Not set in stone

Memorials erected in honour of historical figures have become a focus of protests around the world and are falling as Europe reexamines its past

The death of George Floyd at the hand of Minneapolis police officers sparked protests across the U.S. over last two weeks. Floyd died in police custody on May 25 in Minnesota. This led to anti-racism protests. As the protests spread, memorial erected in honour of historical figures – from Confederate monuments in the United States to statues of British slave traders – came under attack.

As protest spread from city to city, one controversial historical figure has come back into the spotlight: Christopher Columbus. His statues from Boston to Miami have been beheaded and vandalized.

Italian explorer Columbus, long hailed by school textbooks as the so-called discoverer of ‘The New World’, is considered by many to have spurred years of genocide against indigenous groups. A statue of the navigator standing on a prominent plinth in central Boston was beheaded over Wednesday night.

More than 2,400 km away in Florida, another memorial at a waterfront park in downtown Miami was defaced, with red paint sprayed on its hands alongside messages that read ‘Our streets’, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘George Floyd’.

And in Minnesota, where Floyd died, protesters tied ropes around the neck of a Columbus statue outside the state Capitol and hauled it down to cheers and applause. Some of them ran to the fallen statue to kick it in the head. Earlier in Virginia, demonstrators used ropes to pull down the eight-foot statue and then dumped it in a nearby lake.

In New York City, Columbus’s opponents are reignited their calls to remove the 14-foot marble statue in Columbus Circle outside Central Park. People said that now was the right time to remove the 128-year-old statue. They said the city did not need a monument to a figure who had a history of destroying and enslaving Indigenous people.

Richard Alba, a distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of CUNY, felt the history of the New York statue was different from the Confederate statues of the south, which were put up to symbolize the triumph of whites over blacks in the south. The Columbus statue was erected mostly to honor Italian Americans persecuted during the 19th century.

For Indigenous Americans, having a tall statue of Columbus look down on the community from a 27-foot pedestal is degrading, even if there is signage describing his history.

Alba, who was part of a special commission that reviewed controversial monuments in New York City, the monuments should represent diversity, and part of that diversity is Italian Americans who came in as the most disparaged of those European groups.

Indigenous people feel just like black people in this country, they have also been wronged. Dozens of American cities have over the years replaced Columbus Day in October, which became a federal holiday in 1937, with a day of tribute to indigenous peoples.

The attacks on Columbus and Confederate memorials follow a similar incident in Bristol, England, on Sunday when demonstrators toppled a statue of a slave trader and dumped it in a harbor during anti-racism protests.

Meanwhile, in Spain, the country that sponsored Columbus’ voyages, his likeness occupies centre-stage in many Spanish cities. A famous statue showing Columbus with his right arm extended and his finger pointing toward the sea stands tall on a column at the bottom of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas boulevard. In Madrid, a central square named for him features a prominent Columbus statue surrounded by traffic.

In Britain, statues of Edward Colston, the 17th-century slave trader in the port city of Britol, and Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian imperialist who served as prime minister of the Cape Colony in southern Africa, are under attack. Colston’s statue has been pulled out of the harbour where protesters dumped it. A campaign to remove a statue of Rhodes from Oxford’s Oriel College is also on.

Authorities in London and many other U.K. cities have announced plans to review all statues, street names and other monuments to see whether they reflect modern values and the country’s current diversity. Some have called for the removal of statues of William Gladstone, the reforming 19th-century prime minister whose father was one of the biggest slave-owners in the British West Indies. Gladstone sought compensation for them when slavery was abolished. Even national hero Winston Churchill is a contentious figure. Britain’s wartime prime minister is revered by many in the U.K. as the man who led the country to victory against Nazi Germany. But he was also a staunch defender of the British Empire and expressed racist views.

In France, several statues have been placed under police protection amid protests against country’s colonial past and slavery. Even before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, protesters on the French island of Martinique toppled two statues of 19th-century politician Schoelcher on May 22, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery on the Caribbean island.

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