THE FALL OF COLSTON
This year the world was rocked by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. This was to many an introduction to institutional racism and the horrors that come with it. Social media brought what was happening in America right to our phones. Although it was across the other side of the world, we still felt and experienced that pain as if it was in our back garden. This pain made us look at our own systems and ask the question “Is Britain innocent? Is Britain like America?”. Hopefully by now you will be able to identify the answer to that question. However, these questions at the time did create a storm of content on social media thrashing the current government, police force and education systems who are all guilty of institutional racism and allowing white supremacy to continue to live within powerful institutions.
Assuming you have started at the beginning of our timeline, you will by now hopefully have an understanding of racism in Bristol across time and how it has impacted Black people across history. Bristol is not innocent. Bristol has a very uncomfortable history. Bristol still has a lot to answer for. This recognition and anger sparked off a desire in young people of Bristol who wanted to not just support what was going on over in America, but challenge what has happened and is happening over here in the UK as well.
Many of you would have seen, attended or got involved with the protests here in Bristol. These protests were not just an opportunity for our Black community to stand with our family in America, it was an opportunity to challenge the politics of Bristol and Britain that have for many years avoided its dark past with racism and discrimination.
On June 7th 2020 approximately 10,000 Bristolians gathered at College Green to march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement. This march brought together all Black people from all backgrounds who banded together under the idea that all Black lives matter and all Black lives deserve to be heard. The collective energy was infectious and the desire for change was at an all time high. What happened on this day changed the the history of Bristol forever.
The statue of Edward Colston that had watched over the Harbourside for generations was ripped from it’s plinth by protestors who had simply had enough of what it stood for. This was an act of resistance, it was an act of protest, it was an act of change. As discussed in our previous section, Colston represented the worst of Bristol's ties to the transatlantic slave trade. It is worth noting that Colston being ripped off of his plinth was not an act of random thuggery that social media and the mass media initially liked to push. It was a response to years of protest and pain. The "Countering Colston" campaign, who we mentioned in our last section did their first protest in 2016. In 2018 The city council proposed to put a plaque on the statue which was supposed to recognise the people Colston and others in the city enslaved. Some conservative councillors and the Society of Merchant Venturers, objected to the wording and wanted to remove the mention of his role as a Tory MP, wanted to remove any mention any link between his money and slavery and even disputed how many children could have died on his ships. Unfortunately, they were successful in their argument because the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees did not commission the new plaque. His argument was that the Society were having too much say in the process and he wanted the community to have an opinion instead.
The community did have an opinion, the difference was, they did not trust democracy and time. They trusted the power of collective action. The protestors rolled the statue of Edward Colston into the harbourside where it sunk to the bottom. There was something ironic about how Colston was disposed of. As you may know, the Royal African Company, the organisation Colston was a part of, simply threw African slaves overboard once they were no longer fit for purpose or died in the over populated ships. The city of Bristol decided that Colston had overstayed his welcome, and that it was time for him to disappear in the way that he decided the lifespan of many of our ancestors.
The statue of Colston was removed from the harbourside waters and is now being kept by the City of Bristol as a reminder of its history. Elected Mayor Marvin Rees also announced the formation of a ‘History Commission’ to “help us tell our full city history” and to “shape the future of Bristol”. We look forward to seeing an accurate portrayal of Colston and Bristol's history in future exhibitions…
We would like to end this part of the page with a poem from Vanessa Kisuule about the momentous event of June 7th:
You came down easy in the end.
The righteous wrench of two ropes in a grand plié.
Briefly, you flew, corkscrewed, then met the ground
With the clang of toy guns, loose change, chains, a rain of cheers.
Standing ovation on the platform of your neck.
Punk Ballet. Act 1.
There is more to come.
And who carved you?
They took such care with that stately pose and propped chin.
Wise and virtuous, the plaque assured us.
Victors wish history odourless and static.
But history is a sneaky mistress.
Moves like smoke, Colston,
Like saliva in a hungry mouth.
This is your rightful home,
Here, in the pit of chaos with the rest of us.
Take your twisted glory and feed it to the tadpoles.
Kids will write raps to that syncopated splash.
I think of you lying in the harbour
With the horrors you hosted.
There is no poem more succinct than that.
But still you are permanent.
You who perfected the ratio.
Blood to sugar to money to bricks.
Each bougie building we flaunt haunted by bones.
Children learn and titans sing
Under the stubborn rust of your name.
But the air is gently throbbing with newness.
Can you feel it?
Colston, I can’t get the sound of you from my head.
Countless times I passed that plinth,
Its heavy threat of metal and marble.
But as you landed, a piece of you fell off, broke away,
And inside, nothing but air.
This whole time, you were hollow.
The Bristol All Black Lives Matter Team - The People Who Made It Happen
Comprised of five young people from Bristol, the Bristol ABLM team have organised four protests since June 2020. Each one has given back to the community a sense of unity, pride and solidarity when it comes to identifying as Black. The most important message that this group shares is the idea that ALL black lives matter. This means that the protests are comprised of guest speakers and individuals who represent the LGBTQ+ community, those who live with disabilities, those who advocate for mental health and those who want to express what their individual conceptualisation of black means to them. Without this team, Colston would still be standing tall. Bristol owes you a great deal of appreciation ABLM, and we hope you continue to inspire us all.
*Photos by Khali Photography
Now that you have (hopefully!) explored all components of our current timeline, what does your history mean to you?
How do you think Bristol can move forward and acknowledge the past it has left behind?
Has anything in this timeline stood out to you in particular? If it has, why do you think that is?
If you could challenge one thing in this City, what would it be and why?
What makes this particular historical event special is that as a city, we have an opportunity to create an ending to a story that is still writing itself. Colston may be gone, but there is still a lot to work on to bring about true equality to Bristol. We need to challenge systems that do not respect our culture and our magnificence. We need to educate each other about the collective power that we possess as Black people. We need to continue to show up to protests and support each others projects/businesses. All of these things challenge the system that deep down does not want to see us succeed. Find your lane, channel your power and have your voice heard.
Want to add anything to this section?
Get in touch! This is your project as much as it is ours. We do not claim to have covered everything in this project; we want you to come and get involved to! This our history, this is our story and this is our project. Let’s work!
Has this section peaked your interest?
Here are some events, people and terms that you may wish to investigate relating to the current Black Lives Matter Movement in the UK and across the world.
The End SARS campaign
The Congo Crisis
The Zimbabwe Crisis
The Countering Colston Campaign
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