UPRISING: Symbols are Invested With Power; Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue

Symbols are important, writes Jonathan Cook. They are the illustrations to the stories we are fed about who we are and what we hold dear.

By Jonathan Cook

I did not expect to be returning to this issue so soon but I was surprised, to put it mildly, to discover that my last post on anti-racists toppling a statue of the notorious slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol proved to be the most polarising article I have ever written. Given the many controversial topics I have addressed over the years, that seems noteworthy in itself.

It may not be surprising that those on the right are troubled by ordinary people challenging authority, demanding change rather than conserving what we already have, and “taking the law into their own hands”. None of this sits too easily with the conservative political worldview. But some on the left seem equally disturbed by this act of popular protest. That needs to be analysed and challenged.

I have been able to identify three main types of criticism from the left.

Cities on the Back Foot

The first suggests that tearing down statues is ineffective. It does not change anything, and actually conceals society’s continuing racism. These actions may make activists feel good but they fail to bring about any tangible progress.

Such arguments are obviously undermined by the fact that Bristol’s mayor and its council, which had been ignoring demands to remove Colston’s statue for decades, are finally proposing action. For the first time, the mayor has called for a “citywide conversation” about all of Bristol’s public memorials. He has promised to discuss their future with historians, presumably to identify which ones venerate people like Colston so obscenely horrible that they have no place in public squares looking down on us. Instead they should be in museums, where their crimes can be contextualised and properly understood.

Other cities and organisations are taking rapid, pre-emptive action too to remove the most offensive statues. Slave owner Robert Milligan (below) has been removed from outside the museum in London Docklands (an area rebuilt on money made from modern slavery, mostly of labourers in the Third World), while two London hospitals have removed from public view statues to the slave traders that founded them. Cities and public bodies are for the first time assessing which statues are of figures simply too odious to be defended. These institutions are on the back foot. That is a victory of some kind.

But also the toppling of statues has clearly been very effective in sparking a debate about the crimes of empire – the stolen wealth that built today’s Britain – in ways that have rarely been possible before. The media has been full of discussions about the merits or otherwise of such direct action, what motivates the protesters, and what should be done with these disturbing relics of our ugly colonial past. It has put into question what “philanthropy” really means – a topic of current relevance given that a global elite, from Bill Gates to Richard Branson, now shape public policy. And it has given a rare voice to the black community to say how they feel about people who committed horrific crimes against their ancestors still lording over them in public spaces.

These debate are in themselves educational, and may lead some people to explore Britain’s colonial past, or to contemplate more deeply our society’s power structures, or to consider modern manifestations of racism, both in their overt and less conscious forms, who might otherwise not have done so.

Finally, the toppling of statues has been effective in exposing the extent of background racism on the British left. I’ve been truly staggered to find leftists who follow me on social media decrying this simply as “mob rule”. Probing their reasoning a little has tended to reveal some pretty ugly premises and a tendency to  dismiss everything as hollow identity politics. That is lazy political thinking, and a position that is held easily only if one is white.

“Golliwog” racism, as I explained in my original post, was the jam generations of white children spread on their morning toast. We live with those unquestioned associations and assumptions still. It’s about time we confronted them rather than indulged them.

Overthrowing Symbols

The second criticism is that toppling statues is a distraction from proper political activism, that statues are meaningless symbols, that there are much more important things to be getting on with, and that the establishment wants us to target statues to sow division or direct our energies into irrelevancies. It is claimed that tearing down Colston’s statue has detracted from the inspiration for the protests: challenging police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman in Minneapolis.

There are lots of reasons why this approach is a wrong-headed.

Symbols are important. They are the illustrations to the stories we are fed about who we are and what we hold dear. Like images in the picture books our parents read to us before we could make out the letters of the text, these symbols often have more impact than the stories themselves. When we challenge symbols we begin to deconstruct the stories that they illustrate. Overthrow a symbol, and you are taking the first step on the path to overthrowing the system behind it.

After all, if these symbols weren’t so important in entrenching a sense of “national life” and “national values”, the establishment would not have bothered to erect them. That’s why the rightwing will make a battleground of protecting statues of Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria. Because it is vitally important to them that we don’t tear off the mask to see for ourselves – or to show them – what really lies beneath.

The claim that the establishment actually favours the toppling of statues – and that our energies are being channeled into irrelevant action – is apparently justified by the fact that the police backed off in Bristol and that some politicians and journalists are expressing sympathy for the protesters.

Sadly, this is a very popular line of argument on the left nowadays: as soon as a group with progressive aims has the most limited success, some start claiming it proves that the establishment wanted it to happen anyway, and that we have fallen into a trap set for us by the elite. One wonders what possible path to improvement such people envision, what first steps to change they would ever accept as progress. Their view is pure defeatism. If the left is crushed, we lose; and if we win a few concessions, we have been conned. For them, it is complete revolution or nothing.

A Fearful Establishment

Churchill in Parliament Square. (Philip Halling licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.)

In fact, the reason the police backed off in Bristol is because they are frightened right now of the febrile mood in the country. There are lots of anger and frustration, especially among young people, much of it provoked by lockdown.

The police understood it was not a time to be making baton charges to defend a statue, especially one to a slave trader. They are on the back foot themselves because of the police violence that triggered the protests in the first place. Violence is their Achilles’ heel right now, and the protesters can exploit that weakness to reclaim public space for protest and dissent.

The politicians and media are similarly frightened of the current unrest, which they have been labelling as a dangerous “populism” for some time. Isn’t having the establishment fearful exactly where the left should want them? Because when the establishment is not frightened, all they do is line their pockets more deeply. They make concessions only when we raise the stakes.

If that is not obvious, recall the mass marches against the Iraq war. They failed not because they were not popular – they were some of the largest protests ever in Britain. They failed because the public could not make Tony Blair and his cabinet more frightened of us – the British people – than they were of the White House and the Pentagon. The cynical, dispiriting lesson we took away from the Iraq war was that we could never have an effect on the political class. The real lesson was that we needed to bare our teeth.

Last week the crowds in Bristol bared their teeth, and the politicians and police decided the fight – this time – wasn’t worth it. Defending a racist statue is much less of a priority for the establishment than placating the US, of course. But it doesn’t mean it is no priority at all.

The lessons of revolts through the ages are that small victories inspire crowds to larger battles. That is why the establishment usually tries to crush or co-opt the first signs of popular dissent and defiance. They fear our empowerment. It is also why it is important for those who want fairer societies to support, not diminish, the actions of those who take on initial confrontations with the establishment. They build the launchpad for bigger things.

Progress Through Protest

The third and seemingly most common criticism is that it is dangerous to allow the mob to win, and that once “mob rule” scores a success it will lead to anarchy and violence.

As I explained in my last post, none of the things we value today in Britain – from the vote to the National Health Service – happened without either direct protest in defiance of the establishment or the threat of such protest. It was only ever fear about the breakdown of order or of the eruption of violence that pushed the establishment to give up any of its wealth and power.

Ordinary people finally got free universal health care in 1948 – over the opposition of most doctors – largely because of establishment concerns about an empowered male population returning from war who knew how to bear arms and, having avoided death on the battlefield, were not likely to accept seeing themselves or their loved ones die of easily treatable diseases because they were still poor.

Similarly, labour rights were won – over the opposition of business – only because workers organised into unions and threatened to withdraw their labour. That was most definitely seen as a form of violence by a capitalist class whose only measure of value has ever been money.

Those who worry about “mob rule” assume that we now live in democracies that are responsive to the popular will. I will not waste my breath again demolishing that fallacy – it has been the sole reason for my writing this blog for the past six years. We live in sophisticated oligarchies, where corporations control the narratives of our lives through their control of the mass media to make us compliant and believe in fairytales. The biggest is that we, the people, are in charge through our vote, in a political system that offers only two choices, both of them political parties that were long ago captured by the corporations. The one countervailing force – organised labour – now plays almost no role. It has been either destroyed or its leaders co-opted themselves.

Wrong About Democracy

All that aside, those anxious about “the mob” have failed to understand what liberal democracy means – the model of democracy we are all supposed to subscribe to. It does not give carte blanche to the white majority to smother symbols all over the public space of people who abused, murdered and oppressed our black neighbours’ ancestors. That is democracy as the tyranny of the majority.

If this is not blindingly obvious, let me propose a hypothetical analogy. How would we judge Britain’s Jewish community if after years of failed protests they and non-Jewish supporters “took the law into their own hands” and tore down a statue in Hampstead to Adolf Eichmann? Would we call them a mob? Would we characterise what they did as vigilantism? And perhaps more to the point, can we conceive of an Eichmann statue being erected in Hampstead – or anywhere? Of course, not. So why is it even conceivable that a man like Colston who profited from the destruction of the lives of tens of thousands of Africans should still be presiding over a multicultural city like Bristol, where some of the descendants of those Africans live today?

The fact that we cannot imagine being so insensitive to the Jewish community should underscore how unbelievably insensitive we have been to Britain’s black community for many decades.

The fear of “the mob” is really our fear of making even liberal democracy work as it is supposed to. Because in a proper liberal democracy the minority is protected from the majority. And when the system proves itself no longer capable of protecting the minority – from symbolic violence, for example – then the minority has a right to “take the law into their own hands” by pulling down those symbols. That is how history was always made, and how it is being made now.

Inclusive or Cruel?

Queen Victoria sculpted by Princess Louise, 1893 outside Kensington Palace. (Wikimedia)

“Where will it all end?” people are asking. In the short term, the campaign is likely to run out of steam when the most offensive symbols in the public square have been removed. An informal trade-off will be arrived at: anti-racists will succeed in clearing out the worst symbols, and the right will defend with equal passion the symbols it values most highly.

Most of us can sketch out in our own minds where this ends. Few will fight to save those associated exclusively with the slave trade, but the majority will insist on keeping the biggest symbols of Britishness, such as Churchill and Queen Victoria. The contest will be over those few figures, like Cecil Rhodes, who lie in the grey area between these two extremes.

But longer term, it will end when we have a frank, inclusive conversation about what we want our societies to be. Whether we want them to be welcoming and fair, or cruel places that commemorate the naked exercise of power in the past and implicitly condone its continuing use today (as was highlighted by our recent crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq).

It will end when we all have the same stake in our societies, when we all feel equally valued. It will end when not only have symbols of inequality and injustice been toppled, but the reality of inequality and injustice has been consigned to history too.

Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist based in Nazareth.

This article is from his blog Jonathan Cook.net.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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18 comments for “UPRISING: Symbols are Invested With Power; Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue

  1. DW Bartoo
    June 23, 2020 at 17:13

    Speaking of symbols, what about the British Monarchy.

    Is that not one of the most powerful reminders of empire, of slavery, of privilege enjoyed, despite the hardships endured by the many who actually pay for the inherited palatial splendor and exalted lifestyle of the Royal Family?

    If fundamental systemic change is necessary, and it is, then both symbols and who it is that has power must be subject to question, even subject to removal.

    Consider, beyond statues, if we are honestly examining the role played by the police, then must we not examine the entire structure of “justice” systems, all the way to the top, from prosecutors, to lawyers (and Brit equivalents), to judges and to the laws themselves?

    Truly, the very structures of government must be examined and, very likely, substantially altered or utterly changed.

    The economic system, likewise, cannot be considered sacred, as it is the very means by which the few, the obscenely wealthy, actually rule and have ruled.

    When wealth (property, or “happiness”, or money or “all that matters”) has, historically, been the means of control and power, when brute force is no longer applauded, then the economic system is very like a statue – it just might need toppling.

  2. DW Bartoo
    June 23, 2020 at 09:10

    AnneR, your comments are always much appreciated.

    There are statues and symbols which celebrate violence and oppression of days gone by.

    Many of those symbols are much revered, and celebrated with little awareness about what is behind or even within them.

    The national anthem., “The Star Spangled Banner”, for example, is heard very often and many well know the first verse, but not the third.

    Many know it was written by Francis Scott Key, some know that Key was a wealthy slave owner, but few know that he was a prosecutor who sought to punish abolitionists and often asked for the death penalty for slaves who tried to escape their masters, yet fewer still, know that his brother in law was Chief Justice of the U$ Supreme Court, Tanney, who presided over the Dred Scott case.

    Even the Declaration of Independence, known to virtually every U$ citizen, is celebrated but little read. Very few of citizens have any idea what that document says about the original inhabitants of this land.

    Truly, as Joe Lauria says, the full, or whole,story must be told must, in fact, must be taught to the young, must be shared, in honest discussion, among all citizens and, as well, there must also be a clear linkage of past to present, that such future as we may bequeath the young shall be freed of past and current policies and practices of tyrannical domination and elitist control.

    The real control, ongoing, is of narrative.

    Of what people are “led” to “believe”, are frightened into doing, or not doing, or frightened away from understanding, or
    limited in what they may dare think about or expose, for example, the persecution of Julian Assange and what power wishes to hide.

    To comprehend the present, we must dare to examine and understand the past.

    Yet, to honestly participate in our time, the present moment, to honestly exist in the reality of our world, as it actually is, requires far more of each of us than easy acceptance of myths and cultural “givens” of superiority and “manifest destiny”.

    It requires the courage to question, the conscience of actual principle, which remains steadfast, despite lures of advantage or wealth, and the tolerance to recognize the common humanity of all human beings as well as a recognition that our very existence depends on all the life and environment around us.

  3. michael888
    June 22, 2020 at 18:23

    AnneR, many thanks for your eloquent responses.

    While police brutality and racist, colonialist, imperialist symbolism can be viewed as two separate abhorrent issues, there is an obvious gradation and overlap. The militarism of our police force springs directly from federal funding, with attitude, and acceptance (glorification?) of war crimes/ surveillance abroad means acceptance/ glorification of policing crimes at home. Progressives, and Blacks, were our most anti-war people not so long ago, now the needless violence is accepted as normal, particularly by supposed globalist neolibs and of course by their brethren neocons.

  4. Aaron
    June 22, 2020 at 13:09

    Is there a real life Robert Langdon to interpret the symbolic meaning of the Trump coin that Israel minted to celebrate the Jerusalem recognition and that he enjoys an extremely high level of public support there?

  5. Michael McNulty
    June 22, 2020 at 11:38

    After toppling the statues we must remember not to scrub the history of those they immortalise nor let the elite scrub their actions from history. If we were to expunge slavery from history because it offends certain sensitivities, then in a few generations it will be forgotten. After that it can happen again, because it will be something new. Unheard of. Impossible to comprehend.

  6. Drew Hunkins
    June 22, 2020 at 11:32

    Tearing down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant gets us no closer to Medicare-for-All, student loan debt write-off, a family supporting living wage minimum wage, a robust federal jobs program, or a substantial cut in the Defense [sic] budget.

    • dfnslblty
      June 22, 2020 at 13:43

      Ah, and <>it does get us closer<> to those socialist programs – it shouts to “those in charge” that we are ready for change, and that “those in charge” will participate in the changes, or they will get left behind, ie: voted out of office or not elected.

    • Drew Hunkins
      June 22, 2020 at 17:30

      @ dfns,

      Really? I don’t recall hearing much of anything from the BLM movement about the kitchen table bread and butter economic issues that I’ve outlined above. We must remember that some of the biggest Wall Street investment banking firms have donated over a billion dollars to the BLM movement, so how populist-progressive could it possibly be?

      Having said the above, I do applaud BLM for shining a light on the desperate need to reform and reduce funding for local cop shops, since there’s no doubt that police are indeed sometimes heavy-handed in their approach to African-Americans. But let’s not see something that isn’t there, this movement hasn’t stressed whatsoever the core economic issues which are at the heart of most social problems.

    • ML
      June 23, 2020 at 15:37

      And it is still very important to remove them from a place of public honoring. It’s an integral, psychologically important step- revered symbols, public statues of these former slavers, molder deep in the unconscious. It is good to root them out and proceed with what must be done. I think you made Jonathan’s point.

  7. DCV
    June 22, 2020 at 10:40

    Statues should come down. Their symbolism is potent. A public discussion, after the current emotional outpouring and excess, could determine which statues. Others need to be erected to reflect the Multicultural experiences of our modern citizenry. So, balance in statues, and a ton of other things, is needed.
    Much more important is the need for protesters to see the links between economic inequality and these protests. At the root of all this discontent lies a global society enthralled with systems based on unequal distribution of wealth. Skin colour, sexual orientation, gender, age, the use of police, political party affiliation, each protest tentacle is related to the octopus of unequal distribution of wealth. Unite. It used to be called unionize. Part of this union of souls can pull down offensive – for they are offensive, and insensitive – statues. But let’s prioritize digging at the root.

  8. AnneR
    June 22, 2020 at 10:12

    Thank you again, Mr Cook, for another pertinent, well observed piece on our polities (mainly the UK but also, in the background, the USA their histories being all too closely interwoven) and the truth behind what these statues do in fact symbolize: a grotesquely ugly history that has, since the 1870s (my assumption given that that was when elementary education became mandatory for the children of the working classes in England and Wales; not that there was initially much government oversight) been whitewashed to help create and establish a sense of patriotism/nationalism among the working classes/poor. Non-existent generally till the latter years of the 19th C – localism, along with working class-poor affiliation, was much more prevalent – as the empire expanded it needed support among the general population, at least in part for large numbers of men to control the colonies (done at a cost to the taxpayer, including largely, the workers).

    All of these statues need to be removed and placed in museums with clear, accurate and fulsome explanations of the barbaric actions, racist/Orientalist attitudes and practices (all for money) each individual etched in stone (and paint) perpetrated.

    Indeed we do live in very sophisticated oligarchies, plutocracies who through *their* representatives and allies rule, OK. (Mind you many of the politicos themselves on both sides of the Atlantic are members of the upper 10% or so, so they are also fully on board with what their financial backers and cronies want. The notion that we have democracies is risible – we the vox populi would choose who we want as leaders of the parties, as candidates for Prez and PM, who we want in their cabinets/administrations. But we clearly have no say in any of this. NONE. Nor do we have a true representation (pol party) for all or the majority of political opinions at large in either the USA or the UK. Proportional representation with a much wider number of political parties representing as many political points of view as possible would be much closer to “representative democracy.” AND NO MONEY INVOLVED at any level. Corrupt doesn’t begin to describe it.

    And yes – you mentioned in passing so-called plutocrats as “Philanthropists.” There has been much made of these recently (especially Bill Gates and George Soros); clearly they spend their monies on their particular and particularly politically significant (for them) interests and influence. Part of their interests – especially such as Gates and Branson – surely derives from a narcissistic need to look and feel good before the world. One might ask: IF they really wanted to help people with their oodles of boodle, then why wouldn’t they insist a) that the ultra wealthy, plutocrats/oligarchs like themselves pay taxes at least at the level in place until 1970-ish?; b) insist that such tax monies go toward improving the lives of the poor, homeless, destitute, low-waged, in their own countries, and that free higher education and in the US without free-at-point-of-service medical care be installed forthwith????

    Frankly their “philanthropy” is as much a whitewash job, a deflection,in its own way, as the stories told and the silences maintained about those whose statues litter our towns and cities.

    • Sam F
      June 22, 2020 at 21:48

      Very well put, Anne.

  9. michael888
    June 22, 2020 at 04:49

    Not British, but the argument that statues are “racist” symbols rings hollow. You can argue “That is not who we are!” but more importantly such symbols show “That is who we WERE!” and to cleanse the Brutal British Empire of its exploitation symbols, racist, colonialist, or supremacists does not alter history. Better to put such statues in a Statuary Garden of Villains possibly with explanatory context; of course you would end up with historical revision, but that is better than denial. Breaking the mirror does not change the way you look.

    In America the issue is bigger. Our military have become honor-less mercenary based, our military-derived police (3-fold more likely to be Veterans) are sent to a heinous country to learn restraint techniques used with impunity on Palestinians, yet not appropriate for Black Americans, and we are constantly turning war criminals and surveillance masters used abroad into implementers of domestic policies, with massive infusion of vicious military “toys” into our policing. Yet no one will confront this reality. Instead let them destroy relics and symbols from the past. Why confront the present when the past are such easy targets? Anything that is “acceptable” abroad, will be turned on dissenters domestically in time.

    • AnneR
      June 22, 2020 at 10:26

      Michael888 – I agree with your view that the concentration on the past and its barbarism (perpetrated by Europeans/European Americans) appears to be seriously deflecting and distracting from the barbarisms that we in the west have been inflicting upon other peoples since the end of WWII, without end.

      As my late husband’s FB friends with their posts make abundantly clear, while they are outraged (at least this time round) about what the Filth (often ex-military) have recently been doing within these borders, they simply cannot or will not make any connection to these acts to what we have been doing and continue to do in the MENA countries, to North Korea, Vietnam, to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and so on. What we allow the Occupiers of Palestine and Saudia to do (even as we continuously “deplore” what Syria does and Iraq did).

      Our barbarism, heinous actions, invasions, killings, devastations of lives, lands, livelihoods, siege warfare, interference in other peoples’ governments, coups….roll off their backs like water off the backs of ducks. Nothing to see there, it would seem. No concern of ours…yet the greed, war-profiteering, hubris, desire for total dominance, racism, Orientalism that feeds and feeds on this constant warfare abroad is much related to how we grabbed these lands and how we treated-treat the peoples we enslaved then “freed” (sort of) and the indigenous. All out of the same mind-set/worldview. Gross. Ugly. Barbaric.

    • Joe Lauria
      June 22, 2020 at 11:37

      Numerous commenters have said that the author should deal with people alive, not with those from history. But these are people that are still in the present in statues in public spaces. The very reason to build a statue is to keep the memory of certain people alive and not to confine them to history. The people depicted in these statues were instrumental in creating the political and economic system that today’s leaders still enjoy ruling. The statues are of people who mean a lot to current rulers as they are the forbearers of the class privilege they enjoy today. These statues are very much about the present and not the past. Therefore a first step in changing the nature of today’s system and the type of people who run it is to remove the very founders of this still very much alive system. These statues belong in museums in which their full story can be told.

    • incontinent reader
      June 22, 2020 at 11:38

      Excellent points in both Jonathan Cook’s article and Michael’s response. One might also see Craig Murray’s June 9, 2020 article titled: “Ultimately, All Monuments are Ozymandias” posted on his website.

    • AnneR
      June 22, 2020 at 14:53

      Mr Lauria – it’s not that I disagree per se with your point(s) about the existence of statues and the reasons behind their creation and placement in public spaces. Indeed I do believe that they should be removed from all of those spaces and placed in museums together with completely truthful explanations of the depicted individuals actions, beliefs. But it is also deeply concerning that many of those same beliefs lie behind the destructive, slaughterous actions the US and UK have taken toward “lesser” nations/peoples from the Korean War onward. And as bothering, as profoundly concerning is the reality that – perhaps as before for many in the population – it does *not* matter what we do to other peoples, their lives, countries, societies, cultures so long as we remain safe and secure (more easily here in the US than even in the island of Britain), far from the mayhem, devastation we so happily, ignorantly visit on others. And do so all for $$$ and because, well, they’re Not of European origin (except Serbia – but then, hey, they were Slavs, not western Europeans…) therefore, well, you surely know the epithets as well as me.

      The silence about the linkage between the past and the present, between what the militarized police do here and what the military do in the MENA countries, even among very well educated folks, is – disheartening to say the least. And then we are supposed to “vote for the so-called lesser evil” and change absolutely zero.

    • Sam F
      June 22, 2020 at 17:56

      Tabs corrected:

      All of these viewpoints contain truth.
      Statues are propaganda inappropriate to a democracy, distortions of truth, placing symbols above argument.
      Even for significant persons, the truth is complex, and they should not be honored or elevated uncritically.
      So are the monumental buildings in DC that now disguise gangsters as servants of the people they oppress.
      Removal or destruction of them is asignificant expression of rebellion against oligarchy propaganda for fools.
      I like Joe’s idea of putting them in museums with commentary; but such a Garden of Villains is fine.
      Ozymandias’ broken statue quoth “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair” amid empty sands stretching afar, turning his hubris and dominance into a fine monument to the bonfire of vanities.
      Our empire’s barbaric invasions, coups, greed, hubris, dominance reflect a colonialist birthright, it’s “honor-less mercenary military” came home to roost as militarized police, properly honored with a broken statue.
      Statues and monuments put aside or destroyed, people may at last rise above them, and face the real issues.

Comments are closed.