President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday to protect federal monuments after a rash of recent incidents involving the vandalism of statues memorializing the Confederacy and some of the nation's Founding Fathers.
"I just had the privilege of signing a very strong Executive Order protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues - and combatting recent Criminal Violence. Long prison terms for these lawless acts against our Great Country!" Trump said in a tweet.
The order would "reinforce" existing federal law, which criminalizes the destruction of federal monuments. For instance, the Veterans’ Memorials Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003 imposes a fine and up to 10 years in prison on anyone who vandalizes a monument.
"Individuals and organizations have the right to peacefully advocate for either the removal or the construction of any monument," the order states. "But no individual or group has the right to damage, deface, or remove any monument by use of force."
It also threatens to withhold federal funding from state and local law enforcement agencies that "fail to protect monuments, memorials, and statues."
"In the midst of these attacks, many State and local governments appear to have lost the ability to distinguish between the lawful exercise of rights to free speech and assembly and unvarnished vandalism," the order says. "They have surrendered to mob rule.”
The protests against racism and police brutality prompted by the killing of George Floyd has reignited the debate around statues and other monuments honoring the Confederacy and slave-holding presidents, such as George Washington and Andrew Jackson. After violence prompted by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, there was a public outcry to remove Confederate symbols across the country.
Earlier this week, protesters defaced a statue of President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square outside the White House and tried to topple it, but police pepper-sprayed demonstrators to protect the monument. Jackson was a slaveholder and oversaw the expulsion of Native Americans in which they were forcibly moved further west by the federal government. Roughly 4,000 Cherokees died on that journey, known as the "Trail of Tears." The National Park Service has since placed a barrier around the statue.
In other parts of the country, media reports detail protesters defacing, and in some cases toppling, statues of Confederate soldiers, and generals who fought to uphold slavery. Washington, America's first president, also became a target in which protests tore down his statue in Portland, Oregon, and defaced a different statue in Baltimore. A World War II monument was also vandalized in Charlotte, N.C.
Trump told reporters Tuesday that he is looking to have stiff penalties for acts of vandalism against federal monuments.
"We are looking at long-term jail sentences for these vandals and these hoodlums and these anarchists and agitators and 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," he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called for the removal of Confederate monuments in the Capitol building earlier this month and also has ordered the removal of portraits of four House speakers who served in the Confederacy on display at the Capitol.