Statues and Systemic Racism: why Colston could not fall peacefully

June 16, 2020

The fall of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol has sparked fierce debate across the country and the globe. The statue was captured during the Bristol Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday 7th of June, and subsequently submerged in the River Avon -  the very river in which Colston drowned 18,000 slaves – as a sort of poetic justice. 

 

It isn’t hard to see why Edward Colston was the object of the protestors’ dissent on Sunday. Whilst Colston is celebrated as a former MP and a major financial contributor to Bristol, he made his fortune through human suffering – specifically, the suffering of black people. Between 1672 and 1689, Colston’s ships are believed to have transported around 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas. Closely shackled together, hundreds of enslaved people were forced to remain in their own filth. Disease, suicide and murder claimed between 10 and 20 percent of the enslaved during the 8 week voyage to the Americas. Edward Colston lined his pockets with the large-scale suffering of black people, yet the plaque on his statue describes him as “one of the most virtuous, and wise sons of the city”. 

 

Despite the agony Colston caused, the removal of his statue has sparked divisive debate. The Home Secretary has condemned the demonstrators’ actions as ‘utterly disgraceful’, and, whilst 61% of Bristolians (in a survey by local news website, BristolLive) expressed that they wanted the statue to be removed, 19% of these said that they did not agree with the method used to remove it by protestors.  

 

Many have proposed that Colston’s statue should have instead been removed through ‘democratic means’ - but these statements are inherently contradictory. These peaceful alternatives which public figures are urging anti-racist demonstrators to adopt have already been exhausted for over 20 years in Bristol. The group Countering Colston has been peacefully campaigning and educating Bristolians about the need to decolonise the city since the turn of this century. Indeed, the original petition to remove the statue of Edward Colston was launched over 6 years ago. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, called for protests to come to a “peaceful resolution”, but this peace has already been tried and ignored. 

 

The aftermath of the Colston removal has demonstrated that, when anti-racist activism conforms to democratic norms, it is largely silenced and subdued by the democratic systems it wishes to become heard in. Yet, when this activism wishes to gain attention outside of these norms it is brandished as a violent and ‘thuggish’ movement. The Black Lives Matter movement finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place, or rather between silence and ignorance in a democratic institution riddled with systemic racism. 

 

Despite the statements made by leading politicians, the protestor’s actions have not been met with entirely bad press. Other institutions and organisations in Bristol which share the Colston name have embarked on journeys of self-examination and self-education. These are both integral elements of ally-ship to anti-racist movements which contribute to the recognition and deconstruction of the legacy of slavery which continues to plague the U.K. today. Whilst name changes or statue moves will not rectify structural and cultural racism nor eradicate the slave mentality that still exists, they’re a good start. The removal of Colston was unconventional, but the tide seems to be turning in favour of Black Lives Matter, whether their attention is gained democratically or not.

 

Ultimately, the probability of Colston’s statue falling peacefully was low as it necessitated approval from democratic institutions which continue to thrive off of the oppression of black people. The removal of Colston’s statue was shocking, poignant and abrupt – but the quasi-violent act of pulling down a statue is nothing compared to the systemic and physical violence inflicted upon black people in Britain today. To cite just a few statistics: black people are twice as likely to die in police custody in the UK than white people; black women five times more likely to die in childbirth; 95% of the doctors who died in the first month of COVID were from the BAME community. Systemic racism and oppression exists at all levels in the UK: the media, education, healthcare, advertising, employment, the justice system. 

 

As long as systemic racism exists, black voices and opinions will be silenced by democratic institutions. So, if you find yourself criticising the actions of these protestors (which, may I remind you, are taken as there is no other alternative for their anti-racist activist voices to be heard) I ask you this: are you calling for the termination of violence against black people as vehemently as you are calling for the protection of these inanimate objects? If you find yourself calling for the end of the protests, I ask you: why aren’t you calling for the end of police brutality towards black people? Are you also calling for the end of the disproportionate targeting of black people and communities by justice systems? I invite you to reflect on these points, before you consider criticising non-conventional approaches to institutional and societal change. 

 

If these reflections don’t change your mind, all I can say is I’m sorry about your statue, but at least you can thank the protestors for saving your council a hefty removal fee - as well as spurring anti-racist societal thinking. 

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Caitlin Hobbs

 

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