By Abbey Lane
“At least put them in a museum!”
We’ve heard this more times than statues have actually been pulled. Ideally, that’s exactly what would happen. Museums dedicated to exposing historical racists and their modern worship should become commonplace. But they won’t. Not now.
Those who want mementos of terror toppled don’t have access to the money or power required to build and maintain these extremely desirable educational centres. The powerfully rich do, but would never. At least, not accurately. Those who own the needed resources do not recognize the moral bankruptcy of letting stone colonists and slaveowners continue their looming lordship over the communities they screwed over. If anything, today’s politicians fear their own legacies may be next under the magnifying glass. In a future where racist monuments are used as avenues of understanding past mistakes, history books will not look kindly on 21st century suppression.
Statue removal is global too. Always has been. Western countries cheered when the Arab Spring brought slews of dictatorial likenesses down into the sand. Decades before that, that imagery established itself as a hallmark of revolution. This would explain modern leaders’ suppressive fervour — I doubt Trump, Johnson or their oppositions want their reigns to harken back to Saddam Hussein’s fall, or that of the Berlin Wall.
Massive protests and unemployment claims however, say the trends head in that direction. Each past evolution of historical understanding brought with it positive changes, and we need to reckon with what needs changing. Acknowledging our present shortcomings does not need to hurt our pride in past achievements. But if we achieved through racist means, we must admit it and rectify the damages we have caused.
United States of America
Previously paraded icons face new scrutiny as prevailing logics are questioned. George Floyd’s murder struck a chord we’ve been building up to since the abolishment of outright slavery. Explosive Netflix documentary 13thexplains how the Emancipation Proclamation leaves a specific loophole open for exploitation: prison labour.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Ava DuVernay juxtaposes mass incarceration against the bloody timeline of racism in America since the end of the Civil War. From Birth of a Nation to Jim Crow, into the War on Drugs as it continues today, the intentional nature of each policy becomes clear. This film is available free and in full on YouTube. Everyone within and without the United States should watch it. It paints the most honest picture that exists to date of the American carceral state.
Today’s Black Lives Matter movement has brought new light to old wrongdoing. Concurrently, Covid-19 has created the most volatile economic context in living memory. Funnily enough, we all said the same about the 2008 financial crisis. And we were all reassured it wouldn’t happen again. So why do certain aspects of our societies keep crashing and burning, worse and worse each time?
Right now, the only reason US unemployment has not yet exceeded the Great Depression’s, as it was predicted to, is because millions of people are being forced back to work in unsafe conditions — or lose their jobs. Forbes even argues this level has already been reached, but that the numbers are off “due to the misclassification of 8 million people.” And that was just for April.
If you rearrange your living room, you may be able to sit closer to the TV for your daily doomsday digest, but that’s not going to matter if your power’s been cut. Increasingly, this is what democracy in liberal countries looks like — quite literally. The Covid-19 pandemic has merely laid these cursed bones bare before us. We can rearrange our politicians, put someone new in the White House or Number 10 every few years, but voter influence has been cut off from actual policy change. Whoever shakes up D.C. or London may make the daily news, but daily life changes little.
The talking heads who disagree are likely to be the very same ones calling statue-pullers vandals. Ironically, one actual crime, the vandalism of Rochester New York’s Frederick Douglass Underground Railroad memorial, was shoved under the rug. According to the Washington Post, “no arrests have been made,” even though this is clearly retaliation by the far right. On the flipside, the Waterbury, Connecticut police department has announced a $5,000 reward for information on a Christopher Columbus statue’s beheader. For defacing one of Andrew Jackson, a slaveowner, the FBI has arrested multiple protestors. Racist double standard much?
Surveillance footage places activist Jason Charter at the scene of the Jackson incident.
“Tearing down statues of traitors to the nation is a service to this nation, not a crime,”
he says in a tweet. ABC News embedded it in a recent accusatory article; I say accusatory not to imply that ABC is in cahoots with the Trump administration and its fascist treatment of protestors. Instead I wish only to point out their nonchalance towards it, which is characteristic of most popular media outlets.
They are among those who believe that the history-righting campaign has gone too far now that it has moved past targeting only Confederates. With even FDR standing accused, an entirely novel approach to political history will be necessary in the coming years. Nancy Pelosi herself has now called for Confederate portraits to be removed from Congressional art installations, but has made no comment on why they were there in the first place. We need that origin story in order to understand how racist power shaped our systems.
Outside of the US, particularly in previously colonised countries, the criticize-your-idols trend has grown to target imperialists in general. The debate heats at record speeds because there are so many of them.
Icons of Spain and America alike stand as supposed heroes across the Caribbean archipelago. First colonised in 1493 by Columbus’ pal Juan Ponce de Leon, it passed into American hands in 1898 as part of the spoils of the Spanish-American War. While fewer statues have been toppled than on the mainland, today’s protests demand their removal. Many activists donned traditional garb belonging to the indigenous, slaughtered Taino people, illustrating the stark difference between cultural reality and that of the whitewashed history presented to tourists.
Puerto Rican activism has hit more rebellious notes in the past; in 1977, civil and human rights organization the Young Lords held the Statue of Liberty hostage for eight hours in protest of political prisoners taken for fighting for independence. At the start of 2020, Puerto Ricans were so fed up with Governor Wanda Vásquez — and the US-complicit apparatus she governs through — that they carried a full-sized guillotine to her mansion.
As a territory, its inhabitants, though technically American citizens, do not have representation in Congress or the right to vote in a presidential election. Instead, they elect their own governor. Unfortunately, the local, democratically elected government is consistently undermined by the arm of American federal financial oversight. Its Obama-era manifestation, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), aims to rectify the islands’ $72 billion debt. “With virtually no local input, la junta, as locals call it, has the power to override the commonwealth government and implement austerity measures in order to service the debt,” academic Marisol LeBrón explains.
We should focus on the origins of this debt, not imply individual Puerto Ricans’ culpability. Without the background information of federal corporate tax incentives, analysis of and reporting on their economy is at best ahistorical and at worst downright manipulative. It paints the archipelago as incompetent in the face of disaster, be it natural or economic, when really it is the fault of modern imperialists.
Via PROMESA, la junta now sells the incarcerated to mainland US prisons as a way to address the debt. A full 30% of prisoners will be transferred by 2022. Puerto Rico’s political history is thus vital to today’s discussions on race and policing.
“Puerto Rico has been strangely absent from historical analysis of the carceral state despite being a key site for U.S. regimes of race making, militarism, capitalist development, and punitive power.”
If we change our approach to these systems by including countries and cultures not usually considered important to them, we get a more complete picture of reality.
Also a colonised Taino site, Jamaica stands out for its history of musical rebellion. Even the UN considers reggae a “vigorous force for dialogue.” By channeling their incredulity and anger through song, they made revolution catchy. Now the genre serves as an “export,” and tourist attraction, proving once again that the fetishization and monetization of black culture is still rife in the modern world. Removing Bob Marley from his era’s politics removes the meaning from his songs. He and others have become tokens of the island’s tourism, but “residents are alienated from the tourism decision-making processes.” How then, can what the world sees of reggae be an accurate representation of its source’s culture?
Our bodies recognize those beats as synonymous with good feeling, dreads, weed and… something about freedom. There’s a whole history to reggae’s dissemination into the white world. It in no way was geared to convey the revolutionary meaning to their lyrics. Freedom is an ethereal concept; it means what the “free world” wants it to mean, because that word already belongs to them. If anything else, it certainly does not belong to the dissenting masses of post-colonial periphery economies. British colonialism carved out easy access to Jamaican resources, laying the groundwork for continued exploitation. The island’s architecture too, “can only be understood in the context of the Atlantic slave trade.
The CIA says Jamaica has a “high debt-to-GDP ratio,” but does not explain the relationship between this and the prevalence of foreign investment incentives similar to Puerto Rico’s. With Chinese business ventures entering the development scene, Jamaica will soon face varied, branching political, economic and cultural paths. In order to prevent exploitation by yet another world power, the underlying structure of Jamaican economics needs reimagining — by locals.
In a study on Caribbean residents’ opinions of the tourism industry, Dr. Gaunette Sinclair-Maragh and Dr. Dogan Gursoy found that people’s awareness of corruption or exploitation made them think less highly of their country’s foreign-owned tourism. They noted suppression of local culture as a key factor. Through catering to foreign tastes,
“the host culture may be eroded and become inauthentic due to foreign influences.”
Dominance of thought makes people look favourably towards business ventures which appear to bring money in, but really send it overseas. Those who understand how the system works have their voices masked by stereotype.
Bastardizing dissent seems a common tactic for anti-BLM governments, if not the modus operandi. Politicians on both sides of many a country’s aisle treat the movement as melodramatic, counterproductive, and even terrorist. My previously ecstatic support for the Labour Party dissipated entirely in 57 seconds when Keir Starmer referred to BLM as a “moment”.
Reducing the movement to a “moment” proves that the “left” is tone-deaf and only a fraction of a hair less racist than their conservative counterparts, who tend to be openly so. Trying to convince BLM supporters and racial minorities (for want of a better term) that this is an American-only issue is purposefully misguided.
Though American police are far more violent than the British, the underlying structural racism is the same. Non-whites are still disproportionately targeted and killed by law enforcement in the UK. Increasingly, American-esque attitudes towards minorities and policing prevail.
“Despite the fact that Britain imprisons its population at double the rate the Germans do and 30-40% higher than the French, we have a Metropolitan police chief calling for ‘tougher sentences’ for ‘teenage thugs’ and for a return of mass stop-and-search.”
Black Lives Matter thus most definitely belongs in the UK. Just because they’ve not shot any children yet doesn’t mean people are treated fairly.
A great many Brits and Scots agree. There is still a faint “ACAB” and hammer and sickle on the statue of Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police Service and Tory Party as we know it, in Glasgow’s George Square. Now famously in Bristol, slave trader Edward Colston was chucked in the harbour.
Some rather obviously right-wing locals tried to retrieve the racist statue, but Bristol City Council took care of that for them. The BBC says it will be put in a museum “along with placards from the Black Lives Matter protest.” It will be interesting to see what these placards say. I would bet my very white hide they will be full of empty platitudes and quotes removed from context.
Because in not even a day, the BLM replacement statue of mother and activist Jen Reid was carted away in a city dump truck. Mayor Marvin Rees defended this action by telling BBC Radio 5 that “running around provoking debate without any awareness of the potential consequences of that debate is not OK.“
Sorry Marvin, we need to provoke debate. As many activists have pointed out, there is a stark double standard for statue removal. “We see which statues you remove quickly,” one tweets. Another points out:
“It took 120 years to remove a statue of a slave owner in Bristol. A statue of a black woman lasted less than 24 hours.”
Shying from debate indicates guilt and an unwillingness to participate in actual democracy. By no stretch of the imagination was the statue of Colston or any other oppressor erected through democratic means.
But a defaced Winston Churchill in Parliament Square stands at the forefront of this much needed discussion. As was expected, Prime Minister Boris Johnson calls it “absurd and deplorable that the statue of Winston Churchill should have been in any plausible danger of attack.” Out of necessity, he did describe the ones involved in the Churchill counter-protest as “patently racist” and called out their violence. He does so, however, in a way that soothes their right-wing worries. Rest assured, he proclaims, we will save “our heritage” (and we all know who he means), from the audacity of “BAME people to go around mutilating statues” — just leave it to the police.
To Johnson and his ilk, racist statue removal is an effort to “photoshop the entire cultural landscape,” as if this has not been done by white supremacists for centuries. In this same piece, published in the Telegraph (behind a paywall, but now available on the UK government website) Johnson asserts that since the logic of Churchill’s removal would also call for the same fate for many, many others, it must be the “wrath of the mob.” As in, not logical at all.
Herein lies our fundamental plight: Injustice is so engrained that its rectification is deemed impossible. Scoffed at. Tossed into the endless pit of public interest projects doomed to fail before they’re even considered.
Johnson refers to monuments BLM wishes gone as “cultural relics” and to accusations of Churchill’s racism as “the height of lunacy.” The wartime leader however has been quoted saying “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph” and calling those fighting against British colonial rule “barbarous” and “savages.” Around the world, he is still blamed for the Bengal Famine. Thus Churchill has been rightfully criticized as a genocidal racist.
In January 2019, Clydebank MSP Ross Greer illustrates this rather beautifully when faced with Piers Morgan’s gammon rage:
“The prevailing narrative is of a war hero that you cannot speak ill of.”
You can replace “war hero” with really any title or position and there will be someone to fit the bill. Those are the people whose histories and reputations should be questioned. After careful, public consideration, only the very best of us should be put on a literal pedestal. The time has come for white supremacist idolatry to crumble.