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Nov 12

Contested Space

Posted on November 12, 2019 at 1:45 PM by Melinda Mayo

I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. last week to participate in a couple of panel discussions highlighting what we are trying to do here in Roanoke regarding disparities in health outcomes and racial equity.  During one of the breaks, I was able to walk much of the length of the National Mall, something I had not done in well over a decade.  Along the way, I encountered monuments to fallen heroes, to founding fathers, and to some whose history is now viewed a bit more dubiously than in previous generations.

A Capitol City 

I saw some of the greatest museums in the world, including a visit to the incredible National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Of course, I also saw the three branches of the Federal government, represented by the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court.  

A Disputed City

I also saw various protests along my walk, one highlighting the plight of an aging religious leader under house arrest in a distant foreign land, the other against inaction on climate change.  I also noticed the many barricades, fences, and near militant security measures in place in and around nearly all of these facilities.  I will admit my first reaction to the protests and the many security measures was one of sadness, sad that we are such a divided people and sad that we are such a violent place that so much security is deemed necessary.  

However, that visit to the Museum of African American History and Culture reminded me that we have always been a deeply divided nation—at our best, ideologically and at our worst, violently.  Indeed, the land I was walking upon has been the site of some of the most heavily contested moments in our history.  More than 400 years ago the first settlers to the area battled with the indigenous population, who ultimately succumbed to the ravages of European diseases.  An ideological battle ensued from the very moment of securing our freedom as to where the new Nation’s Capitol should be located. Soon after the formation of the City as the Capitol, it was burned nearly to the ground by the British.  Even the design of the Capitol City was argued over, eventually resulting in the firing of the original designer.  

There was, prior to the Civil War, strife between the Capitol City and its neighboring states regarding slavery and a burgeoning movement toward abolition.  Forts, encampments, and soldiers became common sights during the Civil War.  In 1919, a violent mob of whites attacked random African Americans in the City, resulting in the death of 15 people.  In the 1930’s, more than 40,000 veterans and their families encamped in Washington, protesting the lack of post-war support.  They were forcibly removed by Federal troops and their makeshift camps burned.

Some of the greatest Civil Rights marches and speeches occurred on the National Mall, culminating in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech, but the City also saw widespread riots in 1968 following Dr. King’s assassination.  And of course, the City was a target of the terror attacks of 2001.

Even Here

So too has our community long contested ideas and power.  On occasion, this has resulted in incidents of shameful violence or destruction such as the 1893 riot and lynching, or the periods of neighborhood destruction associated with urban renewal.  More often, these contests have involved impassioned debates, be it about an aged stadium, election dates, or a new bus terminal.

So, upon reflection and recognition of our history—national and local—I viewed the presence of protests and security a bit differently, less a sad statement on our current condition and more an acknowledgment of our long, often violent history of doing something no other Nation has succeeded with as well as we have: Governing of the people, by the people, for the people.

-- Bob Cowell


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