PHOTO: A memorial to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, prior to, and after protests.
By Sandra Harris
In the ongoing wave of rebellion against racist police violence, the masses have also taken action against monuments to imperialist figureheads, confederate war heroes, and other racist politicians across the United States and Europe. In the past several weeks, the people have toppled and vandalized multiple relics of the old state.
Over the past several years in the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, people have directly removed and defaced racist monuments in the US. These efforts have also been watered down by legalist appeals to politicians to go through a bureaucratic process to remove these figures. People of all ages, races, and backgrounds who have risen up across the country in rebellion have helped topple more of these monuments to the old state in the past two weeks compared to years of stalled out legislative negotiations.
In the state of Virginia, the people of Richmond transformed a large statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee into a people’s canvas, its large base filled with a technicolor display of anti-police graffiti and pro-people messages. The city has announced it will remove the statue, but the base has already become a popular photo spot for the people who celebrate it for the people’s raw expression of rage and desire for a new world.
People in Richmond had also set fire to the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) headquarters. The UDC was created after the Civil War to support former confederate soldiers and their families, and emerged to raise funds to build memorials of the confederacy. In recent years they have mobilized to defend confederate monuments, many of which they erected, with lawsuits to prevent their removal from public spaces.
Most confederate monuments were not built directly after the Civil War but during the Jim Crow era of the American south in the early 20th century. Holders of the “lost cause” ideology like the UDC claimed that the cause of the confederacy during the American Civil War was a just one, focusing on “states’ rights” and in direct denial that upholding slavery was central to their reasons for participating in the war. In reaction to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, these groups focused on building confederate monuments and pushing sympathetic narratives for their underlying white supremacist ideology.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney agreed to take down the Lee statue and other city-controlled confederate monuments by July 1. However, a judge in Richmond issued an injunction preventing Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s administration from removing the statue.
The people are not waiting on the legal outcomes of whether or not they are ‘allowed’ to remove these monuments. On Wednesday night, a monument to Jefferson Davis, former president of the confederacy, was torn down by protesters. There are currently 771 confederate statues in the US and over the past several years, at least 44 have been removed, many by the people themselves without legal approval.
A slave auction block was removed from downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia after it had been repeatedly tagged with spray paint. In Philadelphia, the statue of mayor Frank Rizzo, a segregationist and former police chief was taken down after it had been graffitied.
Multiple statues of genocidal colonial explorer Christopher Columbus have been targeted as well. In Richmond, this statue was vandalized, torn down, and thrown into a park lake.
A Christopher Columbus statue was dragged down and destroyed in St. Paul, Minnesota by primarily native people from the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes. The groups said they had tried many times to remove the statue through the state’s political process, but had no success.
In Miami seven people were arrested after statues of Columbus and Ponce de León were painted with “George Floyd,” “BLM,” and a hammer and sickle. In Boston, their Columbus statue was beheaded.
Monuments throughout Europe have also been targeted as protests against police violence in honor of George Floyd have spread internationally, causing a global reckoning of all monuments to racist, reactionary figures.
A viral video shows people in Bristol, England toppling a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century historical figure whose wealth was built on the slave trade. The crowd rolled the statue through the streets and eventually dumped him into the River Avon.
In Antwerp, Belgium after being defaced and set on fire, the statue of King Leopold II was taken down. Leopold colonized enormous areas of central Congo in what now makes up the Democratic Republic of Congo, who used a private army to force Africans to gather wild rubber from the vines of the rainforests to profit when the automobile and bicycle industries took off.
In London, a statue of Winston Churchill was defaced so that the words “was a racist” were written after his name. Churchill was an ardent racist and imperialist– who advocated for intervention to stop the Russian Revolution writing furiously about the dangers of “International Jews.” A number of other figures in Britain including slave-owners, imperialists who pillaged Africa, and others who supported the delay of the abolition of slavery have all faced the wrath of the people.
These monuments represent the capitalist, imperialist system that has allowed these reactionary elements to remain in place for generations. Any governmental effort to remove them only exists to placate the anger of the people, and the legalist activists and reformists who collaborate with them also try and stymie direct action such as statue teardowns to this same end. As the people continue to realize their ability to tear down these monuments, they learn a valuable lesson about the power of unity in action over relying on imperialist politicians.