So last night on BBC2 there was an hour-long documentary – Statue Wars – covering events of Bristol around the time of the toppling of Colston’s statue. It’s a good documentary, we’d strongly suggest watching it. Most of the story comes from the point-of-view of Mayor Marvin Rees, who, as the elected leader of the city during a time of strife. We also get to hear from a protestor, a victim of a vicious racial attack, a protestor, the Green Party’s Cleo Lake and a former head-girl of what was Colston Girls School plus a few other voices. We did a live thread during the airing of the documentary, which is here.
A new documentary tonight will explore the aftermath of the Colston statue toppling in Bristol. ‘Statue Wars’ airs on @BBCtwo at 9pm.
You can visit the Colston statue display and have your say over the future of the statue by completing the survey.https://t.co/mqVyXRBbwT
— M Shed (@mshedbristol) June 10, 2021
Now we’re going to offer some other points-of-view that didn’t make it into the documentary.
First-off, Mayor Rees has been criticized for not leading on the issue of Colston’s statue. His defence of why he didn’t was that he had other priorities, and he didn’t want to be defined by race alone, especially as a major political figure in the region who is black. But events overtook this stance and once he (indeed all centre-left political figures) lost the narrative thanks to the election of far-right politicians in the US (in Trump) and here in the UK (post Brexit) the centre-right, along with the centre-left was gone. The racists were emboldened by Trump and Brexit and while they never went away, they (sadly quite successfully) attempted to turn make the ‘centre ground’ into questions like ‘is racism a bad thing?’ (which many had thought were relegated to the fringes. The context into which Colston was finally toppled was a world where the then President of the United Sates had done this; Trump Defends White-Nationalist Protesters: ‘Some Very Fine People on Both Sides’ and Brexit had spiked hate crime (something one of the people in the documentary had experienced first-hand.) So when a white police officer casually murdered a black man in public view and the political right twisted itself into knots to try to explain why this was not as bad as it looks, any sense of a centre ground was clearly long gone. That was the moment to lead, and given the personal story of Mayor Rees and the power of what he’d overcome in terms of racism, to rise to Mayor, all the more reason to take down Colston. Yet he didn’t and from that moment on it was clear (from the documentary) he was left to react and not act.
This matters because, in listening to his staff reading out tweets, emails and letters from the public, it was clear that both the far-right rhetoric from the US intended to blunt BLM and the issue that is been confronting had infected (indeed mostly subsumed) the political right here; so we heard snippets of views that BLM was ‘Marxist’ and that ‘all lives matter’ and so on. These are BS far-right talking points, and they show how the centre-right is long, long gone to be replaced by far-right conspiracy theories and grievance. The angry frothing racists and white supremacists (and apparently one of the city’s Tory councillors) were busy blaming Mayor Rees anyway, despite his centre-ground actions. The racists and far-right were threatening him in the most vile and frightening ways anyway, even when he attempted to take the most centre-ground actions on the issue. (For example, by providing the impact statement to the police that would be used in the prosecution of four young people.) Might it have been better to take a stand here?
Against the backdrop of the toppled Colston, the UK far-right Government, led by a man with a long history of saying racist crap, did decide to take a stand – for white supremacy – by moving to enact laws that would both criminalize any further the toppling of a statute (with up to a decade in jail) and also making it harder to remove them by any democratic means. The city reacted, the police reacted back by attacking protestors, and it all kicked off. Mayor Rees condemned the protestors. What centre-ground he thought he was occupying, we’re not sure?
Other things that are key, but were not in the documentary is the role of Merchant Venturers in the city over the years, giving a powerful role (and continuity) to the rich white elites who had run the city for centuries. They had actively defended Colston for a long time and been key in efforts to stop any real change around the framing of the statue. Also missing was the long history of opposition to the statue that pre-dates the BLM movement (but reflects many of the same values of anti-racism).
If you want to support the young people caught-up in the police drag-net post toppling of Colston, you can here.