• Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour, during a Black Lives Matter protest rally. (AAP)Source: AAP
Critics have tried to paint it as more 'cancel culture', missing the potent symbolism of their toppling.
Sarah Malik

12 Jun 2020 - 4:06 PM  UPDATED 10 Jul 2020 - 12:56 AM


One of the most dramatic and thrilling moments in the #blacklivesmatter protests sweeping the globe has been the dumping of statues - including the spontaneous hauling of slave trader Edward Colston's granite face into Bristol harbour by anti-racism protesters.

It was swiftly followed by the toppling of a Columbus status in Minneapolis, with nervous white male statues across the world sweating in their problematic histories. 

Critics have tried to paint it as more 'cancel culture', and now bargaining with a ‘let’s put them in museums with a post-script of their hidden misdeeds' compromise, missing the potent symbolism of their toppling -  and the nervousness it should inspire in the comfortable and those used to dominating for too long. 

It's a reminder that the status quo, and unending, seemingly implacable forces  - power that seemed set in stone, can be toppled overnight.

Part of the modern challenge is to interrogate history and propoganda, what colonial leaders and their societies like to advertise about themselves. Riots, revolution and counter-narratives are also part of the continued tussle of history.

It's function of authority and let's face it, a kind of megalomania, to erect eternal monuments of yourself to be admired (notably all these statues are men). It's also a brazen and deliberate act of holding on to power. 

It's what so many  dictators who erected statues of themselves while living knew - like any wrongful grip on power predicated on inequality - overt displays are needed to maintain the tenuous facade. The toppling of Saddam Hussein and later other figures during the Arab Spring became an iconic feature of protest against power.

What is important to note is that there has been a polite conversation around the celebration of problematic historical figures like Colston for some time, with no movement.

Colston made his wealth in the 18th century slave trade, working in the  Royal African Company that involved him in the enslavement of 84,000 Africans. This history was masked behind his philanthrophy, and his statue was part of a deliberate strategy to cast the eye of benevolent Victorian male paternalism on the city. 

It's parallelled by a campaign to take down the Oxford university statue of 19th century South African imperialist businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes, who paved the way for apartheid by annexing swathes of land and changing voting and land ownership laws. He also was a philanthropist and created scholarships for university students. His towering visage greets black and brown Oxford students every day.

Those who ask for a cultural relativist reading around these figures arguing that they are a product of their time, fail to answer why we need to continue to celebrate and canonise them today - which is what their enduring erection (it's all very phallic) stands for. 

What is incredible is just how normalised white privilege is when you have these figures lauded and black and brown people walking by them every day, the past hanging over their dreams of the future.

It's a testament to white privilege, that these figures can not only preside in powerful positions but also maintain a stranglehold over their uncontested legacies, from beyond the grave. 

The statues are the just the visible embodiment of the things that are being toppled - the statues in our minds, the cultural symbols, all our walls of honour, public 'icons' of all kinds - who do we celebrate and who are the Rosalind Franklins and Tenzing Norgays that get postscripts in history? 

There's something even biblical in it, like Roman deities and symbols of wrongful worship being turned over or repurposed from their original setting. 

It’s a lesson that endless playing nice and ‘diversity and inclusion’ talks don’t work. Recent events have shown the only way that many see to meet these huge, mighty symbols of unending power is literally to throw them in the bin, lay down a gauntlet and force a reckoning.  

Power doesn’t amend itself-  it kicks, bargains, drags, threatens.  

Suffragettes knew this too. Gaining the right to vote, ending police brutality, forcing the Romans to stop draining the poor  - it's the same continuum. 

Sarah Malik is a SBS presenter and senior writer. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahbmalik. 

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