Protests erupted throughout the United States and countries across the world as a result of the senseless killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd on May 25th. Some protesters resorted to defacing and removing historical statues as a clear message of intolerance towards racism within our society, beginning in Bristol on June 7th with the 1895 statue of Edward Colston, a trader of enslaved people.
Some, however, argue destroying a historical statue is a clear act of vandalism and should be met with criminal charges. Trump even posted a tweet labelling these protesters as “THUGS”, using capitals to emphasise their rowdy and undesirable behaviour, influencing his supporters to view the protests as such. The narrative depicted in the media thus far has been one of riotous criminal gangs causing havoc, who look to censor the past by removing problematic pieces of history failing to align with 21st century progressive values. However, these critics need to ask themselves why communities around the world decided to erect statues dedicated to slaveholders, as opposed to figures like abolitionists.
Especially when it concerns statues in Britain, the topics certainly not worth defending are colonialism, the British Empire, and racism, nevertheless, these are what many of our country’s statues do commemorate. We should be celebrating the Levellers, the Chartists, the Trade Unionists, the Suffragettes, the actively anti-racist figures, and the many LGBTQ+ activists, all of whom deserve statues erected in their honour to celebrate their activism within British history.
Just because some statues have been forcibly removed does not mean the protesters hate their country, they merely hate the elements reflecting poorly on their country’s history, recognising previously praised individuals actually deserve contempt and disapproval. One such figure who has been torn down is the statue of Christopher Columbus in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which had existed there since 1931. The plaque read: “the merging of the cultures of the old and new worlds”, which is essentially a sugar-coated way of saying Columbus facilitated the rape, torture, and conquest of indigenous peoples in order to establish a country based on white supremacy.
On 10th June, 20 Native American activists forcibly removed the statue in an act of clear iconoclasm. It was a revolutionary form of protest where they launched an attack on the old regime and questioned why we, as a progressive nation, have to continue to honour their so-called legacy.
Statues hold a great deal of power. By giving these historical figures representation within society, their actions and opinions are being validated as normal and ‘of their time’ – which is both problematic and historically inaccurate. There were always people within history who were opposed to racism, abolitionists for instance, and therefore claiming times and moral standards were different is never an excuse to justify past bigotry.
For Native Americans, who are indigenous peoples, removing the statue of the man falsely claimed by many to have ‘founded’ America, is an incredibly joyous moment. Mike Forcia, an Anishinaabe Native American man who led the fight to remove Columbus’ statue, stated: “I told the people, ‘Chris had a pretty good view up here for the last 80 years,’ But I said, ‘Tomorrow we can say, as Native people, we are still here. And he is gone.’”
In place of the torn down statues, we should commemorate marginalised figures within American history who have not been celebrated in the same way a white, heterosexual male would have been. This would be an incredibly worthwhile way to commemorate the struggles faced by ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples.