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Destruction of monuments, Black Lives Matter, Rome, Public memory, Legacy, Condemnation


Police brutality and killings of Black Americans have recently sparked nationwide protests. Among the many expressions of anger and indignation, one stands out as a unique feature of this wave of the social movement: public scrutiny of civic symbols. Protestors have defaced, torn down, and called for the removal of monuments that represent our country’s racist past, as well as structural racial injustice today. Protestors toppled a statue of George Washington in Portland and spray-painted on it the label “Genocidal Colonist,” while statues of Christopher Columbus were found beheaded in Boston, yanked from a pedestal in St. Paul, and tossed into a lake in Richmond. Some state governments—perhaps surprisingly, given their historical reluctance to participate in progressive social movements—have joined in removing racist symbols from public display. The Mississippi state legislature, for example, voted to redesign its state flag so as to remove a Confederate battle emblem.

The executive branch has responded with furor: On June 26, the Trump Administration issued an executive order excoriating what it sees as “a deep ignorance . . . indicative of a desire to indiscriminately destroy anything that honors our past and to erase from the public mind any suggestion that our past may be worth honoring.” The executive order directs the Department of Justice to prosecute any person or entity “that destroys, damages, vandalizes, or desecrates a monument, memorial, or statue within the United States,” and raises, among other things, serious First Amendment issues by chilling a vital aspect of political expression. This rhetoric culminated in a Fourth of July speech given at Mount Rushmore, where Trump declared that cancel culture and progressives were “tear[ing] down our statues,” “eras[ing] our history,” “indocrinat[ing] our children,” and “trampl[ing] on our freedoms.”

It has escaped both public attention and scholarly commentary that the recent scrutiny of monuments has a direct ancestor—damnatio memoriae. Literally translated as “condemnation of memory,” this Roman legal practice involved the erasure of public figures—usually once-powerful politicians—from all public memory by negating their presence in monuments, statues, and records. This Essay introduces this analogue and aims to accomplish two goals. First, by linking the recent scrutiny of monuments to a legitimate, age-old legal practice, it shows that the destruction of monuments associated with Black Lives Matter (BLM) deserves serious attention and is not a frivolous exercise in cancel culture, contrary to the claims of right-wing commentators. Second, by drawing inspiration from philosophical justifications for punishment, it identifies four values potentially served by memory condemnation: retribution, deterrence, expression of moral disapproval, and rehabilitation of the public space. The Essay argues that rehabilitation provides the best lens through which to view the debate about public memory and the most promising approach for the current progressive social movement to effect transformative change.

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Stanford Law Review Online