President Trump on Tuesday threatened to lock up protesters who try to pull down statues and monuments, drawing a line in the sand for activists demanding a racial justice makeover of U.S. history.
Calls to topple or remove statues and monuments, as well as outright vandalism, have stretched beyond reminders of the Confederacy and are now targeting historical figures with links to slavery or racism such as Christopher Columbus and George Washington.
Activists under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement have gone beyond petitioning for the removal of statues to actively trying to destroy or deface them.
Mr. Trump promised to sign an executive order to clarify existing criminal statutes on the vandalizing of public monuments.
“We are looking at long-term jail sentences for these vandals and these hoodlums and these anarchists and agitators,” he said. “Call them whatever you want. Some people don’t like that language, but that’s what they are. They’re bad people. They don’t love our country, and they’re not taking down our monuments.”
Protesters attempted to pull down a statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square across from the White House on Monday night but were foiled by police.
“That was a sneak attack,” Mr. Trump said.
Protesters in San Francisco have toppled statues of former President Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union troops in the Civil War, and Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem.
Vandals even tagged a statue of Mahatma Gandhi outside of the Indian Embassy in Washington.
Last week, D.C. protesters successfully tore down the statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike, which is on federal property in Judiciary Square.
“I want to be clear that we don’t think any destruction of property is something that should happen in the District, regardless of how you feel about the statue,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday.
On Tuesday, police pushed out protesters who had set up camps in an “autonomous zone” around Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Tuesday that enough is enough. He pointed to the defacing of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson statues in Portland, Oregon, and a Washington statue in Baltimore as other examples.
“A crazy fringe is treating their monuments like vanity statues of tinhorn tyrants,” Mr. McConnell said. “Our Founding Fathers are being roped to the ground like they were Saddam Hussein.”
Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic strategist, said statues and monuments commemorating questionable figures from history don’t necessarily belong in public squares.
“Look, we have a history of lionizing people who have done very horrific things, and so there is a place for these memorials and a place for these statues, and I think for a lot of these individuals it’s in a museum,” he said.
Mr. Hopkins established a group this week that is seeking to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, the site of brutal beatings of the civil rights era, after Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat.
Mr. Lewis had his skull cracked by white police officers in the “Bloody Sunday” march across the bridge in Selma in 1965.
Mr. Hopkins said it’s not right that the bridge is named after a Confederate officer and top leader in the Ku Klux Klan.
He also said there is absolutely a difference between historical figures such as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Washington, the first U.S. president.
“But I think given our complicated history we should be very open to having those kinds of [dialogues],” he said. “Nobody’s perfect, and so I don’t think we should try to hold anyone up as if they were.”
Some public officials have tried to head off increasingly dangerous confrontations by taking steps to remove statues from public view.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, recently announced that the state plans to remove the iconic Robert E. Lee statue from Monument Avenue in Richmond, though that effort is now tied up in the courts.
The American Museum of Natural History in New York has decided to remove a statue outside the museum of former President Theodore Roosevelt atop a horse, with an American Indian and a Black American on either side.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week that the statue has representations that “clearly do not represent today’s values.”
“The statue clearly presents a white man as superior to people of color,” Mr. de Blasio said. “And that’s just not acceptable in this day and age, and it never should have been acceptable.”
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, announced plans Tuesday to try to remove the Emancipation Statue from Lincoln Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Former slaves paid for the construction of the statue, which was unveiled in 1876 on the 11th anniversary of President Lincoln’s death.
The statue, which depicts Lincoln standing next to a crouching freed slave, is “problematic,” she said.
“The statue fails to note in any way how enslaved African Americans pushed for their own emancipation,” she said. “Understandably, they were only recently liberated from slavery and were grateful for any recognition of their freedom.”
Mr. Trump said Tuesday that people caught destroying or defacing statues or monuments on federal property will face up to 10 years behind bars.
He later said his administration will consider imposing stiff sentences “retroactively” on people who vandalized monuments on federal land but weren’t charged at the time.
“We’re going to look at that from the standpoint of retroactivity,” Mr. Trump said during a stop in Yuma, Arizona. “We can go back and look at some of the damage they’ve done, but largely it’s state damage because the states have been very weak, extremely weak in protecting their heritage and protecting their culture.”
Mr. Trump seemed to be referring to videos of vandalism, although he didn’t elaborate.
Mr. Trump and Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, have cited the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act as one legal avenue to pursue.
The president said the monument act “puts people in jail for 10 years if they do anything to even try to deface one of our monuments or statues.”
He implied, incorrectly, that the 2003 law was a specific response to the vandalism that has occurred in recent weeks.
The law says a person who tries to destroy a statue or monument on public property commemorating the service of someone in the U.S. armed forces can be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
Mr. Cotton has petitioned Attorney General William Barr to bring charges against “criminals” who are destroying monuments.
“To borrow from Abraham Lincoln, whose memorial in our nation’s capital was also defaced, ‘There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law,’” Mr. Cotton said.
Polling on the issue has been mixed.
In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 52% of voters said they support removing Confederate statues from public spaces across the country, and 44% said they were opposed.
Mr. Hopkins said Black Americans should have no trouble remembering their painful history even if such monuments are relegated to collecting dust behind closed doors.
“I think that there are a lot of African Americans across this country who don’t need a memorial to never forget what’s happened,” he said.
He said he was disappointed with comments Tuesday from Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s lone black Republican, who said the Selma bridge’s name serves as a reminder of how vicious people can be.
“That’s why I think oftentimes preserving the history, as ugly as it may have been, can be a sign and a symbol of how good it can be,” Mr. Scott said on Fox News. “Tearing down the history for the sake of anarchy is not how we make progress in this country.”
⦁ Sophie Kaplan and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.