Tom Whittaker

Tom Whittaker

Pulling down Colston’s statue was right

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Tom Whittaker, a socialist active in Bristol, which has seen some of the most militant protests in the UK since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, reports on a stunning act of political symbolism.

The pulling down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol (07 June) was a joyous and liberating moment that has reverberated across the world.

The involvement of Bristol merchants such as Edward Colston in the international slave trade has long cast a shadow over the city. The statue’s location in the centre of the city is an affront to the diverse and multiracial city that Bristol has become.

Bristol’s politicians and civic leaders have had opportunities to remove the statue before.

In 2007, the 200th anniversary of parliament voting to abolish the transatlantic slave trade was commemorated – the statue could have been taken down then alongside a public apology for Bristol’s role in the trade.

Instead, the city named a major new shopping centre Cabot circus, after the 15th-century merchant and coloniser John Cabot, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus.

Colston Girls, a private school, converted to academy status but retained its name despite receiving public funds. There is also another private school that bears the name of the slave trader.

Following a recent campaign headed up by the historian David Olusoga and Green Party councillor Cleo Lake, the music venue Colston Hall had announced it would be changing its name following a refurbishment. Massive Attack had always refused to play there whilst it bore the name Colston.

So today has been a long time in the making, but it is the power of an international movement that has given people the confidence to act and ensured that those actions received widespread support.

For now, Colston’s statue lies at the bottom of the harbour, a fitting end for a slave trader toppled by a mass movement. We should use this moment to demand funding for an International Slavery Museum in Bristol such as Liverpool has.

The fall of Colston in 2020 will no doubt come to rank alongside the Bus Boycott of 1963 and the St Paul’s Uprising of 1980 in Bristol’s contribution to the anti-racist struggle.

Any attempt by the police to pursue those involved for criminal damage should be resisted by a mass campaign across the city.

Let’s make sure this is only the beginning.

This article was first published on Counterfire.

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