top of page

City Making through City Breaking: Iconoclasm in Washington, D.C.

By Cecilia A. Quiroga

The District of Columbia: Plan and Present

The year 2020 was marked by the effervescence of iconoclastic activity, a result of long fermenting anger brewing beneath the surface of the neoliberal spectacle that had lost its ability to dazzle once the Covid-19 pandemic forced societies to face structural inequalities. A prime example of this in the U.S. was the increased mobilization of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in Washington D.C., and as a result, the increased pressure to remove statues of racists figures from the city’s landscape. Iconoclasm is the practice of destroying symbols; the reasons for which it is practiced have varied throughout history, but typically it involves a contestation of the ideas which underpin the icon in question. Iconoclasm is typically accompanied by social upheaval or a change in ruling regimes (Lefebvre, 1992b; Clay, 2012).

BLM is a broad and loosely organized, multiracial social movement seeking social justice. Although BLM has existed since 2013 this particular wave of mobilizations was catalyzed when the police killing of George Floyd was filmed and viralized on social media. The fact that mobilizations took place in the middle of global pandemic indicates that the longstanding problem of police and white supremacist violence could no longer be ignored. Protests erupted on May 26 in Minneapolis, and grew nationally, resulting in approximately 4,700 demonstrations with 12-26 million people mobilizing over the course of 140 days in various cities across the U.S. and then spreading internationally (Buchanan, Bui, and Patel 2020). The protests resulted in the toppling of approximately 44 statues in the U.S. and 135 internationally. Can these acts be considered a materialization of the ‘global urban revolution’ that David Harvey called for in his 2008 essay “Right to the City?” Or were these iconoclastic acts nihilistic calls to ‘erase history,’ as some have claimed?

In David Harvey’s seminal work, 'Social Justice in the City’ he coincides with philosopher Henri Lefebvre that space is an expression of social relations that create a ‘patterning’ according to an ideology (Harvey, 1973; Lefebvre 1992b). Often the discussion around monuments is centered around historical discussions (Malik, 2020; United States Senator Lamar Alexander, 2020). Monuments, through their materiality and placement in the city, transcend mortality and transcend time, as one of their functions is to create a sense of the ‘eternal’ (Lefebvre, 1974). The implication is that monuments can ‘pattern’ an ideology beyond the lifespan of any single person, or as long as they stand within a public space. This challenges the contestations that monuments commemorate historical narratives. They are as much about what social relations society wants to ‘pattern’ in the present and into the future. The monuments of Washington D.C. are especially important because the city is a center of global power and the pervasive monumental space of the city patterns ideologies that shape national and international policies.

D.C. is a historically Black city; what was one of the biggest slave trading cities in the U.S. became the largest Black majority city in 1957 (NYU Web Communications, n.d.). It has undergone one of the most drastic gentrification processes in the country which led to the decline of the Black population from 60% of the total city’s population in 2000, to 46% of the population today (Office of Planning, 2011; United States Census Bureau, n.d.).

Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s Plan for Federal City, with space designated for monuments at all the avenues of the major intersections. [Not to scale]; L'Enfant, P. C., Library Of Congress, Geological Survey, U. S. & National Geographic Society, U. S. (1991) Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of the United States: projected agreeable to the direction of the President of the United States, in pursuance of an act of Congress, passed on the sixteenth day of July, MDCCXC, "establishing the permanent seat on the bank of the Potowmac". Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

When the city was first planned in 1791, Pierre Charles L’Enfant envisioned monuments at every major intersection in the city and throughout the expansive parks. His hand written note on Map 1 says: ’The center of each square will admit of statues, columns, obelisks, or any other ornaments… to perpetuate not only the memory of such individuals , whose counsels or military achievements, were conspicuous in giving liberty and independence to this country; but also whose usefulness hath rendered them worthy of general imitation.’

Lefebvre states that monuments provide an ‘image of membership’ within a society, and that monuments function as a ‘collective mirror’ (Lefebvre 1992b). People may see themselves in the power projected by a monument; creating a silent pact between them that establishes a sense of collective power.

“To the degree that there are traces of violence

and death, negativity and aggressiveness in social practice, the monumental

work erases them and replaces them with a tranquil power and

certitude which can encompass violence and terror” (Lefebvre 1992, 222).

D.C. 's network of monuments has been elaborated carefully since the founding of the city. Is the prevalence of monumental architecture in D.C. in proportion to the violence and terror which its founding has perpetuated? Who had the means of producing ‘monumental space’ in the urban structure of D.C.? In the case of the Andrew Jackson Equestrian Statue and the Abraham Lincoln Emancipation Memorial there are two very distinct funding processes. One was funded by an elite gentlemen's club and the other by formerly enslaved African Americans. Did these distinct funding processes make a difference in how the space was ‘coded 'or how the monuments ‘patterned’ social relations within the ideology of white supremacy?

Spatial ‘coding' is by its nature, hidden, or ciphered in some way; monuments become a way to hide something in plain sight (Lefebvre 1974). It is a mechanism through which monuments induce imitation. Lefebvre insists that monuments cannot be reduced to sets of symbols or representations. He says their power lies in their almost imperceivable aspects which work on a subconscious level (Lefebvre 1992b). Deciphering the gestures in the monuments to perceive the ‘pattern’ of white surpremacist ideals and practices shows that these monuments reproduce specific social values beyond the immediate geographic space of the monument, into the national culture.

Equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park

The monument is located on the north side of the White House on a plaza that is officially called Lafayette Park. The figure of Andrew Jackson stands larger than life on a marble base and is made of solid bronze, weighing close to 15 tons. The location of this statue establishes a dialogue with the White House, simultaneously saluting the south and he seat of executive power. The horse Andrew Jackson is mounting is reared on its two hind legs, ready to gallop westward. Jackson was a key figure in the western expansion of the U.S. territory and authored the genocidal policy of the Indian Removal Act (Library of Congress n.d.). Jackson purchased his first slave at the age of 21, and he would own many more in his lifetime. He also played a key military role in stealing land from the Cherokee and Chikasaw natives in what is now known as Florida and in the Battle of New Orleans (Durham 1990; Library of Congress n.d.). His personal wealth was primarily begotten from the people he enslaved. He practiced all the violence that underpinned the institution of slavery; whippings, family separation and what could be considered rape of his slaves (Library of Congress n.d.; Hopkins n.d.; Stockman and Demczuk 2018). He eventually retired to his home in the southern state of Tennessee. After this original statue was erected in D.C., copies were also placed in the southern cities of New Orleans, LA, Jacksonville, FL, and Nashville, TN.

On September 10, 1845, John L. O’Sullivan, inventor of “manifest destiny,” arranged to meet with President James K. Polk to discuss commissioning the statue. O’Sullivan’s role in initiating the creation of the statue links the monumental space with the social reproduction of ‘Manifest Destiny'; the ideology that justified the military aggression of Jackson and the violent process of westward expansion. Through the various symbolic gestures encoded into the placement and design of the monument it “serves to maintain these social relations in a state of coexistence and cohesion. It displays them while displacing them — and thus concealing them in symbolic fashion” (Lefebvre 1974, 32).

Investigating the decision making and funding processes that facilitated the production and erection of this statue can also provide insights into who had access to decision making power of establishing statues. O’Sullivan’s initiative led to the creation of the Jackson Monument Committee which lobbied congress to pay for 71% of the of the total cost of the monument, the rest of which was funded privately by the members of the Jackson Monument Committee. The grand total of the statue amounts to $40,942.53 ($1,401,881.02 adjusted for inflation in 2020). It is apparent from historical documentation that access to decision making authority and funding was confined to an elite group of men who were part of the Jackson Monument Committee and congress. The Committee had access to the president and solicited him for financial assistance in having the monument built. The fact that they were able to raise an equivalent of a million dollars today for the production of this statue demonstrates that they were men of means and powerful connections.

"Mill[s]'s colossal equestrian statue of General Andrew Jackson," Sinclair, Thomas S., approximately 1805-1881, Sir Emil Hurja Collection, THS I-C-2, Box 10 Folder 3, 42179, Tennessee Historical Society, Tennessee Virtual Archive.

These social networks of elite men that saw themselves in the ‘collective mirror’ of the Jackson statue continued to reproduce their ideology through a variety of media that featured the monument. The Jackson monument is prominent in civil war propaganda and is used to galvanize support of the ‘union cause.’ In Figure 1 we see the statue is surrounded by several men, Jackson is raising his hat, seemingly in acknowledgment of the man who dons a similar hat and stands apart from the rest. The clothing and body language of the other men indicate an elevated social status. They are discussing the merits or deficiencies of the statue as rational and educated connoisseurs of the time. Had he been alive during the civil war, it is plausible that he would have fought on the side of the confederacy, however, this ambiguity is irrelevant for the purposes of galvanizing support for the union war effort. In these graphic reproductions of the monument we see the erasure of the reality of Jackson’s affinity with the southern cause and his image is ‘re-coded’ to suit the preservation of the U.S. republic under one flag. The original investment in the monument is able to continuously ‘affect future development and organization of production’ of social relations. (Harvey 1973, 307)

Jackson Monument in the City of Washington", Lithograph sent to donors.

Fenderich, C. & Mills, C. (1848) Jackson Monument in the City of Washington. Washington D.C, 1848. Baltimore: E. Weber & Co. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Raising the flag May 1861", Lithography by Winner, William

Rosenthal, L. N. & Winner, W. (ca. 1864) Raising the flag May/ from the original picture by Winner ; engrd. by L.N. Rosenthal. , ca. 1864. [Philadelphia: Published by Charles Desilver, book & map publisher, 1229 Chestnut St., Philadelphia] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Whilst the Jackson statue survived 168 years without any contestation or scrutiny, on June 22, 2020, 3 days after demonstrators successfully toppled the statue of Confederate war general and Ku Klux Klan jurist, Albert Pike in Judiciary square (Greve 2020), protestors gathered in Black Lives Matter Plaza in D.C. to take down the Andrew Jackson Equestrian statue. Demonstrators spray painted the words ‘racist scum, and killer’ as well as the slogan ‘no justice, no peace’ on the statue’s pedestal. They managed to climb the statue and wrap rope around the statue’s neck, but they were unable to take down the statue before the D.C. police arrived to disperse the assembly with chemical irritants and rubber bullets (Winsor 2020).

The Emancipation Statue

Another contested statue identified by protestors in 2020 was one of Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the U.S. who served as the head of the Union Army during the civil war. He was also recognized for allowing the arming and enlistment of Black soldiers in the union army, and criticized for refusing to pay them the same wage as white soldiers. Despite his shortcomings and the ultimate failure of the 13th Amendment to end violence and inequality against Black people in the U.S., former slaves wanted to commemorate Lincoln after his assassination for the role he played in the abolition of slavery. It was Charlotte Scott, who contributed her first $5 earned as a free woman to the building of the monument. She then campaigned to raise more money from African American soldiers who had served in the Union army. The Western Sanitary Commission, a white run, abolitionist organization that provided war relief and aid to newly freed slaves, managed the $17,000 ($402,172.09 dollars in 2020) that were raised through private funds. Congress subsequently appropriated an additional $3,000 for the pedestal. Thomas Ball was commissioned by the Western Sanitary Commission to cast the statue in bronze. (Wood 2020).

What ideas are ‘coded’ into this statue of Abraham Lincoln? The monument shows Lincoln clothed, coding that he is a member of society, in contrast to the nakedness of the newly freed slave, who is coded as being an ´uncivilized savage.’ Lincoln stands over a crouching slave who is almost on all fours and whose chains seem to have fallen off. Lincoln towers above the man and at some angles seems to be petting him, protecting him, or perhaps preventing him from fully getting up? Notably absent from the statue’s depiction of the freed slave is the lack of branding or lashing scars that were common on the bodies of enslaved African Americans, serving to erase the violence which underpinned the institution of chattel slavery (Harnish 2015).

Frederick Douglass, the great African American orator, decried the design of the statue at the inauguration, saying that it “showed the Negro on his knee when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom” (“Frederick Douglass Project Writings: Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” n.d.). The mythology of the paternalistic slave owner popular in the years leading up to the civil war (Mann 2020) is transformed into the mythology of the paternalistic emancipator through the statue. The former slaves asked for a monument that showed the Black union soldiers standing tall next to Lincoln, to show that they also fought for their freedom. However, that concern was dismissed as being ‘too expensive’ and the wishes of the people who fought for their freedom were denied a say in the design of the monument that they were partially funding (Heim 2012; Fernandez 2017; Murray 1916). Why is it that even though the abolitionist Western Sanitary Commission and former slaves were the primary funders of the statue, their ideas, their feelings, and their wishes were not respected in the statue’s design? Was the need to ‘code’ white supremacist notions of the ‘place’ of Black people in society the subsuming narrative that needed to be maintained? The reproduction of white supremacist ideology is simultaneously subtle and overt in a way that is characteristic of monuments according to Lefebvre.

“As for representations of the relations of production, which subsume power relations, these too occur in space: space contains them in the form of buildings, monuments and works of art. Such frontal (and hence brutal) expressions of these relations do not completely crowd out their more clandestine or underground aspects; all fewer must have its accomplices — and its police” (Lefebvre 1974, 33).

Today there are citizen movements both in D.C. and in Boston, where a copy of the Lincoln statue also stands, to have the statue moved to a museum. The status of much of D.C. as a federal territory complicates the local initiatives to remove the statues, as it will have to get approved by congress. Congresswoman from D.C., Elenor Holmes, introduced legislation (H.R. 7466) on July 1, 2020 to have the statue in D.C. moved to a museum. Two years later, the bill has not yet been discussed on the floor of congress. Recently an African American artist from Boston, Tory Bullock, who is keenly aware of how the statue ‘codes’ a specific role for Black people in society, put out videos and a petition asking the city of Boston to remove the statue. In his video petition, he says he has been tormented by the statue since he was child. He understood that many people continued to see Lincoln as the ‘great white savior’ who freed the slaves, and the slaves should be grateful for his benevolence. What is interesting in Bullock’s testimony is the description of the psychological effects that the statue continuously produces in the people who do not see an ‘image of their membership’ within the monument. On the one hand for white people, the statue serves as a type of alibi, confirming that they were indeed ‘good’ because they freed the slaves, and on the other hand a reminder to African Americans that even though emancipation occurred, they were still beneath their white counterparts (Bullock 2020). Bullock’s petition garnered over 12,000 signatures and on December 29, 2020 the statue was removed by the city of Boston. The monument in D.C. still stands. The case of the Emancipation Monument prevents us from having a simplified narrative regarding how urban space was produced, it was after all funded by former slaves. However, it appears that it was during the design process that white supremacist notions were coded into the monument.

Establishment Responses

Donald Trump tweeted that he would seek the maximum 10 year sentence for those involved in the attacks on monuments. Two people were arrested and Trump circulated photographs of 15 other protesters who were allegedly involved in the action (Fabian 2020). On June 26th he signed the executive order ‘Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence’ which states that “rioters, arsonists, and left-wing extremists ” were attempting to advance an extremist fringe ideology through ‘mob rule.’ It chastised local governments for allowing the destruction of various statues around the country stating that they have failed to defend ‘the fundamental truth that America is good and that her people are virtuous.’ The executive order also calls for federal funding for public space to be withheld from city or state governments that fail to protect monuments. (Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence 2020)

U.S. senator Lamar Alexander (Democrat for Tennessee) gave a speech on the floor of Congress on June 23, 2020 where he stated that tearing down the Andrew Jackson Statue would be a ‘terrible misunderstanding of our nation’s history’ and characterized the taking down of the Jackson Monument as an attempt to ‘erase history.’ He also attempts to downplay the role Jackson had in the genocide of Native Americans, essentially saying, many others also participated in actions we consider abhorrent today (United States Senator Lamar Alexander 2020). In his speech, he out of hand dismisses the demands that were being made in the streets. Democratic Mayor of D.C., Muriel Bowser echoed Trump and said that a ‘mob’ shouldn’t decide the fate of the statues, and started a working group called DC Faces (Shaw 2020). Interesting to note how D.C. Mayor Bowser, and President Trump, two politicians that are supposedly in opposition, agree on the characterization of the largest, multi-racial social movement in modern history as a ‘mob.’ Does this indicate that the lines being drawn in this contestation of space come from political alliances not strictly tied to racial categories, but rather to differences in access to power? What can be said in a situation where the voices of millions of people can be so casually dismissed as a ‘mob?’ As the anthropologist Setha Low acknowledged in her lecture at KU Leuven, the U.S. has a ‘completely broken social contract;’ the contestation of monuments via direct action of social movements can therefore be seen as a contestation of the legitimacy of the governing institutions (Gough 1936; Low 2020). Similar to the crisis of legitimacy of its governing institutions during the French revolution, those with some access to power attempt to maintain legitimacy by acting on the wishes of the ‘mob’ while simultaneously shutting them out of the decision making processes (Clay 2012).

The D.C. Faces report states that an overwhelming majority, 80%, approve of changing the names of public spaces or commemorative works that do not align with the values of contemporary D.C.. The report also outlines a strategy for reviewing the controversial assets. The working group considers whether the person who is being commemorated by the space ever (1) Participated in slavery (2) Was involved in systemic racism (3) Supported oppression (4) Involved in supremacist agenda (5) Violated D.C. human rights laws. Based on this analysis they would (1) Recommend renaming the asset (2) Recommend removal of the asset (3) Recommend contextualization of the asset (4) Clear namesake from further review (5) Recommend additional research prior to final decision point. (Perry and Reyes-Gavilan 2020)

The creation of this working group and the successful relocation of the Lincoln statue in Boston, demonstrates that there is an attempt from some municipalities to open up a discussion on how public space is named and commemorated, however this only became a possibility after protesters showed that they were willing and able to take the monuments down themselves. What would it be like if instead of dismissing the protestors from the beginning, they were included in designing the strategy of the D.C. Faces working group?


What institutional responses to the removal of white supremacist coded statues show is that there is some openness to discussion and negotiation, but it remains to be seen whether those in power will be able or willing to engage with the public in a way that gives them decision making power over the creation and modification of monumental space in cities. So far, social movements that have taken the institutional routes for the removal of statues have been mired in lengthy bureaucracy, as is the case of the emancipation statue bill (H.R. 7466) which has been idling in the two years since it was introduced. In the case of Robert E. Lee Statue in Charlottesville VA, city council members that voted to have the statue removed in 2017 were threatened by neo-confederate and white nationalist groups. The violent ‘Unite the Right’ rally organized to stop its removal demonstrates that those with a vested interest in continuing the social reproduction of white supremacist ideology in public space are unwilling to negotiate decision making power. The statue was eventually removed during the summer of 2021, four years later.

Whether social movements decide to get monuments removed through institutional routes or through iconoclasm, both require the ability to collectively confront power. The difference is only in the amount and consistency of the collective power that must be applied. If only undoing centuries of institutional racism were as easy as toppling a statue. People that claim that taking down these monuments ‘erase history’ should ask themselves how is it that Black and Native American people remember their history even though so few monuments to it exist in cities around the U.S.. The fact is that the U.S. has not yet reckoned with the countless genocides that underpin its founding, and the existence of statues to white supremacists all over the country attempt to serve as alibis for those horrific crimes, insisting on ‘the fundamental truth that America is good and that her people are virtuous.’ As the values and myths that underpin existing white supremacists monuments are challenged and as BLM and other social movements organize, build and mobilize collective power, the urban structure will begin to reflect a new set of values. For this reason social movements that engage in iconoclasm need to be very clear on the set of values that they represent. If they gain the power to remove a monument, then the possibility that they may have gained the power to build a new monument is inherently present. For this reason they should be ready with their demands on what, if anything, should replace the existing monument.

This juncture of change is potentially fertile ground for planners and designers to collaborate with social movements, as it can imply a collective visualization exercise to propose changes to the urban structure. Social movements that take the institutional route for the removal of monuments may benefit from engaging urbanists and landscape architects to help them visualize and envision what they would like to replace the monument. Coming to a city council meeting not only with a petition to have a monument removed, but with a clear idea of what changes they would want to fill the void of the monument may increase their decision making power over the urban structure. The planning and design process itself may help clarify what new values social movements think should be projected in the ‘collective mirror’ of monumental space.This could prevent the co-option of the decision making power gained by social movements. It is important that the iconoclasm of the BLM protests of 2020 be valued as part of genuine bottom-up planning initiatives. The protests have shown that iconoclasm is a way in which people historically excluded from decision making in the city, can gain leverage through iconoclastic acts; a type of city making through city breaking.

Cecilia Quiroga is an activist and landscape urbanist, whose worldview was shaped by living in the imperial core of 'Washington D.C.' and in the periphery of Cochabamba, Bolivia. She studied architecture at the Catholic University of America in D.C., and recently completed a Master of Human Settlements at KU Leuven, Belgium. Currently she is working on landscape urbanism climate adaptation strategies in the city of Ghent, Belgium.


Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence. 2020.




We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


  • Facebook B&W
  • Twitter B&W
PayPal ButtonPayPal Button
bottom of page