Passing Bite | Society

Let the statues fall

Giving offence: An image of George Floyd is projected on the base of the statue of Robert E. Lee on June 8.

Giving offence: An image of George Floyd is projected on the base of the statue of Robert E. Lee on June 8.   | Photo Credit: AP

Especially if they are of those who devoted their lives to enslaving and trading people of a different ethnicity

In 1989, I was visiting the city of Richmond, Virginia, in the United States. I’d known my friends T and P since my time in college in Vermont and we were here in T’s hometown to help him with a video project.

We were driving around at night in a city which had been the capital of the Confederate States during the Civil War. At some point, we turned into Monument Avenue. As we passed the equestrian statues and columns, T, an African-American, read out the roll-call of names of the Generals represented, with P, a white guy from New Jersey, replying, “That guy’s got to go!”, “Take him down!”, “And him too!”. We finally stopped near a statue where both my friends vented simultaneously, “This one first! This one’s gotta go, first of all!”

This divisive symbol

The statue commemorated Robert E. Lee, the Commander of the Confederate Armies and the general who fought some of the bloodiest battles of the civil war while defending the ‘right’ of whites to own slaves. In 1989, nearly 125 years after the supposed emancipation of people of African descent, we were looking up at the statue of a figure around whom white supremacists had built their racist myths while continuing to discriminate grotesquely, and at every possible level, against Americans of colour.

The presence of these statues of slavery-supporting generals in Richmond and other southern cities was equally outrageous for my black American friend and my white American friend, but it has taken another 31 years for the current Governor of Virginia to even attempt to remove that statue of Lee — ‘this divisive symbol’ as he put it — from the centre of the State capital. Just after Governor Ralph Northam gave the order, a State judge issued an injunction against the removal, based on a deed signed in 1870 that the State of Virginia would “perpetually care for and affectionately protect” the statue.

A couple of years ago, in Baltimore, statues of Lee, of Confederate icon Stonewall Jackson, and of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court judge who gave a judgment upholding slavery, were all removed overnight by the administration.

Moment of elation

The recent removal and disposal in the river of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, has triggered debates online. Some arguments are framed thus: Can any one group of people be allowed to pull down statues and architectural symbols that they find offensive? If yes, then how can you stop others from defacing or destroying other statues and buildings that they find offensive, even if you hold those targets to have archaeological or artistic value? If the group pulling down the Colston statue was “caught up in a passion” set off by the police murder of George Floyd, then could one not say the mob that destroyed the Babri Masjid was equally beset by passionate anger? What about the Bamiyan Buddhas — if we feel outrage at the Taliban destruction, should we also not feel outrage when a group yanks down the statue of Colston or defaces statues of Robert Clive or Winston Churchill? What about the IS’s destruction of ancient sites that offend their version of Islam? Couldn’t the pulling down of the Colston statue be compared to those extreme actions?

Well, no. The Taliban shelled the Bamiyan Buddhas in a spectacle aimed at Western governments, destroying the region’s own ancient heritage, blasting away sculptures that had no bearing whatsoever on the Afghan people’s current situation. The ‘passion’ which led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid was manufactured carefully over many years by ruthlessly amoral politicians. The IS’s destruction of archaeological sites has been consistently connected to the sale of artefacts from those sites — sales to Western collectors who knowingly or otherwise have funded IS’s horrific campaigns.

On the other hand are these statues, of those who devoted their lives to enslaving and trading people of a different ethnicity; Colston or the mass murderer Leopold II of Belgium or Cecil Rhodes or Robert Clive, or indeed Winston Churchill, whose ‘finest hour’ of about four months can be weighed against the darkness of 70 years of adult life as an indefatigable white racist who often held great power while having nothing but contempt for ‘inferior races’.

Whether these people’s statues are removed to a back lot such as Coronation Park in Delhi or Barrackpore near Kolkata, or occasionally burnt or brought down and thrown into a river, their removal has to do with circumstances of racism and discrimination that are current and based on the foundations laid by these men.

A few months after my encounter with the statue of Lee, the Berlin Wall was brought down. It was a moment of massive elation, even for someone like me who had never seen it or experienced suffering because of its existence. I tend to think the bringing down of the Colson statue or the burning of the Leopold likeness or the removal of Lee + horse is akin to that wonderful, historical dismantling.

Ruchir Joshi is a filmmaker and columnist.

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Printable version | Jul 15, 2020 4:26:54 AM |

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