Four people have been charged with criminal damage after the toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June this year.
Rhian Graham, 29, Milo Ponsford, 25, Jake Skuse, 32, and Sage Willoughby, 21, will appear before Bristol magistrates court on 25 January for the first hearing, the Crown Prosecution Service said. 1
As reported in today’s Guardian. In response I have decided to publish an article that was composed last summer but never posted. It is accompanied by extracts drawn from four other perspectives that were published around the same time.
It perhaps says something of the make-up of the Anglo-Saxon mindset that the very word ‘violence’ in the English language draws no distinction between acts of grievous harm committed against people and the lesser evil of vandalising property (and yet we have no better synonym). For this reason talk of the violence in the case of the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston and the other slavers is semantically correct; that said, to speak of the toppling of an effigy of a man that owes its erection as a civic monument entirely to the transportation and forced resettlement of nearly a hundred thousand African slaves, nearly a quarter of whom died unknown but horrific deaths during the genocidal ‘Middle Passage’, is also crass hyperbole. The statue of Colston wasn’t lynched, unlike many of those he had happily sold into slavery, but straightforwardly pulled down and then, in a moment of supreme poetic justice, tossed into the harbour whence his slave ships set sail three centuries ago.
One of the most oft-repeated dictums from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is the Party slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” On ‘Airstrip One’ in Oceania (aka Britain), such brutal reductionism has become a central feature of state control: past mistakes are expunged; Party misdeeds rendered impossible by constant reediting; the names of enemies of the state purged unless they are useful foils; and the sole purpose of historical remembrance is the maintenance of the status quo. Revisionism is thus non-stop and never-ending.
Today Orwell is routinely wheeled out by people he would have detested to justify causes that would have sickened him. So let’s understand that he had no time for preservation simply for the sake of preservation – just read what he says about Gaudi’s now celebrated cathedral the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and how “the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance.” Orwell couldn’t have cared less about tearing down the odd statue, but devil can cite scripture for his purpose.
What Orwell did care about and understood better than most is the extraordinary power of symbols; most especially the ugly symbols of colonialism, a rapacious system he had experienced first-hand in Burma and despised no less than the crowd of defenestrators on the quayside in Bristol. Few have spoken more forcefully than Orwell on the abuses of Empire, and so there is little reason to suppose he would have been anything less than delighted to see Colston and the other slavers ripped from their pedestals.
Violence, in all senses of the word, is the underpainting to History’s canvass; new layers added once older ones are scraped away: for History is a study not of mere incidents, but of collective and prolonged exertions of force strewn with wilful acts of destruction. Therefore, to draw any line before the toppling of statues like Colston’s, first you must ask what else besides the sheer scale of its enterprise makes Britain’s acts of savage imperialism different at all from the savagery you do deplore, remembering of course that the offending statue of Colston had only been erected little more than a century ago; a fillip to late Victorian pride as the sun was about to set permanently on the Empire.
And when on that crisp October night three decades ago, the East Germans clambered atop the Berlin Wall and smashed it to the ground with sledgehammers, their impromptu act of vandalism opened the way for greater freedoms. We cheered them on. Likewise we cheered the toppling of statues of Stalin all across the old Soviet bloc. Should these too have been preserved as historical monuments instead? If so, then how about all of these…?
There is a tendency to think of statues as mere illustrations of famous past lives, like the solid pages from a pop-up history book. But they have plinths for good reason: to look down from. Statues – indeed all memorials – are virtue signallers. They are fundamentally didactic, presenting role models that are rather hard to repudiate: do as I have done and you shall become an immortal too. Thus Colston’s statue pays tribute to all who put greed and self-interest above human life: it glorifies profiteering and elevates the cruellest of merchants into a demigod. Be thankful that his days of lording it over the rest of us have gone.
As the words on the broken plinth set amongst the desolate ruins in Shelley’s famous sonnet declare:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 2
Foretold is the fate of all monuments, although some monuments deserve to suffer their fate more swiftly than others; and when they do, it is right that we celebrate.
Reprinted below are extended extracts and abridged versions of four excellent articles published or republished by ‘Counterpunch’. The first two, by Jonathan Cook and Patrick Cockburn respectively, address the issue of the toppling of statues. The latter two, by Nick Turse and Rob Urie, put the recent Black Lives Matter protests into broader context; the first historically and second socio-economically. I very much encourage readers to follow the links to read the articles in full.
Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue
I did not expect to be returning to this issue so soon but I was surprised, to put it mildly, to discover that my last post on anti-racists toppling a statue of the notorious slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol proved to be the most polarising article I have ever written. Given the many controversial topics I have addressed over the years, that seems noteworthy in itself.
It may not be surprising that those on the right are troubled by ordinary people challenging authority, demanding change rather than conserving what we already have, and “taking the law into their own hands”. None of this sits too easily with the conservative political worldview. But some on the left seem equally disturbed by this act of popular protest. That needs to be analysed and challenged.
I have been able to identify three main types of criticism from the left.
Cities on the back foot
The first suggests that tearing down statues is ineffective. It does not change anything, and actually conceals society’s continuing racism. These actions may make activists feel good but they fail to bring about any tangible progress.
Such arguments are obviously undermined by the fact that Bristol’s mayor and its council, which had been ignoring demands to remove Colston’s statue for decades, are finally proposing action. For the first time, the mayor has called for a “citywide conversation” about all of Bristol’s public memorials. He has promised to discuss their future with historians, presumably to identify which ones venerate people like Colston so obscenely horrible that they have no place in public squares looking down on us. Instead they should be in museums so their crimes can be contextualised and properly understood. […]
I’ve been truly staggered to find leftists who follow me on social media decrying this simply as “mob rule”. Probing their reasoning a little has tended to reveal some pretty ugly premises and a tendency to dismiss everything as hollow identity politics. That is lazy political thinking, and a position that is held easily only if one is white.
“Golliwog” racism, as I explained in my original post, was the jam generations of white children spread on their morning toast. We live with those unquestioned associations and assumptions still. It’s about time we confronted them rather than indulged them.
The second criticism is that toppling statues is a distraction from proper political activism, that statues are meaningless symbols, that there are much more important things to be getting on with, and that the establishment wants us to target statues to sow division or direct our energies into irrelevancies. It is claimed that tearing down Colston’s statue has detracted from the inspiration for the protests: challenging police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman in Minneapolis.
There are lots of reasons why this approach is a wrong-headed.
Symbols are important. They are the illustrations to the stories we are fed about who we are and what we hold dear. Like images in the picture books our parents read to us before we could make out the letters of the text, these symbols often have more impact than the stories themselves. When we challenge symbols we begin to deconstruct the stories that they illustrate. Overthrow a symbol, and you are taking the first step on the path to overthrowing the system behind it.
After all, if these symbols weren’t so important in entrenching a sense of “national life” and “national values”, the establishment would not have bothered to erect them. That’s why the rightwing will make a battleground of protecting statues of Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria. Because it is vitally important to them that we don’t tear off the mask to see for ourselves – or to show them – what really lies beneath. […]
Isn’t having the establishment fearful exactly where the left should want them? Because when the establishment is not frightened, all they do is line their pockets more deeply. They make concessions only when we raise the stakes.
If that is not obvious, recall the mass marches against the Iraq war. They failed not because they were not popular – they were some of the largest protests ever in Britain. They failed because the public could not make Tony Blair and his cabinet more frightened of us – the British people – than they were of the White House and the Pentagon. The cynical, dispiriting lesson we took away from the Iraq war was that we could never have an effect on the political class. The real lesson was that we needed to bare our teeth.
Last week the crowds in Bristol bared their teeth, and the politicians and police decided the fight – this time – wasn’t worth it. Defending a racist statue is much less of a priority for the establishment than placating the US, of course. But it doesn’t mean it is no priority at all.
The lessons of revolts through the ages are that small victories inspire crowds to larger battles. That is why the establishment usually tries to crush or co-opt the first signs of popular dissent and defiance. They fear our empowerment. It is also why it is important for those who want fairer societies to support, not diminish, the actions of those who take on initial confrontations with the establishment. They build the launchpad for bigger things.
Progress through protest
The third and seemingly most common criticism is that it is dangerous to allow the mob to win, and that once “mob rule” scores a success it will lead to anarchy and violence.
As I explained in my last post, none of the things we value today in Britain – from the vote to the National Health Service – happened without either direct protest in defiance of the establishment or the threat of such protest. It was only ever fear about the breakdown of order or of the eruption of violence that pushed the establishment to give up any of its wealth and power. […]
Those who worry about “mob rule” assume that we now live in democracies that are responsive to the popular will. I will not waste my breath again demolishing that fallacy – it has been the sole reason for my writing this blog for the past six years. We live in sophisticated oligarchies, where corporations control the narratives of our lives through their control of the mass media to make us compliant and believe in fairytales. The biggest is that we, the people, are in charge through our vote, in a political system that offers only two choices, both of them political parties that were long ago captured by the corporations. The one countervailing force – organised labour – now plays almost no role. It has been either destroyed or its leaders co-opted themselves.
Wrong about democracy
All that aside, those anxious about “the mob” have failed to understand what liberal democracy means – the model of democracy we are all supposed to subscribe to. It does not give carte blanche to the white majority to smother symbols all over the public space of people who abused, murdered and oppressed our black neighbours’ ancestors. That is democracy as the tyranny of the majority.
If this is not blindingly obvious, let me propose a hypothetical analogy. How would we judge Britain’s Jewish community if after years of failed protests they and non-Jewish supporters “took the law into their own hands” and tore down a statue in Hamstead to Adolf Eichmann? Would we call them a mob? Would we characterise what they did as vigilantism? And perhaps more to the point, can we conceive of an Eichmann statue being erected in Hamstead – or anywhere? Of course, not. So why is it even conceivable that a man like Colston who profited from the destruction of the lives of tens of thousands of Africans should still be presiding over a multicultural city like Bristol, where some of the descendants of those Africans live today?
The fact that we cannot imagine being so insensitive to the Jewish community should underscore how unbelievably insensitive we have been to Britain’s black community for many decades. 3
Click here to read the full unabridged article by Jonathan Cook entitled “Symbols are Invested with Power. Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue”.
British leaders have no idea how bad slavery was
Conservative leaders snigger at protesters seeking the removal of statues memorialising those whose fortunes came from the exploitation of slaves.
The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, implied facetiously this week that such demands are on a par with seeking to knock down Stonehenge on the grounds that it once could have been the site of human sacrifice. He was speaking in response to a puerile question from the Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne – who got into trouble last year for blacking his face – suggesting that a measure be introduced to remove “all remaining trace that there was a Roman civilisation in this island”.
The flippancy of the exchange shows that both men feel that slavery happened a long time ago and does not stand out in history as a particularly horrendous crime, and that the demonstrations against those who benefited from it amount to a passing fad that need not be taken seriously. […]
Appreciation of the savage reality of slavery is clouded among white populations by films like Gone with the Wind which emphasise sentimental attachments between master and slave. One way to understand what it was really like is to recall how Isis enslaved the Yazidis in northern Iraq and Syria in 2014, murdering men, women and children and selling thousands of women into sexual slavery.
Terrified women held in Isis jails waited to be raped and sold to the highest bidder. “The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror,” says a UN report on what happened in one jail. “The selection of any girl was accompanied by screaming as she was forcibly pulled from the room, with her mother and any other women who tried to keep hold of her being brutally beaten by [Isis] fighters. [Yazidi] women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.” The reference comes from With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten.
Isis did not behave very differently from the slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies and the US in the 18th century. The best-informed guide to what life was like on a slave plantation in the Caribbean at that time are the books written by James Ramsay, an Anglican clergymen and former navy surgeon who worked as a doctor for 19 years in the plantations on the British-ruled islands of St Kitts and Nevis. Finally forced to leave by the plantation owners because of his evident sympathy for the slaves – he let them worship in his church – he retired to Kent to describe his experiences.
Ramsay records the endless round of punishments inflicted on the slave to force them to work cutting sugar cane for 16 hours or more a day. He says that an experienced slave driver could use a cart whip “to cut out flakes of skin and flesh with every stroke”. When a surgeon refused to amputate the limb of a slave as a punishment, a cooper’s adze was used to sever it “and the wretch then left to bleed to death, without any attention or dressing”.
As in Isis-held Iraq and Syria, sexual slavery was a common feature of plantation life. Ramsay says that slave women were “sacrificed to the lust of white men; in some instances, their own fathers”. He adds that white women on the plantations, presumably members of the family of the owner, would hire out their maid servants as prostitutes. Contrary to the romantic cinematic image, the real life Scarlett O’Hara might have been paying for her ball dress with money gained from the rape of her maids. 4
Click here to read Patrick Cockburn’s full article entitled “British Leaders Have No Idea How Bad Slavery Was”
A Latter Day Lynching
[I]f you had told me that, in the span of a few months, a novel coronavirus that dates back only to last year and systemic American racism that dates back to 1619 would somehow intersect, I wouldn’t have believed it. If you had told me that a man named George Floyd would survive Covid-19 only to be murdered by the police and that his brutal death would spark a worldwide movement, leading the council members of a major American city to announce their intent to defund the police and Europeans halfway across the planet to deface monuments to a murderous nineteenth-century monarch who slaughtered Africans, I would have dismissed you. But history works in mysterious ways.
Four hundred years of racism, systemic abuse of authority, unpunished police misconduct, white skin privilege, and a host of other evils at the dark core of America gave a white Minneapolis police officer the license to press a black man’s face to the pavement and jam a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. For allegedly attempting to buy a pack of cigarettes with a phony $20 bill, George Floyd was killed at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by police officer Derek Chauvin.
At the beginning of the last century, whites could murder a black man, woman, or child in this country as part of a public celebration, memorialize it on postcards, and mail them to friends. Between 1877 and 1950, nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched in the American South, more than a death a week for 73 years. But the murders of blacks, whether at the hands of their owners in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries or of unaccountable fellow Americans in the latter nineteenth and twentieth centuries never ended despite changes in some attitudes, significant federal legislation, and the notable successes of the protests, marches, and activism of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
From 2006 to 2012, in fact, a white police officer killed a black person in America almost twice a week, according to FBI statistics. And less than a month before we watched the last moments of George Floyd’s life, we witnessed a modern-day version of a lynching when Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was gunned down while jogging on a suburban street in Glynn County, Georgia. Gregory McMichael, a 64-year-old white retired district attorney, investigator, and police detective, and his son Travis, 34, were eventually arrested and charged with his murder.
Without the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s botched response to it, without black Americans dying of the disease at three times the rate of whites, without the suddenly spotlighted health disparities that have always consigned people of color to die at elevated rates, without a confluence of so many horrors that the black community in America has suffered for so long coupled with those of a new virus, would we be in the place we’re in today?
If President Trump hadn’t cheered on the efforts of mostly older white protesters to end pandemic shutdowns and “liberate” their states and then echoed a racist Miami police chief of the 1960s who promised “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” essentially calling for young black protesters to be gunned down, would the present movement have taken off in such a way? And would these protests have been as powerful if people who had avoided outside contact for weeks hadn’t suddenly decided to risk their own lives and those of others around them because this murder was too brazen, too likely to end in injustice for private handwringing and public hashtags? 5
Click here to read Nick Turse’s full article entitled “A Breathless Moment in America”.
Police killings are a political tactic
As the spark that lit a fire, the murder of George Floyd was horrifyingly, sickeningly ordinary. According to the scant data on police killing of citizens that is available, about three people are killed by the police in the U.S. every day. And despite the protest movements Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, this number has remained about constant in recent years through Democratic and Republican administrations. This persistence stands in contrast to the political ‘branding’ of the mainstream political parties where difference is claimed, but little is evident.
The place of Mr. Floyd’s murder in the ordinary working of American governance makes it the catalyst, not the cause, of current protests. The background circumstances of economic calamity suggest that political tensions will continue to rise as unemployment and economic desperation exert a toll on social stability. The horror of Mr. Floyd’s murder should get outraged citizens into the streets regardless of broader circumstances. But with history as a guide, it is these broader factors that are creating the political moment. This highlights the urgency of acting while there is an opening.
The disproportionate targeting of blacks by the police is given needed context when the data is organized by economic class. Poor and working-class whites are arrested and incarcerated at about the same rate as poor and working-class blacks. By its nature, this data says nothing about history. But it does offer structural and political insights. To the prior, history informs the present, it doesn’t define it. To the latter, 1) the frame of race divides people who otherwise have shared class interests and 2) poor and working class ‘allies’ are struggling for their own freedom from police violence, whatever their intentions.
What this arithmetic of disparity implies is that a larger proportion of blacks than whites are poor and working class. One interpretation is that race defines economic opportunity, which is overly generous to how capitalism works. Whatever people’s sentiments, slavery, convict leasing and Jim Crow had economic explanations. Some people, call them capitalists, make themselves rich by making and keeping other people poor. Here is a dry, academic and partial explanation of how poor people are kept poor in the present. […]
With regard to the current alliance of convenience between protesters, the establishment press and national Democrats, it was only a few weeks ago that the latter were lauding the American political police — the FBI, as the saviors of freedom and democracy in the Russiagate fraud. That the FBI was behind the scenes in the murders of Black Panther Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, suggests that protecting freedom and democracy isn’t precisely its mandate. Through its Cointelpro program, the FBI worked with Richard Nixon— and subsequent administrations, to disrupt, thwart and otherwise destroy organized opposition to state policy.
Closer to home, the FBI was ‘deeply involved’ in the vicious police repression that was used to shut Occupy Wall Street down in an organized multi-state operation. To bring this back to Mr. Nixon’s service to capital in creating the modern carceral-police state, the FBI coordinated with the large Wall Street banks that the Obama administration was still in the process of bailing out when its assault on the peaceful protesters of OWS took place. For those who may have forgotten, Wall Street bank J.P. Morgan made a $4.6 billion contribution to the NYPD pension fund as OWS gained political strength.
Events have moved past the murder of George Floyd as establishment hacks try to extinguish the flames with ham-fisted theatrics. I had a hard time not vomiting at the sight of craven Democrats dressed in kante garb kneeling in Kaepernick fashion to show solidarity with the people they have dedicated their careers to selling out to the highest bidder. Given that ‘we’ were in a similar place in 2015, with near daily high-profile murders of unarmed youth at the hands of the police that they had empowered, and they did nothing. To save the suspense, they engage in theatrics in place of taking meaningful action, not in addition to it.
With capitalism in its deepest crisis since 2009, and possibly since the 1930s, the current political moment is fraught. As was demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the existing powers are incapable of governing. What they are capable of is massive transfers of social wealth to the already rich and political repression. If capital is perceived to be threatened, look for self-preservation to come in the form of political violence no matter which party holds the White House. One might ask what happened to Bernie Sander’s ‘coalition,’ which I supported for tactical reasons (to head off environmental calamity). Bernie Sanders is a Democrat. That is what happened. 6
Click here to read the full article by Rob Urie entitled “Police Killings are a Political Tactic”
1 From a report entitled “Four charged over damage to Colston statue in Bristol” written by Jessica Murray, published in the Guardian on December 9, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/09/four-charged-over-damage-to-colston-statue-in-bristol
2 The name “Ozymandias” is a rendering in Greek of a part of Ramesses II’s throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The poems paraphrase the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica as:
King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.
From the current Wikipedia entry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias
3 From an article entitled “Symbols are Invested with Power. Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue” written by Jonathan Cook published on June 12, 2020. https://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2020-06-12/statue-colston-bristol-power/
4 From an article entitled “British Leaders Have No Idea How Bad Slavery Was” written by Patrick Cockburn, published in Counterpunch on June 16, 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/16/british-leaders-have-no-idea-how-bad-slavery-was/
5 From an article entitled “A Breathless Moment in America” written by Nick Turse, published in TomDispatch on June 14, 2020. http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176714/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_a_breathless_moment_in_america/#more
6 From an article entitled “Police Killings are a Political Tactic” written by Rob Urie published in Counterpunch on June 15, 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/15/police-killings-are-a-political-tactic/