Friday July 19, 2024

Uprooting racism

By Robert C Koehler
June 13, 2020

“This was not an attack on history. This is history. It is one of those rare historic moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were."

And the toppled statue of a 17th century slave trader, now at the bottom of Bristol Harbour, is suddenly more relevant than ever, as the cry for compassionate social order – sparked by the murder of George Floyd—begins to engulf the whole planet. Perhaps . . . oh, let us hope . . . we are at the point of real change, a shift in the collective consciousness that holds our social systems together.

This is the rebirth and continuation of the civil rights movement and may be the most serious undoing of racist normal that I’ve seen in my lifetime.

Not only have the protests against police violence gone global, but they have cut deep into Western history: into its racism and colonialism, which, until now, have remained quietly unquestioned and entrenched in our institutional "normal." A movement has begun to rethink the nature of public safety and, indeed, to rethink who we are.

For instance, a majority of Minneapolis city council members recently pledged to disband - and re-envision – the city’s police force: to “end policing as we know it,” as council president Lisa Bender put it, "and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe."

This is the rebirth and continuation of the civil rights movement and may be the most serious undoing of racist normal that I’ve seen in my lifetime. And, as I say, protests and rallies have gone global, emerging across Europe, in Canada, Australia, Japan, Zimbabwe, Kenya. Could it be, despite endless political declarations to the contrary, that this is one planet?

Could it be that we can uproot our history and start over?

I’d never heard of Edward Colston and knew virtually nothing about the English city of Bristol. But when I read about the toppling of his statue, I realized this movement was not only wide but deep. A statue of Colston had stood in the center of Bristol since 1895. Hardly surprising. This rich, benevolent merchant had endowed schools, churches and hospitals in Bristol with his wealth, giving generations of city fathers reason to honor him and ignore an awkward reality: Colston was the deputy governor of the Royal African Company, the largest slave trader of its day. Slave-trading was the source of Colston’s wealth.

Historian David Olusoga, who is quoted at the beginning of the column, writes that Colston “helped to oversee the transportation into slavery of an estimated 84,000 Africans. Of them, it is believed, around 19,000 died in the stagnant bellies of the company’s slave ships during the infamous Middle Passage from the coast of Africa to the plantations of the new world. The bodies of the dead were cast into the water where they were devoured by the sharks that, over the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, learned to seek out slave ships and follow the bloody paths of slave routes across the ocean. This is the man who, for 125 years, has been honoured by Bristol. Put literally on a pedestal in the very heart of the city. But tonight Edward Colston sleeps with the fishes.”

Turns out the Colston statue had long been controversial. More than 10,000 people had signed a petition demanding the city take it down, but of course this was ignored. So on June 7, in the midst of the global uprising against institutional racism, protesters did the job themselves.

Excerpted from: 'Globally Uprooting a Racist Past'.