What is it about statues?

What is it about lifeless, mute statues that triggers people so badly? Is it what they represent? Or is it the loving or loathing of the person immortalised in stone?

Here’s a quick story for you. Once upon a time, there was a man called Edward Colston. Colston was a Tory MP who made a fortune in the slave trade, and died rich, in 1721. He left his money to charities in Bristol. And then Bristol decided to pay tribute to him with statues and memorials around the city, glossing over the slave trade bit, and thanking him for the charity bit.

Colston: A Tory MP who made a fortune in the slave trade.

But as distaste for slavery grew, there were many who quietly disliked Colston’s actions in life, and refused to take his charitible death-bed behaviour as a reason to write off his racist bigotry.

These people did not want to gloss over the slavery bit, not at all. And so it came to pass that last year, the global Black Lives Matter uprising in the Summer of 2020 popped the cork of anti-racism rage and emboldened Bristol’s people to topple a famous Colston statue, dumping it unceremoniously into the harbour.

Image credit: REUTERS
People, yesterday

Opponents to this action cited it as criminal, and four people were in court charged with criminal damage after that toppling of a statue. They pleaded not guilty.

One could argue that criminal damage is a crime, irrespective of the political motives. But there is a serious point being missed: The authorities, until this incident, had turned a blind eye to the older crimes, the cold cases, being celebrated by such monoments in their city.

Right wing activists rallied to “protect” statues.

Across the country, right wing activists rallied to “protect” statues of people like Winston Churchill, who ironically was a key founder of the European Union and would have despised Brexit and all of its supporters. Huge amounts of police resources were taken to defend these lifeless relics in the streets.

In the USA, Joe Biden has removed Churchill’s bust from the Oval Office, provoking outrage among some of the British right wing community. Biden installed busts of civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks and former anti slavery president Abraham Lincoln.

One can’t help but wonder, what would the world be like, if this level of attention were payed to the actions of living, moving people in the present day?

A lifeless old idol, yesterday

One also wonders what historical busts might be displayed in the halls of power in future, and whether they too are destined for an unceremonius dumping in a river.

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