The global protest movement against George Floyd’s death in the US continues to cause concern in several countries. Anti-racist protesters challenge the presence in the public space of statues of figures who played a prominent role during the colonial era and directed them. Decryption.
Unbolted statues, painted in red or on which the names of George Floyd and the “Black Lives Matter” movement are inscribed … In recent days, anti-racism activists in many countries have multiplied symbolic measures against monuments recalling figures from the colonial past.
In Britain, the statue of Edward Colston, a British slave trader from the 17the century, was thrown outside and thrown into the water during a demonstration against racism in Bristol on June 7. In Belgium, the statue of the former King of the Belgians, Leopold II, was a figure from Belgium’s colonial past is removed from a square in Antwerp on June 9. In Scotland, the statue of Melville’s first viscount, Henry Dundas – a politician who worked to delay the abolition of slavery – was covered with graffiti following protests from Black Lives Matter in Edinburgh on June 8.
These several documents “are related to the general outrage after George Floyd’s death in the United States,” explains Fabrice Bensimon, professor of British history and civilization at University Paris-IV-Sorbonne, contacted by France 24. “There is a movement expressed in British youth, as in many countries, against the tributes paid to such historical figures. “
“Don’t pay tribute to people who have been slaves”
The Confederate symbols in the United States are also in the view of anti-racist activists. “There is a direct link between the condition of black Americans and the history of slavery,” explains Fabrice Bensimon, “with first a massive deportation of populations from Africa to America, then a story of segregation with regular lynching. The story of George Floyd is a dive echo of that time of lynching. “
The question of these symbols, at the intersection of memory and politics, gives rise to debates about their presence in public space. The authorities sometimes oppose this challenge to the colonial past, for example in Oxford where a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes has stirred controversy since 2016. Protesters are demanding its faults, which had fallen again on June 9, so far in vain.
Other municipalities show different attention in this subject, as in London there Mayor Sadiq Khan said he wanted “a city that better reflects the city”. And he added, “We should not remember or remember those who have been slaves.” A statue of Robert Milligan, a slave planter from the 18th centurye century, was also unsurpassed on June 9 by order of the municipal authorities.
But what to do with monuments whose presence is questioned in public space? “A frequent request from memory activists is that these statues are in museums as evidence of the past, or that they will disappear or be destroyed,” said historian Fabrice Bensimon. This is the choice of the municipality of Antwerp which transferred the statue of King Leopold II from the square in the Ekeren sector to the Middelheim Museum in the city.
The statue, a political issue in the public domain
The recent symbolic acts against the statues of Edward Colston, Leopold II or Henry Dundas are part of a logic that also goes, in the end, in the sense of history, as Fabrice Bensimon explains: “The questioning of statues in public space is a often process in history. In the ancient Eastern countries (in Europe), for example, thousands of statues unattended were stored … “
The historian also recalls the state political character in the public space: “There is an important memory issue. To maintain and preserve these monuments in public space, this means paying homage to the Confederate leaders or To those honored by statues, street names or monuments are the whose legacy seems positive or deserves to be celebrated. “
And in this perspective, France may also soon be concerned about the issue of certain statues that exist in its territory. According to Fabrice Bensimon, “a number of monuments today in public space – the statue of General Gallieni on Place Vauban in Paris, the statue of Colbert at the entrance to the National Assembly – [représentent]politicians who had an important role in colonization and colonial war. “