The scenes from this weekend, of Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol toppling the statue of Bristolian slave trader and Royal African Company member Edward Colston and dumping it into the harbour, are sure to be recorded in history as one of the most poetically beautiful moments in British race relations.
As someone who was personally involved in decolonial organising in my university days, I cannot believe how much time has been wasted asking for permission to dismantle the property of white supremacy. Universities have, indeed, been the epicentre of these decolonial efforts. Though there was success in repatriating the Jesus College, Cambridge Benin Bronze to Nigeria following a long, internal struggle – Rhodes still stands at Oriel College, Oxford. Short of a civil war in front of the British museum public tensions around the relationship between art and racism have, once again, escalated. As for my side of the ‘debate’, I am rejecting the terms of ‘debate’ itself, and not entertaining the idea that removing statues erases history. Instead, I am asking: who’s next?
The inglorious fall of Colston comes after years of organisers in Bristol attempting to force the city to reckon with its colonial and slave-making history. Colston’s ghost does not simply haunt Black Bristolians through the statue, but on the streets and in the schools that are named after him. Until 2017, a thanksgiving service had been held on Edward Colston’s birthday for almost 300 years. This has been in gratitude of his philanthropy and financing of Bristol – yet another indication that the legitimacy of “philanthropy,” when charity for White Britons can be financed by the displacement and deaths of Africans, should be rejected.
Decades-long attempts to remove the statue and last vestiges of Colston’s legacy have been deliberately frustrated. Even when compromise was achieved to issue a corrective plaque on the statue of Colston to expose his responsibility for the displacement of an estimated 84,000 African slaves through the Royal African Company, this was sabotaged by wealthy philanthropists. Roger Ball commented at the time that on the new plaque “the hidden story of religious and political bigotry had vanished, as had defending and propagating the slave trade.” As Bristol resident Shon Faye writes: “As someone raised in Bristol it’s well known here that democratic attempts to engage with the removal of Colston’s statue and his name were frequently frustrated – not by democratic opposition, but by the influence and wealth of secretive societies like the Merchant Venturers.” What is painstakingly clear, is that Bristolians had no other options but to physically depose the statue through self-governance wrought by righteous fury.
It is of no surprise to me, however, that Keir Starmer, in his new monthly phone-in slot for LBC Radio, chose to condemn protestors for toppling the statue, claiming that “it was wrong to do it” and that “nobody should condone the lawlessness.” Those who are currently dismissing anger at Starmer’s statement by referring to him waxing eloquent of the ills of slavery gravely underestimate the astuteness with which Black British people recognise triangulation.
But this response is not uncharacteristic of Starmer. Though his message discipline is certainly impressive, the persistent reliance on “consensus” politics, on inquiries, on long and convoluted “democratic processes,” fails to take seriously the issue of declining public faith in our democracy and desire for action and answers. Starmer could have easily said: “the forced removal of the statue after years of Bristolians struggling with a convoluted democratic process indicates that our processes are not fit for purpose, and not working efficiently for the most frustrated and marginalised in our country.” Instead he decided to undermine the voice of discontent.
This is exactly the kind of cumbersome pro-establishment politicking that many of us forecasted on Starmer’s election. And such strategy indicates the failures of the party to accurately analyse what the frustrations of the Brexit process revealed. This does not inspire confidence that Starmer possesses the answers to constitutional affairs born from parallel frustrations with democracy – in the issues of Scottish independence, the House of Lords, and proportional representation.
Contrary to Starmer claiming that the statue of Edward Colston should not have been taken down “in that way,” I contend that forced removal is, in fact, the only appropriate and proportionate method for removing the statues of racists. We are tired of waiting. We are tired of bureaucracy. Is the expectation that, after decades of degrading debate, devil’s advocates, harassment from media and descendants of aristocratic houses, we should accept a slave trader being quietly transported under the cover of night by contractors to a warmer home in a state museum? That is not right.
The afterlife of slavery is the displacement of millions of Africans, many of whose existence today is treated as coterminous with social death as they are forced to continue labour in prisons and survive in countries which deliberately reproduce racist violence and maintain structural inequalities. The afterlife for slave-makers is being immortalised through statues, portraits and nomenclature. That is not right. And so the removal of racist statues must be as violent and non-consensual, as the removal of Africans from their homes was all those centuries ago.
The need for consensus before toppling white supremacists is dead. Poetic justice is good. Irish republicans who destroyed imperial statues in Dublin which were “unfit for Dublin life” did not ask for permission. Neither should we. The question of “legality” in removing statues without democratic process is irrelevant when you come to understand white supremacy as a property relation encoded in laws. So long as racist, imperialist statues continue to stand, we will tear them down. If Keir Starmer is bothered by this, he can commission an inquiry after the event.