The tearing down of statues commemorating oppressive figures such as slave trader Edward Colston is a justifiable expression of discontent at a system that allowed for the public memorialisation of a such a person.
Indeed, sometimes you need to act outside the rules of the system to achieve justice. That is what Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol did yesterday when they pulled Colston’s statue down and threw it into the river Avon.
The act of tearing down statues is a symbolic one. It highlights the fact that we live under a system that upholds white men with profoundly disturbing legacies as figures to be commemorated, while holding down minority communities and those trapped in poverty.
We have assigned more worth to these statues then we do living people. The response to yesterday’s events makes that much clear. Some people seem more enraged that a slave trader’s statue was pulled down than they were by George Floyd being slowly murdered on camera by a racist police officer. Some are already calling for the statue to be re-erected.
Indeed, many will call the statue’s removal an erasure of history, but this could not be further from the truth. For one, more people will learn about Colston’s life as a result of his statue falling than ever would have done if he was left standing. If we want to preserve this man in history, we still can. Let’s teach about his atrocities in schools and produce images of him to put in in slavery museums.
We cannot, however, allow statues of slave traders to continue to stand in public places. Doing so solidifies the absolution of rich white men like Colston by the system. It implies that, since Colston used some of his money to his city’s benefit, we should ignore the fact that he earned it by profiteering from the suffering of black people.
There are concerns that the destruction of statues like Colston’s will lead to protesters launching further attempts on more prominent commemorated Britons like Winston Churchill. Perhaps, though perhaps not. Either way, can we blame them?
In this country, legitimate concerns surrounding popular historical figures are routinely dismissed by political leaders. If we do not respond to the whitewashing of historical figures, can we blame dissenters when they resort to drastic measures to make their voices heard? I can’t.
We are sorely lacking a nuanced approach to our history, and the patience of those who are in pain as a result of that is thinning. We are facilitating an immeasurably damaging revisionist rose-tinted retelling of our history. That same historical erasure bemoaned by the statue defenders is being perpetuated by the system they so passionately defend.
I can only hope that the images of the collapse of Edward Colston’s statue will mark the start of a much-needed national discussion on how this country views its own history. Statues and monuments can be useful teaching tools. What I have learned from this particular lesson is that those statues need to come down. If you sincerely want to learn, pick up a history book.