activism current affairs equality human rights race

Toppled statues and how civil disobedience works

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.


  1. Very grateful for you pointing to ‘letter from a Birmingham jail’ What a powerful description of injustice! I have passed it on, (especially to some I know currently suffering at the dirty hands of our ‘Social Services’ (aka the SS or social disservice). Believe you me, it’s true. And the Family courts take direction from them – so sad).

  2. The question is whether if the protesters were against something you agreed with, and used direct action to get what they wanted, would you be so sanguine?

    Imagine perhaps a government following a radical low carbon policy dealing with sustained direct action protests by those effected, with widespread disruption. Would you be so pleased if they forced government u turns?

    1. Civil disobedience is a tool. Of course it matters who uses it and what for, just like any other tool.

      It is, however, a tool of the powerless. A tool of last resort. And as such we should pay particular attention when it is used.

      1. But the cases we are seeing today have been successful attempts to short circuit democracy rather than force a democratic process. Bristol has been discussing the fate of Colston’s statue for years but there was no resolution not because democracy was failing but because there were similar sized groups in both sides, in fact what democratic consultations there were came back in favour of keeping it where it was.

        Similarly in Liverpool University where they have renamed Gladstone Hall, two years ago they had a ‘preferendum’ and the majority voted to keep the name. Obviously that might have changed now but that should have been confirmed before they acted.

        Direct action where democracy is prevented is justified. If it’s a way of getting what you want that democracy would deny you then it isn’t.

        1. The civil rights movement had their case reviewed in court, and submitted a petition. Neither of those worked because the white community liked segregation, thank you very much. Should they have said ‘law and democracy have spoken’ and gone home?

          Same with abolition. Parliament voted multiple times to keep slavery. Should the abolitions have shrugged and said ‘we tried!’

          The processes of democracy are tilted in favour of the status quo, and of a majority white view of the world. It’s not that the democratic process hasn’t been run – it’s that the democratic process has failed to address the injustice.

          I’m guessing you didn’t take my advice to read the letter before commenting.

          1. The abolishionists didn’t use direct action, they just kept trying until they were successful within the system of the time. By doing that they made sure when it happened it was widely accepted and set the country for the long military campaign to stop the slave trade. If it had been forced the consent for a long expensive effort during a major war wouldn’t have been forth coming

            It is rather inherent that democracy will be tilted to the majority. If you want to give up on that please say so.

          2. In response to DevonChap’s points below about direct action and ’tilting to the majority’ (since for some reason there’s no reply button on DevonChap’s own comment):

            1: it doesn’t seem right to portray abolitionism as an example of working ‘within the system’. Most major reforms (in British history at least) have involved forms of disruptive protest. They were often brutally suppressed, and condemned by the authorities, but then changes quietly took place afterwards, so they seem to have a key role. So we know ‘working within the system’ has a generally poor track record, even if specific examples for abolitionism were hard to find. However there ARE examples: Quakers certainly engaged in direct action. And surely we can’t forget the role of slaves themselves, and of the Underground Railway? Don’t those count?

            2: Personally I DO want to give up on democracy that’s ’tilted to the majority’, if it means our current limited form, mainly of antagonistic political parties, and ‘first past the post’ voting. I found it a real eye-opener to learn a little about other models, especially forms of participatory and deliberative democracy, which are now getting significant interest. I think democracy could/should be so much more than what we conceive and practice now in UK. This would be tilted much more away from the majority, towards wider and improved representation, involvement, and consent.

            Just to explain what I mean by terms above, in case there’s ambiguity:,
            and interesting history context here:

            1. Where does the suffragette movement fit in? They were certainly involved in direct and indirect action, and eventually the government moved to be inclusive, but it took years. And women were not a minority group, they were half the population. It would be good to have, even in my own local politics, the government that included looking after those that find it difficult to look after themselves. In the case of democracy would sortition be the answer?

          3. Marcusadf
            The underground railway had no part the the UK abolitionist movement. We should be careful not to conflate American politics with British ones.

            The welfare state was introduced without civil disobedience. Major reform has been possible without it. You need patience which doesn’t appeal to many right now.

            Participatory alternative democracy sounds nice if you think you will get what you want but it’s hasn’t been as tested as liberal democracy. If it turns out worse than our current system ( which not forget for all it’s faults gives the best governments the world has known) then no one, especially the poorest, win. Remember the ancients saw Athenian democracy as fatally flawed.

          4. Again, things are always complex and messy, but there are strong arguments that the welfare state didn’t arise solely through ‘our system’, but because big upheavals (2 world wars, the 30s crash…) forced attention onto major problems with poverty and disadvantage that had been there all the time, unaddressed. We are seeing many parallels today. In all the examples discussed here, dramatic events awoke awareness and unlocked progress where it had been glacially slow (or zero) under ‘our system’ alone. I treasure what’s good about our system, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be greatly improved. It’s mistaken to attribute all good things to our current political system; improvements come through many strands of human/social dynamics, and disruptive protest, wisely and peacefully handled, has been shown through many varied examples to be a vital element.

            I wasn’t holding up Athens as a paragon, just as an interesting illustration that participatory democracy is not new, and many forms of democracy exist/existed. I just think that what we have in the UK, in its current form, is not the only possible way to do things.

          5. That our system responded to large events (world wars, depression) and created the welfare state without disobedience reinforces my point that our system is able to work well. It is rather the point that it can respond to changes circumstances. Civil disobedience is not essential in every major change despite being romanticised by some.

            Failure to get the changes you want are not always evidence of system failure. It might be that what you want isn’t the right thing or you just failed to make your case. Humility is a good virtue.

            Not saying our system is perfect but I’d want to see large scale, long term success of alternatives elsewhere before making radical change as the downside risk of getting it wrong and ending up with something worse is too large.

          6. The system has always been able to work well, in theory. That is always the argument, wherever and whenever. But practically, if it takes major incidents, and cataclysms like thousands dying in depressions or wars, before those in power implement changes, then the system is emphatically NOT working well! If it was truly able to work well, why did it have to take so many decades, and things to reach such a pitch, before things changed?

            It’s easy to believe our system is able to work well if we’re doing ok in it. I think I’ve had that perspective most of my life. I’m aware how privileged I am, with circumstances and leisure that enable me to learn history and debate things online. But those effectively disenfranchised by subtle but powerful barriers: BAME, disabled, mental health, gig economy workers, deprived regions etc, may not see it our way! There are reasons why anger and frustration is so intense, in UK and elsewhere. We need to truly take heed. And there may come a point where peaceful and carefully considered disruptive protest is what it takes, to rescue the system whose good aspects we love.

  3. There was sustained direct action against the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama – there are plenty of pictures of burned churches, dogs, guns and truncheons for all to see. The people doing this, or approving of it, thought that they were in the right, just as Cecil Rhodes sincerely and fervently believed in the superiority of the white race.
    There was sustained direct action in 1920s Munich and through the early 1930s in Germany involving people in brown shirts and the smashing of windows.
    History tells us which version of truth prevails, and the survivors of climate catastrophe will know keenly which side history will be on. As David Olusoga put it: “The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history.”
    Many thanks, Jeremy Williams, for the very pertinent links to MLK.

    1. This is true, and there are distinctions to be drawn between civil disobedience generally and non-violent direct action specifically. A commitment to nonviolence is very important to building and retaining support, at the time and in posterity, and the brown shirts had no such commitment.

    2. ‘just as’ Cecil Rhodes sincerely and fervently believed in the superiority of the white race’.
      It is not a matter of ‘just as’. Believing in supremacy is not ‘just as’ believing in equality.
      DevonChap misses this too.

      1. Sorry Karen, you seem to be suggesting I believe in white superiority . I never mentioned that or even said ‘just as’. That is in the post by Gordon Ferguson.

        Please make it clear you are not accusing me of support for racism. That is an unjustified and serious accusation. I insist you clarify immediately.

        1. DevonChap – Yes, I was responding to Gordon Ferguson’s comment that’s why I quoted him. I clicked to reply to him but I must have clicked on the general reply when I added a bit. So, no I’m not accusing you of supporting racism. I think he used ‘just as’ incorrectly (as I explained) and you used a very general ‘on the other foot ‘ comment so I was stating that both comments miss the point that there is a big difference between wanting some people to be superior to others and wanting equality in basic human rights.

    3. And did he and many of us think democracy has been run, in general, by people with the spirit which he goes on to elucidate? It is good that you have offered his definition so others can use them to put the case so succintly.

  4. Thank you so much Jeremy for pointing to the MLK letter from Birmingham Jail. Absolutely brilliant and pouts the points so well. I was very ignorant and did not know much about MLK at all. I think that the most telling point is that difference between just and unjust laws. Thank you.

  5. It would be interesting to know if and how the clergy responded to MLK Jnr. He showed them how unjust democracy can be and what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this Were they of changed mind? Some people never move out of their, frequently, conditioned, box. Does anyone know a link to any responses from them.? (Just in case – Yes, I do know how to Google :-).

  6. The Scottish (and later Quaker) philosopher John Macmurray made this observation in an address, ‘The Roots of Democracy’, to the Indian YMCA in London in 1929:
    ‘Majority government is a mere means to an end. It is a useful machinery of legislation, if it is properly used. But whether it is properly used or not depends upon the spirit underlying it and underlying its use. In that regard I would make one statement which has been made before but which is essentially important: that one of the crucial tests of democracy is the way in which it treats its minorities. A country in which the majority forces its will upon a recalcitrant minority by sheer weight of numbers is not really democratic at all. In a truly democratic country all honest minorities have definite rights of their own, which are respected and considered and sympathetically treated by the majority.’

    1. Gordon Ferguson – Sorry, my reply to your post at 09.12am today has not followed your comment (though I did click reply below it!), but arrived higher up!! I hope it doesn’t this time! :

      Karen Williams
      June 12, 2020 at 11:00 am

      And did he and many of us think democracy has been run, in general, by people with the spirit which he goes on to elucidate? It is good that you have offered his definition so others can use them to put the case so succinctly.

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