The defaced Teddy Roosevelt statue outside the American Museum of Natural History (all photos courtesy Monument Removal Brigade)

A group calling itself the Monument Removal Brigade (MRB) has claimed responsibility for today’s early morning defacement of the controversial Theodore Roosevelt monument that stands outside the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The base of the 10-foot-tall equestrian statue was splashed with red paint around 5:30am, creating a grisly scene at the bottom of the museum’s steps. MRB, whose members remain anonymous, described the action to Hyperallergic as a “counter-monumental gesture that does symbolic damage to the values [the statue] represents: genocide, dispossession, displacement, enslavement, and state terror.” It marks the latest in a string of rogue acts around the country to eradicate controversial statues and monuments, which spiked in number after white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to stop the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument.

The defaced base of the Teddy Roosevelt statue outside the American Museum of Natural History

“Now the statue is bleeding,” the group of anonymous protestors wrote in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation. This is not an act of vandalism. It is a work of public art and an act of applied art criticism. We have no intent to damage a mere statue.

“The true damage lies with patriarchy, white supremacy, and settler-colonialism embodied by the statue,” the statement continues. “It is these forms of oppression that must be damaged again and again … until they are damaged out of existence.”

Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs — under whose jurisdiction the monument falls — disagrees with the group’s tactics. In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, he said: “There’s no place for vandalism in this conversation.”

MRB goes on to highlight Roosevelt, the white supremacist and imperialist — as opposed to Roosevelt as defined by inscriptions on his statue’s base and along the terrace’s parapet wall: explorer, scientist, conservationist, naturalist, ranchman, scholar, statesman, author, historian, humanitarian, soldier, patriot. MRB specifically calls out his role in the Spanish-American War, which led to the US’s annexation of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines as well as his staunch endorsement of eugenics. 

The scene outside the American Museum of Natural History this morning

“The monument not only embodies the violent historical foundation of the United States, but also the underlying dynamics of oppression in our contemporary world,” MRB writes. The action is intended as a salute to other movements “struggling against the values epitomized by Roosevelt: past, present, and future,” from those against gentrification in the Bronx to the  uprisings in Ferguson to crusades against nationwide immigration raids. As many people have noted, the violent power relations of the present day are entrenched in the physical form of James Earle Fraser’s 1939 statue: the former president rides ahead of stereotypical portrayals of a Native American and an African-American man who follow subserviently on foot.

This morning’s action was executed in solidarity with the Second Annual Anti-Columbus Tour, which occurred on October 9. As Hyperallergic’s Elena Goukassian reported, over 500 protestors showed up that day to demand that the museum remove the Roosevelt statue as well as overhaul its colonialist displays of indigenous histories and artifacts. The tour (which you can revisit or do yourself thanks to an online brochure) was organized by Decolonize this Place, from which MRB distinguishes itself. MRB notes that the two groups’ tactics “must be different.” In its statement, it also pays tribute to the six indigenous activists who marked the Roosevelt statue in 1971 with red paint to protest its presence.

Decolonize This Place expressed its support of MRB’s action in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “It’s no surprise that a statue like this — arguably the most hated monument in the city — would provoke strong public sentiment and that creative actions like this one would be the result,” the group wrote. “At a time when the mayor’s commission is reviewing all monument of hate, and when the city is spending taxpayer money to protect symbols of white supremacy, this appears to be a very useful expression of protest.”

Detail of the defaced base of the Teddy Roosevelt statue outside the American Museum of Natural History

Announced in September, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Commisson City Art, Monuments, and Markers launched its city-wide survey yesterday, calling for public feedback about potentially hateful monuments. While the commission has not yet announced any specific landmarks it will review, a spokesperson for AMNH previously told Hyperallergic that the museum expects the Roosevelt statue to be considered.

In its statement, MRB argues that separating the statue and the museum is merely a “technicality. The museum itself is an expanded monument to Roosevelt’s world-view, and the statue is what visitors first see upon approaching the institution.” It also dismisses de Blasio’s advisory commission as another process burdened by bureaucracy that will ultimate have “no binding authority,” despite its good intentions.

“We take matters into our own hands now to kickstart the removal process,” it writes. “While the Mayor’s Commission trudges forward, the Monument Removal Brigade hereby announces itself. Our membership is already legion, from Charlottesville to Durham to New York and beyond.”

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

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