The explosion of rage that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has created a domino effect with statues being toppled around the world including here in Europe.
Churchill’s statue on Parliament Square ended up in a makeshift wooden shed for protection. It was only released when Emmanuel Macron arrived in London to award the city the Legion d’Honneur. The citation listed London’s wartime resilience.
In Bristol, protestors threw a monument to Edward Colston, a slave trader, into the Avon. Some were understandably irritated by the manner of the statue’s demise. Others were astonished such a monument should still have been there in the first place.
In Brussels, an effigy of Leopold II, Belgium’s longest-serving monarch was quickly removed after Black Lives Matters protests. A statue of Indro Montanelli was defaced in Milan, while De Gaulle’s bust in Hautmont has also been daubed with paint.
The cases of De Gaulle and Montanelli have rightly sparked huge controversy. Both men did bad things as well as good and would have many difficult questions to answer if they were here today, as would almost any leading figure from the past.
But they are not here today. And Montanelli is one of the 50 Heroes of World Press Freedom, while De Gaulle is a hero of the French wartime resistance. Should we not take any account of the fact that both men lived full square on the right side of history?
We seem to have embarked on a coruscating excursion through hundreds of centuries past. Every day brings news of another dead personality, ear-marked as the next focus of attention in this carnival of shame.
In the USA, monuments linked to the confederacy have been destroyed by protestors or removed by the authorities. In Los Angeles, indigenous Americans have torn down a monument to Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary.
Often, taking a statue down can give expression to a deep hurt about how we represent ourselves in history. We put up statues to people we admire. But a badge of honour can become a mark of shame, not just for the individual but for the community as a whole.
Many protestors would claim they are deliberately breaking the law to draw attention to a deeper injustice. Some in authority may even prefer understandable anger and rage to be vented on inanimate objects rather than taken out on living people.
One of the problems with tearing down statues is understanding when to stop. It is one thing to call for the restoration of the Elgin marbles. But no one suggests the caryatids should be removed from the Acropolis on the grounds that Pericles was xenophobic.
We should also ask whether it is right to rush to judgement, to lynch or deface the effigies of every public figure who has ever fallen short of today’s standards. In the past the bar was set less high. That should make a difference to our assessments.
It is also true that how we re-write history matters just as much as how we write it in the first place. History written by the victors is not good history. But we improve history through scholarship, not by replacing the partiality of the oppressor with that of the victim.
The worldwide response to George Floyd’s death is an opportunity for profound change in the way we lead our lives. If all we see is the destruction of statues, we will lose sight of the invitation to reflect on our own attitudes towards race.
As Europe struggles to emerge from the COVID crisis, the debate about our future has been electrified by issues about identity. We should respond by listening more attentively to the voices of black people and people of colour in our communities.
Immanuel Wallerstein begins his essay on “European Universalism – The Rhetoric of Power” with the following observation:
“The history of the modern world-system has been in large part a history of the expansion of European states and peoples into the rest of the world…Those that have led and profited from this expansion have usually justified it on grounds of the greater good.”
Justice for George Floyd requires us to think about eliminating police brutality and countering institutional racism. It is also time to review the legacy of European colonialism and to look again at what we mean by the public good.
Every time a statue is removed, we hear the reverberation of historical injustice. Looking at monuments with a critical eye can be a part of addressing that injustice, as is already happening in America. Mayors and city councils in Europe take note:
New York’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio, has announced the removal of a statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History “because it explicitly depicts black and indigenous people as racially inferior.”
Without a deeper understanding of our history we may be destined to repeat it. But generations of discrimination, hate and exploitation cannot be unravelled overnight or even in the course of a few short years.
How the debate about race and identity unfolds in Europe will determine what happens next. If we allow a polarisation between nationalist extremists and cosmopolitan liberals, we run the real and present danger that the nationalists will win.
On 19 June, the European Parliament passed a resolution on anti-racism. Commenting on the resolution, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), an NGO, said this:
“The resolution is a wake-up call to the EU to acknowledge the urgency of tackling racism…however, it lacks a strategic vision on how to tackle structural racism at different levels and how it affects specifically different racialised minorities.”
The ENAR is right to challenge the European institutions and European society as a whole to do more to tackle racism. It’s time we started a more inclusive interrogation of who we are and who belongs in Europe.
What Europe needs right now is not just the peaceful, democratic and legal removal of some of its statues but also a conversation about the future of Europe. One that is more inclusive and respectful of all who belong in Europe than it has been in the past.
The British MP Jo Cox who was murdered on 16 June 2016, once said: “We have far more in common than divides us.”
When the dust settles on the last statue to fall, let us hope there will there still be time to find out what we do have in common and start building on that for the future.