For some, pulling down the statue of a former slaver in a town built on the riches of that slave trade is a long-awaited and just act. For others it is vandalism and thuggery. I have read comments from people, often working in the cultural sector, that lament this event and compare it to the Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddha statues. The argument is that once the feelings of people are allowed to dictate the terms of what we keep as art or culture, we’re on a dangerous path.
I get that. But the cases are not the same. For all the offence taken in interfaith misunderstandings, the Buddha did not throw stolen dead people into the sea as a part of his business model.
Statues on the streets and squares of cities have a strange and particular role. They are there to mark, demand even, reverence for the people they represent. In that sense, though the execution may be artistic, they’re not art. They are like a relentless, endurance honours list.
They are certainly not there so that we don’t forget our history. If we had statues to remember our history, the next Bristol square would be crowded with forms that represent the stolen, the branded, the defiled and the drowned.
The Prime Minister called the act vandalism, claimed the protest had been subverted by thuggishness. But what is vandalism? Thuggishness? Does it depend only on speed? I can’t think of anything more thuggish, more of an obtuse or deliberate act of vandalism that refusing to take down a statue to the glory of a slaver. That is thuggishness, just enacted slowly, in geological time.
Black people (and others whose history was impacted by colonialism) have been forced, time and again, to be resilient in the face of this kind of obtuseness. There comes a point when failure to act, to understand even, does so much harm it might as well be called violence. The easy habit of reverence for a philanthropist who benefitted a handful of Bristolians has meant more, for decade upon decade, than the pain of black people constantly forced to ask ‘Does anyone hear our story? Or care? Do I matter?’ It causes real pain – something we must all hear in this terrible and hopeful time; perhaps many are deciding to listen for the first time.
Slowly, dependably, over time, the implication of continued reverence for such violent men causes legitimate and deep pain. Who is the vandal here? The quick snap of the protestors or the slowly grinding damage of a state that refuses to enlighten and better itself, regardless of the harm?