11 June 2020

Is removing statues the answer?

This weekend saw demonstrations throughout the UK in the aftermath of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis last month. Most protests were peaceful, but a minority of protesters attacked the police or damaged property. Among the property attacked were symbols statues of people from the UK's colonial past. 

One target was the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, a city that benefited greatly from his wealth. Colston was a slave trader, responsible for transporting approximately 80,000 men, women, and children from Africa to the Americas in the late 17th century. His "cargo" were held in cramped and unsanitary conditions for the voyage, and many didn't survive the crossing. During the Bristol demonstration, his statue was ripped from its plinth, and unceremoniously dumped in the harbour.

There have been similar actions against statues elsewhere going back several years. For example, many have called for statues of Cecil Rhodes to be removed for decades. Similarly, many in the US want statues of Robert E Lee removed. Belgians have called for statues of King Leopold II to be removed because of their country's colonial past in Africa. In the UK even statues of Winston Churchill have been targeted.

I don't condone direct action against property. Action like that taken in Bristol is dangerous. But putting that aside, is it really an effective method of righting the wrong? I don't disagree with the sentiment, just question the method used to draw attention to the injustice.

Damaging or destroying a statue raises the question of where you draw the line. Is a statue of Margaret Thatcher acceptable after her treatment of the unions and particularly the miners? What about Tony Blair and his support for an invasion of Iraq? It is fair to say that you could find something to disagree with every public figure if you look hard enough. Such individuals are rarely black and white. Even Edward Colston had a philanthropic side, which saw him fund alms houses, hospitals, and schools in Bristol.

I'd prefer to focus on educating people on the rights and wrongs of public figures. Yes looking at the facts with 21st century eyes, it is clear to see the wrongs. So let's use the statues to educate of where things went wrong, and what we can do to put things right. Perhaps add a plague to the front of a statue summarizing the person's legacy.

Some cities have removed certain statues and put them in museums. Perhaps this is the answer going forward. Museums are educational establishments, and if done correctly they could educate people on the good and bad of what the individual did.

But even that appears to erase history. It is often said that history is written by the victor. Perhaps it is time this changed. Removing our history from public view seems an extreme step. Removing statues of people considered unpopular in 21st century popular culture and putting them behind doors few will enter, seems like a retrograde step. Let's call out injustice where we see it, but having a visible reminder of how man can be cruel to others can prevent it occurring again.

No comments:

Post a comment