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The Secret, All-White Committee Advising New Orleans’ Black Woman Mayor on the Fate of Confederate Statues

Nearly a year ago today, New Orleans residents cheered, sang, and danced in the streets as they watched the city take down a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle. The removal was part of a local grassroots campaign—which was in turn part of a nationwide movement—to remove Confederate statues from public spaces. It was the last of the statues removed after the city voted in 2015 take down four post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow era monuments.

“You elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing, and this is what that looks like,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at the time.

Now the city has a new mayor, and the fate of the Robert E. Lee statue is again up for debate. When asked about the future of the removed Confederate monuments in April, a few weeks before her inauguration on May 7, Mayor LaToya Cantrell—the city’s first black female mayor—told the Gambit: “My plan is to work with those who care about [the statues] and come up with a plan that I could support. And they will pay for it.”

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The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported earlier this month that the mayor had appointed a secret, pro-monument committee to give her office recommendations about the fate of the statues, without soliciting the feedback of Take ‘Em Down NOLA and other groups who’d called for the statues’ removal. A public records request submitted by the Times-Picayune revealed that the committee wants the Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard monuments back on public display in Greenwood Cemetery, and is made up of an all-white group including Frank Stewart, Geary Mason, Mimi Owens, Richard Marksbury, Charles Marsala, Pierre McGraw, and Sally Reeves.

It’s unclear how thoroughly Cantrell’s office vetted this group before they scheduled a meeting with them, or how much the mayor now knows about them after there’s been community outcry. (Mayor Cantrell’s office declined to provide comment to Splinter.) But as someone who has extensively documented the rise of white nationalism over the past few years, I immediately recognized these people.

They aren’t just run-of-the-mill concerned citizens. They’re racist trolls affiliated with various “alt-right” white supremacist and white nationalist groups.

Since President Trump’s successful 2016 campaign, emboldened activists like this group have been worming their way into the mainstream. They’ve been finding deceptive and creative ways of camouflaging their agenda through the use of veiled, benign catchphrases. Once found in the dark corners of online forums like 4chan, The Daily Stormer, and—known havens for white nationalists and supremacists—this rhetoric is beginning to find its way into larger society. Billy Roper, a man the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the “uncensored voice of violent neo-nazism,” explained to me in January that his “radical flank” actively seeks to make more moderate heritage groups “more radical and extreme.”

So who are the people on the mayor’s committee?

I had my first interaction with Geary Mason, a key representative of an organization called the Monumental Task Committee, last year in front of Lee Circle. Mason, an unassuming man with the face of a high school football coach, did his best to make the case for the Confederate monuments—“These monuments are a part of history”—in addition to providing background on the purpose of the MTC.

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Founded in 1989 to restore the Jefferson Davis statue, the Monumental Task Committee, headed by Pierre McGraw, has done some important work over the last 20 years ensuring the preservation of many public monuments, Confederate and otherwise. While the committee’s preservation efforts have been honorable in most cases, the MTC’s social media accounts have been known to go on the offensive, picking fights with anyone celebrating the removal of Confederate monuments and vowing revenge against local media. (They especially single out Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry.)

Then we have Charles Marsala, the former mayor of Atherton, CA, a failed Senate candidate, and a high school classmate of former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu. He is also the operator of the Save NOLA Heritage Facebook page and has made unconscionable claims about the reasons behind the Civil War. In the caption for his YouTube video titled “Jefferson Davis—Empowering Slaves with Education & Job Training,” Marsala asserts that Davis is “best known for empowering slaves in preparation for professional careers after plantation life.”

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He is also one of the only people to make a case in support of the overtly racist Liberty Place Monument, which bore an original inscription that read:

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election in November 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state. McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by the overthrow of the carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers Gov. Kellogg (white) and Lt. Gov. Antoine (colored).

After the removal of the Confederate monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest in December 2017 in Memphis, Marsala was a guest on the Daily Kenn podcast, a website run by Kenn Gividen. (Gividen ran for office in 2016 as part of the white nationalist American Freedom Party and believes white people are, “in the aggregate,” more intelligent than black people or Latinos.) Marsala agreed that monument removal is a form of white genocide,” and entertained the idea that if we “really cared” about racism, we should take down mosques. Marsala also described a May 1, 2017 fracas in New Orleans, in which antifa and pro-Confederate activists clashed before the removal of the monument to Jefferson Davis, with a common anti-Semitic conspiracy theory:

There was a huge banner…of the antifa crowd that had the Rothschild family crest on it. And when we started researching that, the Rothschild family funded Karl Marx so i have to argue right now that I believe a lot of what we’re seeing right now is part of this Marxism theory, you mentioned earlier about cultural genocide.

There’s also Miriam “Mimi Eaux” Owens, who is the seller of the controversial “Forever Lee Circle” Mardi Gras throw that caused a firestorm during this year’s Carnival season. The beads caused such a ruckus in the city that it led to many Carnival Krewes, the organizations responsible for throwing parades during the Mardi Gras season, banning participants from throwing them.

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Owens’ social media activity also reveals questionable views steeped in anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and factually inaccurate white supremacist rhetoric. In a post by the administrators of the Facebook page for the Forever Lee Circle, the real perpetrators of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were “the Jews, the Muslims and Africans themselves.” The post was in response to placards being erected in the French Quarter that teach about the slave history of New Orleans. Owens asserts that it “feels more like an opportunity to shame than an opportunity to learn.”

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Owens regularly dredges up alt-right memes to share with her thousands of Facebook page followers. Multiple times she has joked that Mayor Mitch Landrieu should be renamed “Mitchell Luther Kang.” The comment was in reference to the “We Wuz Kangz” meme, which uses a bevy of stereotypes around African-Americans, many of whom claim a link to their ancestry, in order to denigrate the study of African-American history and black people in general. Owens clearly expects her audience to get the joke.

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Onto Richard Marksbury: He is a professor at Tulane University who has appeared at least five times on The Battle of New Orleans, a radio show on WGSO 990AM that was eventually shut down due to constant anti-Semitism, threats on local activists, and use of racial slurs on air. The Battle of New Orleans hosted guests such as William Finck, the leader of the white nationalist League of the South; Mark Weber, the head of America’s largest Holocaust-denial organization; and well-known white supremacist David Duke.

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In fact, Marksbury and Duke appeared on the same episode. On that episode, Marksbury praised Duke’s “brains” for getting the Liberty Place monument restored in the 1990s.

There is also an apparent connection between members of the Monumental Task Committee and a newly formed white nationalist group called Identity Acadia. It’s a spinoff of the larger national organization Identity Evropa, a White identitarian organization. On Identity Acadia’s website, it describes itself as a Franco-Louisiana identitarian organization with a focus on Cajun identity whose stated purpose is to “revive and sustain the Franco-Louisiana cultural and ethnic hegemony in New Orleans and Acadiana.” Their goal, in other words, is to create an all-white ethno-state within the borders of the State of Louisiana.

The Monumental Task Committee’s Facebook page has liked, shared, and even celebrated the efforts of Identity Acadia publicly on social media like in this post by the Monumental Task Committees on Facebook: “We are SOOO proud of our MTC volunteers (Identity Acadia) for cleaning graffiti and removing weeds on the Gayarre monument this weekend! We love our volunteers and supporters! Thank you!”

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The man calling himself “James Coney,” one of the founding members of Identity Acadia, has been a vocal organizer within alt-right circles. He recently had a question for Ann Coulter at the Breitbart News Townhall: “Why do you think the mainstream media has been silent on the genocide of white farmers in South Africa?” (White genocide is one of the hottest catch phrases within the white nationalist and identitarian movement.) In this YouTube interview with Coney, he explains his motives: “We originally formed against these [leftist] extremist groups but we quickly realized they are more of a symptom to the real disease which is neo marxism and globalism which has infested every segment of our society today.”

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It remains to be seen whether Mayor Cantrell will backtrack or continue her work with people who are, in my view, essentially white nationalists masquerading as historical preservationists. But regardless of the eventual outcome, white supremacist views have already succeeded in penetrating one of the major institutions of a supposedly progressive, majority-black city.

Update, May 25, 2018, 7:37 PM: After publication, Charles Marsala and Richard Marksbury vehemently denied that they were white nationalists. The headline and last paragraph of this story has been updated to reflect that fact. This story has also been updated to clarify Marsala’s views on Jefferson Davis and slavery on YouTube, and that Marksbury and Duke appeared on the same episode of a radio show.

This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more from our Think Local series here.

Abdul Aziz, a freelance photojournalist based in New Orleans, brings a rich background in documenting global communities from the Middle East to Africa, Asia, and conflicts in the United States.