The horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has inspired weeks of protests with calls for an end to structural racism in American society. Unfortunately, righteous protests well within the tradition of any healthy liberal democracy are now too often co-opted by illiberal far-left activist groups. They seek to use each passing social crisis as an opportunity to advance their radical understanding of social justice. Among the din are cries for socialized housing, food, income, and the abolition of capitalism and the police.

Where protest has given way to vandalism and riot, with police ordered to stand down, small citizen groups have taken to the streets to protect public art, sculpture, and historic buildings in addition to retail corridors and residential areas. The flashpoint of many of these cultural battles has been city centers in the vicinity of historic public buildings and public art.

Daily broadcasts of the cultural scrum from Seattle to Boston recount how historic monuments become targets and fall. The first were long controversial statues dedicated to figures from the American Civil War. For instance, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently ordered such statues removed from the nation’s Capital building.

However, this frenzy for a cultural cleansing soon stretched beyond the iconography of the Civil War and our nation’s bloody struggle for emancipation. It now includes vandalism to monuments across Washington, D.C., the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Philadelphia’s Washington Square, and even the statue of noted abolitionist Matthias Baldwin in front of Philadelphia City Hall.

This frenzy for a cultural cleansing soon stretched beyond the iconography of the Civil War and our nation’s bloody struggle for emancipation.

While most Americans do not favor a broad attack on cultural iconography, the media has had a complicated reaction to the destruction of cultural property at best. The Philadelphia Inquirer erupted in internal controversy over a headline questioning whether “buildings matter”, resulting in the resignation of a senior editor.

After the first day of rioting and looting in Philadelphia, the community was generally permissive of the Mayor utilizing emergency powers to suspend due process of law to remove the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo from the front of the Municipal Services Building. He circumvented a mandatory review by the city’s Art Commission and rebuffed his obligations under the public trust doctrine.

However, there was a quick recognition that this “emergency” removal of art could not be allowed to continue as a practical matter because it fundamentally deprives citizens of their right to due process. By extension, it abdicates fundamental civic governance responsibilities to the whims of the mob.  

The latest front of the culture war has emerged in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza, the location of the Christopher Columbus statue given to Philadelphia at the time of the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 by the King of Italy.

Last week, after Mayor Jim Kenney attempted to remove the statue, Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick ruled that the “city shall not remove, damage or alter in any way the Columbus Statue…until such time as the Art Commission of the City of Philadelphia (and any other agency that has jurisdiction) determines the fate of the Statue”, that the city must “abide by all applicable laws and regulations” and “use its resources to reasonably protect the safety and integrity of the Statue”.

By virtue of his constant and obsequious genuflecting to the demands of the increasingly illiberal left, it has become difficult to determine who adds less value in our shared fight to become a more perfect union: Mayor Jim Kenney or the anonymous vandal who recently beheaded a Columbus statue in Boston.

The Judge’s actions are critically important because she enshrined the City’s responsibility to due process and the obligation to protect artwork held in the public trust.

Most legal scholars argue that long-held public art cannot be hidden from view, unprotected, or relocated, as the public are the beneficiaries of that art and would suffer irreparable harm by being deprived all the benefits of the educational, historical, and cultural lessons it provides.

Even using an emergency declaration, as the Mayor did to remove the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, is a violation of this basic common law principle. It permanently denies the public access to the artwork without due process, but rather in response to executive fiat or the edicts of the horde.

There must be every accommodation made to preserve accessibility to art held in trust by government officials for the public benefit. As Philadelphians, we must be particularly sensitive to this sacred responsibility. Once known as the “Athens of America”, Philadelphia has more public art than any other city in the United States. As the owner of multiple museums, including the beloved Philadelphia Museum of Art, the City itself has a curatorial responsibility to all beneficiaries that is unique to municipal government.

Where government fails to uphold its obligations to protect the art, infrastructure and other heritage placed in its trust, this obligation defaults to the governed. For, government in this nation cannot and must not exist without the consent of the governed.  

Too much has been underhandedly alleged about the supposed ideological dispositions of those neighborhood residents who have been compelled to embrace vigilantism precisely because of the Kenney Administration’s lawlessness. The fact of the matter is most Philadelphians want both effective policies to end all inequity exacerbated by racial injustice and the basic protection their public art from antisocial vandals. These sentiments are hardly mutually exclusive. Indeed, those who continue to seek the defamation, even eradication, of our shared history with reckless abandon undermine both.

By virtue of his constant and obsequious genuflecting to the demands of the increasingly illiberal left, it has become difficult to determine who adds less value in our shared fight to become a more perfect union: Mayor Jim Kenney or the anonymous vandal who recently beheaded a Columbus statue in Boston.

As the citizens are the direct beneficiaries of the public art – whether affirmation of our civic pride or warnings of our civic failures – when government abdicates its responsibility as trustee, the governed are duty-bound to protect collective cultural heritage.

In this way, as First Amendment rights are debated amongst protester and counter-protester, those who seek to protect monuments and public art have additional standing. They are not only exercising their First Amendments rights, but also exercising their rights and obligations to protect what is clearly in the public trust, for posterity.

Terry Tracy is Co-Founder & CEO of Broad + Liberty, Inc. He can be reached at ttracy@broadandliberty.com.

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