‘Topple the racists’: is direct action effective?
Alina McGregor analyses the recent removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and the effectiveness of the act.
Topple the Racists is the group responsible for the continuation of the toppling of statues after the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston was removed in Bristol. They are campaigning for their hit list of 78 monuments they have collectively decided should also be taken down. Direct action such as this is commonly used when possible solutions to existing problems have not been resolved through more official pathways.
On their website they say the group “is inspired by the direct action taken by Bristolians. Statues are exercises of public adoration. And Edward Colston made his fortune in the slave trade. He was part of a system of mass murder, torture, and human suffering.” They state that they are a collaborative project that examines public spaces and their history with their goal being to promote much-needed dialogues.
They further state “monuments can find a new home in museums, or through art, and some might simply be removed. It is not our job to decide what happens. Glorifying colonialists and slavers has no place in a country serious about dismantling systemic racism and oppression, but education does.”
This group was also responsible for the 2018 Stop Trump Coalition where 400,000 people joined protests around the UK. They are known for the promotion of eradicating inequality, discrimination, corporate greed and climate change, and on promoting peace.
The direct action on the statue in Bristol of Edward Colston is interesting on two main points. Firstly, he was a slave trader so should not ever be glorified due to his prioritization of economic wealth over the acceptance that what he was doing was a violation of human life. Secondly, the statue was erected 200 years after his life and almost 90 years after the abolition of slavery and furthermore, it was erected while the city was governed by Gladstonian liberals who were fiercely against slavery.
The statue was erected 200 years after his life and almost 90 years after the abolition of slavery.
So why did they order this statue? It was due to his legacy of philanthropy to the area. Schools, hospitals, and research centres are owed to his donations. But simply because the government of the time decided that despite his trade there should be a monument to honor his memory, the collectives who endorse direct action say this doesn’t mean we have to agree and this definitely doesn’t mean the statue should remain in an elevated position.
That is why people decided to take it down and why it’s going to a museum to remind Britain of its colonial past. It also reminds us that history is complicated and that people will be judged not by what is objectively right, but rather by what we see as right at the time. For example, Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Martin Luther King were not always seen as functional rebels. Sometime direct action can result in the label of terrorism, ripping down a countries past.
This also means that multiple narratives can be right at the same time. As the Black lives matter supporters chant, education and open and respectful discussions are needed now just as much as they have always been needed.
Direct political action should always be of a mature and reflective relationship. All countries have a history of inequality, whether that be between social classes, genders, sexualities, culture, or ethnicity. Often, it is a combination of all at some point in every nations history. So this is not so much about statues and nor should it be, most people who walked past the Colston statue did not know why there is a sculpture of him. There is a risk that if these statues are taken down without proper education and reflection about who each and every one of them were, what they did, and the context of their time as well as the context of the time when their monument was erected, then all this direct action will likely be for nothing.
There is also the possibility that unless the monuments are taken down in a democratic fashion, meaning people voting for it to be done officially by the council, the BLM supporters will be labelled as unruly, angry, and anti-democratic. Instead of anger towards a man who lived according to different moral standards of the time, repairing the damages that our country has done by way of stopping its own glorification is their aim. A protest of this change of mindset and culture is still direct action; however it focuses on the ideals that most of the western world is built on and tries to lessen how installed it is in our institutions.
This direct action is about removing the symbolism of a glorified era. But what is key is that it is not forgotten. The point of direct action is to spark open debate, which is a tactic that has been successful for many so far.