What pulling down statues of slave owners tells us about fighting systemic racism
11 June 2020
The video of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue being unceremoniously torn down and dumped into Bristol docks on Sunday was an undoubtedly joyous moment for many. As was the removal of slaver Robert Milligan from his plinth outside the Museum of London Docklands only a few hours later. The tearing down of these statues has taught Britain more about its history in a few days than the statues ever did in the century or two they stood in idle glory. Now we need to make sure these moments are turned into a long-lasting struggle to destroy systemic racism by connecting our struggles here and around the world.
Our group, Speaking Statues, is committed to a movement to end systemic racism by raising awareness of Britain’s colonialism and decolonising the spaces we live in. We organise participatory discussion events and creative actions to expose the real history behind colonial statues. In the context of racial inequalities around education, health and incarceration, statues glorifying the life of slave owners such as Colston, make many people feel unsafe, unimportant and unwelcome. Tearing down statues is a key symbol of decolonising space and making it more accessible to black and brown people. The question on everyone’s mind now is, where do we go from here?
One ongoing idea is to erect new monuments. As a movement we should be supporting campaigns such as Memorial 2007 for a monument to enslaved people. They have been campaigning for a monument for over a decade, fighting countless bureaucratic hurdles along the way. Perhaps now that eyes have been opened, actions will follow, but it will likely only happen if as a movement we continue to support and amplify their demands.
Decolonising space goes beyond statues and monuments however. It is, for instance, ensuring wherever we live is a safe space and community for black and brown people. This could mean actively resisting gentrification, a process that is expelling black and brown communities from their homes, by supporting campaigns like Save Brixton Arches. Gentrification has also meant that much of London is too expensive to even visit because of the costs of travel, food and drink. Initiatives such as Walk and Talk tours, that support migrants in telling their story of London and staking a claim to every part of it, are part of the decolonisation of space.
Connecting our struggles
We need to recognise too that decolonising space is only one part of the movement to end systemic racism and that explicitly connecting our broader activism with anti-racism, and vice versa, is key for a long-lasting movement.
London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan spoke fatalistically about the “sad truth that much of our wealth was derived from the slave trade – but this does not have to be celebrated in our public spaces.” As if there was nothing more that could be done. This denies the links between contemporary racism and its historical colonial roots. I wrote Global Justice Now’s free movement report where we trace Western immigration controls to racist policies from many centuries ago. In this context, it becomes clear that keeping this ill-gotten wealth is continuing the system of racism.
In recent years the climate justice movement has been forced into accountability for not exposing these connections more explicitly. The climate crisis disproportionately affects black and brown communities here in the UK and in the global south. The same countries that profited from global warming in their industrialisation through colonialism are asking countries with majority black and brown populations to slow down their economies so that they don’t pollute. We need to support groups like Wretched of the Earth that shine a spotlight on this hypocrisy.
The UK government can, and should, be held accountable for the past because there has been no break with the present.
Taking down glorified statues of colonists and slave traders is about transforming and decolonising our spaces. These instances may seem small but they are a necessary part of a larger anti-racist movement. Going forward we must act locally and internationally by linking up our anti-racist struggles and remembering that the violence of colonialism has paved the way for systemic racism to flourish today.