To remove a statue or not to remove a statue, why is this a question?

By now, everyone knows that Edward Colston was a slave owner, and that’s a good thing. For someone who profited from transporting 80,000 African men and men, of which 12,000 were children, the main thing he should be known for is the human suffering he caused. However, for centuries, the city of Bristol, which Colston called home, has done the complete opposite and contributed to whitewashing his ominous past.

There are two sides to Colston. The slave owner and the philanthropist, and it is the latter that British society celebrates. Due to Colston’s ‘generosity’, an entire city named a school, a concert hall, its streets after him, and of course there’s that statue. All commemorate his legacy. Prior to the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the world in 2020, the whole truth about Colston was never willingly brought to the public’s knowledge; until four anti-racist activists tore Colston’s statue down.

From that moment onwards, the UK has been forced to confront its past once again. Unsurprisingly, yet still disappointingly, the country refuses to have frank conversations about the lasting impact of slavery and how it set pathways that lead to today’s societal inequalities. If ever there was a moment to start the healing process, that was it. Instead, the ongoing reluctance to acknowledge how much the UK gained its wealth from the slave trade and the psychological and emotional harm it still causes to the descendants of those who endured it remain an open secret.

The spotlight returned to the country’s turbulent past when the four activists were cleared of criminal damages by a jury of six men and six women. I understand that statues are legally protected. However, when it comes to Colston’s doesn’t a question of morality have the right to be asked and whether the activists’ actions outweighed the law they had broken? Thank goodness the jury seemed to think so and a small amount of justice has been achieved. Yet, there are some who don’t see this outcome in the same way. In fact, they’re furious.

The former editor of The Sun (a tabloid newspaper), Kelvin MacKenzie said he could not help “questioning the sanity of the jury”. He added: “The verdict was a shocking signal to every lefty protester in the country that they can damage with impunity as long as they chant the phrase hate crime.” Can you imagine if this comment was made if a statue of Adolf Hitler had been torn down? Both Colston and Hitler are hideous men. Their actions caused countless death and misery far beyond their existence. Yet, the UK often views slavery as a tragic blip in history not an abhorrent act that helped to form the country’s financial foundation and create institutional racism.

As a Black Brit, am I supposed to feel indifferent when a cabinet member from the British government declares their intention to change the law and close a “potential loophole” limiting the prosecution of people who damage memorials? There is no mention or consideration of the feelings of those whose ancestors had been enslaved by Colston and forced to walk past a statue that honours him.

The cabinet member goes on to say: “We live in a democratic country. If you want to see things changed you can get them changed, you do that through the ballot box, or petitioning your local council, etc. You don’t do it by going out and causing criminal damage.” Normally, I would agree, but we cannot ignore that for years members of the Bristol’s Black community, historians and campaigners had been lobbying for the statue to be removed and their requests were met with dithering responses.

The cabinet member goes on to say: “We live in a democratic country. If you want to see things changed you can get them changed, you do that through the ballot box, or petitioning your local council, etc. You don’t do it by going out and causing criminal damage.” Normally, I would agree, but we cannot ignore that for years members of the Bristol’s Black community, historians and campaigners had been lobbying for the statue to be removed and their requests were met with dithering responses.

The fear of the public going around destroying statues daily is unwarranted. Of course, there are those who have strong feelings about certain statues, but ignoring requests from the public to remove them is also not the answer. If the authorities had properly addressed Bristolians’ requests and either agreed to remove Colston’s statue or rename its plaque, then possibly this situation would never have occurred.

I also cannot help but wonder if the four activists had been Black, would the verdict have been the same? The Equality and Human Rights Commission claims that the ‘rates of prosecution and sentencing for Black people were three times higher than for White people.’ It’s not my intention to take anything away from the activists, I applaud what they have done. However, it seems that Black people’s fight for equality has to take place behind White allies.

It cannot be denied that the legacy of slavery is still an emotive one. The pain that our ancestors experienced still leaves an imprint on the Black community. Not in a ‘sob story’ kind of way, but one that leaves descendants reeling from society’s failure to present justice to those who suffered for so long. So, when a statue is dedicated to glorifying a man, whose past is one filled with bloodshed without any thought to those who were victims, it is insulting to debate whether his statue should remain or not. It is obvious it belongs at the bottom of the Bristol Harbour.

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