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OP-ED: The statues we carve, the statues we take down

  • Published at 12:00 am June 14th, 2020
Christopher Columbus statue black lives matter vandalism
Photo: REUTERS

Sometimes heroes fall, many years after their deaths

Was it an act of shame? Was it the renewal of lost national pride? Vandalism? Or was this simply an act of bizarre, human impulse? These questions have continued to haunt all those who love and live in America. 

Two statues of Christopher Columbus, the explorer whose journey to the Americas had linked Europe with the New World -- were attacked amid wide-spread anti-racism protests across the US. It is obvious that the tensions over Britain’s attitude to race and heritage have heightened, with fresh attacks on statues and efforts to call off a major Black Lives Matter protest amid fears of clashes with the far right. 

If we had watched the media’s optics, we must have been shaken by tens of thousands of people who had waded into the debate over statues of historical figures linked to slavery and racism that have raged since the weekend, signing petitions for and against a growing number of plans for their removal. 

In Bristol, where a statue of 17th- century slave trader Edward Colston was toppled at the weekend, bleach or another corrosive substance is suspected to have been thrown over a memorial to the black playwright, poet, and actor, Alfred Fagon. 

Police are investigating the apparent attack on the statue of Fagon, a member of the Windrush generation who arrived in England from Jamaica as a teenager in 1955. Again, the authorities in Boston, Massachusetts, launched a probe on Wednesday after the statue of Columbus was beheaded. 

The head of the marble statue was found near the monument, in the Boston park that is named after the historical figure. Sixteen years ago, in 2004, the statue was marked with red paint and the word “murderer,” while the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and red paint appeared on it in 2015, according to the Boston Globe newspaper. 

In the context of what happened in the US lately, government officials would take time to “assess the historic meaning of the statue” in light of the racism debate, Walsh told reporters, referring to the outrage sparked by the killing of African- American George Floyd. 

Hours before, protesters in Richmond, Virginia tore down a different statue of Christopher Columbus, set it on fire, and eventually threw it into a lake. They also placed a sign reading “Columbus represents genocide” on the pedestal. 

Across the South -- from Virginia, where the Democratic governor embraced the removal of symbols that many whites once considered sacred, to Alabama, where Republican lawmakers recently made it illegal to relocate or remove any Confederate memorials -- dramatic scenes of destruction recalled the fall of the Soviet Union, when crowds tore down statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other icons of totalitarianism. 

America’s seemingly eternal conflict -- born in slavery and kept alive through a century and a half of battles over race, civil rights, and American identity -- has flared once more, focusing yet again on the symbols of the bloodiest war ever fought on US soil, a war between brothers. 

It took less than two weeks for the grassroots response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who was asphyxiated when a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck, to morph from peaceful protests, bouts of burning and looting and nationwide demands for reform of police behaviour into a concerted attack on symbols of the Confederacy. 

But that shift is now plain to see in places large and small, in numbers well beyond similar actions that followed the 2015 mass murder. At a black church in Charleston, and the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Christopher Columbus has long been praised as a daring explorer and the discoverer of the Americas whose 1492 journey paved the way to the creation of the US less than three centuries later. 

In recent years however, more and more activists point to his enslavement, exploitation, and bloody suppression of native Americans. Many view Columbus as the first of many European colonizers who conducted a centuries-long campaign of genocide and war against the native population. 

The calls to abolish Columbus Day, the US national holiday held in October, are also growing more prominent. The attacks on the statue in Richmond comes only days after protesters toppled statue of General Williams Carter Wickham, a military leader who fought for the pro-slavery Confederacy in the US Civil War during the weekend. 

Other statues have also been targeted by protesters outside the US, including one dedicated to Bristol merchant and slave trader Edward Colston in the UK, and the statue of Belgian King Leopold II, responsible for the atrocities that claimed millions of lives in Congo, in Antwerp. 

But the presence of many whites in the crowds that attacked statues this week, and the decision by NASCAR to ban Confederate symbols in the races and the property, has led some supporters of the protests to think that a corner has been turned, that a consensus is developing across racial lines that the icons must go. 

Perhaps, the apathy of the people was enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal and hasten the resurrection of the dead. Every block of stone had a statue inside waiting to be carved and generations later vandalized. 

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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