On Sunday (June 7th 2020) Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston and chucked it in the Avon.
The people of Bristol had tried to have the statue removed for many years via legal and political routes without success.
Protection of the statue’s status was expressed always via false arguments about not erasing history or not backdating modern morality. Both arguments are wilfully deceptive. Knowledge of history is not affected by whether or not a statue of a protagonist exists and slavery was immoral when Colston made his wealth from it and when the statue was erected two centuries later. It is also important that when Colston was alive there was not universal suffrage in Britain; most people did not have the right to vote. Significantly, the statue was erected at the end of the nineteenth century. It was built deliberately as a celebration of Britain’s slave trade.
The toppling of Colston’s statue and dumping in the water was a wonderful act of humanity. Politically, it was a superb demonstration of global action against racism without the need to wait for governments to act. The fall from the plinth, the rolling down the street and the splash in the water were enjoyed, applauded and cheered around the world.
The tone and content of negative reaction was predictable. Home Secretary Priti Patel espoused a common conservative con-trick wherein she claimed that the direct action destruction of the statue would put people off from supporting Black Lives Matter when she knew that it had the opposite effect.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a similar line when commenting on graffiti on a statue of Winston Churchill on the same day: “These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery – and they are a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve.”
It is very offensive for right-wing politicians to declare that they know if acts by protesters are likely to increase or decrease popular support for their cause. Certainly, it is almost always true in such scenarios that whatever declaration is made by conservative politicians, the opposite will be the truth.
Former Home Secretary Sajid Javid said “this is not OK. If Bristolians want to remove a monument it should be done democratically – not by criminal damage.” Bristolians had tried to remove the statue “democratically” and been scuppered by right-wing politicians.
Blairite Labour MP Barry Sherman echoed Javid’s false point. “I don’t like mobs tearing down statutes in our country. We have elections & local people should democratically make these decisions!”
Current Labour leader Keir Starmer wanted the statue to be removed “properly with consent” and he said its disposal was “completely wrong.” He did not say who should supply the “consent.” He added that nobody “should condone lawlessness.” The last remark is in the context that, in Colston’s era, slavery was not unlawful.
Sherman, Starmer and Javid knew that attempts had been made to remove the statue. Historian Kate Willimas explained how and why attempts to address the issue of the statue’s existence had failed: Williams on Colston.
Tory MP Ben Bradley pretended he thought opposition to racism and to slavery had appeared only recently while he choose simultaneously to forget that there are governments in power now whose acts are as bad as those of the likes of Colston. “If we start to judge historical figures by 21st century standards, we’ll find that quite a few folks weren’t that nice… Almost as if they didn’t know any better.”
Sunday’s event was inspiring and uplifting; it was a positive day. Some politicians tried to convince themselves otherwise but their lack of conviction was obvious. They are fearful and that is something to celebrate.