The world today is a terrifying place. Usually, when overwhelmed, I turn off my phone and turn on a Jane Austen adaptation. For me, they are familiar, funny, safe and cathartic – as Mrs Jennings says in Emma Thompson’s Sense & Sensibility of weepy Marianne: “Better let her have her cry out and have done with it.” Earlier in lockdown, I watched all six hours of 1995’s Pride & Prejudice, blew my nose, and promptly started it again. Cry, rinse, repeat.
Now, retreating into box sets seems woefully inappropriate, as we see daily evidence of the undeniable racism that permeates society, and the brutality shown to those who stand up against it. Comfort watching doesn’t cut it.
But one video has moved me. Better than comfort, it offers hope. It is the footage of Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol toppling the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston. (Colston played a key role in transporting over 84,000 enslaved Africans – his resultant wealth built many historic buildings in the city; many streets and landmarks bear his name.) Pulling on ropes attached to the statue’s neck, protesters shout with shock and joy as Colston’s likeness clatters down. (It is later thrown in the same harbour where his slave ships docked.) Something that once seemed a permanent monument to barbarism now seems a pathetic relic. Watching the video, we witness the power of collective action in real time. It is a beautiful scene; an ecstatic reversal of lynch mob imagery. In an instant, these protesters have changed the face of Bristol.
Removing symbols is not the same as removing the racist structures that support our society. But I am galvanised by the protesters who defied defenders of racist monuments as “history”, and made history themselves instead.
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt