In a move straight out of a dystopian science fiction novel, a new bill would make it illegal to add contextualizing text to any monument, including Confederate statues, that would alter its intended meaning. The legislation, sponsored by Republican State Rep. Mike Holmes, says memorials and monuments may not be “dishonored, disparaged, or reinterpreted with competing signage, wording, symbols, objects, or other types or means of communication.”
The provision raises questions about the public’s ability to engage with the complicated histories that some of those memorials evoke. A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, for instance, became an unlikely symbol of the battle for racial equality when it was painted over and surrounded with artwork by Black Lives Matters demonstrators last year. A sign with the name of Marcus-David Peters, a Black high school teacher fatally shot by police in 2018, was installed near the site of the statue; such an addition may not be legal under the new Alabama law.
The bill is an amendment to the Memorial Preservation Act, signed into law in May 2017, which prohibits the removal of any monuments 40 years or older located on public property. Under the law, some Alabama cities were fined $25,000 for removing Confederate monuments last year amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations that called for racist symbols to come down. The city of Birmingham faced the same fee in 2017 and was sued by the Alabama Attorney General after Mayor William A. Bell covered a Confederate memorial in the wake of the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Holmes’s bill would increase this fine to $10,000 a day until the governmental entity complies with “the return of any protected memorial to its original location and condition.”
The provisions of the new bill are largely seen as an effort to further protect Confederate monuments in a state with a long history of staunchly defending them. The amendments proposed by Holmes also include language that could have implications for commemorative markers of the Civil War specifically, expanding the definition of a “monument” to include any memorial to “a cause” or to “a war or military conflict.” (The text previously cited memorials to an event, a group, a movement, a person, or military service.)
Juandalynn Givan, a Democratic Representative from Birmingham, has introduced a competing bill to repeal the Memorial Preservation Act altogether, calling it “unfair and unsafe.” Instead, she proposes allowing cities to relocate monuments to sites of their choosing or donate them to the Alabama Archives for safekeeping.
“It’s a simple question,” Givan said. “Can I go into anyone else’s yard in which they pay taxes and in which they live and tell them how to live?”
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