Rejected by Bristol

(Photo: Dezeen)

By Bella Robinson – Sub Editor

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Bristol’s racist past. How the city I grew up in had not come to terms with its slave trader roots, how the biggest music venue and several schools were named after Edward Colston; a man responsible for the transportation of at least 80,000 Africans to America, as well as the known deaths of 19,000 who got too sick to sell and were thrown overboard. His statue at the time was still up and running with no accurate plaque or legal grounds for its removal, despite constant campaigning from residents.  At that time museums would not touch his statue with a very long pole, presumably of a similar length to the one they used to fish him out of the harbour with. Colston’s toppling was, to Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, a piece of ‘poetic history’. Now the broken bound and graffitied copper statue will represent, in whatever museum gets to keep him, new hope and the start of a revolution for equality. His plaque which has no mention of how he earned his money but reads ‘erected by citizens of Bristol’ has now been subtly edited with Tippex; ‘Rejected by citizens of Bristol’. 

A revolution doesn’t happen in a day. Jamaican born playwright poet and actor Alfred Fagon moved to St. Pauls in Bristol in the 1960s to pursue his acting career. A statue of Fagon was erected in what he described as the heart of St Pauls (the corner of Ashley Road and Grosvenor Road for anyone who knows the area). However, on the 11th June, days after the Black Lives Matter protest, a substance suspected to be bleach was thrown at the statue and as of yet, no one has been arrested. St Pauls has long had a large African-Caribbean population with many of the Jamaican Windrush generations settling there in the 1950s.  There had been widespread discrimination of black people in Bristol when it came to housing and employment and in 1963 Paul Stephenson led a 4-month Bristol Bus Boycott after his interview with the Bristol Omnibus Company was cancelled when they found out he was from the West Indies. The protest led to the first appointment of a non-white bus conductor and is believed to have been influential in passing the Race Relations Act in 1968, which stated that you could not be discriminated against in employment or housing on the basis of race. The infamous Black and White Cafe and drug den was raided more times than any other property in the country. It is suspected that the 1980 St Pauls riots started when the cafe was raided and a police officer ripped a customer’s trousers and refused to pay, prompting an emerging crowd outside to block the police from leaving. This then escalated 

when police back up was called, and the riot began. This discontent had a deeper history however, with protestors also fighting back against poverty and racial discrimination of black and Irish people in the area, including young black men being unfairly targeted for ‘stop and search’. St Pauls has always had a strong sense of community and the St Pauls carnival, much like the Notting Hill Carnival, celebrates vibrant and creative aspects of African Caribbean and Bristolian cultures alike. The vandalism of the statue of Alfred Fagon is a clear racial attack on the community, of the one person from the community who has been recognised with a statue. 

The following weekend after the Black Lives Matter demonstration an All Lives Matter protest took place, aiming to ‘protect’’ the Cenotaph a few feet away from where Colston’s statue once stood. They chanted ‘England’, sang Wonderwall by Oasis (????) and threw bottles at passing cars. The protesters held up signs that read “Listen Andy Bennett ( Superintendent of Bristol, Avon & Somerset police force)– we are NOT FAR RIGHT, just ordinary people of all races from Bristol, Bath, Cardiff, Newport etc. united to defend the Cenotaph, to defend the memory of people who died so that we are able to have the freedom to protest”. The protestors were reported to be defending the cenotaph after last week’s Black Lives Matter protests in London saw graffiti on a statue of Winston Churchill, branding him a racist, as well as vandalism to other Cenotaphs. However, the fact that protestors cleared away the placards that had been laid around Colston’s empty plinth as a tribute to the lives Colston took, presupposes that their motive may have been more loaded. Police officers were forced to form a ring of defence around the protestors as counter-protesters chanted ‘racists’ at them. The All Lives Matter protest detracts from discrimination and immediate danger that black people in this country face and that it is the unfortunate reality that black people are not always valued institutionally and culturally in society as people of other ethnicities are. Professor of History of Slavery at Bristol University, Olivette Otele, argues that we need to have a Black Lives Matter movement precisely because ‘’black people have not been cared for, through the police brutality we’ve seen that their lives actually matter even less than the rest of the population”. An All Lives Matter protester holding a British flag stood on the empty plinth where Colston once stood, where Black Lives Matter protesters had just a week before expressed how it was time to take a stand and unite against racism. Revolutions don’t happen overnight and whilst the removal of the statues of previously idolised racists around the world shows how far we as humanity has already come, it is clear (at least from the Facebook comments of my sources anyway) that there is still so much work to be done and we’ve got so far to go. 


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