openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The statue of Colston must be left in the water

The toppling is a work of art, which celebrates a global movement.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
8 June 2020, 4.15pm
Bristolians dump Colston in the harbour

The young people who toppled the statue of the Bristol slaver Colston, rolled it to the waterside and sent it to the bottom of the river, from a dockside that connects England to the Atlantic, have done a wonderful public service. It was not an act of disorder but one of restitution. It was not an act of the mob – no one was hurt, no property was damaged – it proved the wisdom of the crowd. 

Every conceptual artist around the world groaned with envy. Days after Christo died, who wrapped buildings, parks and monuments in sheets, the Bristolians of Black Lives Matter have wrapped history itself in the images of their action. Ai Weiwei famously smashed a 2,000 year old Han pot to symbolise the destruction of his country’s past by China’s communists. Now centuries of slavery have been repudiated by plunging the likeness of one of its monstrous organisers into the waters. Waters that his slave ships sailed and into which they threw the corpses, and sometimes the living souls, of their cargo. Banksy, perhaps the country’s most famous living creator, whose brilliant renditions of injustice fight an art-market that seeks to monetise everything, has been gloriously upstaged in his very own home town.

For this delightful, emancipating and profoundly necessary action, the perpetrators will prove to be the artists of the future. Under the philistine regime of Brexit Britain, they will be hunted down and persecuted by those who masquerade as the UK’s elected representatives. The policing minister, Kit Malthouse declared, “Undoubtedly in what was done to that statue, a crime was committed. An investigation should be under way and I hope that prosecutions will follow. We can't have decisions by mob."

The Home Secretary Priti Patel proclaimed it was "utterly disgraceful” and “completely unacceptable” and “sheer vandalism and disorder”. 

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As if she was on their side, Patel added that tipping what had become a celebration of slavery down the gangplank would “detract from the protesters' cause”. It’s a tune the prime minister attempted. A man who described Africans as “piccaninnies” and when challenged merely said that he felt “sad that people have been offended” now complains that "These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery – and they are a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve”. As if either he or Patel shared the protesters noble determination to eliminate racism, discrimination and white supremacy.   

What any political leader worth his or her salt should be saying is that the world-wide movement triggered by opposition to George Floyd’s murder is marked by three defining features. The first is the appalling provocation of the crime and what it exposed. When Officer Chauvin, casually with his hand in his pocket, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck and kept it there until he died, crying out for breath, it was a revelation of an unendurable reality, not an outrageous exception. It illuminated his banal presumption that his fellow officers would collaborate, his superiors would defend him, his media would support him, and those who wanted justice for all would be helpless. 

There is in England a controversial legal doctrine called “Joint Enterprise”. It means that “If it can be proved that the participants were working together in some way, then they are all guilty of all the crimes committed during the course of their joint enterprise, regardless of the role they played”. Well, Chauvin’s crime was a joint enterprise. A system of policing fed by a culture of permissiveness if not approval underpinned by outright supremacism and headed in the USA by a President who attacks taking the knee as cowardice and in the United Kingdom by a premier who is sad if his jocular sadism upsets anyone. It is ironic that the killer cop is called Derek Chauvin. For the legendary Napoleonic Nicolas Chauvin gave his name to excessive nationalism and Boris Johnson is a chauvinist.

This has created the second, exceptional character of the protests. It is not the few incidents of the protestors violence that the media feed off and use to try and terrify us, or the many examples of police terrorism. It is that they are everywhere and are peaceful and determined and even sometimes supported by police. A generation is defining itself. In small towns across Britain numerous gatherings have outnumbered the large mobilisations in London. In America one estimate suggests “The geography of this uprising is totally unprecedented. At least *700* protests in cities & towns of all sizes, in rural, urban and suburban America, in all 50 states and Puerto Rico”. Seven hundred! Depicting this as riots and chaos completely misinterprets what has been going on.

Which leads on to the third and most important achievement of the multiple mobilisations triggered by Chauvin. In this century there have been two massive world wide protests across hundreds of cities around the world. The first was on 15 February 2003, against the coming invasion of Iraq. We were right to oppose an act of stupendous folly, but we didn’t prevent it. The second was the wave of 'Occupy' movements around the world in 2011. They demanded real democracy and put the process of the way we are ruled on the agenda but lacked the focus to deliver immediate change. This wave is different. It is not just a protest. It expresses a determination to prevent and unravel systemic inhumanity. It is not only about the murder of George Floyd. It is also about the conditions that led to and permitted it, and the many deaths like it, that usually take place in the secrecy of custody and therefore the grinding indifference of racialised realities now exposed in the death patterns of COVID-19 that underlie racial policing. 

The protests have grown because they focus on deeper causes that connect the joint enterprise of a corporate world disorder. The call to defund the local police networks lavished with militarising budgets strikes at the reproduction of supremacism in America; where police shoot and kill, the Washington Post reports, a thousand people a year. In Britain, the rolling of the Colston statue into the water strikes at the continuing presence of imperial culture in the English class system that reproduces so much injustice. This is why it deserves unmitigated celebration. Along with humility. For what is happening must be embraced by whites especially as a learning, as an education for all of us, as Suzanne Moore demonstrates.

In a long analysis of the extraordinary shutdown of capitalist economies by their governments, written before Floyd’s killing, I argue that the pandemic of 2020 has brought to an end a period of economic globalisation that started in 1968. And that this will be replaced by the forces of humanisation which have grown across the last five decades. Black Lives Matter is an expression of this humanisation, stronger faster and more coherent than I dared to hope. 

Read more: "Out of the belly of Hell: COVID-19 and the humanisation of globalisation" – by Anthony Barnett

Which leaves the small matter of what to do with the statue of Edward Colston. It was never a monument to his actual influence erected by grateful citizens of the City of Bristol. Recent articles by Matthew Sweet and Roger Ball tell us how it went up in 1895, 170 years after he lived, contrived at the zenith of Victorian imperialism to confirm its paternalistic order. David Olusoga provides the wider context.

The Black Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees is excellent in the way he has pushed back at Patel and Malthouse, "I can't pretend, as the son of a Jamaican migrant myself, that the presence of that statue to a slave trader in the middle of the city was anything other than a personal affront to me and people like me”. But he also says they will most likely extract it from the harbour and probably put it in a museum. On the contrary, it should stay where it is, as a remembrance to those cast overboard from the slave ships. A plaque with photographs to mark the spot will attract far more visitors to celebrate the symbolic justice.

What should replace it in the space from which Edward Colston has been so justifiably evicted? The answer is obvious. Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus should be given to and accepted by the city of Bristol and erected in its place. This tremendous gift marks the horrors of the Black Atlantic and celebrates our joint survival and humanity. It needs a home. Now, surely, it has found one. 

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