A Confederate monument named “Old Joe” sits in the very center of the town square of downtown Gainesville, Georgia – a city with a population around 33,000 in Northeast Georgia surrounded by smaller, more rural neighboring towns. Old Joe should not be confused with a monument of the same name in Gainesville, Florida which was removed in 2017. Funded by the reactionary group “United Daughters of the Confederacy” and unveiled in 1909, Gainesville’s Old Joe has stood longer than many other things in Gainesville, surviving a catastrophic tornado in 1936 that destroyed much of the city.
Besides the tornado, the monument has withstood several attempts at removal since it was installed over 100 years ago. Every so often across the span of many decades going back to at least the 1950s, there have been unsuccessful fights to have the monument either taken down or moved to a different location. At present, in 2008, the UDC’s lease was renewed until 203. However, the resurgence of the U.S. Left has spread even to Northeast Georgia, breathing new life into the effort to topple the racist monument in the Gainesville town square.
Last year on August 12, Heather Heyer was murdered at the far-right “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since the rally’s organizers stated that one of the reasons for having the rally was to prevent the removal of a local Confederate monument, Democratic Socialists of America put out a call for locals with nearby Confederate monuments to protest them in response. Socialist activists from Gainesville-based heeded the call, and the age-old, long-quiet battle over Old Joe was rekindled.
On August 19, 2017 the small but militant left-wing community in Gainesville and the surrounding rural regions, bolstered in numbers by their comrades from Metro Atlanta, gathered at the Gainesville town square to protest Old Joe. Largely outnumbered by counter-protestors supporting the Confederate monument, they held a peaceful but difficult protest which was most challenging because of the extremely aggressive local police. This would not, however, be the end of the reinvigorated battle against Old Joe.
Almost exactly a year later – August 18 – several of the original protesters returned along with new faces to once again oppose the racist monument. Members of Socialist Organization of North Georgia, the Atlanta chapter of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and local organizers from Socialist Party USA showed up to this second protest. It was not as difficult as the first, and faced a significantly less intense presence of counter-protesters.
This most recent demonstration had a new demand-not to remove the memorial entirely but to remove all features of the statue and its base that denote it as a memorial to the Confederacy. As it turns out, the statue does not actually depict a Confederate soldier from the U.S. Civil War but a soldier of the Spanish America War. Many anachronisms, including the type of firearm Old Joe carries, show this to be the case. Apparently the UDC could not afford to commission a Confederate soldier statue and so instead had a Spanish American War statue modified.
Of course, the Spanish American War of 1898 marked the transition of the United States into an imperialist world power. Converting Old Joe into a Spanish American War soldier is not a solution to the problem of a public memorial honoring racism and white supremacy.
Organizers stated they wish to see all Confederate markings removed from the statue and base and a new inscription to be determined by the community.
Ultimately, no matter how the long-running saga of Old Joe plays out, the fight against the monument is not over. Organizers of the protests are discussing more ways to push forward on their initiative against the Gainesville town square’s racist centerpiece, and to both get the word out about their mission and get even more people involved. They are also fully prepared to repeat this protest as many times as necessary.