, two young police officers were also killed and
politicians scurried to create new antiviolence

Mr. Cashman, a parks commissioner in a Detroit suburb,
decided to mount his own initiative. He and friend John
Price, using mops and white paint, defaced a city landmark
known as "The Fist." The two were arrested and charged with
malicious destruction of property. If convicted, they could
each face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The Fist -- a monument to Detroit boxer Joe Louis -- is an
8,000-pound, 24-foot-long disembodied black forearm and
clenched hand. Since it was installed downtown in 1986, it
has been a polarizing presence. Some see it as a fitting
tribute to the heavyweight champ, and a symbol of
African-American pride. Others revile it, calling it an
in-your-face reminder of Detroit's racial tensions and its
"Murder City" reputation.

The vandalism of the Fist was viewed by many here as a
racially divisive act. Anger and incredulity only increased
after Mr. Cashman and Mr. Price declined to explain their
actions and entered a plea of not guilty. At the statue,
the vandals left photos of the two slain officers, who were
white; the alleged killer is black. The vandals also left a
note: "Courtesy of Fighting Whities."

In their first interviews since their arrests, Mr. Cashman
and Mr. Price, an airline-mechanics student, say their act
wasn't racially motivated. They say they had one message:
"stop the violence." Says Mr. Cashman: "If the fist was
white, we would have painted it black."

The uproar in Detroit is a reminder of how defacing
monuments can become a defining event in a community.
"Cultures are known not only by what they make, but by what
they destroy," says Robert Graham, a sculptor in Los
Angeles who created the Fist.

Mr. Graham says his wife, actress Anjelica Huston,
considers the vandalism a "stupid" act, and he agrees. But
he calls the incident "understandable." The fact that the
monument continues to arouse such passions means "it's
working," he says. "It's effective."

The Fist is "a complex symbol," the sculptor says,
memorializing "the complex life" of Mr. Louis, an icon in
the segregated America of the 1930s and 1940s. "Joe Louis
was black. He'd knock people out. That's what he did," says
Mr. Graham, 66 years old and a native of Mexico. Rather
than representing the upright fist of the black power
salute, he sees his sculpture's fist as a "battering ram."

Many in Detroit argue that the bare fist needs a boxing
glove for context. "That's too corny," says the artist.

Not long after humans began making statues, others felt the
need to deface them. Pharaohs in ancient Egypt chipped the
noses off statues of previous rulers, so their predecessors
couldn't breathe in the afterlife. In the last 14 months,
vandals have defaced or decapitated statues of the Virgin
Mary in California, Martin Luther King Jr. in Texas, Robert
E. Lee in Virginia, and of course, Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

People come to these monuments with chisels, sledgehammers,
and agendas. In Tucson, Ariz., a Ronald McDonald statue has
endured annual attacks, including being covered with
vulgarities and an acronym for an animal-liberation group.
In Edmonton, Alberta, a Wayne Gretzky statue was defaced
with a sign that read "U$ Lackey" after the hockey star
expressed support for the war in Iraq. In Birmingham, Ala.,
the word "thief" was spray-painted on a statue of
HealthSouth Corp. founder Richard Scrushy, now charged with
securities fraud.

Defacing monuments is "the human version of a dog leaving
its scent on a lamp-post," says Michael Kan, curator
emeritus at Detroit Institute of Art, which commissioned
the Fist.

The Fist, funded by a $350,000 grant from Sports
Illustrated, was controversial from the start. A local
editorial cartoon showed the Fist morphing into a gun. Some
leaders complained that it looked like a phallic symbol.
Others wondered why it was pointed at Canada, right across
the river. When the Pope spoke in Detroit in 1987, an
elevated platform was erected so he wouldn't have to stare
directly at the Fist.

So far, as Detroit tries to beautify itself before it hosts
Major League Baseball's 2005 All-Star Game and the National
Football League's 2006 Super Bowl, there are no plans to
remove the Fist. But some residents wouldn't mind seeing it
go. "It's not an open hand saying welcome," says Fred
Zelewski, a white retiree who thinks the piece should be
moved to another location. Thomas Guyton, an
African-American employee of General Motors here, is no fan
of the sculpture either. "Most African-Americans I know
don't like it," he says. "It's a fist. It says we beat up

Before this year's sharp rise, homicides in Detroit had
been down in recent years. Even so, among the 10 largest
U.S. cities, Detroit -- with 361 murders -- had the highest
per-capita homicide rate last year, according to the
Associated Press.

At the arraignment of Mr. Cashman and Mr. Price last week,
the magistrate called their action "on par with cross
burning." This week, Michigan's Superior Township Board of
Trustees accepted Mr. Cashman's resignation as parks
commissioner and issued a resolution calling the vandalism
"loathsome, cowardly and antisocial."

In interviews conducted by e-mail and phone, Mr. Cashman,
45, and Mr. Price, 27, said the "Fighting Whities"
reference wasn't an act of racism. The idea, they said,
came from a University of Northern Colorado basketball team
called the "Fighting Whites." That team, which includes
Native Americans, has fostered debate over stereotyping in
sports symbols. Mr. Price and Mr. Cashman said they want to
spark that same kind of discussion.

Like many of her listeners, Detroit radio talk-show host
Michelle McKormick doesn't buy such explanations.
"Honestly, I think they're just a couple of rednecks upset
about the deaths of the cops," she says. "They thought they
were being clever, but they weren't smart enough to think
it through."

Marc Beginin and David Rosenberg, attorneys for the two
men, said they allowed their clients to talk about the
incident "to foster understanding in the community."

Some in Detroit argue that it was the vandals who
introduced a racial wedge into the tragedy of the murdered
white police officers. Days before the Fist was defaced,
the officers' joint funeral had been held at one of
Detroit's prominent black churches.

According to the police report, Mr. Cashman told the
arresting officers: "We did it for you guys." But many
officers see the vandalism as simply a criminal act, says
Detroit Police spokeswoman Tara Dunlop. Officers were more
grateful, she says, to an airport limousine driver who saw
the vandals in action, and called 911 while pursuing them
through several suburbs. When police finally caught the
pair, they and their truck were splattered with white
paint, the report said.

Mr. Cashman says he loves Detroit and has good memories of
growing up in the city as the son of a union electrician.
Nearly every family he knew was connected to the auto
industry, he says, and as those jobs went away, he saw the
city decline.

Married with two children, ages 6 and 9, Mr. Cashman said
he ran for the suburban parks-commission post because he
wanted to serve his community. (He ran as a Libertarian.)
He had been employed as a supervisor at an auto-parts
supplier, but lost his job after the vandalism incident.

Some artists have altered their work in response to
vandalism. In 1979, Linda Strong created a bronze statue,
"The Children's Fountain," for a park in Santa Fe, N.M. It
depicts a boy and girl having a water fight, with the boy
wielding a squirt gun. In 2000, gun-control advocates
vandalized the statue and tried to sever the boy's arm.
"All they could see was the violence," says Ms. Strong.
"They could no longer see the children's innocence."

Ms. Strong agreed to recast the boy's arm with a garden
hose. In the wake of the Columbine High School killings,
"it was more important to keep the peace than to keep my
original idea."

In Detroit, the paint on the Fist was cleaned off. Other
repairs will wait until spring.

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