When we see something that we are used to seeing being taken away or changed, we tend to pay special attention. In this recent upsurge against police violence, the protestors have been advocating for the removal of statues, flags, names of well-known places like parks and streets, even the titles of military bases in the US that reflect this country’s racist past. There is so much of this in our day-to-day American map reading that the task of implementing deconstruction is not so simple.
These demands come primarily from the demonstrators, but they are supported from unlikely quarters. For the johnny-come-latelys and the power brokers, this is pure opportunism, an easier compromise to make. Their insincerity aside, we should recognize the value that our side has achieved here. This wave of foment against the symbols of racial oppression is not only happening locally, it is international. We need to celebrate this.
Here are some examples. A comrade in Minneapolis reported on the pulling down of the Christopher Columbus statue in the state capital, St. Paul. He said that it has been the chosen target of protest for the last thirty years. It was successfully removed in thirty minutes. It’s amazing what a few ropes and some elbow grease can accomplish. When he heard this was going on, he raced over but arrived too late, Columbus was already done and dusted. Riot situations can achieve goals a lot quicker than petitions can.
In Bristol, a port city in the west of England, the statue of Edward Colston was hauled down and unceremoniously dumped into the Bristol Channel. Colston was a notorious 17th century slave trader. He had no business having a monument. The demolitionists rolled it over almost half of a mile to the big pond. This was done in the name of Black Lives Matter. Black lives have never mattered much in Bristol.
Cecil Rhodes, an out-there British imperialist who wanted Africa to be a colony from Cape Town to Cairo, is under the gun. Students in South Africa have been targeting his statue in Cape Town for a long time. Oxford University in England, where most of the future ruling class learns how to become just that, has decided to remove his statue from the campus. Sky News, a British television network, continues to refer to Rhodes as a businessman.
Here, we cannot dismiss the banning of the confederate flag at the NASCAR races. These are events that normally attract those likely to support a chump like Trump, more so than less. Richmond, Virginia has a whole plethora of statues downtown honoring Dixie generals. There is one exception, and that is the monument recognizing the late black American tennis star Arthur Ashe, a local sports legend. He is deserving of recognition, the rest of them are not. The State of Virginia is now feeling compelled to do away with these other effigies.
When apartheid was officially knocked out of the rulebook in South Africa in 1994, similar changes occurred. In my hometown Durban, Edwin Swales Drive became Solomon Mahlangu Drive. Edwin Swales was a RAF bomber pilot in WWII who won the Victoria Cross. Solomon Mahlangu was an ANC guerrilla who was executed by the regime. All sorts of name transformations happened …no more Kitchener’s Way, or Queen Victoria this and that in Durban.
These were convenient moves for the new South African government because they represented changes, certainly less of the more necessary life and death ones that were desperately needed. The government wasn’t so forthcoming with these on purpose. This is the danger of the billboard posted new thing, especially if it is designed to camouflage a continuation of the same old thing (thank you Pete Townshend… “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”).
But the renaming of those street or cities in South Africa represented a victory of sorts. The whites had to capitulate and that was through the force of the resistance. That part needs to be given its proper due. Whether it was sufficient or not is apparent now. Symbolism of the past struggle and a close connection to it keeps the present ANC government in power, and that is not enough for much needed fundamental change.
I see this as the mixed benefits and negatives of symbol deconstruction. A few don’t matter much (like Uncle Ben’s rice or Aunt Jemima’s pancake syrup), but many have legs. Right now, here and throughout the world, these actions are deserving of support. We are on the front foot, they are on the back one. Who cannot appreciate that? While we might want the names of their forts to change, we want a whole lot more than that, like no more forts at all for starters.