Black Lives Matter: Why are some statues being torn down?


After the demolition of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and the scarring of the one of Winston Churchill in London, in England, it was decided to remove some monuments dedicated to “questionable” characters. Following days of protests and demonstrations that often degenerated into violent clashes between crowds and police forces, the Black Lives Matters protesters began to attack some statues. The question is: why?

First of all, let’s get some order to clarify the situation. On May 25, 2020, an American and African-American citizen of Minneapolis, George Floyd, lost his life following a controversial arrest by some (white) police officers who suspected him of wanting to pay a cashier with a fake twenty-dollar bill. The episode immediately (and very understandably) triggered a fierce outrage because the whole scene was filmed and virtualized almost in real-time: the video showed how Floyd, shortly before he died, continued to beg the officer who had stopped him to loosen the grip with which he had been immobilized because he could not breathe (“I can’t breathe”, “I can’t breathe”, has become the motto symbol of the riot).

Many people rightly saw in this umpteenth case of brutality the confirmation of the rampant racism and the different treatment that for decades American society (and the police in particular) has given to black citizens; so, in a few hours, dissatisfaction quickly turned into a widespread protest, with thousands of people taking to the streets, clashes with the police, looting and acts of violence on both sides. The movement, which had already made its voice heard in the past, is that of the Black Lives Matter (“the lives of blacks have value”) and this time the echo of their action has reached much of the Western world, so much so that not only in most American cities but also in many European metropolises it was decided to take to the streets in spite of Covid-19 and show its support for the African-American cause. England, in particular, has seen a large number of protesters fill the streets of the main urban centres and on some of these occasions, the crowds have started to pick on some monuments…

The hashtag #BLM has been used by millions of web users and it is a complex social movement that has united and divided several groups active in the United States, but it is also a subculture, a social media slogan, a socio-cultural phenomenon co-opted by the entertainment industry, and many other things. Above all, it is a phenomenon that has had an important impact on two fronts: on the one hand, it has had the merit of bringing the “racial question” back to the centre of social, cultural and political debate in the United States, after decades of colour-blindness. On the other hand, it is a project of wide-ranging counter-hegemonic resistance, which, starting from a very lucid socio-political analysis that intersects race, class and gender, can perhaps shed light on the possibility of immersing oneself in the race to overcome it. Black Lives Matter is in fact a social movement imbued with racial content, but much more complex than this first reading. Founded by three African-American women and homosexuals, #BLM is above all a network of activists immersed in local realities that see public and private intertwining, and that see these same activists engaged on fronts ranging from denouncing police brutality to fighting for the rights of LGBTQ blacks. In this context, the question of race in Black Lives Matter can be read in two ways: on the one hand, a factor that exists in and for itself, an identity issue that is also a political claim and an instrument of individual and collective subjectification, Black and Proud; on the other, the existential determinant of an economic and political condition of social disadvantage and, therefore, the starting point for a systematic and structural denunciation in a condition of perennial (hitherto) subjugation.

Now you might have realized that the demolition of the statues represents the fight against the symbols of oppression.

The first episode took place in Bristol, where a group of protestors first knocked down and then threw into the river the statue of a certain Edward Colston, an illustrious British subject of the 18th century who had deserved the erection of a monument thanks to generous donations to the community, but who also went down in history as a well-known slave-driver. Colston was an eminent member of the Royal African Company, the British trading company that for a long time supplied African slaves to the British colonies, and historians believe that he directly contributed to transport about 80 thousand men, women and children from Africa to America.

Obviously, when it was decided to dedicate to this Colston a statue (in 1895) in England (and in Europe) there was a very different society from the present one, but the presence of such a symbol of racist oppression seemed a real affront to the Black Lives Matter protesters, who therefore thought well to remove in their own way the incriminated monument.

After Colston, to pay for the protest was the statue of Winston Churchill in London, smeared with controversial writing and coloured sprays. In this case, however, public opinion proved less compact in supporting such action: Churchill, in fact, although he was known not to have very friendly positions towards Indians and Palestinians (like many of his contemporaries of the same social extraction as the rest) was still the Prime Minister who strenuously resisted against Hitler and the Nazi-Fascist forces when all seemed lost.

The last of the famous statues to suffer a sad fate was the one in Richmond, capital of Virginia (U.S.A.), dedicated to “our” Christopher Columbus, who was considered another emblem of the white “supremacism” that led to the colonization of the New World and the extermination of the local populations (American Indians, Aztecs, Mayans, etc.).

In the light of all these facts throughout the West, many governments are now wondering about the possibility of removing monuments dedicated to people who were then incensed by their contemporaries, but who now appear decidedly “unpresentable” (such as the statues of Leopold II, king of Belgium who cruelly ruled the African colonies). In this direction, for example, the city of London has already moved in this direction, whose administration has decided to meet the “will of the community” by removing from the entrance of the Museum of London Docklands the statue of Robert Milligan, another “illustrious” slave-driver of the 18th century.

For the historian of Edinburgh’s University, George Palmer, “this is probably the first time in the history of slavery, in which the white community, the so-called white system, is very cooperative. We have not seen the same collaboration on racism, to get rid of it. So, I think the next thing we need to bring down is racism”.

That’s what we all hope for.

What do you and your language exchange friends on think about the Black Lives Matter movement? Let us know in the comments!

Written by: Martina Sassi, Staff Writer

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