About a year and a half ago, in the early hours of June 10th — or maybe the late hours of June 9th — 2020, someone beheaded the statue of Christopher Columbus in the park named after him in Boston.

It actually wasn't the first time that statue had been decapitated. But this time things were kind of different. Across the country in that summer of racial justice protests, statues were being attacked — and also defended. Just hours before Boston's Columbus beheading was discovered, protesters in Richmond, Virginia, pulled down a Columbus statue, burned it and dumped it into a lake. These scenes and many others like them, are described in critical detail in Erin Thompson's new book “Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America's Public Monuments.”

Erin Thompson is a professor of Art Crime, the first such professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: Erin, welcome.

Erin Thompson: Thank you for having me.

Rath: So first off, remind us, take us back a bit to the summer of 2020. Remind us what was going on in terms of attacking and defending monuments all across the country, in the middle of racial justice protests and a pretty ugly presidential election.

Thompson: Well, suddenly it seemed like hunks of marble and bronze that nobody but pigeons that cared about four years almost came alive. And it was because a statue is a great place to focus your debates about abstract questions of justice and racial equity. And so protests began to focus on statues and really ask, “How can we, as a nation achieve justice if we can't even agree about what type of art should be decorating our public spaces?”

"It's the exception, rather than the rule, to have a public monument come down peacefully."

Rath: Now, you got pulled into the controversy over this yourself nationally, and it was over social media. You were reacting to one of these statues. Can you describe that and tell us what your tweet was?

Thompson: I saw a video of Indigenous activists in Minnesota throwing a rope around a statue of Christopher Columbus, preparing to pull it down. And I tweeted something like, “As a professor who studies the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage, I just have to say next time use chains instead of rope and it'll go faster.”

I thought this was a joke. Various conservative commentators thought I was leading my students to revolution. I think it really is neither one or the other, in the end.

But I was fascinated by the debates people started having in the comments to this tweet, asking things like, “What's wrong with Columbus?” or, “Civilized people couldn't possibly be knocking down statues.” But as someone who has studied the history of deliberate destruction of cultural property, I know this is something that happens often.

In fact, the very first metal statue put up in America, a statue of George III that went up in downtown New York, lasted only seven years before colonists rebelling pulled it down after hearing the Declaration of Independence read. So it's the exception, rather than the rule, to have a public monument come down peacefully, I would say.

Rath: Well, and you say it in a joke, but it's kind of referring to the fact that, at first, it doesn't seem to scan, right? Because you're somebody who's written about things like the Taliban destroying Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, and someone would think, “Well, you're a professor of art, and why are you one of the ones saying, “Burn baby burn,” basically, when these when these statues are coming down?

Thompson: Well, what I'm saying is that, if works of art are representing who we want to be as a community, if they're in our public spaces, they should really be a product of democratic discussion. So when ISIS blew up statues of the Buddha, that was against the wish of the community. And when Americans in power keep statues up while ignoring calls for their removal or even for their debate or change, that's also undemocratic.

And as I explain in the book, there are many states where it's just simply impossible to remove a statue once it's put up. No matter how many calls for discussion there might be. So you can't really be surprised that protests are going to turn more violent if there's no peaceful route to removal.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Memorial
Jared Bowen WGBH News

Rath: And let's talk about this with some local examples here in Massachusetts. One that deserves mention right away, and you mentioned this in your book — there's a very special monument we have here in Boston, the celebrated Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston Common. Shaw was the white man who commanded the Black soldiers who made up the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts’ Volunteer Infantry. And well, first, could you explain why this monument is very special in the context of Civil War monuments?

Thompson: Although many Black men volunteered for the Union Army, whether they were living in the North or had escaped from freedom and volunteered to go back to the South, their participation in the Civil War is almost utterly ignored by war memorials, whether in the south or in the north. You see a civil war soldier in a monument in many small towns across the northeast, and it's usually a white man. If there are representations of black people on these monuments, they're begging for their freedom as a gift rather than fighting for it as they actually did. The Robert Shaw Memorial as one of the few representations of African Americans in uniform, as soldiers, and it's mind blowing that this is such an exception.

Rath: And I think you put it in the book, tell me if I'm wrong, it was another 100 years after the Shaw Memorial, before there was any kind of national monument for the Black soldiers of the Civil War?

Thompson: Exactly, that went up in D.C. And there's still — if you go to Civil War battle sites, there is hardly any acknowledgment, even at sites of massacres of Black soldiers.

Rath: And something else that was fascinating in the context of this, because I do want to sort of pat ourselves on the back in a way for having that Shaw memorial, which is cool. But at the same time, it's “the Shaw Memorial,” it's not “the 54th Regiment Memorial.” And in your book, you talk about how, even here in Massachusetts, the legacy of Black soldiers has been forgotten. Can you tell us about what we've learned about the Black soldiers of Brattleboro?

Thompson: So one of the monuments that I found most fascinating while researching this book was the Civil War Monument in Brattleboro, Vermont. And a local middle school class had started to research this monument a few years ago because it lists the number of citizens of the city that were killed or injured during the Civil War.

But what they found out looking at records is that those counts excluded the Nlack citizens of Brattleboro who volunteered from the city. Quite deliberately an exclusion of these citizens. So the middle schoolers and some of the local community have been asking for a change on this monument to acknowledge that everybody sacrificed, not just the white soldiers.

Rath: Great story, I love that. Erin, it's always fascinating and fun to talk with you. Looking forward to your next book, which I know is on the way. Thank you.

Thompson: Thank you for having me.

Rath: Erin Thompson is a professor of Art Crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. This is GBH’s All Things Considered.