Op-Ed: Wash. U. chose statue because Wash. U. chooses sanity

Eli Nirenberg | Class of 2023

In a recent Student Life article, one of my fellow Washington University students, Sabrina Sayed, wrote that she should not have been punished for vandalizing a statue of George Washington located on university property. She asserted that George Washington is a symbol of “racism, white supremacy, Native American genocide, erasure, colonialism and theft of land” and she needed to “put words into action” in desecrating the statue. Ms. Sayed claimed she cannot afford the fine that was charged for repairing the statue, and the University has failed to recognize her “attempt at restoration, healing and education.” Furthermore, she charged that Washington University wanted to “criminalize student activists.”

Ms. Sayed has some valid points. George Washington was a slave owner who participated in the conquest of indigenous peoples. Despite his own experience under a colonial and undemocratic oppressor, Washington did not attempt to liberate the African American population from the shackles of slavery, nor did he attempt to bring a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict between armed white settlers and disease-stricken, increasingly besieged Native Americans.

Nonetheless, Sayed’s view of George Washington ignores the qualities which made our first president stand out among many leaders in the early United States. She does not once mention he spearheaded the effort to fight against the largest colonial power in world history, nor does she acknowledge his critical role in establishing the democratic institutions which would ultimately enshrine greater rights for us all. Washington and America’s fight with the British started with the “shot heard ‘round the World.” The ideas of citizen representation and the free will of nations inspired democratic and anti-imperial movements around the world, from the French Revolution to the wave of independence movements in Latin America. Likewise, Washington played perhaps the most important role of anyone in convincing the 13 states to adopt the U.S. Constitution of 1787, and famously set the precedent that a president should not serve for life.

During my time at Wash. U., I have seen a trend on campus towards focusing on the negative qualities of American historical figures. However, leaving the Wash. U. bubble, a YouGov survey from 2020 found only 6% of Americans saw Washington negatively, compared to 75% with a positive opinion. I agree with Ms. Sayed that it’s important to remind ourselves that Washington took part in the grave criminal institutions of slavery and ethnic cleansing. But we must also acknowledge the positive impacts of the original American statesman. What separates George Washington in the minds of most Americans is his brave crossing of the Delaware, the Constitutional Convention; the fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, press and petition. Washington’s wise judgement and his prophetic vision of democracy has lasted beyond his years, and so should statues of the man who I am proud to call my university’s namesake.

However, even if Sayed disagrees with the premise of honoring George Washington, she can and is welcome to express her disagreement by respectable means. Her op-ed published in this newspaper is proof to that point. Instead, by vandalizing a statue, she lost the trust of University leadership, in what she described as “the University’s complete disregard of my message.” By only asking for a dialogue following her act of vandalism, Sayed frames herself as the victim, but the University’s disregard is understandable following her showing of deep disrespect for the University and its basic policies. If Ms. Sayed really wanted a dialogue, she should have thought more deeply about the impact of her behavior.

The University does not want to “criminalize student activists.” The percentage of students here who take part in one form or another of student activism is quite high, and this includes activism that is critical of Wash. U. (ex. Abolish Greek Life). This is not about a power play by Chancellor Martin or anyone else. Rather than choosing statues over students, the University is choosing statues to choose sanity. We cannot allow for vandalism, disrespect and alternative historical framing to be aired on university property by anyone at any time. Doing so would take away our ability to have a reasonable diversity of thought, civility and proper student-administration discourse, grinding our existence as a legitimate educational institution to a halt.

Ms. Sayed cites the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. among those who have inspired her, but Dr. King recognized the contribution of Washington’s work to the cause of civil rights, equality and racial justice. In his noteworthy “I Have a Dream” speech, King spoke highly of America’s founders:

“When the architects of our republic [chief among them, Washington] wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, Black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Perhaps Ms. Sayed should take a page of Dr. King’s book instead of vandalizing her university’s property and damaging the reputation of herself, her fellow students and our academic institution.

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