The statues are tumbling down, the structures of racism must follow

The statues are tumbling down, the structures of racism must follow
Comment: Tearing down statues is a step towards wider change, but we mustn't feel content with symbolic actions alone, writes Siana Bangura.
6 min read
11 Jun, 2020
Protesters threw the statue of slave trader Colston into Bristol harbour on Sunday [Getty]
The spectacular scenes of protesters in Bristol tearing down the statue of slave trader and mass murderer Edward Colston are nothing short of revolutionary.

For years, the people of Bristol petitioned for this statue - an embodiment of colonialism and celebration of subjugation - to come down. And for years, they were ignored.

Now, the likes of Boris Johnson - who just days ago said "of course Black Lives Matter" during a press conference, despite his actions and deeds suggesting otherwise - is calling protesters "thugs", a descriptor often used to derogate Black people. 

Rumours are swirling of a fascist counter-demo being organised as a reaction to the mass Black Lives Matter protests, with images and videos circulating social media of angry white men "protecting" the Winston Churchill statue, wearing berets and carrying flags - the irony of all this lost on them. 

The smell of revolt hangs heavy in the air. The gears are changing. Shockwaves of unrest are rippling from Minneapolis to London, Birmingham to Queenstown, Accra to Rio de Janeiro.

Conversations of prison abolition, defunding and diverting funds are finally taking place, even talk of dismantling the police as an institution altogether has reached the mainstream - ideas previously maligned in the UK and elsewhere.

Black people and non-Black folk alike are speaking up about entrenched racism

The announcement of the Minneapolis City policing department being disbanded - not just in response the murder of George Floyd, but after years of pressure from campaigners - is an encouraging step, finally acknowledging that there needs to be a "commitment [to ending] policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe." 

Primetime TV in the UK is now discussing Britain's colonial past, Black people and non-Black folk alike are speaking up about entrenched racism and disparities in fields as broad as entertainment, sport, and healthcare. The issues Black people from all walks of life have spoken about, pleaded about, campaigned on for decades are now getting attention from sympathetic ears. 

It seems, dare I say it, that Britain - at least parts of it - is looking in the mirror and what it can see is ugly. This country is the racist parent of the USA, exporting ideas of race and eugenics across the globe. The "special relationship" between the UK and the US runs as deep as exporting weapons to the North American country. 

The UK granted £760,000 worth of anti-riot and ballistic shield export licences to the US last year, according to data gathered by Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Now campaigners are calling on the government to halt sales of riot gear to the United States, while states and the federal government continue to use repressive tactics to halt the Black Lives Matter protests. 

There is a misplaced belief that the UK is a "post-racial" paradise, "less racist" than the US (even if this were true, which it isn't, "less racist" is still racist by the way), a bastion of "tolerance".

Read more: For the sake of George Floyd and black lives everywhere, make this moment count

Nevermind the definition of tolerance being "the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with." Nevermind the Grenfell tower tragedy, the Windrush scandal, the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on Black communities, exacerbating existing social inequalities and consequences of structural racism. 

I've written about the responsibility white people have to take action to dismantle racism. I've expressed that although something about this particular moment feels different, I remain sceptical of intentions, and how committed white people really are to working towards lasting change to ensure this generation is the generation that finally ends the pandemic of racism.

But I am feeling increasingly hopeful and ready to give people the benefit of the doubt this time. 

Make no mistake, tearing statues down is one step towards larger change - our symbols speak volumes about who we are and what we believe in - but we mustn't feel content with symbolic actions alone.

What happens once the statues come down? What else can we tear down? What else are we willing to dismantle in the name of justice? How far can our imaginations stretch? Never forget that there was a time when abolishing slavery was seen as "unrealistic". And although we are not "free", the Atlantic Slave Trade and Middle Passage did end. 

Now imagine the following: A society where when someone is in mental distress - often the case in a number of instances of deaths in custody - we call a trained mental health practitioner to look after them, rather than calling the cops to "restrain" them. 

What about a society where we seriously invest in proper housing, public services, healthcare, employment, youth services and local initiatives? Where we train and support practitioners to help the homeless with compassion and respect, well equipped to help them get off the streets and access lasting support. 

What happens once the statues come down? What else are we willing to dismantle in the name of justice? How far can our imaginations stretch?

What about societies where we have well-informed trauma response teams working within our communities to de-escalate situations of harm? 

What about proper investment in infrastructure for victims of domestic violence, wherever they are? Equipping these services with the resources they need to work sustainably, as opposed to in a perpetual state of burnout and over-stretch? 

As we watch statues topple, witness folks take to the streets - pandemic or no pandemic - to demand justice and equity, I am challenging myself to start imagining what a "new" world looks like.

Months in lockdown has encouraged me to pause and deeply reflect on what I want to see permanently changed as a result of all we've endured. Going "back to normal" is not an option, our old "normal" was still a site of sickness. 

Right now we are being called to address head-on the poison racism occupies in our society, specifically anti-Blackness. Even for those of us who have been exposing the underbelly of the beast for years, this moment is a challenge, but one we must rise to as a collective. 

For too long racism has been a battle fought solely by those at its sharp end

For too long racism has been a battle fought solely by those at its sharp end, while those holding the knife were allowed to live out their lives unaffected. And in the words of a tweeter named Dwayne Reed, "White supremacy won't die until White people see it as a White issue they need to solve rather than a Black issue they need to empathize with."

The internet and our conversations are full of similar sentiments. Racism is white people's problem. Unfortunately, Black people and people of colour have done the heavy lifting of liberation for far too long. 

It's powerful to see folks from other communities speaking up and marching alongside Black people in their masses - so much so the establishment is fearful, as are fascists everywhere. But we must not become complacent. 

There is a gargantuan collective 'To-Do list' of necessary actions if we're serious about finishing the work started by generations before us. For it all to come tumbling down so we can build our new vision of society, we must set to work, and keep at it until the job is done. 

Siana Bangura is a writer, producer, performer and community organiser hailing from South East London. She is the founder and former editor of Black British Feminist platform, No Fly on the WALL; author of poetry collection, "Elephant"; and the producer of "1500 & Counting", a documentary film investigating deaths in custody and police brutality in the UK.

Follow her on Twitter: @Sianaarrgh

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.