By Leonard E. Colvin
We see the symbols of institutional power and privilege, past and present, on display each day in this country.
The values and ideas of these old and new symbols are colliding to determine which is right.
Last week, long after the Portsmouth City Council voted its approval, the city removed the remaining portions of the Confederate Monument downtown.
It reflects the old Confederacy in the South when white men controlled the economic and political levers of
power in the city and any political status of African Americans.
That system lasted until the Civil War ended it in 1865.
It also reflects the sabotage of the period of Reconstruction, designed to give former slaves a chance to become whole citizens and determine their lives free of economic or social oppression.
It was also symbolized by Jim Crow, which was the legal marginalization of Blacks.
It created a system of separate and unequal social and economic order until the Civil Rights Movement dismantled it.
Blacks via their works in the Civil Rights Movement, and the byproduct of law, have overcome such oppressions.
But, even days after the end of the Civil War and the fight for rights, resistance has been steady.
There are a Black City Manager, Commonwealth’s Attorney, Police Chief, City Treasurer, and amble representation on key boards and commissions in Portsmouth.
In the coming election, African Americans have a chance to secure a majority on the city council and capture the mayor’s job.
The city is the home of one of the most powerful Black political figures in Virginia, State Senator L. Louise Lucas.
She has been in the State Senate since 1994 and has accrued seniority and skills to be an effective wielder of power.
These factors represent the symbols of change and progress that African Americans have fought hard to secure and sustain.
Recently the Black female city police chief issued an arrest for Senator Lucas for alleged offenses during a June 10 protest event where the Confederate monument in Olde Towne was vandalized.
The police report claims Lucas sought to impose her will at one point during the incident, telling police to stand back as the activists sought to bring down the structure. She has denied the charge and is due in court next month.
Black and white leaders and citizens who support the
removal of the monument from the public square, represent the new Portsmouth and work to respect the power structure.
So does her daughter Councilwoman Lisa Lucas Burke, who called for Police Chief Angela Greene’s resignation because the chief went over the head of the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the City Manager when she issued the warrant for Sen. Lucas’ arrest.
Burke has been charged with two misdemeanors for breaking the city’s charter when she called for the Chief’s resignation.
The charges were made against Burke, not by a city official, but a white male citizen.
There are white civic, business, and political elements in that city which fervently resist this new Black power dynamic and the changes it has achieved and seeks, including the removal of the Confederate monument.
Example: Former Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya Chapman, who is Black, was forced out when she recognized and fought to reform the racist “good ole boy” system which was bolstered by the influential Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and existing rank and file of the department which is mostly white and male.
Chapman ran into a hostile wall of resistance to her reforms highlighted by racial bias in the department.
Lucas and other Black lawmakers around the state, support legislation currently being proposed during the special session of the General Assembly to monitor
police departments and reveal the histories of abusive police.
Blacks in Portsmouth and elsewhere have secured such political power, but they lack the economic clout needed to complement it.
This is symbolic of the continued, historic efforts to deprive Blacks of access to resources which would create capital and wealth for their families and businesses.
If you drive through downtown Portsmouth and other locales, you see new and rehabilitated old buildings and other projects.
White developers are raking in millions on these projects.
This resistance and adherence to the traditions symbolized by the Confederate monument are being waged not by men wearing hoods and roaming about with torches undercover of darkness.
There is no secret and layered deep state seeking to undermine Black leaders and their causes.
This resistance to Black progress and change is being displayed openly, even via the new and traditional media.
As it was during Reconstruction, white resistance
to progress characterized African Americans as incompetent, corrupt, and not deserving positions of political or economic power.
There were concerted efforts for changes in state constitutions in the South to kill Black access to the ballot and the halls of political power in state legislatures and city council.
In 1920 Jim Crow gave whites the power to reserve
economic and political power and spaces for themselves.
There were few Blacks holding political office, or patronizing white businesses without harassment, or living and walking through white neighborhoods or
“Invading” them meant arrest, physical abuse, or death for Black people.
Blacks created their own community and business spaces.
Remember Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Lincolnville in Portsmouth, and Church Street in Norfolk?
But, despite the abolition of Jim Crow, old racial fears and privileges are hard to abandon.
Today whites are confronting or summoning police on Blacks jogging, walking, swimming, barbecuing, or residing in spaces whites believe are privileged reserves for them.
Imagine a white police officer demanding you step out of your front door to show proof you live in a home you pay the mortgage on in a mostly white neighborhood.
The biggest symbol of the conflict is personified by the kneeling, an honorable gesture of NFL Quarterback Cameron Kaepernick. He wanted to illustrate the cruelty as it is applied as a form of humiliation and death applied by white police on Black men.
It has been converted into a sign of disrespect by those who say it
attacks the police and the flag.
But the incident in May involving George Floyd shows it is lynching renewed, this time at the hands of police and not mobs at a picnic.
Black and Brown people, including politicians, who just
want to live and work as citizens free of such oppression, refuse to turn back and resort to the good old days.
At the same time, they want this nation to realize that they do not want to “replace” whites in America as the managers of the nation’s economic and social systems.
But historically they have sought respect for their aspiration to be political, social and economic equals.
Black people are used to the challenges to their quest to make the credo “All men are created equal” a reality.
Their ascendency to power represents change. The same changes and promises hoped for after the Civil War and during the Black liberation movement of the 1960s until now.
As the monuments of resistance come down, politicians and activists and citizens are still willing to rise to the challenges the resistance creates to slow and deter change and our right to equality and respect as citizens.