U.K. Protesters Topple Slave Trader Statue During Anti-Racism Protests

Jun 8, 2020
Originally published on June 8, 2020 8:55 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The death of George Floyd and the protests here in the United States continue to reverberate around the world.

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GREENE: Yesterday, Black Lives Matter protesters in the English port city of Bristol tore down a statue of the city's biggest philanthropist, who made his fortune as a slave trader. For more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt who is covering this story from London. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what we're hearing there, how did that all play out?

LANGFITT: It was remarkable. People surrounded the statue, wrapped ropes around the head of it, tore it to the ground and then - I think more strikingly - rolled it actually through the streets of Bristol and tossed it in the Bristol Harbor.

GREENE: Wow. What...

LANGFITT: Yeah. I mean, in terms of political metaphor, it was really quite something.

GREENE: What has been the response? I mean, did government officials, police do anything in response to this (ph)?

LANGFITT: Yeah, the police did not intervene. And the police here in the United Kingdom have been very careful in how they've managed these protests. I've been going to quite a few of them. The Bristol mayor, his name is Marvin Rees. He's black. He said this was a personal affront to him - the statue, he did not like it. But he was also - seemed uneasy about the way that this happened. Priti Patel is the hard-line home secretary here in the United Kingdom. She's also incidentally of Ugandan and Indian descent. She was very unhappy with it. Speaking on Britain's Sky TV News (ph) last night, she called it an act of vandalism. This is what she said.

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PRITI PATEL: Well, 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 actively protesting about.

GREENE: So what is the backstory of the statue? Who was this, and how is he seen in Bristol?

LANGFITT: It's really interesting, David. Colston was an officer in the Royal African Company. This is back in the late - the Royal African Company transported, at this time, over 80,000 slaves across the Atlantic. Nineteen-thousand died at the - on the crossing, and bodies were thrown overboard. But Colston also made a ton of money, and he endowed lots of organizations in Bristol, including the music hall there, some schools. And the plaque on the statue said - called him one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city. Well, of course, a lot of people in Bristol didn't feel this way. The city had been trying to reach consensus on how to handle the complex history, to say the least, of this guy.

And there was talk of of another plaque that would explain his role in the slave trade, but the local government could not agree on the wording. And what happened yesterday is, obviously, the statue - people took things into their own hands and sent the statue to the bottom of the harbor.

GREENE: So you say you've been watching how this movement has been playing out in the U.K. What - do you think there's a takeaway from this?

LANGFITT: There is. I think this is really, David, how history happens. I mean, this is what we're seeing. This all started, really, on a street corner in Minneapolis. And you're seeing it reverberate here, where there is a lot of racial anger and a lot of dispute over the slave history of this country. I was talking to Clive Lewis. He's a member of Parliament in the opposition Labour Party. And he said without Floyd's killing and that cellphone tape and what's happened in America, the Colston statue would still be standing right now.

CLIVE LEWIS: I think the George Floyd protests sparked something around the world, something that had been brewing for a long time. Part of the tinder was the COVID-19 locked down, the unemployment. Now you're at a point where what happened to George Floyd means that now people felt that enough was enough.

GREENE: And briefly - what about the statue, Frank?

LANGFITT: I think it's going to come out. It's going to go into a museum with a much more contextualized history around it. And so I think we'll actually be seeing it again.

GREENE: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.