“We Are Our Own Monuments”: Dispatch from Philly
In Philadelphia, the morning after election night, just steps away from the recently-removed statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, a dismantled symbol of systemic racism and police abuse, uniformed members of the Pennsylvania National Guard patrolled the sidewalks with rifles draped around their torsos and weighted down with head-to-toe tactical gear. They maneuvered around metal barricades and a military caravan near LOVE Park, the local home to Robert Indiana’s iconic landmark. The National Guard were called in by state and local authorities after unrest following the police murder of Walter Wallace Jr., and days ahead of an election in which Pennsylvania was correctly predicted to be a frontline in President Trump’s battle against mail-in votes in historically Democractic cities. Foot traffic proceeded, as passersby bobbed in and out of the crowds of Guardspeople, to keep their own stride, as we Philadelphians are accustomed to do.
Directly above the plaza where the National Guard gathered, a monumental temporary photo-mural by visual artist Russell Craig, titled Crown, adorned the top half of the Municipal Services Building’s ground floor glass facade. The mural depicts a phalanx of multi-racial protesters, with Black Power fists raised upward to comprise the spikes of a crown. The protesters stand in front of a cloud of names—memorializing dozens of Black people murdered by police across the country. Craig, a renowned painter and Art for Justice Fellow, who honed his artistic talents while previously incarcerated, placed himself in the scene which he installed in late August with Mural Arts Philadelphia. In unison, his eyes and those of the illustrated group hold watch over this volatile heart of the city.
The juxtaposition of armed troops called into the city to “protect” and an elevated portrait of Black Lives Matter protesters’ rituals of recognition, right where the Rizzo statue marked systemic racism’s enduring roots, highlighted the complexities and contradictions that undergird Philadelphia.
Public art is not merely ornamentation or spectacle—instead, we can understand public art as a venue to consider the connections between symbols and systems of a city. This is especially evident as we consider the interplay between enduring official statues and markers, temporary activations, and site-specific protests and gatherings, as each inscribes a tangible layer of meaning and memory. The stories we are told and rehash about “permanent” public art can inspire and empower enduring lessons across generations; the idea that monuments are permanent can also undermine people-powered forms of commemoration. No monument is permanent—they require maintenance funds and mindsets to keep them from coming down.
As I have learned through nearly a decade of work with Monument Lab, if you have the time, money, or sanctioned power, you build a monument, with the claim that your chosen story deserves to live in perpetuity. If you don’t have the time, money, or sanctioned power, you gather next to a monument that exists or build your own to amplify your voice and mark your presence.
That morning after election night, around the corner on the south side of City Hall, Philadelphia’s newest monument sat quietly, for the moment. A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial, sculpted by Branly Cadet. Dedicated in 2017, A Quest for Parity is credited as the first full-figure statue of a Black Philadelphian on public land and has inspired a host of other public sites of memory dedicated to Catto, including a mural, curricula, and a scholarship fund at the Community College of Philadelphia.
Catto was a local 19th-century freedom fighter. He worked with Fredrick Douglass and other abolitionist leaders to support members of the United States Colored Troops, who fought for the Union during the Civil War. He also organized to desegregate horse-drawn streetcars in Philadelphia and taught at the Institute for Colored Youth. Among other distinctions, Major Catto served as an Inspector General in the Pennsylvania National Guard. A year after the passage of the 15th Amendment granting Black men the right to vote in the United States in 1870 Catto was assassinated in Philadelphia on Election Day by white vigilantes near his home on South Street.
The Catto monument includes a tall bronze statue leaning forward and placed on a pedestal base that resembles a patch of cobblestone street; an abstracted streetcar with plaques and inscriptions detailing Catto’s biography; and a mirrored spherical voting box as a portal for passersby to see themselves in this historical scene.
For weeks prior to the 2020 election, this conceptual detail, the mirrored ballot box, came to life, as the monument’s sat directly in the path of people waiting in the long lines as early voters dropped off mail-in ballots by hand or official dropbox through the gates of City Hall. Inspiring images and messages circulated online of electoral activity occurring on and around the monument. Catto’s statue was a place of pilgrimage to vote and protect the electrical process from the hostile forces of the Trump administration.
But the monument also signifies Catto's legacy and the city’s ongoing history of systemic racism. Since its dedication, it has hosted countless protests, press conferences, and gatherings for racial justice. The night after the election, when the city released the 911 calls and body cam footage tragically depicting the police murder of Walter Wallace Jr., organizers including those from Black Lives Matter Philly gathered around the Catto monument for a protest and vigil.
The power of this piece of “permanent” public art is, in part, because of Catto as a figure represented in larger-than-life bronze and placed on the edge of City Hall. But, ultimately, its power is also being shaped by how it evolves over time as Philadelphians animate, occupy, and organize around the monument to push toward fuller democracy. Here, we can more easily acknowledge and make visible connections between histories of systemic racism, state violence, and voter suppression as forces in the enduring present.
The story of Philadelphia includes our status as the birthplace of American democracy. Too often, that pride of place is amplified without the recognition of our city’s role as a site of injustice and oppression, both as written into law and rendered emblematic in public art. We live defined by the premise that history was and is produced here, without, in many official platforms, acknowledging, as James Baldwin writes, how “people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” History is not something hoisted above us on a pedestal or that lives behind museum glass that we view from a safe distance. History sustains when the forces of the past and the present collide to spark possibility.
In an election season in which President Trump repeatedly maligned and degraded Philadelphia, his spite spurred a spirit of defiance and joy. This energy galvanized residents across the city in the days leading up to the declaration of the Biden/Harris presidency through the moments when the election’s decisive votes were tallied right here in Philly. There must be a German word for Philadelphia’s underdog “atttytude” stoked most fully when anyone talks smack about us, especially from a bully pulpit. We know our city is imperfect, but we wear our striving hearts and our history of resistance on our sleeves. As Ursula Rucker’s unofficial city anthem, “Ode to Philly,” produced with Monument Lab collaborators, goes with its chorus: “Like a Bell named Liberty, let freedom ring/Even though cracked, she still manages to sing/Her sound resonates, both far and wide/Demonstrates how to be broken, but still have pride.”
Like a phoenix rising, after years of slander from the Administration and anti-racist struggle at the local level, progressive and multi-racial coalitions were prepared for this very moment. They catalyzed a massive block party outside the Convention Center, powered by dancing mailboxes (brilliantly crafted by artist-activist-puppet-collective Spiral Q), to safeguard the people counting our Philly votes. Lines of dancing Philadelphians formed a boundary to protect and overpower those who threatened our right to vote. In addition to displaying “radical joy,” those who gathered demonstrated bravery in the face of pugnacious Trump supporters, as well as armed local and state forces.
On Saturday, with the announcement that Philly’s votes pushed Pennsylvania blue and therefore confirmed the presidency for Biden and Harris, the city erupted with that same spirit of defiance and joy, across dozens of neighborhoods and public spaces. Residents flocked to the streets with cathartic pandemonium. Back in Center City, on the northside of City Hall, steps away from where the National Guard gathered, an SUV pulled through the intersection towing an open U-Haul trailer with giant speakers. According to local reporter Avi Wolfman-Arent, this appeared to be the same truck that led Walter Wallace Jr.’s funeral procession earlier that day in North Philly. Such are the dualities of a city constantly in mourning and urgent collective response. Now was the time to pause at the intersection, between two statues of Benjamin Franklin, and call the growing crowd at City Hall to its fullest and hypest attention.
For an extended moment of sheer celebration, before the struggle for justice continues, the monuments and public spaces of Philadelphia felt more like platforms for residents of the city to express resistance and hope than landmarks to behold from afar and keep frozen in time.
The progressive coalitions of organizers, artists, and residents were ready for this moment to safeguard our democracy and acknowledge the path ahead to build together toward greater forms of justice and representation. We can continue to prepare for the steps ahead as we rewrite the ways art and history live in public. In the words of Ursula Rucker, “We are our own monuments.”