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Monday, June 08, 2020

How one statue came to symbolise a movement

In a democracy, even an imperfect one, there can be no justification for the toppling of statues or for violent protest, but that does not preclude us from trying to understand the reasoning and the motives behind such actions, nor should it prevent us stopping to think what can be done differently to accommodate legitimate grievances.

Those politicians and commentators who have dismissed the toppling of Edward Colston's statue into the river in Bristol as mindless vandalism, should reflect as well, on why protestors felt they had to take the matter into their own hands after years of fruitless debate about the appropriateness of commemorating a man who sold 100,000 people into slavery, nearly 20,000 of whom died en-route.

Not only has there been a failure of democratic process in this memoralisation of an active slave trader, but there has also been a lack of understanding of how the trade he symbolised continues to sustain and feed the many injustices still faced by the BAME community in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

This post is not being written to try to justify the direct action taken by protestors, as I believe that it was wrong, but to address two specific criticisms. The first of these is that in toppling this statue there was an attempt to somehow rewrite or erase history.

On the contrary, as David Olusoga argues here, statues such as these are not put there to remember history, but to memorialise an individual and his actions. In the case of Colston, it is to mark the way he invested his huge fortune in building up Bristol as a city.

This process of memoralisation has obscured the means by which Colston came into that money. In other words, the statue itself, and all the many buildings and places named after him, are part of a process that is seeking to rewrite history by only concentrating on just one aspect of his story, and for that reason they should be removed or renamed.

My second point centres on the appropriateness of these protests taking place in support of a movement many thousands of miles away, over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

There has already been controversy in Wales over the decision by Literature Wales to remove a member of their Book of the Year judging panel because he questioned the decision to hold protests in the middle of a lockdown and condemned “appalling thuggery” in the protest in London.

Like others I believe that decision was bizarre and indefensible. The journalist in question has a long history of being anti-racist, and the point he made about putting other lives in danger by ignoring social distancing, while not applicable to all protestors and all protests, was a valid one. He was also correct in condemning violence and vandalism.

Nevertheless, these protests are not just about George Floyd. His death has reawakened a strong sense of injustice among the black community, not just in America but elsewhere in the world. The people protesting in cities all across the UK and Europe were not just making a point about Minneapolis but their own communities too, where BAME people continue to be targeted disproportionately by police and where the system continues to discriminate against them.

For all their faults, this weekend's demonstrations were above all about discrimination, racism and injustice. both historical and contemporary, and it is time the authorities listened and acted.
Colston was a slave trader. Did the Victorians try to change his image (or his family)to expunge this fact? To alter his profile his money was put to use to build up Bristol hence all the things named after him..There is an arguement that his statue should have been taken down years ago. and names changed. That would have stopped the aggro of the weekend where emotions (and far right/left) took over and acted. Talk,talk ,as Churchill said is better than war BUT THAT TALK CANNOT GO ON FOR EVER BEFORE A DECISION IS MADE. The result of that delay in action led to the vandalism that onyl helps the right.
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