Life

After Toppling Racist Statues, These 10 Things Need to Happen Next

Action needs to be followed by action to keep the movement going.
June 17, 2020, 1:31pm
Black Lives Matter protest
Photo by Alex Rorison

In the three weeks since George Floyd’s killing by the knee of a white police officer, the protests against his death and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have become a global phenomenon. Many white people have started to rethink their privileges, and the structural racial inequalities that have caused this moment.

On the 7th of June, protesters in Bristol pulled down the much-hated statue of Edward Colston and threw it into the city harbour. As a slave trader who served as the deputy governor of the Royal African Company, he was responsible for capturing and transporting tens of thousands of African slaves across the Atlantic between 1680 and 1692.

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It was a powerful, symbolic moment: just as captives were thrown overboard under his watch, now it was his turn.

The act has prompted global calls for the removal of other statues and symbols linked to slavery and empire. From the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford to the beheading of Christopher Columbus in Boston, it is clear that memorials which glorify people who helped build the racist system of today are facing a reckoning. London mayor Sadiq Khan has ordered a review of all statues and street names tied to racism in the city.

Yet this moment brings opportunity: a chance to constructively use these monuments to confront our past. Here are ten things that need to be done, now that the statues are starting to be toppled.

1) DO NOT PROSECUTE 'VANDALS'

There has been much consternation and criticism over the way that Colston’s statue was brought down. Home Secretary Priti Patel described it as “sheer vandalism and disorder” and called on the police to bring those responsible to “justice”.

But criminalising those who topple or tag statues detracts from the important message protestors are trying to send. The fact that Bristolians are confronting the city’s past ties with slavery and that demonstrators in London are highlighting Churchill’s racist views and acts is something to engage with, rather than being cast aside as petty crime.

2) DO NOT BE AFRAID TO CALL OUT FAR-RIGHT PROTESTORS FOR WHAT THEY ARE: RACISTS

Heeding the calls of English Defence League founder Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), hundreds of predominantly white, balding men travelled into London on Saturday June 13 and descended upon Parliament Square under the guise of “protect[ing] our Capitals [sic] Monuments/Memorials” .

The resulting scenes were ugly, with far-right groups attacking police and BLM protestors. Alongside the violence, there was blatant racist chanting and reports of open drug taking.

In his denouncement of the events, Labour leader Keir Starmer’s response was notable for what it didn’t include: calling the rightwing protestors racist. The smokescreen of protecting statues does not excuse Nazi salutes or monkey chants, and we must not be afraid to call this out.

3) USE THE SPACES LET BEHIND TO EDUCATE AND INFORM

One argument which has been doing the rounds among Conservative politicians is that to remove a statue is to "lie about our history". But Colston’s fall was in itself an act of history: a representation of shifting values, as well as a timely reminder of the power of collective action.

Such acts should be remembered, and the spaces where they happened provide a unique opportunity to tell that history. Signs that explain the history of a statue and the person’s ties to racism should be used as educational storytelling tools.

4) COMMISSION BLACK ARTISTS

Banksy, the famously anonymous artist, drew a sketch on his Instagram page proposing an artistic recreation of the pulling down of Edward Colston, fitted with life-sized bronze statues of protestors.

But why don’t we commission Black artists to create installations? Statues are products of their historical contexts. Allowing Black artists to alter them can visually repurpose racist statues to fit into modern day Britain.

5) BUILD MORE STATUES CELEBRATING BAME PEOPLE

There isn’t a comprehensive database of statues in the UK, but a recent BBC article found that of a surveyed 968 statues, just three were of Black people. A more concerted effort to build statues celebrating BAME figures would help to represent the important role that migrants and their descendants have played in the history of the country.

6) BUILD MORE BLUE PLAQUES

One of the most visible features in London are the English Heritage Blue Plaques, which tie the city’s buildings to important figures in its history. There are currently three Blue Plaques dedicated to white abolitionist campaigner William Wilberforce, but none to any Black campaigners.

How about adding the following names:

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Olaudah Equiano was a former slave, who was captured in Nigeria and shipped across the Atlantic to Barbados at the age of 11. Later, he was sold to masters in Virginia and London, where he settled after buying his freedom. His bestselling autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavo Vassa, The African, was published in 1789 and detailed his experiences in slavery. He was a prominent voice in the abolitionist campaign.

Mary Prince was born into a slave family in Bermuda, but escaped to London, where she published The History of Mary Prince in 1831. Her autobiography sold out its first three prints and was the first time a Black woman’s account was published in Britain.

Equiano and Prince’s works helped bring attention to the horrors of being a slave. If we commemorate the role of anti-slavery campaigners such as William Wilberforce, we also need to memorialise those of Black campaigners. White people didn’t "free" Black people from slavery – they built this oppressive system, and its legacy is still felt in the systematic racism we see today.

7) TEACH BLACK HISTORY

In order to combat racism, we have to understand its origins. Lavinya Stennett is the founder and managing director of The Black Curriculum, a nonprofit organisation that aims to integrate Black history within the education system. She tells me that since Michael Gove’s revamp of the history curriculum in 2014, the way history is taught in schools is “prescriptive and Eurocentric.”

“We need to understand the lives of Black people in Britain, the history of which goes back to the Roman times, [so that we can] understand that Britain has not stood alone, as an island,” she says. Whether it is Black abolitionists, or “important Black figures in the war, such as Mary Seacole”, we should be learning about the important roles that Black people have played in throughout the country’s history.

Stennett says that “teaching Black history promotes unity”. “We don’t talk about race,” which causes the division that “we can see with the riots that happened on Saturday”.

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Teaching about slavery is important, because it explains the racial inequalities in the UK, the US and many other parts of the world. Understanding that the racist system that we live in was created as a part of empire – as opposed to being the natural order of things – is crucial for children to learn.

8) REFORM POLICE CONTROL OVER PROTESTS

Because the Black Lives Matter movement was sparked by an act of police brutality, the role and responses of the force have been put under the spotlight in the protests. Witnesses at the 6th of June protests in the UK say they were forced to give their name, address and be filmed under the contentious Section 50 of the 2002 Police Reform Act in order to leave the police kettle.

The Liberty human rights group have called this “potentially unlawful and an attack on people’s rights to protest”. Given that Section 50 can only legally be invoked when an officer ‘has reason to believe that a person has been acting, or is acting, in an anti-social manner’, equating protesting to anti-social behaviour sets a dangerous precedent. Police have to be held to account and policy should be reviewed to prevent them from abusing their powers.

9) FUNDING MUSEUMS FOR BLACK CULTURE

In an interview with the BBC in 2019, Sir David Adjaye, the architect and designer of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC, called for a museum in the UK which celebrates Black culture and history in the country.

Describing such a museum as “long overdue”, he explains that it would “empower [Black children] to feel that they are part of the language and the DNA” of the country.

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The British Museum still stands as a symbol of the might of the British Empire, as it continues to peddle treasures taken from conquest and looting. A museum for Black culture can help shift us away from many of the glorifying narratives which still appear to dominate our ideas of history.

10) MOST IMPORTANTLY, WE NEED TO LISTEN

This is clearly a very significant moment that we are living in. That millions of people across the world are taking to the streets during a pandemic shows the importance and strength of feeling among a huge part of the population who are trying to send the message that “enough is enough”. But we need to make sure that this isn’t just a phase. That we can’t go back to normal after this.

“In order to keep up the momentum of the movement, we need to put Black people on platforms where they can be influential," says Black rights activist Oumou Longley of the Anima Youth Charity. “Black people need to be given more important jobs and put in positions of power so that they can help shape the narrative, as currently it is controlled by white people.”

We also need to do more on an individual level. Oumou says: “Go out and talk to your friends and family about race, don’t be afraid to call out racism, but also accept that you may be racist yourself.”

You can find out more about The Black Curriculum and donate here.

Donate to Black Lives Matter: https://blacklivesmatter.com/

Anima Youth Charity: https://www.animayouth.co.uk/

@isaacmuk