The past two weeks have seen (for me) unprecedented manifestations of public malaise concerning the systemic injustices of racial bias. Protests both of a peaceful and a more violent nature have taken place across the United States of America against the murder of a black man George Floyd by a serving police officer. These protests have been echoed by similar manifestations around the world, one of which yesterday say the tearing down of a statue of the prominent slave trader Edward Colston in the British town of Bristol. The attendant crowd pulled down the statue – which had been covered in a tarpaulin to protect it from damage, and was rolled to the quay where it was unceremoniously dumped into the harbour – to the cheers of the onlookers. A statue to Colston was erected in Bristol (his home town) not because of his slaving activities but rather because of the money he gave to the city and to charitable foundations throughout his life – money which arguably came in large part from his participation in the slave trade. But his legacy was not only a statue, there are roads named after him as well as the venue Colston Hall (which is due to be renamed this year after renovations).
The condemnation of this act has been vociferous – especially from politicians – and the act itself has been labelled as ‘utterly disgraceful’ by the British Home Secretary Priti Patel; and she has called for those responsible to be brought to justice. Likewise, the leader of the political opposition Keir Starmer has said that the unauthorised removal was “totally wrong” – even whilst indicating that the statue should have been removed a long time ago, or even never erected. Starmer suggested that the statue could have been removed ‘with consent’… but was that really an option?
There have been many requests to have references and statues to Edward Colston removed from the public spaces in Bristol over the past several years – ranging from petitions to have the names of roads changed and the (now agreed) change of name for Colston Hall in the city centre – all in the name of not glorifying the slave trade. However, at the same time, there have also been petitions against the removal… citing the fact that this is not a glorification of the slave trade and that history cannot be whitewashed. In all cases, both for and against, the moves have been started by single individuals seeking support for a change to the status quo.
Irrespective of whether or not you think that such statues memorials should exist, the question raised by Keir Starmer – that of removal by consent is the point with which I would like to take issue. How can this be done? How often has the ‘system’ – be it the government, the council or any other public body ever sought the opinion of the public on this matter? The decision to change the name of Colston Hall was taken privately by the Bristol Music Trust – and independent charity, and not by the council.
The truth of the matter is, that unless open debate is offered and available on the subject, the status quo reigns. It is all very well saying that these decisions should be taken by ‘mutual consent’ – but if that is the case, then those in power should exercise their responsibility to actively ask the question. Leaving something in place until there are enough people to complain about it, is a complete abrogation of responsibility. It is likely to encourage the build up of resentment and the fostering of anger within a community that can easily fall to the perception that the powers that be do not take an interest in or respect the feelings of the community.
Society does not have to ask every citizen every day whether or not they agree with all of the rules – society must however allow individuals to open up a public debate that the community is beholden to engage in. Sending an email does not allow for open debate, since the recipient of the email may ignore and not act upon it. There must be room for any citizen to open up debate to all – and in a manner in which the question cannot be suppressed.
Without a mechanism to allow any and all citizens to open the floor to a public debate on the issues that matter to them, it is all too easy for those in power to claim that no-one really cares about this. Years of a lack of debate on the matter has fomented feeling in the Bristol community sufficient that people have taken the matter into their own hands and illegally removed the statue. Now those people may well be held accountable for their actions in the criminal courts. In this way the status quo has not only the power to stifle the debate, but also to punish those who do not follow the rules as laid down by those stifling the debate. From my perspective, it is unjust of any society or body to expect to be able to punish those who do not adhere to the rules of society whilst at the same time denying them the realistic chance to change those rules.
As John F. Kennedy said “Those that make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable.”