Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Black Lives Matter.
Bristol will forever have a terrible past, but finally one of the reasons for long-lasting shame has been removed. The city can even feel pride in the way the current generation has just done what the authorities should have done a very long time ago. We cannot change history, but we can deal with it in a new way and show how we respond to it now.
David Olusoga, the British Nigerian historian, broke the happy news to me and millions of others on Sunday afternoon via Twitter. Finally, the Colston statue had just been brought crashing to the ground. The bronze figure was then dragged along the streets, clanging all the way to the harbour, where it was unceremoniously dumped into the very stretch of water that used to welcome Colston’s slave ships in the 17th century. This is scant consolation for all the suffering, how could it be more than that, but it seems a fitting end to this historical monstrosity. No more vainglory for a man responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands and the misery in the lives of many, many more.
Brought low at last: the statue of Edward Colston (photo: Bristol Live)
As one of my English/Jamaican friends in Manchester said, it’s time for “this nicey nicey nonsense” to end, and British people need to learn history properly. This combination of action and education is essential. My first thought is always that peaceful protest must be the first recourse. But, and I know there shouldn’t be a but, the democratic process is rarely enough on its own. All violence is horrible, and I do not support any of it, but I think to some extent it may ultimately be necessary. This is not only my view. See Jericho Brown’s recent opinion piece in The Guardian. I suspect millions more share this belief, even prominent politicians who may feel unable to say so without caveats.
In an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murphy on Channel Four News, Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, gave an admirable response. He did not condone violence but was reluctant to say whether those involved should be charged unless he was given time to tell the whole story, with the full context. The Mayor added that the statue has been an affront to him personally, and to many other black people in Bristol and beyond. Bristolians who were interviewed later described how much it hurt every time they had to walk past the statue.
In the video coverage, many of those celebrating the fall of the statue were white, though the man who climbed up to put the rope around Colston’s neck was black. In this, and most of the demonstrations across the country, in America too, there has been unity between people from all ethnic backgrounds. People have come together, mostly peacefully, for a common purpose. This purpose is humanity. Further, white people are responding to the call by black people to be actively anti-racist, not just to share the hashtag Black Lives Matter, though that is important. To many this active involvement comes naturally, but perhaps it has rarely been seen on such a grand scale, with so much combined commitment to the cause.
For once, the police commander at the scene in Bristol acted wisely and sensitively. The police usually make things so much worse for themselves and for everyone involved. In Britain as well as in America. Here, recognising the nature of the protest – peaceful towards people if not to property - and the need for a safe response, the police commander decided not to intervene. Superintendent Andy Bennett admitted they could not realistically have got close enough to stop the action anyway, but I give him credit for not provoking the crowd and for not causing unnecessary violence and injury. I’d like to think he wanted the statue removed too. His superiors (in office if not in morality) may be calling his judgement into question but for me he deserves a public commendation.
The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, considered the action “utterly disgraceful”. Has there ever been a Home Secretary more out of tune with the people of this country? Any government minister more offensive and more lacking in any sense of justice? It is completely regrettable that she has chosen to focus on what she considers to be a criminal act, one single act of civil disobedience, when she fails to acknowledge the criminal history of Britain throughout the centuries. At least, for once, she was not smirking. Still, it may appear to many that the Home Office is determined to maintain hateful, hard-line policies, and to carry out aggressive tactics against anyone they claim does not belong in this country.
Boris Johnson later branded the event as an example of ‘thuggery’. Would it be going too far to suggest his own whole career has been based on thuggery? Many would say he has a reputation for steam-rollering over people whenever he cannot get his own way by bluster and obfuscation. I see nothing to challenge that view.
In contrast, Keir Starmer has reacted inconsistently, not wanting to offend anyone too much, first claiming the actions of the Bristolians were “completely wrong” then adding that the statue should have come down a long time ago. Sir Keir seems to be comfortable sitting on the fence he inherited from Jeremy Corbyn.
In a time when we do not have any credible government, and still not much opposition, thank goodness for Gary Lineker, who responded to Patel on Twitter that what was utterly disgraceful was the fact that the statue had been allowed to stand since 1895. I suspect Gary doesn’t want to go into politics, so we will have to make do with him as a thought leader.
Going to a watery grave. For now. (photo: PA media)
So, the statue of Edward Colston is no more in place. No doubt it will be salvaged from the water and cleaned off. David Olusoga said in 2018 that it should be in a museum. Mayor Marvin Rees agrees. Not a memorial in open view, antagonising passers-by, but a reminder of historic evil in a venue meant for learning and reflection. Colston can no longer escape his past. He wanted to whitewash his legacy by donating money to offset his crimes against humanity. Perhaps even to buy back his soul. That ship sailed long ago. And now, the bronze statue can be salvaged, but his reputation is gone forever.
I was dismayed that Colston’s statue was allowed to last so long in memoriam and given enduring civic recognition. It was time for the statue to come down. Way past time. But the local councillors had failed to make it happen, and so the people moved. Together. The result was described by the Mayor as “a hugely significant moment in Bristol’s journey”. The city is now going forwards.
© Eddie Hewitt 2020
See the Connected Cultures feature: Bristol: my love/hate relationship with my home city
Jericho Brown, The Guardian