Opinion: Daily Journal

Cooper commits monumental error

The statue of Zebulon B. Vance, slave owner, Confederate general and Civil War Democratic governor, still stands on the Capitol grounds June 23, 2020. (CJ photo by Rick Henderson)
The statue of Zebulon B. Vance, slave owner, Confederate general and Civil War Democratic governor, still stands on the Capitol grounds June 23, 2020. (CJ photo by Rick Henderson)

As soon as he heard the news that a mob had torn down statues on the grounds of North Carolina’s State Capitol on the evening of June 19, Gov. Roy Cooper realized his mistake. He had not been clear enough in instructing his aides, including Secretary of Public Safety Eric Hooks. He knew he’d have to take decisive action.

Hours before, the State Capitol Police and other law-enforcement officers had already effectively diverted and defeated an earlier attempt to pull down statues honoring Confederate soldiers and their families. But a new mob was gathering, intent on criminal mischief.

Everyone knew the governor’s policy preference: North Carolina should no longer devote scarce space at the State Capitol, or other public squares around the state, to statues and other public art memorializing the Confederacy.

“We cannot continue to glorify a war against the United States of America fought in the defense of slavery,” Cooper had argued in 2017. “These monuments should come down. Our Civil War history is important, but it belongs in textbooks and museums — not a place of allegiance on our Capitol grounds.”

But the governor had also made it clear that the ends don’t justify the means. A 2015 law enacted by bipartisan majorities in the General Assembly had forbidden state or local officials from removing public monuments except under limited circumstances. And, of course, preexisting state law made it a crime for private citizens, acting individually or as part of a mob, to deface, damage, or remove a public monument whatever their feelings about it might be.

“I understand the frustration of those fed up with the pace of change,” Cooper had said in his 2017 statement. But tearing down statues is not a permissible way to act on such frustrations. It’s not only illegal but also itself a threat to public safety. “We must do what we know is right, and we must do it the right way,” the governor had concluded.

So, he’d urged the state legislature to repeal the law that prevented him from legally moving the statues. He also tried to convince the North Carolina Historical Commission to approve relocating the statues to the Civil War battlefield at Bentonville, arguing that it would be a place of comparable prominence. Cooper knew his argument was a stretch and wasn’t surprised when the commission concluded his proposal didn’t comply with the law.

Alas, on the night of June 19, Secretary Hooks affirmed a decision by the State Capitol Police to withdraw. The mob took over. Violently shoving aside peaceful protesters who tried to stop them, a cadre of leftist activists pulled the heavy statues down, dragged them through the streets, and even hung them from overhead wires.

Cooper knew immediately his aides had miscalculated — imperiling public safety, weakening his credibility, and inviting still more criminal activity. In communities across the country, mobs weren’t stopping at Confederate monuments. They were attacking images of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, even Frances Scott Key and Ulysses S. Grant. Anarcho-communists had defaced a World War II memorial in Charlotte.

The governor had to consider what might happen next. He knew state law didn’t allow officers to protect some public art while allowing others to be attacked. He had to set a consistent precedent. He had to restore order. He had to defend basic principles of representative government and the rule of law.

So, Cooper ordered the statues to be taken to a secure location temporarily for repairs and then returned to their original places. He even ordered the assembly of a massive crane on the Capitol grounds in case it was needed to repair or restore monuments. Then he called a full press conference to explain what went wrong, how he was addressing it, and why he still felt strongly the statues should be relocated — but only in a lawful manner.

At which point I woke up, realized I’d been dreaming, and marveled at how low Roy Cooper had sunk in a few short years.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.