NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Impassioned residents heckled each other and at least one man made an inappropriate gesture that got him escorted out of City Hall during a heated debate Thursday over whether city officials should remove prominent Confederate monuments from some of New Orleans' busiest thoroughfares.
Those arguing before the City Council to keep the monuments included preservationists who valued them as pieces of history and military veterans who said they were a way to honor American soldiers. Those opposed included pastors who called them symbols of racism and African-Americans who called them offensive. Opinions often appeared to divide along racial lines.
Before the meeting, a handful of people held Confederate flags in support of the statues while a larger group gathered next to them and held signs demanding removal.
The monuments in question include imposing statues of Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, Confederate generals, and a dedication to Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president.
The council has scheduled a vote on the removal plan for next week.
The Confederate-flag bearers included a couple of African-Americans, including Arlene Barnum, a 61-year-old woman who said she traveled to New Orleans from Oklahoma to oppose the removal of the monuments. She said she had ancestors who were both slaves and Confederate fighters with ties to Louisiana.
"This is civil rights for the Confederacy," she said.
In the background, as she spoke, protesters shouted, "Take down Robert E. Lee!"
"It represents the history," she said in defense of the statues. "It's no different than me doing a family tree history and going to a family reunion and I have to take out pages because someone's going to get mad because they don't want to find out their daddy is not their real daddy.
"You cannot separate Southern man's history from so-called black history, they are married at the hip," she said to explain her interest in the Confederacy and preserving the monuments.
Among those demanding the statues be brought down was George Mahdi, a 69-year-old African-American community activist from New Orleans. Both his grandparents, he said, came from plantations in their day.
"It's self-evident: Those statues are offensive to me and my race," he said. "They represent white supremacy."
He said he no longer sees the monuments as a personal affront.
"It's personal when you had to ride segregated street cars, and go to the segregated restaurants," he said. Instead, he said removing the statues is a political fight to challenge racism.
"We're here to change the mentality by any means necessary," he said.
He equated leaving the monuments in public view to allowing Nazi symbols to stand in Germany.
"They need to be out of public view," he said. "Now, they've got a Confederate museum, put them there."
Mayor Mitch Landrieu first called for taking down the monuments following the June mass shooting at the African-American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist that left nine parishioners dead.
In the shooting's aftermath, Confederate symbols have been falling out of favor fast — and in many places being removed from public sight.
Although a majority of the City Council in New Orleans has indicated it favors removing the statues, at least two members recently came out against the method by which the monuments were to be removed and asked for more public discussion.