The events of the last week of May have dominated June. Protests about police brutality were met with a wave of police brutality across the US. Police targetted journalists and seized masks meant to protect protesters from COVID-19. The Psychopath in Chief suggested that a 75-year-old man who suffered brain damage after being pushed over by police was “an ANTIFA provocateur” involved in “a set up”. He then went on to run ads against Antifa using straight-up Nazi imagery. None of this will surprise followers of Sarah Kendzior, whose new book I read this month, and highly recommend.
In Britain, Black Lives Matter protests sparked a new battle in the Forever Brexit War when Bristolians threw a long-reviled local statue into their harbour. Given that the statue was of a slave trader who used the proceeds to buy a reputation as a philanthropist, you might well think (given that you live in the 21st century) “good riddance”. But apparently, for fans of learning about shameful figures from history through the medium of pigeon-spattered bronzes, it’s important to preserve every late-Victorian statue of a Baroque-period slave-trader purely because it exists.
By that logic, if you’ve ever worn a T-shirt of a band you later fell out of love with, you should wear it forever to remind people of your personal musical history. Perhaps they would also expect to find statues of Stalin in St Petersburg? They’ll be blowing up swastikas and toppling statues of Hitler in 1945 Berlin next. They’ll be removing statues of Marx and Lenin in 1989 Berlin next. They’ll be renaming Rhodesia next. They’ll be changing the flag of apartheid-era South Africa next. They’ll be
Edward Colston of Bristol Town
Traded slaves and let them drown.
Now his statue’s upside down,
Tell us, Tories, why the frown?
Who would want his statue back?
Of dreary bronzes there’s no lack.
Surely all, both white and black,
Know Ed deserved this art attack.
The debate has dragged on, with right-wingers rallying in defence of every upright statue whether they know whose it is or not, and threatens to drown out the more urgent messages of Black Lives Matter about systemic racism. There’s a chance, though, that it might finally wake Britain up to the need to confront the toxic legacy of Empire, a legacy all too obvious to those born in its former colonies, but rarely discussed here.
The other day I saw someone talking about American slavery and saying that there was “some” British involvement in it. Well, sure, you could call Britain’s leading position in the Atlantic slave trade throughout the 18th century “some” involvement, because it wasn’t the only country sending African slaves to its colonies. You could point to William Wilberforce and the abolition of the British trade in 1807 and pretend that nothing that happened afterwards was Britain’s fault. Or you could acknowledge that colonial America’s slaves were taken there by the British, and more were sold to the independent U.S. by the British, and everything that grew out of that, right down to Trumpian white supremacy and the death of George Floyd, has British roots. Black Lives Matter is transatlantic because the British slave trade was transatlantic.
And then you could realise that what the British Empire did in North America was only part of its negative impact worldwide. And that a few leftover buildings and statues of dubious characters do not in and of themselves make that empire a Good Thing.
And right on cue, the planet reminds us of the stakes: temperatures reached 38°C in a town inside the Arctic circle on Saturday.