We all know which statue I’m talking about, don’t we? If you don’t, you must be too busy to be checking social media or watching the news which, in the age of lockdown, probably makes you 1-in-a-million. And incredibly lucky.
For the uninitiated, I’m writing about the statue of Edward Colston, slave trader and all-round deplorable person. On Sunday, the statue in question was torn from its plinth in Bristol, and thrown into the city’s harbour by activists protesting racial injustice at home and abroad. And, then, everyone lost their minds.
It’s a little bit difficult to know where to start with this one, given that so many people are equally incensed by it. But, after much thought, I’ve decided to start with the people who have been annoying me most – the ones who act like a statue going for a swim is a direct re-enactment of the last days of Rome.
Nigel Farage, ever reasonable, took to Twitter to claim that ‘a new form of the Taliban was born in the UK today’ (calm down, dear.) Darren Grimes, who seems to want a reputation as a bit of a contrarian, declared that the statue being torn down sends a message that, ‘you can circumvent the ballot box, that the mob can disregard democracy’ (more on that gem later.) And Boris Johnson, God give me strength, said (via a Downing Street spokesperson) that it was ‘a criminal act’ (disclaimer: only the judiciary can make decisions like that.)
All of this boils down to the fact that the Edward Colston statue was just that – a statue. But, in an attempt to be righteously outraged, certain people have jumped through a great deal of mental hoops to both condemn those who tore down the statue of a vile slave trader, and not once ask why it was still standing in the first place. Indeed, Edward Colston was such a despicable individual that it’s surprising to find that the statue was there anyway.
Unsurprisingly, the statue itself has been the source of controversy for years, with the MP for Bristol West calling for it to be taken down in 2018. As a complement, various petitions have also called for the statue to be removed. In other words, people have tried using democratic means to get the statue removed for quite a number of years, deeming the ‘you should use the ballot box’ objection pretty meaningless.
It seems to me rather strange to defend the continued placement of a statue depicting such a repulsive man as Colston. After all, it was only a statue – a statue that wasn’t put up until 1895, a whole 174 years after the man in question died.
And that brings me on to the people who tore it down. If nothing else, I believe in being consistent, which is why I must repeat the phrase I used just a few lines ago – it was only a statue. A statue is still only a statue even if who it depicts was so objectionable that his very memory deserves to drown in Bristol harbour.
It wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out that very few people would actually support you tearing down a statue. Just consider the optics. Edward Colston is (rightly or wrongly) little known amongst the majority of the population. So, most people who turned on the news (because of course it was going to be put on the news) and saw the scenes from Bristol would make a judgment on what amounts to an act of vandalism before they even found out who Colston was.
There’s a second layer here, too.
What, exactly, was achieved? Did tearing down that statue force the government to fully publish the report into why people from BAME communities are more likely to die from COVID-19? Did throwing it into a harbour force a full and transparent investigation into what happened at Grenfell Tower? Did removing, from view, the statue of a slave trader challenge institutionalised forms of racism? Decolonise our curriculums? Expose the most pernicious forms of racial bias?
Of course, it didn’t.
It’s possible to simultaneously hold two, to some people contradictory, views on what happened to the statue. One: there is no valid explanation for why the statue of a slave trader should be on display in a public place, unless that public place is a museum. Two: tearing down that statue achieved nothing, and was a monumental waste of energy.
Britain has a multitude of problems relating to race, and there’s no denying that. But to get people to start talking about, and ultimately challenging, these structures, we have to do better than arguing about statues – an argument that started in Bristol, but now spans from London to Manchester.
We should direct our efforts to questioning why Pornhub thinks it is ever, or ever has been, acceptable to allow videos on its site with titles such as ‘n- getting p****d on in public’ (the link takes you to a Twitter thread, not the video.) In fact, I wonder how many people who went to these protests finished off the day by opening up Pornhub for a bit of ‘me time’, and turned a blind eye to the site’s attempt at eroticising racism (don’t believe me? Type into Google, ‘pornhub racist’. You’ll be amazed by the first result.)
While we’re at it, we should also ask hard questions about why Grindr dragged their feet in removing its ‘ethnicity filter’ – a shameful thing for the company, and the gay men who used it. And, of course, we should question why, if you’re black, the police are more likely to stop you, and search you.
Above all, we should ask what we’re going to do about these issues. Bickering about statues is a distraction, and one that does a disservice to those who are targeted and oppressed because of their race.
When all is said and done, the statue of Edward Colston was just that – a statue. For what it’s worth, the bottom of Bristol harbour would have been my second choice for its final resting place, with my first choice being a museum dedicated to exploring race in Britain.
But in a choice between discussing statues, and discussing the real lives of people living right now, I know which conversation I’ll be choosing.