LONDON – With a mixture of pent-up anger and sudden exhilaration, the protesters who toppled a bronze statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England on Sunday in Bristol, England remembered the angry crowds, the statues of Saddam Hussein fell, Stalin and even King George III.
When these protesters shot the Colston memorial at Bristol Harbor, they also forced Britain to consider how to deal with its racist history if many of the same questions were asked in the United States. A more precise parallel to what happened on Sunday may not be Saddam or Stalin, but the removal of statues of Confederate generals in town squares in the American south.
Now the demonstrators are erecting statues from Cecil Rhodes, an even stronger symbol of Britain’s racist colonial past.
“We have had this debate about statues in the UK for the past three years,” said Afua Hirsch, a Guardian columnist who writes and speaks about races in the UK. “It feels like there isn’t even a debate now – people just act. This is inspired by the movement we see in America. “
The fall of the statue crowned a loud, occasionally violent protest weekend in London and other parts of the UK. They began as a sign of solidarity with Americans who protested police brutality after an official killed George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, by kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes.
The dispute has become a test for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose first instinct was to promise a quick return to law and order.
Mr. Johnson claimed that the protests were largely peaceful, but were “undermined by brawls”. Its interior minister, Priti Patel, said “scenes of lawlessness are completely unacceptable” and promised to double the terms for people convicted of attacking the police and other emergency services during the demonstrations. She also complained that people were marching when they should be at home to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Far from suppressing the unrest, some observers said the government’s harsh language would cause frustration, especially among blacks and other ethnic minorities in the UK who previously protested, even in 2011 after police shot 29-year-old Mark Duggan had black man whose death led to destructive protests across the country.
As in the United States, the coronavirus has disproportionately affected black people and other minorities. The three-month lockout that Britain is only now emerging cautiously has stifled the economy, leaving many of the people worried and unsure about the future.
Unlike the United States, the British police are not equipped with military equipment or heavy weapons. Many do not carry firearms. After years of budget cuts as part of conservative government austerity policies, the police in London stand out for their rarity rather than their brute force.
According to Ms. Hirsch, who said that officials are rarely brought to justice, there is a well-documented record of black men who die in police custody in the UK. According to experts, black men die three times more often than white men by the police. They are also overrepresented in British prisons.
Part of this distrust was seen in London on Sunday. Although most of the protesters stuck to peaceful chants such as “I can’t breathe” – which reflected some of Mr. Floyd’s dying words – a few bottles and torches threw at the police trying to get them from 10 Downing Street, the prime minister, keep away residence.
Protesters sprayed graffiti on the cenotaph, a venerated World War I memorial, while one climbed onto its pedestal and unsuccessfully tried to set a Union Jack on fire. Another disfigured a statue of Winston Churchill, roamed his name and painted “was a racist” underneath.
Scotland Yard said Monday that 35 police officers were injured in the clashes. One suffered a head injury and another shoulder injury after throwing a bottle. The police arrested 36 people before the crowd dispersed after midnight.
“The violent crime we’ve seen is a shame and will have been very scary for others,” said Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick.
The social unrest brought predictable numbers from the woodwork, including Nigel Farage, the right-wing Brexit leader, who has been relatively subdued since Britain officially left the European Union in January.
“If Boris Johnson does not lead and campaign for the country as its symbols are destroyed, people will take it into their own hands.” he wrote on twitter. “Complete racial unrest is now possible.”
In Bristol, on the other hand, the police were ready when demonstrators started throwing ropes around the statue of Edward Colston. The demonstrators tore the statue off and danced on it before rolling it down the street to the water, where they pushed it in.
The Mayor and Bristol Police Chief regretted how the statue was removed. But they didn’t shed tears for the desecration of Colston’s memory.
Colston, a dealer whose name is in schools and hospitals in Bristol, profited greatly from slavery and transported at least 80,000 people from West Africa to the Caribbean. Almost 20,000 of them died on the sea voyages.
Critics have been working for years to dismantle the bronze statue erected in 1895. Now that she’s gone, they want to replace her with a statue of Paul Stephenson, a black worker who led a boycott of the Bristol Bus Company in 1963 to force it to end discriminatory hiring practices against minorities.
“Although I’m disappointed that people would damage one of our statues, I understand why it happened,” police officer Somerset and Avon superintendent Andy Bennett told the BBC. “It is very symbolic.”
The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, said the statue was an “affront” to the city. Mr. Rees, the son of a Jamaican father and a British mother, said the city would eventually fish the statue out of the water and likely put it in a museum.
Colton’s disgraceful fate may not be a good sign of a statue of Cecil Rhodes that is uncomfortably at Oxford University college where he studied. The students have fought for years to tear down the statue of Rhodes, whose views of the white Supremacists are considered by some to be the forerunners of apartheid.
The college declined, partly because of Resistance led by alumniwho argued to remove Rhodes would erase the story. Now a new generation of students are saying that they are a “Rhodes has to fallRally in Oxford on Tuesday.
Britain, according to historians, came to this debate more slowly than the United States because the legacy of racism abroad largely took place outside the country. There were no plantations with slave owners in England. Colton donated many institutions in his hometown, some of which are now considering what to do about this legacy.
Britain’s geographic distance from colonialism and slave trade has allowed some Britons to claim that their country is essentially non-racist. But the removal of statues of Confederate figures like Robert E. Lee in the United States has made it more difficult to support these arguments.
“These monuments are supposed to worship these numbers, and if we say we want a non-racist society, of course we have to get rid of them,” said Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University. “Statues are not about history; Statues are about a particular version of the story. “