The Black Lives Matter Movement has been in the limelight in the US and globally since the murderous assault on George Floyd in broad daylight. This murder, caught on camera, has been a rallying cry that has brought issues of racial injustice and police brutality to the forefront as young people, of all colors, have made the issue of racial injustice and police brutality a national issue. Estimates indicate that to date between 15 to 26 million people have participated in the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests across the US, this is even more impressive as has occurred in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic. It is the largest movement in US history. As the Black Lives Matter Movement is in 18 countries, this fight against injustices has reverberated around the world, with large protests in solidarity taking place on every continent.
As the protests have grown in power and garnered considerable public support, the focus on individuals who were and continue to be upholders, and enablers of racism in America, have come under scrutiny. Institutions as powerful as the state of Mississippi, the Natural History Museum in New York, and Princeton University, long lobbied to take down the offending monuments and symbols linked with particularly egregious histories, had refused to do so. They have now announced they will move or replace them. Even in faraway Taiwan, lawmakers are debating the removal of the six-meter-tall memorial to Chiang Kai-Shek, despite it being one of the most popular tourist attractions, as his history was one of harsh authoritarian rule.
Lawmakers, leaders of important cultural institutions, sports teams and corporate heads are revising their stance as to which symbols they choose to project, for by doing so they associate their institutions with a legacy. There have also been a few statues vandalized or toppled by protesters that have captured a great deal of scornful attention. It has led to leaders as well as conservative media to worry about the passions of the mob that are ready to “tear apart” history in their unruly rampage. President Trump has made what he describes as“a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children, or trample on our freedoms,” an integral element of his re-election bid.
Toppling monuments and statues are not a recent phenomenon. During the French and American revolutions, angry mobs brought down monuments and statues of the regimes they replaced. Kick-started by the Allies, Germany removed symbols of the Nazi regime to reconstruct themselves as a valid nation. The banning of these symbols of hate they believed would protect the victims and their children of a constant reminder of traumatic memories and would preclude hate groups from rallying around them. On gaining independence from colonial rulers, many colonial monuments were removed from prominent display. The world applauded when Iraqi civilians took a sledgehammer to the twelve-meter high statue of Saddam Hussein which the US Marines toppled with a M88 armored recovery vehicle a couple of hours later. Closer to home in Kolkata the Left Front removed British statues from the maidan and replaced them with Indian heroes and heroines. There is a battalion of British statues in Barrackpur Government House. Statues of Britishers, like William Bentinck, known for this work on education, the abolition of sati and the suppression of infanticide, remain in place in Kolkata.
The pulling down of monuments and statues by protesters in the context of the current protests are relatively few and far between – they include a few confederate generals and leaders, and monuments to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have also been vandalized. More importantly the focus on egregious symbols and monuments has compelled the public to reckon with the racism and other forms of oppression that are associated with people and symbol that have been glorified. The reconsideration of monuments to confront histories more fully must be a systemic and thoughtful exercise in each country. A thoughtful review of monuments – which ones to keep and where they should be placed or with what they could be replaced – would allow people to learn their histories more completely and move towards greater reconciliation.
A statue or monument and its removal and replacement needs a great deal of knowledge and attention to locate the monument in historical context. While a monument to a figure who was known in the context of their historical and social period to hold views that were particularly egregious, by being prominently placed, gives honor to that personage. However, if removed and placed in a museum, or similar kind of space where a nuanced explanation can be presented. The symbols or individuals when located in the context of the times in which they lived, with attention to the problematic under-girding of these systems as we understand them today, allows a fuller picture to emerge. These re-orderings would provide respite to the many communities who have been historically traumatized by the exaltation of such figures or symbols, that had contributed to great economic, cultural, and psychic damage.
Taking down of the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments, explicit examples of symbols and statues that not only upheld slavery but fought to maintain this system, is cathartic to the many African Americans who live in the Southand had to honor a flag and people who fought to protect the enslavement of their ancestors. The removal of a Gandhi statue installed at the University of Ghana as students and faculty protested his racist views towards Africans, and the spray-painting and vandalism of his statues in several parts of the US and Europe as part of the Black Lives Matter protests for his controversial stance on race while in South Africa needs to be weighed against his contributions to the role he played in the Freedom struggle in India and his universal message of Non Violent protest that inspired many leaders including Martin Luther King.
Artistic merit also is a consideration in the debate about removing, replacing, and transferring of monuments. For example, many statues of the past to colonial masters of one kind or another, that have little artistic worth, and are justifiably offensive to large numbers of people, can be taken down without doing much damage to the historical or artistic record. These monuments and symbols, not adorning public spaces, will be of little consequence. The ones of great artistic merit, though culturally constructed, may need to be protected as part of an artistic legacy.
The critical review of many monuments and symbols all over the world galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement is politically and culturally significant and urgent. It is time for public conversations and inclusive introspection on troubling histories that have too often elided the tyrannical foundations of many governing systems.
Photo credits: Banner Left: edition.cnn.com; Banner Center: scroll.in; Banner Right: axios.com
The Black Lives Matter Movement has been in the limelight in the US and globally since the murderous assault on George Floyd in broad daylight. This murder, caught on camera, has been a rallying cry that has brought issues of racial injustice and police brutality to the forefront as young people, of all colors, have made the issue of racial inj
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