Stick to your guns: A political lesson from Cleveland
by Knute Berger
Cleveland's Civil War memorial. Credit: Knute Berger
Right after the election I went to Ohio, carrying the thanks of a grateful nation for the outcome of the presidential election and the side benefit of having driven Karl Rove to reveal his madness on national television. Friends and family in Ohio, by the way, say "You're welcome."
Reports in the Cleveland Plain Dealer indicated that there were entire precincts in the Cleveland area — nine to be exact — where Mitt Romney did not receive a single vote. As a friend from Akron noted, you'd think the simple ballot error rate would have generated at least one Romney vote per precinct. It wasn't only Cleveland that came through with inner city solidarity. In Philadelphia, there were over 59 precincts where Romney voters were nil, and in Chicago, 37.
A big part of that was the solidarity and enthusiasm of the vote by people who were told they were not supposed to vote, or certainly not welcome to unless they jumped through many hoops. GOP voter suppression efforts fired folks up; many of these non-Romney precincts were in heavily African-American communities. (Here's an interesting account of Obama's Cleveland ground-game.)
On a visit to downtown Cleveland just before Veteran's Day, I visited the spectacular Civil War memorial — the Cuyahoga County Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument — which sits at the city's center. At 3 Public Square, to be precise. With a 125-foot pillar topped by a figure of the "Goddess of Liberty," it is a tribute to the men and women of Ohio who served in the Civil War on the Union side. There are elaborate busts, statues and a shrine, featuring reliefs depicting everything from the charging of Federal troops to the ladies of the Sanitary Commission (the war's version of the Red Cross). It lists the names of the thousands of robust, corn-fed Ohioans who served in the Union cause. Rebel soldiers appear mostly as dying or defeated figures.
The monument was erected in 1894, roughly 30 years after the war's end. One remarkable thing about it is how un-apologetic it is. The Civil War was a triumph of good over evil, of free men over slavery. This is no namby-pamby monument that nods to brothers on both sides or invites misty contemplation over a blank piece of granite. The Civil War was a righteous war, and this memorial is still firing shots at the enemy.
An elaborate, life-sized relief of Abraham Lincoln, for example, features him freeing the slaves. But what is Lincoln doing in the image? He is holding up a manacle with one hand that he has taken off a slave. And with the other, he is handing the man a rifle. Yes, Lincoln is personally arming a black man. Cue Fox News to go berserk.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment helped free the man, but Lincoln is shown giving him his Second Amendment rights. This was a radical notion 150 years ago — even 40 years ago. Even now, as Fox and others panicked about a gunless member of the New Black Panther party appearing at an urban precinct as an election monitor. A statue of a Republican president arming African Americans is still a radical statement in this country. Many Republicans today don't even want them to have ballots.
The monument is surrounded by statues depicting various units in the Union army and navy fighting. My great grandfather served as an artilleryman in a neighboring Illinois volunteer battery during the war, so I was drawn to that scene. The Union gunners aren't poised by their guns, they aren't looking into the distance to calculate how to hit some remote target. These Ohioans are shown with their gun leveled, about to fire into the presumably oncoming enemy army. Their gun is set to kill. The scene is titled "At short range."
We're fighting at, and sometimes over, the ballot box these days. The lesson I took from the Cleveland war memorial is that just as Ohio troops helped save the Union then, Ohio voters came through along with millions of others, to maintain that victory and roll back the forces of disenfranchisement. The Karl Roves and their confederates were taken by surprise and routed, thanks to the vigilance of people who haven't forgotten what was fought for and what is still at stake.