Baltimore’s Confederate monuments exited swiftly this week, but they might have left something behind: an image, however temporary it might turn out to be, of a city that got it done.
“Ain’t nobody got time for this white supremacist foolishness,” began a gleeful account by the team at the website Blavity of the unannounced overnight takedown of the statues. “The city of Baltimore did not come to play with ya’ll.”
The sentiment was widespread, in and out of town. Baltimore, so often portrayed as a crumbling, crime-ridden city, was being viewed in some quarters as one that could act with speed and clarity on a newly urgent issue: what to do with the statutes that honor the losing side of the Civil War.
As bewildered Americans were still trying to recover from the deadly rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. — and local officials across the country worried that their communities might be next — Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered the stealthy removal of the four statues that began late Tuesday night and continued into early Wednesday morning.
Pugh’s even-keel and deliberate style was on full display Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” as she fielded questions that, for a change, did not involve the city’s soaring homicide rate or the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray. More recently, the city drew national attention for police body-camera videos that defense attorneys said showed officers planting drugs, leading prosecutors to drop criminal cases.
Now the spotlight was on a step seen by many as progress.
“No pomp and circumstances, just get the work done,” Pugh said. “I’m very focused on how we move Baltimore forward, a city that has had many problems over the years but a city that is also healing.”
Those who have criticized Pugh in the past say this could mark a turning point in her tenure.
“Hopefully, this decisive style of leadership is a portent of things to come,” said Mark McLaurin, political director for Service Employees International Union Local 500 in Maryland and the District of Columbia. “This style of leadership is knowing what the right thing to do is and doing it.”
While McLaurin supported Pugh’s campaign for mayor, he and his members have said they felt betrayed by her veto of the $15 hourly minimum wage bill and her sponsorship of a measure seeking a mandatory one-year jail sentence for illegal gun possession.
He said progressive supporters could return to her side if the removal of the monuments is evidence of a new leadership direction.
“The good thing is if she was going to make a lot of missteps, she’s getting them out of the way earlier,” he said.
Others saw Pugh’s move as having an impact beyond the city. Some say it might have helped push Maryland officials to remove the statue of Chief Justice Roger Taney from the State House grounds. Gov. Larry Hogan once opposed the idea; he helped drive the action this week.
“I think other mayors and governors are going to follow suit, just like the governor did,” said Larry Young, the former state senator now a WOLB talk show host.
Young said Pugh’s move “absolutely” gave Baltimore at least a week of positive coverage. As for what comes next, he said, he’ll be watching.
“I’ve taken the position: Give her a year to do the job,” Young said. “Then let’s evaluate her.”
Not everyone welcomed the removal of the statues. President Donald Trump tweeted his disappointment — “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments” — and writers of letters to editors, callers to talk shows and commenters online registered their opposition.
Gov. Larry Hogan drew criticism from fellow Republicans after the state removed the Taney statue in Annapolis. People who identified themselves as supporters of the governor inundated his Facebook page with complaints about the move.
Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville, said Pugh’s action likely will only help her in a liberal city and state.
Polls of Marylanders and Americans in recent years have suggested that more people than not want Confederate monuments left where they are. But that isn’t the case in Baltimore, said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.
He believes attitudes might be shifting, as his own views have, in the wake of Charlottesville.
“I was in favor of leaving them the way they were as a useful reminder” of country’s troubled past, Crenson said. “But because of what happened in Charlottesville, they became flash points of violence.
“Removing them became about preserving public safety, which is one of the things government is supposed to do,” he said.
As the mayor who did just that, Crenson said, Pugh can only benefit. “There was a lot of dithering on this issue up this point,” he said.
Indeed, Baltimore has long wrestled with what to do with its Confederate monuments — statues of the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and of Taney, and memorials to Confederate soldiers and sailors and to Confederate women.
Pugh’s predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, appointed a task force in 2015 to study the question. The panel recommended in January 2016 that two of the four statues be removed.
Rawlings-Blake left office in December, leaving the decision to Pugh.
Last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville pushed the question to the front burner. While protesters toppled a Confederate statue in Durham, N.C., Baltimore is the only city that saw government action to take memorials down last week.
Public relations executive Sandy Hillman, a onetime aide to Mayor William Donald Schaefer, said Pugh had earned “good marks locally and nationally” for the move.
“I think Mayor Pugh has a lot of Don Schaefer in her,” she said. “She is a very deliberate thinker, a deliberate talker, not a shoot-from the hip person. But when Schaefer came into office, in ’71, it wasn’t that long since the ’68 riots.
“The city was down on itself. His goal was to turn the psyche of the city around.
“I think her head is in the same place.”