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Julia Neves, Queens University.
The recent outrage over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other people of colour have sparked reform and a push for change to the systems that promote institutionalized racism in America and across the world. There have been petitions made to bring justice to victims of police brutality, protests in the streets to bring awareness, and many more actions in an effort to combat acts of racism. Another action that is being taken around the world is the removal, toppling or defacing of monuments of racist historical figures.
After the death of George Floyd, countries across the globe erupted in protest against racist historical monuments. In Antwerp, Belgium the statue of King Leopold II was removed because of his brutal rule over the Congo, during which more than 10 million Congolese people were killed. In consequence, the statue was defaced by protesters and a petition was made in an effort to remove all statues with King Leopold II, garnering over 80,000 signatures.
In Bristol, England on June 7th, 2020 the statue of Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into Bristol harbour. Colston, a philanthropist and namesake of many buildings and streets in Bristol, had ties to the slave trade. He profited from the Royal African Company, which shipped enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean to work on plantations. Protesters tied ropes around the statue’s neck pulled it down and then pushed it into the nearby harbour.
The country with the highest number of protests against racist monuments has been the United States. Roughly 27 monuments nationwide have been ordered to be torn down or have already been removed, including statues of Christopher Columbus, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate General Albert Pike. The statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down and thrown into a lake because of his involvement in the genocide and exploitation of Native Americans, while President Jefferson Davis and General Albert Pike had their statues defaced and taken down because of their status as confederates supporting the act of slavery.
Amidst this tidal wave of public outrage, the destruction and removal of historical monuments has generated controversy among many. On the one hand, some believe that a statue is a symbol of commemoration and praise for an individual or idea. Building a statue immortalizes an individual, bearing their face and name forward in time. However, these monuments that are being taken down or trashed by protesters were built in remembrance of someone who is not worthy of such high praise due to their immoral background. In a sense, removing the monuments it is condemning the behavior or ideals of the subject by demonstrating that these people do not deserve to be remembered. On the other side of the argument lie those who believe that removing these monuments is essentially erasing parts of history.
When faced with the question of why learning about the past is important, many historians default to the same response: we learn about history in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Those who hold the opinion that tearing down monuments erases history often agree with this statement. Even though the commemorated individuals committed immoral or violent acts during their lifetime, some believe it is important to preserve monuments as a way to record history. An example of a historical monument that still stands despite its connection with a despicable past is the concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland. During the Holocaust, Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp that killed over 1.1 million women and men. The approach decided by the government was to create a memorial for those who perish and for later generations to learn about what happened in order to not let history repeat itself. If this approach is applied to the preservation of monuments, one could argue that rather than tearing these monuments down, they should be converted into educational materials. The choice of whether to tear down the monuments or to keep them up lies in hands of the citizens and the government. However, a key aspect of this decision lies in understanding that these figures or locations hold ties to negative, often horrific events that would be condemned in modern society. Using the Holocaust as an example again, although monuments have constructed as a consequence of vile acts of anti-Semitism, these monuments condemn rather than celebrate those actions. There are ways in which the historic legacy of an individual can be preserved that do not celebrate their actions, such as in historical books and documents. In conclusion, both sides have a valid argument when it comes to controversial historic monuments and the fate of said monuments should be decided by the public.
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Helber, Photograph by Steve, et al. “As Monuments Fall, How Does the World Reckon with a Racist Past?” National Geographic, 25 Aug. 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/06/confederate-monuments-fall-question-how-rewrite-history/.
Langfitt, Frank. “The Protests Heard ‘Round The World.” NPR, NPR, 16 Sept. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/09/15/913353564/the-protests-heard-round-the-world.
The New York Times. “How Statues Are Falling Around the World.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/us/confederate-statues-photos.html.
Taylor, Alan. “The Statues Brought Down Since the George Floyd Protests Began.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2 July 2020, www.theatlantic.com/photo/2020/07/photos-statues-removed-george-floyd-protests-began/613774/.
Www.auschwitz.org. “MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU FORMER GERMAN NAZICONCENTRATION AND EXTERMINATION CAMP.” Auschwitz, auschwitz.org/en/.
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