By Dr Gilberto Algar-Faria and Dr Rosanna Carver
8 June 2020 at 17:30 BST
On 7 June 2020, the statue of Edward Colston was felled by protesters during the Black Lives Matter march in Bristol, UK. The ensuing discussion has been dominated by an unhelpful focus on recriminations for those who toppled the statue and threw it into the River Avon.
How many people knew Edward Colston’s name yesterday morning? Our guess is, Bristolians notwithstanding, relatively few. Minutes before the now infamous statue of Colston fell, we stood with a friend and his two young children nearby the plinth, one holding a sign reading “Treat Us The Same”. They knew not only Colston’s name, but what he represented. Priti Patel (the UK Home Secretary) has called the felling of the statue a “distraction from the cause people are actually protesting about”, but the person who knelt on the statue’s ‘neck’ following its fall, and those who stood holding a Black Lives Matter (BLM) flag atop of the empty plinth, might disagree. Calling this “sheer vandalism” misses the point.
The number one question we’ve been asked about the protest is, “Was it peaceful?” The second most-asked question has been, “Was it violent?” The limited options that have been presented to the general public by politicians and the mainstream media have created a binary understanding of what happened and of what violence is, a binary that Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees notably challenged and refused to be drawn on in a Channel 4 interview yesterday.
In the UK, most people’s understanding of ‘violence’ evokes clear images and experiences that are personal to them, and in general it is relatively easy to define. ‘Peace’, then, is often construed to mean the absence of whatever that ‘violence’ is. But both of these ideas are much more complicated than they appear. ‘Peace’ is not experienced the same way by everyone, and without social justice, one person’s peace can be another person’s nightmare. Even more uncomfortably, one person’s peace may be premised upon another person living a nightmare, and this is exactly what the statue symbolised. Ongoing ‘structural violence’—unequal treatment by institutions on the basis of an individual’s identity—means that certain people do not receive the same chances in life. They may face barriers to accessing education, employment and justice, to name but a few. The phrase ‘discrimination’, which is more often used to describe this injustice, does not make it clear enough that this means that some people are not at peace throughout their lives, and may not live for as long, on the basis of their identity.
The response to the felling of the statue has been predictable. Many have said that they are uncomfortable or outraged, and this speaks to this question of peace. If someone was able to walk by that statue on a day to day basis without being upset or offended, then there are two possibilities. Either they did not know who it memorialised and/or what Colston was famous for (in which case, yesterday’s events will have cleared up that problem once and for all), or they did not feel affected enough by what Colston did to be offended. Let us remember, though, that ‘peace’ is experienced differently by different people. If you are surprised that people were so impassioned as to topple the statue, it is possible that you have not understood their experience, not just relating to the statue, but more widely.
Those who support the removal of the statue but who are against yesterday’s actions cite democratic mechanisms as their preferred method. However, this was not a random or spontaneous act: it has to be viewed as one event on a continuum of a long line of efforts to place the statue in context. Bristol City Council agreed more than two years ago that an additional plaque was required to explain Colston’s involvement in slavery. But this process was fraught with difficulty, not least that which was caused by the intervention of the Society of Merchant Venturers, which Colston was part of. The pressure for the statue to be removed increased last week, with a petition on 38 Degrees receiving over 10,000 signatures. While removal through formal mechanisms is a more palatable option to some, this brings us to the question of to whom this is supposed to be ‘made’ palatable. Those who have the luxury of not noticing or questioning the statue’s presence? Or those whose history was shaped by violence and expulsion enacted by Colston and his contemporaries? As historian David Olusoga argues “statues are not the mechanisms by which we understand history”, something he also raised in 2018 during his talk with Afua Hirsch.
Similarly, some of those who have said they feel uncomfortable about the statue coming down have cited its educational value. They can rest assured that much of the world is now aware of Colston, and unless they were expecting all of those people to travel to Bristol and have a good look at the statue followed by some heavy Googling, their aim has ironically been met by the protesters. However, we must also ask ourselves who this form of education would serve. The statue’s presence may have highlighted that so-called ‘benevolence’ is not the sole word to be associated with Colston. But what education is this giving children whose ancestry is inextricably linked to the slave trade? Their city and their country have continued to choose to immortalise one version of history. The city that they are growing up in continues to honour the violence and racism that shaped their story and, as the BLM movement highlights, their reality.
There have also been calls for those who pulled the statue down to be convicted, with some such as Kit Malthouse (UK Policing Minister) describing this as an instance of “mob rule”. But this misses the point and is unhelpful. The violence this reminds us to talk about is both past violence – Colston’s association with the murder of tens of thousands and the committing of tens of thousands more to a life enslaved, all on the basis of their ethnic identity – and present violence towards Black people. Additionally, structural violence has allowed Colston to be memorialised in the middle of the city from 1895 until 2020. There was no intoxicated rampant charging associated with the statue’s fall. As has been widely reported, the statue was subsequently thrown into the River Avon, evoking the memory of slaves who were thrown to sea. The choice of location was not incidental: the statue was thrown into the water near Pero’s Bridge, which was named for an enslaved Bristol resident, Pero (or Pero Jones). And, at least for now, on the riverbed that statue lies. The statue, when it stood, represented a status quo in the truest sense: an allegory for the capitalist system that persists and that we exist in today. It was a persistent projection of a person who died 299 years ago and who was responsible for the enslavement and death of humans, but who was memorialised due to the wealth that this brought him. And these humans who were enslaved had one commonality between their identities: they were Black Africans. The statue fell not because of “thuggery”, as Boris Johnson (UK Prime Minister) and Priti Patel have inaccurately phrased it, but because of what that statue represents.
This leads us to another point that was a theme of the opening and closing speeches at the march: Black people are caught up in a constant imaginary of violence. During one of the speeches in College Green, a speaker explained that they were “born illegal” because of the colour of their skin. This has been discussed widely with reference to the United States: with this systemic perception, Black individuals face a lifetime in which the societies they are in try to prove their illegality. Yesterday’s protest closed with another speech stating that the day would be spoken about as a non-violent peaceful protest because 10,000 people marched with no arrests or injuries, and yet the subsequent conversation has been dominated by questions and accusations of violence in relation to the statue. Recognising this juxtaposition also throws up questions about how violent actions directed towards symbols of oppression are perceived, and there is a wider discussion to be had about “acts of lawlessness that mirror the excesses of those charged with upholding the law”.
The UK government has been quick to frame this week’s BLM protests as American-centric, supporting something that happens in the US but, they imply, not in the UK. However, as yesterday highlighted, we must be cognisant of the past, of Britain’s role in world history and of how this shapes the present and the future. Colston is not just part of Bristol’s story: along with his contemporaries, he is part of the UK’s history, and of global history – a legacy that continues to shape present injustices, and this needs to be recognised and faced. Just look at the conversation that has unfolded in the last 24 hours. No wonder this all sits uncomfortably. But it is not the responsibility of those who face oppression to make those unaware of it more comfortable.
N.B. We are writing as two independent authors. Our views are our own.
Dr Gilberto Algar-Faria is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. Dr Rosanna Carver recently completed her PhD at Lancaster University. They are both based in Bristol.