The past week has seen tense protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police offers in the United States, and along with them have come have bitter calls for the removal of monuments to racist historical figures. With similar protests now taking place abroad, the widespread concerns over public art’s role in structural racism have crossed the Atlantic.
In Bristol, England, on Sunday afternoon, Black Lives Matter protesters succeeded in felling a monument to Edward Colston, a 17th-century merchant and slave trader whose company transported 100,000 West African slaves to North and South America and to the Caribbean. After toppling the statue, erected in 1895, the protesters threw it in the nearby river Avon. Footage of its watery fate has gone viral on social media.
According to a report by the Guardian, local authorities are launching an investigation into criminal damage. Priti Patel, England’s home secretary, called the statue’s removal a “distraction from the cause in which people are protesting about” in an interview with Sky News.
The statue’s removal is of a piece with similar actions undertaken by protesters in the United States this week. In Philadelphia, Black Lives Matter demonstrators defaced a statue of Frank Rizzo, a former mayor who vocally espoused racist and homophobic views. Ultimately, the work was removed by city authorities. And in Richmond, Virginia, politicians revealed plans to take away a controversial monument to Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. Other monuments were removed or defaced in Alabama and Tennessee.
The Bristol monument’s removal by protesters is a sign that the reverberations of the demonstrations over the deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Tony McDade, and others are being felt abroad, far beyond the borders of the United States. Other signs of this could be seen in Belgium on Sunday.
In Brussels, demonstrators targeted a statue of Leopold II, the king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909, who led the country as it undertook a brutal colonialist campaign in the Congo. Protesters ascended the pedestal of a monument to Leopold II in the Belgian capital and unfurled the flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its independence on June 30. In a video that circulated widely on Twitter, the demonstrators chanted “murderer.”
A petition on Change.org calling for the removal of the Leopold II statue in Brussels has garnered nearly 58,000 signatures. A text accompanying the petition reads, “Despite all the contempt he had for life and the Congolese people, Leopold II is still remembered throughout Belgium.”