In 1895, a statue was erected in Bristol to celebrate the life of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader who invested much of his money in the city.
One hundred and twenty-five years later, on 7th June 2020, anti-racist protesters in the city tore the statue down and threw it in the river.
For many, the “Fall of Colston” was a necessary release after years of inaction. For others, including UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, the protesters were “utterly disgraceful” and committed acts of “sheer vandalism.”
This is exactly the challenge the world has been forced to grapple with following the murder of 46-year-old George Floyd. Grief, pain and rage is manifesting on the streets, shaped and provoked by institutional forces. While mostly peaceful, it sometimes spills into destruction of government or private property.
And Bristol mayor Marvin Rees—the UK’s first directly-elected black mayor—has shown how to respond to these events with empathy and understanding.
Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees. Photo on Bristol Festival of Ideas
Marvin Rees responds
In an interview with UK broadcaster Channel 4, Rees admitted that he could not condone illegal action but added that the very existence of a statue to a slaver, “who may well have owned one of my ancestors,” was a “personal affront to me.”
And then he made the comment that got to the heart of it all:
“What we have here are a number of things that are true at the same time.
This is criminal damage. We cannot accept criminal damage. We cannot accept social disorder. But at the same time, we have a statue up to someone who made their money by throwing sometimes the bodies of his commodities, our people, into water. There’s a piece of almost historical poetry here: now he’s on the bottom of the water.
I’m not condoning the criminality. But i’m saying you have to understand the country that you’re working with. The frustrations of the people and the frustrations of this moment.”
This happened a few moments ago.
The Edward Colston statue has been pulled down. pic.twitter.com/E0BUxVHonc
— BBC Radio Bristol (@bbcrb) June 7, 2020
This response—particularly that “a number of things are true at the same time”—is exactly how people in positions of power must respond to an outpouring of inherently political rage, whether in the US or around the world.
How can we look at moments of looting or violent resistance without first accepting the callous impunity of the police, decades of shared trauma and a history of outright provocation? Or to go further, the strong message delivered to US leaders by activist Tamika D. Mallory: “Don’t talk to me about looting. Y’all are the looters. We learned that violence from you.”
A binary response to damage, seeking refuge in the simplicity of ‘law and order,’ is to deny the lived experience of everyone suffering. A lack of nuance leads to aggression, and aggression, such as ridiculous threats to use the military on protesters, cannot solve conflicts: It can only inflame them or crush people into submission. On no level is this the same as healing.
Movements like MPD150, which want to abolish the police, exist for exactly this reason: to put the health of local populations in the hands of people willing to respond with nuance.
Who is better at de-escalating tension: someone from the community or a stranger with a gun?
Who will actually help a drug user in the long-term: someone who throws them in jail or properly funded addiction services?
What is more likely to stop people from falling into crime: a lifetime of support or a moment of force?
Equally inadequate are comments, like those from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that attempt to cloak a binary approach to social order in the language of sympathy:
“People can campaign for the removal of a statue but what happened yesterday was a criminal act and when the criminal law is broken that is unacceptable and the police will want to hold to account those responsible.”
“The PM absolutely understands the strength of feeling, but in this country we settle our differences democratically and if people wanted the removal of the statue there are democratic routes which can be followed.”
Bristol, and Rees in particular, had spent years trying to change the plaque on the Colston statue—adding in a reference to the slaver’s significant role in trafficking humans to the Americas and the death of 20,000 men, women and children along the way. After pushback from sympathetic interests that wanted to stress Colston’s philanthropic contributions to the city, the issue had gone nowhere, mired in bureaucratic nothingness.
In this context, Rees’ recent comments are incredibly important: They are an open response to contentious, burning issues that need to be resolved, not caged. The outpouring of anger in tearing down the statue of Colston was not a moment of opportunistic vandalism, but more than 100 years of unaddressed trauma. Rees didn’t just say he understood the “strength of feeling”—he validated those concerns, saying there were multiple truths on display at the same time.
View this post on Instagram
. . What should we do with the empty plinth in the middle of Bristol? Here’s an idea that caters for both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t. We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protestors in the act of pulling him down. Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.
Simply put, you can’t look at the Colston statue without looking at, as Rees mentions, a history of marginalisation through issues such as the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment. While those policies exist, a statue, supposedly belonging to the people, sat in the middle of a city and honoured a person who got rich by treating black people like an expendable commodity. Marvin Rees said that the UK’s political context “perhaps created a context in which the frustrations of our people in this country have built up.” Tearing down the statue was illegal, but multiple things are true at the same time.
In interviews, Rees also made a direct link to the US, telling the story of how Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. stopped urging rioters in Chicago in 1967 to be non-violent after realising that the government used huge doses of violence to solve their own problems. “King said ‘Never again will I speak to the violence of the oppressed and the marginalised without speaking to the biggest purveyors of violence in the world, my own government’,” Rees explains.
He then took this logic to the government. Responding to Home Secretary Priti Patel’s comments on the statue, he said that she can be outraged, “but we would also love to hear some outrage about the deaths in custody, both here and in the United States, and ongoing racial inequality.”