Throughout the month of June, people all over the world have taken to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, catalysed by the death of George Floyd, a black man murdered by police in Minneapolis. In response to the wave of protests, a significant amount of media attention has been directed at the toppling and defacing of statues with ties to the US’ and various other countries’ racist histories. This kind of activity has caused a significant amount of controversy. While it has, on occasion, sparked productive debate and positive change, it’s also been exploited as a way to detract from the aims of the movement and generate negative sentiment towards protesters.
Black Lives Matter, some background
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was founded in the US in 2013 after the man who murdered Trayvon Martin – an unarmed 17-year-old African American – was acquitted of all charges. BLM’s mission is “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on black communities by the state and vigilantes”. Over the past seven years, protesters have often marched under the movement’s banner especially in response to cases of police brutality and racist violence. Recent episodes, including the murders of Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Aubury, combined with the heightened impact of coronavirus on black and minority communities led to the most recent outbreak in protests, the most widespread in decades.
BLM also aims for inclusivity of other marginalised groups. This was made apparent, for example, with the increased visibility of the Black Trans Lives Matter movement following protests sparked by the murders of Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells and Tony McDade.
Such killings are far from being isolated events in the United States, a country where systemic racism and police brutality are a constant source of injustice and oppression. The recent protests expressing widespread anger and dissatisfaction have taken over all major cities and thousands of smaller urban centres. This outpouring, however, hasn’t been limited to this country, with demonstrations taking place worldwide. While these have undoubtedly been expressions of solidarity with American campaigners, protesters have also sought to bring attention to local grievances stemming from institutional racism. In this respect, a frequent occurrence at BLM protests has been the removal or defacing of statues, a powerful symbolic gesture targeting the many monuments found in our towns and cities that celebrate historic figures with racist views, who actively contributed to the oppression of marginalised groups and institutional racism.
In the early days of the protests, dozens of statues and monuments celebrating leaders of the Confederate States of America and its military were torn down, burned or defaced in the US. The Confederacy fought against the abolition of slavery and in the 19th and 20th centuries all of its states enforced racist policies, segregation and the oppression of black people for many years after slavery was abolished.
Black Lives Matter protesters then went on to expand their scope, for example by removing statues of Christopher Columbus and other colonisers linked to the genocide of Native American peoples, such as Juan de Oñate and Junípero Serra. This also led to the removal of a number of statues of former US Presidents, in certain instances at the hands of the authorities: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant were all slaveowners, as well as being responsible for the forced eviction of Native Americans from their land. The statue of Theodore Roosevelt in New York City, on the other hand, depicts him on a horse with a Native American man and an African man standing beside him, and thus “explicitly depicts black and indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior,” according to the city’s mayor Bill de Blasio.
Protestors in Washington, D.C. tearing down a statue of Andrew Jackson, the president responsible for the Trail of Tears and a hero to President Trump. Video courtesy of @jonathanchase_ pic.twitter.com/MH2t4m7MT9
The topic of statue removals garnered nationwide attention in the United Kingdom after protesters toppled a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol on the 7th of June. Like many wealthy British people in the 18th and 19th centuries, he was heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade but his philanthropic pursuits led him to be widely memorialised; his statue was thrown into the city’s harbour after being toppled.
Later that week, authorities in London removed a statue of Scottish slave trader Robert Milligan. Plans have been made to remove other monuments in the capital and elsewhere, including those commemorating white supremacist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford, which had already been a source of controversy during the “Rhodes must fall” protests that originated in South Africa in 2015. Protesters in London also defaced a statue of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, which was subsequently boarded up to protect it from being damaged.
In Belgium, demonstrators burned and defaced several statues and monuments to King Leopold II, who ruled the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908, treating it as his personal property and committing atrocities against its people. During his rule, the country’s population declined by between 5 and 10 million people. Protesters in Paris, Francedefaced colonial-era statues dedicated to Enlightenment thinker Voltaire, whose wealth partially derived from the slave trade, and Hubert Lyautey, a general who administered several of the country’s colonies. In Italy, Black Lives Matter demonstrators took to the streets in several major cities. In Milan, activists poured red paint over a statue of Indro Montanelli, a writer and journalist who supported Fascism and acted as a commander during Italy’s colonial invasion of Ethiopia, where he also purchased a 12-year-old girl named Destà.
Education is key
A common thread uniting all these examples is the desire to confront many Western countries’ colonial history. The response to BLM protests in many European nations has involved comparisons with the United States, where slavery was more prominent and police violence is currently taking place on a greater scale. However, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that most European countries directly benefited from the slave trade and through colonialism gained much of the wealth that determines their developed status on the global stage to this day. Furthermore, police violence against minorities is a serious problem in Europe so it’s important to note that protests outside the US haven’t merely been about solidarity, but also about drawing attention to these issues – including the uncomfortable past of certain historical figures commemorated through statues.
In the UK, for example, there has been a push for reforms in the education system so that the country’s colonial history is more lucidly addressed in school curricula. There are also demands for a more critical approach to figures such as Winston Churchill, mostly celebrated for leading the country through World War II and rarely criticised for his racist views and political actions. To give just one example, British imperialist policy under Churchill led to a famine in Bengal that caused the death of millions of people.
Improving education around colonial and imperialist history is an important step in starting to address the systemic racism that BLM activists are protesting, and every country would benefit from this kind of change being implemented in schools. In this sense, redressing the issue of statues could be an even simpler and more straightforward way to educate people on their countries’ colonial histories by generating positive debate and change in the public environment.
Criticism of statue removals and counter-protests
Although the removal of statues is linked to a desire to foster a more critical approach to history, the practice has also drawn criticism. Those taking issue with protesters defacing and toppling statues commonly cite the illegality of these acts, but there have also been articles and petitions expressing the belief that the removing of statues – even by authorities – equates to a desire to cover up or deny a part of history.
In the US and the UK, there have also been several instances of counter-protests by right-wing activists and white supremacists. Rather than speak out against the core idea behind Black Lives Matter, the argument that statues and monuments must be protected is used by these groups as a smokescreen concealing fundamentally racist views. Unfortunately, it appears that exploitation of the debate and momentum unleashed by the BLM protests by far-right groups has led to increased dissemination of white supremacist materials, therefore heightening the risk of radicalisation.
A “statue of limitations”?
An alternate solution to removing statues outright that is often proposed is to add inscriptions that outline the history of the figure being portrayed. While this would perhaps be an improvement, advocates for removal suggest that relocating them to museums is an even more effective solution. They argue that statues in public places tend to imply that the person is celebrated or revered and that inscriptions are much less likely to be read by passers-by than by museum-goers.
A different solution, proposed by Yasmeen Serhan in The Atlantic, is to institute a “statue of limitations” whereby monuments in public places are reviewed after a certain timeframe and replaced if they’re no longer deemed appropriate. For example, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has instituted a task force that will assess all statues in the UK capital.
Listening to black voices
While the protests have begun to die down in the past few days and the news cycle has shifted quickly to new topics, it’s important to maintain awareness of the structural problems that the protests are addressing. Not only are black and minority communities disproportionately more likely to be targeted by police, they’re also economically disadvantaged and systematically discriminated against, as well as being disproportionately negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, the pain and anger that is felt across black communities in seeing their past oppressors celebrated, and present oppressors unpunished, is undoubtedly justified, and the removal of symbols of racist power should be celebrated.
At times like these, it’s important to listen to and amplify black voices, with the awareness that their experiences and understandings of systemic racism and discrimination are crucial in bringing about structural change. For example, former US President Barack Obama has outlined a long-term plan to carry forward the protests’ momentum and bring about real transformation, and organisations such as Stand Up To Racism in the UK and Black Lives Matter globally provide resources and continued support for a fight against racism that must never cease. As this continues, we can all contribute by observing our surroundings more critically and asking lawmakers and politicians to ensure that the statues in our cities are a public celebration of individuals who truly deserve our praise.