To respond to the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol on 7 June by characterising it as a public disorder problem, a criminal act which should lead to prosecution of those responsible, is breathtakingly wrong.
For the Prime Minister and Home Secretary to reduce an expression of desperation and rejection of hundreds of years of racism, starting with colonisation and slavery and continuing with the death of George Floyd and hundreds of other black men and women, to an “utterly disgraceful” act of “mobs” and “thugs”, shows a complete disregard for the Black Lives Matter movement and everything it represents.
Acts of civil disobedience have to be judged on their context. For instance, how large is the grievance, how many people are affected, how long have authorities failed to act? How long have they ignored calls for change?
Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol, said that politicians need to understand the concerns of the people they serve and that Johnson and Patel’s lack of understanding was a failure of leadership.
He said that he could not condone criminal damage, including graffiti sprayed on the statue of Winston Churchill during a later protest in London, but he did understand the frustration it represented.
He said something really important which I as a humanist absolutely respond to and agree with: he urged us not to push the issues into a binary argument, ie right or wrong, all or nothing.
He said, “There are lots of things which are true at the same time here, and some of them make uncomfortable bedfellows… I recognise the significance of Winston Churchill in WW2 and the position he has come to hold in British history and all history… It is also true that he was a racist…
“Our challenge is not to take any one of those truths and use them to eclipse other truths; our challenge is to hold all those things together.”
And he said of the people who daubed graffiti on Churchill’s statue: “If we try to understand and not just condemn (and we need to do both sometimes), I guess that they felt that the statue glorifying Churchill or the public story-telling around him did not reflect the full truth and the full complexity of the man.”
If we as members of the public can learn to watch the story-telling, the narratives, and observe how our identities are formed by them, we can also choose which narratives to follow. We begin to control the story and indeed history when we stop being played by simplistic tellings which depend on having an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.
It is worth seeing the whole interview (10 mins long) on NBC News where he also talks about how racism is bound up with issues of class and social immobility: when we as a society reduce social immobility we will also be tackling racism.
Hester Brown, June 2020