Lunches with Lee: A Study in Brand Association

August 12, 2017. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, organized by white nationalists, ends in the death of one young lady and the hospitalization of over 30 more. To understand better what happened in Charlottesville, the below video from Vice is a great portrayal of that event.

Since that fateful day, we’ve heard calls to bring down confederate monuments across the South. Dallas hasn’t been any different. On September 6th, the city council voted 13-1 to remove the confederate statues in the city, most notably, the large Robert E. Lee equestrian statue in Lee Park. I work about a block from where the statue stood went by every day from the vote to taking it down to talk to protestors, sympathizers, and random passerby’s to understand the unique cultural impact of bringing down this statue. I wanted to relay some of my experiences in conjunction with the overall story of what was happening with the statue. 3 days in particular stood out to me:

Wednesday September 6th:

The day the city voted. They heard from many people in the community, including former representative Allen West, on both sides of the issue. In the end, the city council voted 13-1 to remove it. Still, I had no idea how quickly they would attempt to get rid of the statue. I had just finished lunch with some coworkers in our break area when I looked down at Twitter and saw crews were on site. That’s when I sent out this tweet:

After a couple hours around the statue, the crowds started to close in. That’s when things started to get interesting. One individual told me we were getting rid of the statue because of The Taliban (this is by far the most puzzling reason I’ve heard for this statue being removed. If the Taliban infiltrated the Dallas City Council, I just don’t think this is their top priority). Another I overheard saying that “liberalism is a disease” and went on quite the rant about political correctness. Perhaps the most interesting conversation I had that day was with a man draped in a flag that resembled the Texas flag. He was an older man, probably mid-60’s, and I first thought it was just a Texas flag until I looked a little closer. It had some writing on it I hadn’t seen before, so I asked him about it. He proceeded to tell me it was the first regiment of Texas flag and admonished young people for “not studying history”.

I left because I had a conference call around 4:30 while the crew continued to work to remove the statue. We thought it would certainly be down by the time we left the office that day. Alas, it was not to be. A court injunction halted the statue removal which set in motion the time I would spend with General Lee for the next week.

Monday September 11th:

On Thursday September 7th the court decided the city could move forward with removing the statue, but now they had to find a crane that could lift a 12 ton statue. Two things happened over the weekend that caused a stir in this process and led to my conversation on Monday. One, the crane hired for the job was in a car crash en route Sunday night, killing the driver of the semi that hit it and rendering the crane inoperable for an undetermined amount of time. Two, a couple of people identified as white nationalists began camping next to the statue, staging a sort of sit-in. Fast forward to Monday when I got to speak to these folks. By the time I arrived, there were 3 “protesters”. They had signs saying “I will not be shamed for my heritage” and “No white guilt”. One of them marched in Charlottesville and was profiled by the Chicago Tribune (William Fears). I decided to come by during lunch to have a dialogue with them, and they were surprisingly honest and calm in our discussions.

I opened our conversation by asking about the shirt one of them was wearing. It said McFeels Halberstram ’88. Confused, I asked what his shirt was, and he informed me it was from a “far right” podcast called Fash the Nation which would be too hardcore for me as a “normie” (normie was a word featured prominently in our conversation). This led into a lengthy discussion about fascism and their thoughts on it. I was informed he at the very least he agreed with a more authoritarian regime like fascism because other cultures or races do not fully assimilate or respect American society and laws. He also told me America was founded for white westerners, not other races as well. As we pushed further into this subject, I asked what we should do about our already multicultural society we live in. His answer was a non-answer. He rejected removing all of these people from our country to have a white ethno-state but claimed America should only be for white people. It became clear to me that while he claimed he “was not racist”, his views necessitated the belief that he was superior.

As we talked further, I asked about the goals they had for the protest. Will, the man who marched in Charlottesville, told me, “we’d like to get Richard Spencer or another controversial figure out here.” They also told me the main goal, of course, was to prevent the removal of Lee’s statue because they [liberals] are “destroying our native culture” (you could also substitute communist for liberal. That was made very clear.). I asked why Lee was so evident of “white, western culture” when they claimed slavery and race had nothing to do with it. Have you ever heard the phrase, “give a mouse a cookie”? Well, I read that book as a child, but I had no idea the slippery slope fallacy it presents would be used by a white nationalist to defend a Robert E. Lee statue. His argument was if we allow people to take down a Lee statue, they would come for Washington and Jefferson next. We continued to argue this premise for a short while after and why or why not Lee was a fitting figure to attach yourself to, but it was all for not of course.

I left this conversation shocked and surprised.  In the midst of young people leaving the republican party in masse, I’ve been surprised daily by the number of them running to the “far right” because of the misinformation spread online by Richard Spencer and others like him.

Thursday September 14th:

I went outside for a walk around the park and noticed a different scene around the statue. I noticed yellow caution tape. I saw several officers in full body armor with long rifles. The number of news crews greatly increased, and that’s when I saw something else. Speeding down Turtle Creek Boulevard was the crane. The crane that was going to “end” this nonsense about the park. But, I also saw and heard a lot of other things. I saw this gentleman pictured below.

You could hear people discussing what would happen next in hushed tones. You could hear those who disagreed speaking about “PC” culture and the ruining of American society by liberals, and in particular, the man with the “Hail Trump” cowboy hat was giving a young professional a lecture on just this topic. You could feel that tensions were high, but when the statue finally came down, you could also feel sweet relief in the crowd. Finally, it was over.

 

Over my time having lunch with General Lee, one quote ringed true to me from Dallas’ Mayor Mike Rawlings:

“I’m a marketing person and there is a term called ‘brand association. Fairly or unfairly, when a Robert E. Lee statue gets associated with Nazi sympathizers, that brand regard goes way into the negative.”

No matter your stance on Lee’s place in history, this quote should be something you seriously consider as you wade into this debate.  The people I talked to over that week truly frightened me in a lot of ways from the more humorous (“liberalism is a disease”) to the more serious (“America was founded for white people only”).

The facts of the matter are, right or wrong, brand association matters. Just like your friends matter. By choosing to fight for these statues and symbols, you inevitably associate yourself with the people I mention above. It’s something we should constantly consider. Who are you associating yourself with? Who do your clients associate themselves with? Who are your brands associated with? Should you lean into those associations or not?

The lesson here is one of caution. If you are associating yourself with a cause, a person, or a business, look around and make sure you’re seeing the right people.

 

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