The Home Secretary has slammed Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol for pulling down the statue of a slave trader and dumping it in the harbour.
Years of debate over whether the city should be commemorating the 17th century figure Edward Colston were abruptly pushed back into the limelight when demonstrators sent his likeness crashing to the ground amid a global uprising against racism. Police have now launched an investigation into the incident, which Home Secretary Priti Patel labelled ‘utterly disgraceful’.
The bronze memorial to Mr Colston, situated in Bristol city centre since 1895, was pulled down by rope after crowds left College Green. It had previously been the subject of an 11,000-strong petition to have it removed by critics who believe it celebrates colonialism.
Crowds cheered as the slave trader’s statue fell to the ground and broke, before jumping on top of it and celebrating. They later daubed red paint on the face, rolled it down street and into the river. Protesters also posed for pictures while kneeling on his neck, in reference to the death of George Floyd, a black American who died after a white police officer did the same for eight minutes.
That incident has sparked Black Lives Matter demonstrations which have seen huge crowds gather in the USA, Britain and various other countries amid the coronavirus crisis.
Asked about the statue incident, Ms Patel told Sky News: ‘I think that is utterly disgraceful and that speaks to the acts of public disorder that actually have now become a distraction from the cause in which people are actually protesting about and trying to empathise and sympathise with.
‘That is completely an unacceptable act and that speaks to the vandalism again that we saw yesterday in London. But sheer vandalism and disorder completely is unacceptable.
‘It’s right, actually, (that) the police follow up on that and make sure that justice is taken, undertaken, with those individuals which are responsible for such disorderly and lawless behaviour.’
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Her comments follow a protest in London last night when demonstrators clashed with police after a largely peaceful protest. One officer smacked into a traffic light when her horse charged.
In Bristol earlier, protestor John McAllister, 71, tore down black bin bags used to hide the statue to denounce it in front of fellow protesters.
He explained: ‘It says “erected by the citizens of Bristol, as a memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of this city”. The man was a slave trader. He was generous to Bristol but it was off the back of slavery and it’s absolutely despicable.
‘It’s an insult to the people of Bristol.’
Officers have now launched an investigation to identify a small group of people ‘who clearly committed an act of criminal damage’ in pulling down the statue of slave, Avon and Somerset Police superintendent Andy Bennett said.
Suggesting 10,000 people had attended the protest, he added: ‘An investigation will be carried out to identify those involved and we’re already collating footage of the incident. I’d like to thank our partners at Bristol City Council for helping us to ensure this was a safe event for all who attended.
‘I’d like to thank the organisers for their efforts to encourage demonstrators to follow Government guidance – a message which many clearly took on board, doing their best to socially distance despite the large crowds. Keeping the public safe was our greatest priority and thankfully there were no instances of disorder and no arrests were made.’
There has long been a debate over whether to continue to memorialise historic figures with links to slavery and racism, notably in the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement which called for statues of slave trader Cecil Rhodes to be felled because they are a symbol of colonialism.
Others suggest taking down statues ‘erases history’ and that past figures should not be judged by modern standards.
Bristol-born Mr Colston is widely reported to have been involved in the transportation of around 84,000 slaves – approximately 19,000 of whom died in transport. He was also an MP, merchant and philanthropist.
According to Historic England, the statue was sculpted by John Cassidy, of Manchester, with an inscription that read ‘erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895’.
Mr Colston’s involvement in the slave trade through the British-based Royal African Company was the source of much of the money which he bestowed in Bristol, the website added.
Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees did not condemn the statue’s removal and called for it to begin a legacy of ‘tackling racism and inequality.
Some Labour MPs have backed the toppling. One, former leadership contender Clive Lewis, tweeted: ‘If statues of confederates who fought a war for slavery & white supremacy shld come down then why not this one?
‘Someone responsible for immeasurable blood & suffering. We’ll never solve structural racism till we get to grips with our history in all its complexity.’
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