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Slave Trade, Colonialism Fuel Race Protests in Europe

Slave Trade, Colonialism Fuel Race Protests in Europe
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Slave Trade, Colonialism Fuel Race Protests in Europe

Black Lives Matter protests erupted for a second weekend in cities across Europe, fuelled by deep-rooted anger over a perceived lack of understanding of colonial history.

The demonstrations originally broke out in solidarity with protests in the United States over the death of a 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, while in Minneapolis police custody. In recent days, protesters in Britain and other European states have increasingly focused on racial inequality in their own countries.

In the city of Bristol, in western England, protesters tore down a statue of 17th-century slave trader, Edward Colston, on Sunday, amid cheers from thousands of demonstrators.

The bronze statue was rolled through the city streets and dumped into the harbor, where Colston’s slave ships used to dock after returning from Africa and the Americas. The monument had long been a divisive symbol: a tribute to a man who built schools and hospitals in the city, but who enslaved tens of thousands of black Africans, shipping them across the Atlantic.

A banner is taped over the inscription on the pedestal of the toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, England, June 8, 2020.
A banner is taped over the inscription on the pedestal of the toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, England, June 8, 2020.

The Bristol City Council estimates that up to 20,000 enslaved men, women and children died on board Colston’s ships. In recent decades, there have been several petitions among Bristol residents to have the statue removed, but the council could not agree on a course of action.

“We have to walk these streets and see that statue of Colston every day, that's what it means,” said Jasmine, a black woman from Bristol who joined the protest Sunday. “That statue is a kick in the face to all black people, it's a disgrace. Now look at it, now look at it. Gone, gone, him gone.'’

The toppling of the statue mirrors similar debates in the United States, where activists have demanded the removal of statues honoring Confederate-era figures. Last week, the governor of the U.S. state of Virginia announced that a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that stands in the city of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, will be removed.

The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, speaks to the press in Bristol, England, June 8, 2020.
The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, speaks to the press in Bristol, England, June 8, 2020.

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees — the first directly elected black mayor in Britain — told VOA that the protesters had legitimate concerns.

“We have a city to run and we need to have order,” Rees said. “But if you fail to understand these kind of events, then you create the conditions for more and bigger types of events like these in the future. It’s a very significant, symbolic act, but it doesn’t deliver the affordable homes, the job opportunities, the educational opportunities, the access to the professions, political power, economic power, that actually underpins race inequality.”

The British government takes a very different view. Home Secretary Priti Patel labeled the statue’s destruction as “sheer vandalism.”

“It's right actually the police follow up on that and make sure justice is taken,” Patel told reporters Monday.

Protests erupted in several other cities across Britain over the weekend. Tens of thousands of people marched on the U.S. Embassy in London.

Fiona Collins echoed the views of many in the crowd: “I'm sick of having to explain to my children that because they're black, they have to act a certain way, they have to behave this way, they have to work 10 times harder to get anywhere in life and I've had enough of it.”

There were violent clashes between some demonstrators and police in the capital. Twenty-two officers were injured, including a policewoman who fell from her horse after it bolted, striking a traffic signal. The riderless horse trampled a protester.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter that the demonstrations had been “subverted by thuggery.”

In Glasgow, Scotland, activists changed the names of streets linked to slave traders. In Belgium, protesters defaced a statue of King Leopold II, who oversaw the killing of millions of Congolese during colonial rule.

The targeting of such monuments has rekindled calls for government action to remove symbols that glorify those involved in colonial repression and slavery. However, many British lawmakers have criticized the destruction of the Colston statue in Bristol and claim the monuments are an important reminder of a dark and complicated history.

Ben Bradley MP of the ruling Conservatives wrote on Twitter: ‘If we start to judge historical figures by 21st century standards, we’ll find that quite a few folks weren’t that nice… almost as if they didn’t know any better.’

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer criticized the toppling of the statue but said that it should have been taken down by authorities many years ago.

Many others say that statue’s razing has done far more to educate Britons about black oppression, a history that for many resonates deeply today.