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Kick over the statues

Left JAB by John Bell

June 16, 2020

Is nothing sacred? When it comes to history, no.

In Bristol, England, Black Lives Matter protesters removed a statue of Edward Colston from its plinth and chucked it in the river.

Colston was a “philanthropist” whose vast fortune was founded on the buying and selling of human beings, slaves from Africa. Tens of thousands of them. Since thousands of men, women and children who died or became sick during the voyage were unceremoniously tossed off the slave ships, a watery grave for Colston seemed fitting.

In a late development, Bristol officials have resurrected the bronze bastard and removed him to a “secure location”. 

Across the US southern states, statues of Confederate “heroes” are tumbling down. Some are being torn down by angry protesters, tired of symbols of white supremacy and racist oppression towering over them. More are being pre-emptively removed by local officials. Their motives are less transparent. The old expression, jumping before you’re pushed, comes to mind.

In Louisville, Kentucky, John Breckenridge Castleman bit the dust for the second time. In Montgomery, Alabama Robert E. Lee lost again. In Nashville, Tennessee, a memorial to Edward Carmack was scrapped. Carmack was an early 20thcentury Senator and newspaper owner who used his bully pulpits to attack civil rights and impose Jim Crow laws in the south.

In a related move, officials overseeing NASCAR auto racing have banned display of the Stars and Bars, the Confederate flag, at any of its events. That flag is a symbol of racist violence and hate to the vast majority, comparable with the swastika. For years NASCAR looked the other way, and allowed bullshit argument that the flag was just “heritage, not hate”, sort of like “all flags matter”. In fact, that heritage and hate are two sides if the same coin. (Did I mention that most denominations of US currency have pictures of slave-owners on them?) 

Many are shocked at NASCAR’s decision–as one sports writer pointed out, either you’re amazed the symbol of hatred is still tolerated in 2020, or you’re amazed that NASCAR had the nerve to go against “good ol’ boy” culture. But multi-billion dollar businesses like NASCAR do their polling and research; they must have seen the writing on the statue.

Meanwhile, in St. Paul Minnesota, a statue of Christopher Columbus was toppled. What, I asked myself, was a statue of Columbus doing in the north mid-west? I could understand memorials to the French priests and fur traders who were the first to contact the local Indigenous peoples–Marquette, Joliet, la Salle, Cavelier and Radisson. Their role in the local history is problematic enough, but at least they were there. But Columbus? Did he have a cottage in the Land O Lakes? Did he invent cheese?

In Massachusetts protesters did not topple their local Columbus. They decapitated it. I for one appreciate a subtle guillotine allusion.

Defenders of statues of bigots and butchers say they are just respecting history and tradition.

To prove it, in England, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and assorted lager louts rallied to defend statues and memorials. In the US south, members of the KKK and fascist groups rose up to guard Confederate losers.

They rallied in London around a statue of noted racist and war criminal Winston Churchill. No need; officials had already built a box around the bronze bigot. So they spent the afternoon spewing racist insults at passers-by, and beating up a Black teenager. One beer saturated history enthusiast was photographed pissing on a memorial to a slain policeman.

In Newcastle they heroically marched to protect a statue of Earl Grey. Yeah, the tea guy. Local BLM and anti-racists were perplexed. Earl Grey was a noted abolitionist and anti-slaver. No one had any intention of retiring his memorial.

As internet satirist Randy Rainbow observed via twitter: “As someone who slept through history class, I’m mostly impressed that people know which statues to throw in the lake.”..

So far as I can see, our movement is batting 1000. Anti-racists aren’t roaming the urban streets, looking for any random bronze to boil down. Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh–good dog. Columbus, you’re out; Columbo in Budapest, you’re good. Manneken Pis in Brussels, piss on.  But King Leopold of Belgium, author of genocide in colonial Congo–piss off! 

History is chock full of stories of people tearing down monuments to the powers that oppressed them. In Germany there are no statues of Hitler to tear down, so obviously he has been completely forgotten, In Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Berlin in 1990 the symbols of Stalinist oppression bit the dust. Did contemporary conservatives wring their hands over the loss of heritage?

It is a little known fact that in the Roman era, many of the statues had heads that could be screwed off and replaced. Art historians theorized that this allowed fragile marble to be easily repaired. Equus stercore! The real reason was to discourage rioting plebs from totally destroying statues. For a while there, the average tenure of Roman Emperors was about 5 years; they went through demigods like shit through a goose. Just replacing heads was a matter of thrift and expediency.

If only simply replacing the head was still an option. Here near Toronto City Hall there is a bronze Churchill begging for a head replacement. Given the body shape and posture, I nominate the late John Candy. Who could say the nay no?

Which brings me to Sir John A. Macdonald–the more you know about our first PM, the more you want to see him melted down like the Wicked Witch of the West. He was the epitome of the scumbag politician, enriching his friends and exploiting everyone else; a legal representative of the Confederacy and so a supporter of slavery, and most infamously a chief architect of the genocide of Indigenous people.

His statue lords it over the Ontario legislature. Would removing him from a place of honour equal erasing him from history. I would argue just the opposite.

When the statues of bigots and bullies come down history is not being erased – it is being exposed.

I’ll give the final word on Edinburgh-born John A to the Scottish Government. They have removed references to the racist old sot from their official government literature, citing “the legitimate concerns raised by Canadian indigenous communities about his legacy”.

As poet and revolutionary Robbie Burns observed:

“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion.”

Venerating the likes of Macdonald is a foolish notion indeed. If we must have a statue of a dead Scottie at Queen’s Park, I nominate Burns.

Embedded Video: 
"Kick Over the Statues", the Redskins, 1985

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