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Defaced confederate statue that says Spiritual Genocide in spraypaint across the faces
Zach Borenstein, a native of Leland, Miss., reflects on May 30, 2020, when he drove over two hours to vandalize a Confederate statue on Oxford’s UM campus, tagging it with the phrase, “Spiritual Genocide.” He calls his protest selfish and inconsiderate of those working to move the statue, but he wants others to see that tributes to the Confederacy are symbols of terror. Photo by Skye Spiehler

‘Spiritual Genocide’: I Take Full Responsibility for Vandalizing the UM Confederate Statue

On May 30, 2020, I hopped in my car with a few cans of spray paint and a boxcutter and drove a little over two hours from my then-home in Leland to Oxford, Miss. Before I even arrived at the circle on campus where an enormous Confederate statue used to stand, fear overcame me. It was now or never. 

Depending on whom you ask, I defaced, desecrated, vandalized or branded the statue with the phrase “Spiritual Genocide.” It was the culmination of an idea that had been germinating for months, if not years, and it was not entirely my own. However, I’m not sure if others would feel OK with me sharing this—some don’t even know me—and in any event, I take full responsibility for the decision and action. 

The execution was poor, selfish and inconsiderate. Many people had been working tirelessly on the removal of that statue for some time, and I did not consult with them. Arielle Hudson, who organized my bail fund, essentially saved my life. I spent about two days, maybe a little less, in jail, but it could have been much longer. 

Arielle Hudson at the UM Confederate Statue
University of Mississippi graduate and Rhodes Scholar Arielle Hudson fought with other students to get the Confederate statue moved from its central perch on campus. Now, the Mississippi Free Press Advisory Board member wants to see substantive, systemic change at UM and beyond. Photo by Seyma Bayram/courtesy Jackson Free Press

I was initially charged with a felony, but it was eventually reduced to a misdemeanor. Ultimately, the powers-that-be decided to call what I did “malicious mischief.” I was given the opportunity to plead guilty, or even no contest, and be assured that my record would be wiped clean after a year. 

This may have just been a formality, but words matter. Jail terrifies me, as does the idea that someone might seek retribution against me personally. I am a person of privilege, both racially and economically, and it is possible, if not likely, that the justice system was kinder to me than it would have been to others. Many think I was being foolish by not taking the opportunity to face the mildest repercussions possible. 

Ultimately, though, I decided that what I did was neither malicious nor mischievous. I don’t believe in a society where everyone achieves their political goals by spray-painting words on edifices. But this line of thinking misses the point entirely. 

‘See People. Fight Injustice. Create Equity.’

What I hope people may come to see is that tributes to the Confederacy are symbols of terror. This was the institution that fought to keep Black people enslaved, a system more twisted and depraved than most are capable of imagining. If white people don’t see that, I don’t think that we can fully see Black people, or even ourselves and the incredible trauma of our history that leaks into the present. 

One such statue is still outside the courthouse on the Oxford square—despite the efforts of several community members to have it removed—and the location of this one is even more troubling. Black families in our communities never received justice for what was done to them for hundreds of years, including lynchings, and many of the punishments doled out in that very building are a result of our embarrassingly inequitable society.

I was fortunate to not face serious consequences for my actions; however, I beg that you see the consequences of the Confederacy and of continuing to glorify its cause.

student athletes at Confederate monument in Oxford - Mississippi Free Press
Student athletes from the University of Mississippi football program gathered around the Confederate monument on the Oxford Square on Aug. 28, 2020, the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till. Photo by Christian Middleton

The statues are merely symbols, and perhaps devoting so much energy to them takes away from the concrete things that really matter, such as police brutality, housing discrimination and overall crushing poverty. I am one person who believes that it’s all connected. 

Hopefully we become more likely to create policies and a society that is founded in equity and justice and choose to see people and honor the truth.

See people. Fight injustice. Create equity. Never stop.

Note: Arielle Hudson, mentioned in the piece above, is on the advisory board of the Mississippi Free Press.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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