In the midst of global protests and demonstrations in connection with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and in the immediacy of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, statues to imperialists, racists and the traders of enslaved people are finally coming down.
In Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston was toppled on Saturday 6th June, rolled through the streets and tossed into the harbour. By Wednesday, several more statues have been taken removed, some with official sanction and watched by cheering crowds. More than 100 city councils across the UK have signed up to holding a review in order to consider removing statues, and even changing street names, and in America there is a growing hope that the end is nigh for racist memorials.
Many of these things have happened before, in some guise, some stories of which have appeared in this blog (including blogs on a Tiananmen Square statue, the Buller Statue in Exeter, and the Wellington Monument in Glasgow). But there seems to be something ‘different’ about this moment. Perhaps it is the context of Coronavirus?
The ‘traditional’ official answers tend revolve around platitudes towards disadvantaged communities – their pain is ‘felt’, their sense of injustice is ‘understood’ – but now is not (and never is) the ‘right time’. And, of course, any direct action from a crowd is always ‘completely wrong’!
So, when can the completely wrong be ‘right’? Does the removal of statues represent an ‘erasure of history’? And should we always champion the ‘Voice of the People’?
When the completely wrong is ‘right’?
In the first few hours following the (un)ceremonial dumping and dunking of Edward Colston in Bristol, many commentators lined up to tread the fine line between supporting the ‘sentiment’ of the protest, while deploring their actions. The Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, for instance both said that the statue ‘should have been removed a long time ago’, while also saying that its removal as part of the weekend protests was ‘wrong’. Such public figures do not want to be associated with ‘criminal acts’, but an official sanction of popular sentiment – perhaps even when this sentiment is expressed through direct action – has many precedents. Perhaps most famously, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or the removal of Soviet statues in much of eastern Europe in the 1990s was a moment that was widely endorsed by many official representatives. Queen Victoria was taken away in Dublin a century ago by the Dublin Corporation (and sold to the city of Sydney), while in 2012 a statue of Jimmy Saville was removed from a shopping centre in Glasgow. Perhaps more prosaic is the implicit (or even explicit) acceptance of what might be termed the creative critical engagement of many statues, such as the famous Wellington Monument in Glasgow or the (less famous) Buller Memorial in Exeter, which both habitually are allowed to be adorned with traffic cones.
A pandemic in which black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have suffered so badly together with an event of Police brutality in America, provides a context in which deeply ingrained and institutionalized systems of racism and systematic oppression can be acknowledged. This has prompted a more general reflective exercise about which elements of heritage are to be cherished – and given permission to remove symbolic statues.
Is this ‘Erasing History’?
Several commentators have decried what they see as an ‘erasure of history’, but we need to think about what ‘history’ is. Far from ‘destroying history’, David Olusoga has talked about this moment as one of creating history. What better way to commemorate the world of today than by ‘displaying’ an empty plinth? What better way of honouring the many millions of people who suffered as enslaved people, and who have been elided in standard historical narratives, than by removing the monuments to their oppressors? There is an interesting debate to be had as to whether the obliteration of these statues is better than some nuanced attempts to address them in other ways, Lisa Johnson, for instance, has written about the Dutch monument of JP Coen. Following a debate within the Dutch town of Hoorn (including a legal ‘trial’ for the local slave trader, JP Coen), a decision was made that the statue was ‘guilty’. Rather than remover the statue however, JP Coen’s ‘sentence’ included the addition of extra text at the monument (and a permanent Museum exhibition), which would make Coen’s guilt clear and be a constant reminder of this dark past in the present townscape. This certainly sounds positive, though Lisa Johnson reflects whether the focus on an obviously racist man who lived several centuries ago was just an easier (and ‘feel good’) thing to do; and that ongoing racism, exclusion and oppression (particularly with reference to the Dutch decolonization process in the 20th century) was largely ignored as a result. In many ways, this can be read as a warning – that we should not allow the present focus on the removal of monuments to nasty people who lived hundreds of years ago, mean that we (continue to) turn a blind eye to present injustices around us.
Is the ‘Voice of the People’ always right?
Reading some of the press reports and commentators about the destruction of the Edward Colston monument, one might think that the ‘Voice of the People’ is now always correct – that direct action of the crowd should never be critiqued. But a story I read this morning about how some people in a small town in Derbyshire has decided to protect what many people would see as a racist monument, provides a more critical prompt to this question. The justification for protecting the monument seems to be rooted in the idea that the wishes of ‘local people’ must always be correct – though the journalist also includes a quote from a local who wishes to remain anonymous who questions whether the ‘wishes of the local people’ are as clear as the would-be protectors of the monument would have us believe. This case reminds me strongly of many examples of local/community festivities that include practices of ‘blacking up’ – such as the Darkie Day Parade in Padstow, Cornwall. The idea of local-ness is sometimes difficult to challenge, since it tends to carry ideas of ‘authenticity’ and democracy – the sort of material that most liberal-minded people tend to cherish. Rather than ‘localness’ acting to insulate practices from outside scrutiny, however, I would argue that we should always be attendant to the politics and power structures that are inherent within any such practice, at whatever scale they operate. On occasion, therefore, I would say that it is OK to be critical of local ‘direct action’.
What now for Edward Colston?
The last few days have seen many suggestions for what should happen in Bristol now. The Mayor of Bristol does not seem interested in putting Edward Colston back on to his pedestal, but what should be there in his place – if anything? So far, the best suggestion that I have seen has come from the street-artist, Banksy. Perhaps unexpectedly, Banksy has argued that the state of Edward Colston should be fished out of the harbor and replaced back on to his plinth – only with the addition of some ropes and protesters-in-bronze, so as to create a permanent memorial to the removal of Edward Colston.