Who, until weekend before last and Charlottesville, could have imagined a large contingent of neo-Nazis and their sympathizers marching en masse in public and claiming to speak on a subject of major national importance. That a gathering of progressive citizens rose up to resist them is only to be welcomed — even if those counter-demonstrators, as President Trump bent over backwards to contend, contained a militant element themselves.
The fact is that a term that was modish for a while in the '60s and '70s and then fell out of favor is likely due for a revival. "Participatory democracy" was how it went, and it denoted what was then a rising tide of direct action — demonstrations, marches, citizen interventions, and, in some cases, disruptions of both the planned and spontaneous kind — going on among masses of people who had not been elected to any sort of government.
There is an irony of sorts — or maybe an appropriateness — in the fact that, as our elected representatives in the Congress seem to have settled into a state of gridlock in which nothing (or at least nothing positive) can occur, citizens have taken to the streets to make things happen on their own.
The renewed demonstrations here locally at the site of the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument and grave and the new ones demanding the removal as well of the Jefferson Davis statue on the riverfront, are instances of an obvious sense of impatience and a developing shift in public behavior.
In Memphis, the issue is compounded by a state action taken expressly to counter the will of local government — namely, the Heritage Protection Act of 2016, which places all authority over monuments like those to Forrest and Davis in the hands of the state Historical Commission, which must approve changes in the status of the monuments by a two-thirds vote of its 20 members.
City government has already moved decisively to change the names of three downtown parks from prior appellations that paid homage to the confederacy, including the two parks with the offending statues. Mayor Jim Strickland and the City Council are on record as favoring the removal of those monuments. But the hands of city officials are tied — or seem to be — by the aforesaid state law. Those demanding immediate action point out, however, that the state law, which was rushed into being to prevent any change in the status of the Memphis monuments, lacks any penalty provisions.
Accused by some of the demonstrators as lacking in leadership, Strickland felt constrained to issue an angry rebuttal on his Facebook page, citing his prior actions on behalf of equality of all citizens and saying, "I want every Memphian to see the absurdity of someone accusing a mayor who is actually working on removing confederate statues as being an apologist for white supremacists." The mayor cautioned against "an attempt to divide this city with the kind of racial politics that we should all reject."
It is a warning well meant and well worth heeding. But there's a corollary to it: that the times, they are once again a-changin', and the order is, indeed, rapidly fading.