At a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol yesterday, 7th of June 2020, which I attended, the statue of Edward Colston was brought down and moved into the harbourside. It was momentous as crowds reached the statue, first expressing anger at its commemoration of a slave trader, then realising how easily it might fall. With poetic justice, the figure was plunged into the docks where his ships landed in the 17th century and the memorial was left definitively down; to dredge up the statue and return it would be an act of clear support for the racism and suffering it represented.Bristolians have for decades been lobbying the council to remove the statue from Bristol’s city center. Yet based on the reluctance of those with the power to do so, it appeared too complicated as to be near impossible. A plaque on the base of the statue read “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895”, a clear misrepresentation of the inequality that Colston’s philanthropy was built on. In 2014 Bristol City Council applied for an addendum contextualising this, however, the memorial remained pointed to the long-held reluctance to condemn the actions that built Colston’s wealth.
As the statue tipped, after only seconds of effort by protestors, the injustice of it having stood for so long was obvious. As was the relief and joy in its absence as Black Lives Matter advocates took to the vacated plinth to speak on racial injustice. Images of the empty stone surrounded by placards from the protest joined footage of the statues fall on social media as the evening wore on, attracting huge media attention.
Yet this attention is arguably misrepresentative of the emotion behind its removal as well as the protest as a whole. Initial stories were met with cries of ‘thuggishness’ and ‘vandalism’, with the action deemed disrespectful of Bristol’s history. In a statement for Sky News last night, Priti Patel stated the ‘disgraceful’ removal of the statue is a “distraction from the cause in which people are actually protesting about”. Aside from the lexical nonsense of this phrase, Patel has shown blatant misunderstanding of the meaning behind the protests and the symbolism of the statue’s removal.
The buzz around Colston’s fall has left little headline space for the 10,000 who marched peacefully yesterday. There is no mainstream media coverage of the beautifully articulate speeches made, nor the painfully angry, nor the saddened and distraught. There is little mention of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence for George Floyd and all other victims of racially motivated police brutality or the crowd of participants which spread from College Green to the top of Park Street.
At the end of the march, in Castle Park, more talks were given. Relevant to the spin that media have given the protest yesterday- the Daily Mail headline on Monday 8th of June reads ‘Lawless and Reckless’- is one statement made: that when we speak of the protest, white allies should share the education it brought and the way that it uplifted black voices. There should be no mention of surprise at its peace: to do so suggests we expected violence from the black community.
Taking down the statue of Edward Colston was not a random act of vandalism spurred by an angry crowd. It was the culmination of years of effort suddenly realised, a move to action after decades of peaceful lobbying that injured no one. Ministers and media alike who condemn this poignant change as anarchy only perpetuate the ignorance and racism that kept the statue standing for so long. We must ask ourselves what it says that their outrage is directed here, and not towards the actions of Donald Trump and police in America and the centuries of systemic violence that are finally being brought to account.