Symbols are Invested with Power. Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue

Empty pedestal where a statue of Edward Colston used to stand. Photograph Source: Caitlin Hobbs – CC BY 2.0

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 so 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

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 is 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 Hamstead 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 Hamstead – 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?

“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 won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is