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Christopher Columbus statue torn down outside of the Minnesota State Capitol building in Saint Paul, on June 10. Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr.
Christopher Columbus statue torn down outside of the Minnesota State Capitol building in Saint Paul, on June 10. Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr.

Protesters Worldwide Continue to Topple, Deface, and Campaign for Removal of Racist Monuments

While the debate over controversial historical monuments has been ongoing for years, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, cities across the globe are reassessing their public statues and their legacy of white supremacy with a renewed sense of purpose. Since May 25, the day Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police, anger over the pedestals built to glorify racist symbols has led to a reckoning. Protesters have vandalized, toppled, and advocated for the removal of the leaders of the Confederacy in the United States, as well as colonialists, slave traders, and imperialists in the United Kingdom and Europe.

Public officials such as Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham, Alabama, who was served with a lawsuit by the state for removing a Confederate monument, and Governor Ralph Northam of Richmond, Virginia, who pledged to remove a twelve-ton, twenty-one-foot-tall statue of General Robert E. Lee, are committed to reframing the cities’ historical legacies; however, inaction in other cities has led activists to take matters into their own hands. Last week, in the North End of Boston, a stone effigy of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was beheaded. Another Columbus statue in Richmond was set on fire before it was tossed in a lake, and other statues dedicated to him were felled by protesters in Houston, Miami, and Saint Paul.

The campaign to replace controversial monuments has faced pushback from those who believe that tearing down statues is equal to erasing history and has also been beset by legal obstacles. Governor Northam’s promise to take down the statue of General Lee has been challenged by a descendant of a Virginia family who deeded the land where the monument resides and has been temporarily blocked by a judge. On Saturday, thousands marched to the statue of Lee in protest of police violence and systemic racism. Several lawmakers attended the action in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protesters, including Mayor Levar Stoney of Richmond, who, citing safety issues, urged activists to stop tearing down statues—one man sustained life-threatening injuries when demonstrators pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Fear ignited by the dethroning of a monument of Edward Colston, a slave trader and wealthy benefactor, that was also dumped into a body of water in Bristol, England, spurred city officials in London to build temporary barriers around monuments, shielding them from activists, who are determined to see more come down—one group, called Topple the Racists, has created a map of monuments it wants removed on its website. Mayor Sadiq Kahn, who has vowed to hold a citywide review of London’s monuments, also ordered that statues of Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister during World War II and a notorious racist; Mahatma Gandhi; and Nelson Mandela; as well as the Cenotaph war memorial be boarded up for their protection. In the US, some local governments and groups formed by descendants of Confederate soldiers are preemptively removing statues and moving them safely to storage facilities or are preparing to relocate them to museums.

Iconoclasm is a “phenomenon that happens whenever there’s a revolutionary moment,” James Simpson, a Harvard University professor told the Washington Post. “And in a revolutionary moment, the surest, quickest way to attack the old regime, to attack the old dispensation, is to attack the monuments.”

While protesters have used controversial heritage sites as rallying points and instances where statues were pulled down have been celebrated, the discussion about what will replace these figures and fill their empty plinths lags behind the calls for their removal. In Paris, where several thousand people ignored the ban on large gatherings due to the Covid-19 pandemic and converged on the Place de la République square on Saturday to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, a new monument for the victims of slavery will be erected as early as 2021. France’s Culture Ministry has announced an open call for designs for the memorial, which will sit in the capital’s Tuileries Gardens, and is accepting submissions until September 1.

For Rob Fields, a thirty-seven-year-old, Richmond-based hip-hop artist, what will replace the city’s 130-year-old statue of General Lee is not as important as ensuring the fight for racial justice does not end with its removal. “I want people to focus on . . . how we create longstanding change,” he told NPR. “If this is the tip of the iceberg, we cannot let the tip be more important than the actual iceberg itself.”