There were controversial scenes this week in Bristol, as a Black Lives Matter protest tore down a statue in the town centre. The statue was of Edward Colston, philanthropist, noted citizen and notorious slave trader. A protestor threw a rope around the statue and hauled it down. It was rolled along the street and tipped into the harbour – a poetic echo of the thousands of men, women and children who died on Colston’s slave ships and were dumped in the sea.
These sorts of images are widely celebrated when it is statues of Lenin or Saddam Hussein being torn down. It turns out they’re more controversial close to home. Some people immediately called for it to be put back, and a group of men were photographed vainly trying to fish the statue out again yesterday. Others celebrate its demise, whether or not they approve of the criminal damage.
The mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, sums up that position well: “I am of Jamaican heritage and I cannot pretend that I have any real sense of loss for the statue and I cannot pretend it was anything other than a personal affront to me to have it in the middle of Bristol, the city in which I grew up.”
I’ll leave the question of contested heritage for others to debate. What I find interesting is how many of the criticisms of the action are identical to the criticisms made against Martin Luther King.
For example, a number of commentators are saying that it would have been better to have taken the statue down through democratic means, rather than resorting to civil disobedience. “There is a democratic process which should be followed” said Prime Minister Johnson, suddenly showing great concern for democratic process.
“You are quite right in calling for negotiation” wrote MLK to his critics. “Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
In his case, the civil disobedience in Birmingham, Alabama, came after repeat failures at engaging the local authorities. If dialogue worked, nobody would need to break the law. Likewise, there have been talks about Colston’s statue for years and there has been no resolution.
But isn’t it all a bit hasty, some commentators are saying. By tearing down the statue, the decision has been made without hearing all sides. MLK addressed this idea too. “I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'”
When people say the activists should have waited and followed due process, they forget that the Edward Colston statue had already been there for 125 years. They may be coming late to the argument and think things have been rushed. “It is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait'”, wrote MLK. I think I can freely paraphrase that to say “it is easy for those who have never felt the insult of a slaver’s statue to say ‘wait'”.
Perhaps the most useful reason to look at Martin Luther King’s reasoning is to see how civil disobedience works. To his thinking, “the purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” Discussion and action are not antithetical. The action creates the dialogue, where it had been denied or delayed before. And while tearing down a statue may be shocking, King points out that “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
The Colston statue is a dramatic example of how this works.
After years of repeatedly kicking the issue into the long grass, London announced a review of its statuary. A slave trader statue was removed from the Docklands just two days after the Bristol action. Manchester announced a review shortly afterwards. Oriel College in Oxford has reopened the long-running talks about its statue of the white supremacist Cecil Rhodes. There are debates on controversial statues in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Plymouth. As of this morning, 130 councils have opened reviews of their monuments.
Civil disobedience works. Yes, laws have been broken – and Martin Luther King argued that those who engage in nonviolent direct action should take full responsibility for that. But the moment of crisis in Bristol has cracked open a discussion in Britain about heritage, empire, and the sources of white wealth. I hope for new steps in a positive direction as our culture learns to separate remembering and honouring, and that our towns and cities become a better reflection of our multiculturalism.
If you’ve never read Martin Luther King’s ‘letter from a Birmingham jail’, it’s the most concise account of the logic of civil disobedience you’ll ever read. If your natural reaction to the statue toppling is to oppose it, I encourage you to read it before commenting.