A Bridge Too Far?
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
A BRIDGE TOO FAR?: Sometimes a bridge is just a bridge.
Somewhat preemptively, in the turbulent wake of a violent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, between a group identified as white supremacist and counter-protesters, the City of Bellingham removed signs identifying Pickett Bridge across Whatcom Creek. The removal was equal parts sudden and overdue.
“Somewhat preemptively,” because earlier in the week Bellingham City Council had considered a proposal to begin a process to investigate the history and the naming of the bridge. The proposal suggested collecting research and opinion of community stakeholders through COB’s Historical Preservation Commission, an advisory board of volunteers. The proposal was clawed back—for the moment—after it became clear to Council that even the introduction of the proposal needed to follow a clear and orderly public process, and would be resubmitted through that more formal process.
“Somewhat preemptively,” because civil rights and social justice activists had been imploring city administrators for more than two years for just such a review; and it took riotous acts of hate speech, and the rise of white supremacy and fascist nationalism, to bring their cries to clarity.
“Somewhat preemptively,” because now that the signs and designations have been taken down, the Gristle has a strong hunch they’ll never go back up again; and the thoughtful, deliberative process sought through a careful, sanctioned historical review and robust public process is very likely now instead a fait accompli.
The bridge was named for a U.S. Army officer who had overseen the construction of an earlier military bridge over Whatcom Creek in the 1850s to connect early white settlement along the creek with Fort Bellingham, strategically placed on a bluff to the north with sightlines to the channel and islands south. Army Captain George E. Pickett was famous for a series of deeds and misdeeds in the region during his billeting (and indeed it honestly must be said that there was hardly an explorer, a soldier, or robber-capitalist operating in this theater in that period who was not in some way a scoundrel); and he later went on to lead a failed charge for the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg that also bears his name.
Perhaps some clarifying issues: The concrete bridge in its current location is not the original military bridge, and was built in 1920—a period of great froth for the naming of things in memory of the Lost Cause (and the nailing-in-place of Jim Crow). The original military bridge likewise was not built by Pickett—he supervised its construction as the United States agent in charge. And, nevertheless, he was operating in the period in good standing as a soldier and officer with the United States Army, and in ways that are clearly historical. His years of rebellion as a commander in the Virginia militia lay in his future.
Perhaps none of these things are particularly important; and the time for ennobling an ignoble chapter in our nation’s history has passed.
Process takes time; and we have pressed upon us instead the urgency of now.
But the Gristle will argue in favor of the process, because inside it are justice and durability. We don’t know the details of how and under what motives the current bridge received its honorifics—those details will no doubt be revealed by the research of the HPC—but we have assurance the signs will stay down or be redesignated; and we should have trust and confidence that that assurance is a durable outcome. We should not be afraid of the time it takes to make a change permanent, and to create the careful public record of its permanence. Just talking about these issues as a community brings much more to light.
As communities—America large, Bellingham small—we’ve become much more of a pluralistic society. Overall we’re a little bit humbler about our hubris, a fraction more cognizant that we arrived here standing on the backs and shoulders of others who arrived before, and perhaps vaguely more aware that white nationalism itself is the rear guard action of a fading generation, a stand-in for the vain search for an external scapegoat for our national malaise, but one that does not require reassessment or retrenchment—an old song in a creaky, tired tune.
The Gristle has confidence that there is a framework within which our interpretative markers may be assessed.
One frame might be inclusivity versus effrontery, and may help us distinguish among false equivalencies on the spectrum of whimsical kitsch, the medicinally painful, and the oppressive and offensive: A marker for the victims at Ground Zero on 9/11 versus the lintel over the entry to a public school clumsily engraved for Rebel Klansman Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Another frame is historic, whether the person or event exists outside the treasonous era of the slave states. Does Jefferson Davis have an identity and role outside the CSA? We’ll argue that the antics of George Pickett in Puget Sound clearly do.
Another frame is temporal and situational—when was this erected, and why? Who made the decision, and who paid for it? A great deal of the memorabilia of the Civil War was put in place long, long after that era, and tragically long before the era of Civil Rights.
A dedicated commission can imagine other frames, other models by which we may rightly judge our heritage.
But we’ll offer one more: A bridge is not a monument; and one thing the Commission and Council might consider is that bridges don’t need honorifics, and perhaps we do not need at all to replace one name with another. Bridges do not need names.