Toppling attempt led by Harvard student ends after confrontation with statue defenders

Washington, D.C. — Activists on Friday rallied in front of the Emancipation Memorial after a weeklong debate over whether or not the memorial, which depicts Abraham Lincoln ending slavery, is racist and should be toppled.

The rally, organized by Harvard University student Glenn Foster and his group, the Freedom Neighborhood, ended when a series of activists began shoving two journalists, one from the Washington Examiner. Before the scuffle, Foster and a series of other speakers voiced their grievances, saying that the memorial, which was paid for by freed slaves and dedicated by Frederick Douglass, was an example of white people “disempowering” black people.

“We’re going to tear that motherf—– down!” Foster shouted, pointing to the statue.

His exuberance drew mixed reactions from the crowd. While many cheered during Foster’s speech, two older men stood up and tried to defend the statue. One, Cedric Turner, claimed to be a descendant of the black man, Archer Alexander, depicted in the memorial. The other, Don Folden, a Washington, D.C., tour guide, attempted to give several speeches defending the statue as an important part of black history.

“Let me show you how full of shit all y’all out here are,” Folden said. “A lot of people out here want to tear this statue down, but they don’t even know the history.”

As Folden spoke, Foster asked him to be quiet, saying that older people should have no say in black activism.

“Last time I checked, this was my event,” Foster said.

After much more shouting, Foster told the crowd that he would not be attempting to tear the statue down immediately. Instead, he told people to petition lawmakers for change, including tearing the statue down.

“We are not going to stop it until every single person has the chance to live free from the oppression of our government, preconceived notions of white supremacy, and most importantly, people who are allowing the system to oppress us,” Foster said.

Foster then asked the crowd to put their hands in the air if they truly believed that black lives matter. Several journalists recording the event did not, provoking the ire of people in the crowd, who called them Nazis and sprayed them with squirt guns.

Folden stepped in to escort the journalists away, and the crowd began shoving them. Police approached, and the event effectively ended.

This was not how Foster planned the rally. In a Zoom call a day prior to the rally, Foster instructed his supporters to make their attempt at statue-toppling seem “spontaneous” while still being “quick and efficient.” In the hours beforehand, members of The Freedom Neighborhood group chat obsessed over just how to do that. Volunteers floated the idea of bringing bolt cutters, a ladder, and even a ramp to breach the fence.

Ultimately, the group settled on Foster’s original plan: Two people scale the fence, loop the ropes around Lincoln’s head, and then toss them back to the people on the other side. But even with more people pulling that still left the problem of police interference.

But Freedom Neighborhood organizers had a solution for that: human shields.

“There’s no delicate way to say this,” an organizer wrote. “But we need white people to be willing to put their bodies between the police and black bodies, if necessary.”

A volunteer immediately responded: “No need to be delicate!! Totally understood and we’re ready for it.”

Other volunteers stated that even if the attempt failed, diverting resources from the United States Park Police and the Metropolitan Police Department was satisfaction enough. Plus, there was the added bonus of hampering Mayor Muriel Bowser’s attempts to govern the city.

“Lotta damn nerve on this bitch,” one volunteer wrote after Bowser on Friday urged people to engage in a “reasonable conversation” about the statue’s future, a position also endorsed by Washington’s shadow Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who said on Tuesday that she would like to see it placed in a museum.

The Emancipation Memorial effort is the first from The Freedom Neighborhood, which Foster said he founded on Monday. The group, Foster emphasized, is a revolutionary upstart — unaffiliated with antifa or Black Lives Matter, though Foster said that many of the goals of his organization overlap with the other two.

The stunt was a heel turn for Foster. A one-time YouTube star, his lo-fi video “How I Got Into Harvard,” has received more than 50,000 views on the website. In the video, he cracked jokes about his accomplishments — namely, an internship at CNN, as well as the opportunity to meet former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Barack Obama, and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Foster also gave out advice on how to game the Ivy League admission process, noting that, because his ACT test scores were not perfect, he believes that his race was definitely a “dip in the bucket” that helped him get into Harvard.

Later in the video, Foster recalled a summer job he worked at a BMW dealership in the Washington, D.C., area. The way wealthy people so casually bought cars fascinated him, he said, and he hoped that, when he’s made it in life, he could do the same.

“It was really cool to see all these people who have achieved so much in life come in and buy a $96,000 car without blinking an eye,” he said. “Which I thought was so cool, and I hope to aspire to that one day.”

Foster switched the video’s settings to private after a writer from the college watchdog Campus Reform contacted him for comment.

Foster’s YouTube channel contains other videos about Harvard and Ivy League life, most of which appear to have been filmed in his bedroom during the coronavirus pandemic. The videos reveal a series of mundane facts about the would-be revolutionary: “single as a pringle,” insecurities about not making it into any of Harvard’s prestigious Final Clubs, and pride in his 3.97 grade-point average.

Foster’s YouTube, Instagram, and Harvard profiles are a different image from the one he presents at rallies. When speaking before large groups of people, he shouts and decries institutions founded and (for the most part) run by white people.

“Be mindful that the greatest thief of all is our nation,” he said on Tuesday. “We are a nation of thieves! We stole people, land, money. This entire nation is stained with the blood of my brothers and sisters.”

Foster declined multiple interview requests from the Washington Examiner.

*story by The Washington Examiner