For more than a dozen years, Marion Reid, 77, had walked past the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on his way to work in information technology at the American Museum of Natural History, an employer that he said often failed to treat African-Americans with dignity.
He drove into Manhattan around noon on Sunday to photograph the statue before officials carried out plans to remove it from its place of pride at the museum’s Central Park West entrance, only to find himself engulfed by about 150 protesters clamoring to preserve it. Among them were men in seersucker suits and women draped with pearls, people wearing MAGA hats and others waving Blue Lives Matter flags while chanting, “Save Teddy. Save our police. Save law and order.” About a dozen police were in the vicinity.
The protesters Sunday came to defy the nationwide movement that for decades has fought to bring down monuments that, like the Roosevelt statue, have been associated with racism, colonialism and oppression.
“We are fighting over the last will and testament of the United States,” David Marcus, an organizer of the rally and a contributor to the conservative website The Federalist said through a megaphone. “We are full-blooded brothers and sisters, and heirs to the most extraordinary experiment in freedom that the world has ever known. God bless Teddy Roosevelt.”
The museum announced last week that, with approval from the mayor and President Roosevelt’s family, it would remove the 80-year-old bronze statue.
The museum’s president, Ellen V. Futter, emphasized last week that the decision was not about Roosevelt but about the statue itself — namely its “hierarchical composition.” It features the president riding high on horseback, flanked by a Native American man and an African man, depicting them, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “as subjugated and racially inferior.”
Speakers supporting the statue used the protest to rail against a broad range of issues including abortion and religion. One woman called for the removal of “the feminists and the homosexuals” from the City Council.
A protester in her 70s who gave her name as Sharon, said, “I don’t see the statue as racist, and that word is overused and dramatized today.” She said the debate over the statue, “certainly has nothing to do with that police situation in Minneapolis where a man was murdered.” She was referring to George Floyd, who died in police custody on May 25.
“Over the last few weeks, our museum community has been profoundly moved by the ever-widening movement for racial justice that has emerged after the killing of George Floyd,” the museum’s president, Ellen V. Futter, said in an interview with the Times. “We have watched as the attention of the world and the country has increasingly turned to statues as powerful and hurtful symbols of systemic racism.”
The decision came as a pleasant surprise for the hundreds of activists who have demanded the monument’s removal through annual Columbus Day protests at the museum, which saw the statue splashed with red liquid in 2017.
Most protesters in the crowd were not wearing masks despite the global surge in Covid-19 cases.
Worries about the coronavirus pandemic had failed to dissuade Gavin Wax, 26, from planning the protest. “This is about much more than a statue,” Mr. Wax, the president of the New York Young Republicans Club said. “You can’t judge premodern people by postmodern standards of morality, because at that rate you won’t have a history.”
Mr. Wax said, “We have to calm down and say that nobody sees racism in this statue. If you do, you have to look into yourself and not other people.”
For Mr. Reid of Westchester, the former museum employee, who is black, the problem is a simple one. “The statue is racist,” he said. “What I see here are Trumpites who want a return to the status quo. They want ‘Gone With the Wind,’ the good old days when African-Americans were kept in their place and racism was swept under the rug.”