This blog is normally concerned with the police courts of nineteenth-century London. It may therefore seem a world away from the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that are echoing around the globe. But my research touches on inequality and oppression in so many ways that I see so many connections to current debates on prejudice, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment that I feel that to stay quiet is impossible. So this blog post is going to be a little different, and I make no apology for that.
The killing of George Floyd was a disgrace, an outrageous act, an example of oppression, and one that demonstrated that for some people black lives really don’t matter. There can be no justification for Floyd’s killing just as there can be no justification for the hundreds of black lives that are taken every year by over zealous and, let’s admit it, often institutionally racist, police forces.
Before we think that this is an American issue, or even an old one, let’s remind ourselves that these killings have taken place in the UK, a country that our Prime Minister swears is ‘not racist’. Not everyone in the UK is racist, not every institution is either, but racism is endemic in Britain and so I find it completely understandable that acts of violence have resulted from the groundswell of anger that followed the news of Floyd’s killing.
On Sunday 7 June 2020 protesters in Bristol hauled down the statue of Edward Colston, an eighteenth-century merchant who owed his huge personal wealth to slavery, and dumped it into the Avon.
The removal of Colston’s statue was not an eradication of history, it was history.
Colston’s statue was only erected in 1895 when his links to slavery were well known. In recent decades there has been a local campaign to remove his statue and rename Colston Hall. This campaign has been ignored and so it is no surprise to me that events in the USA sparked protesters here to react as they did to years of frustration.
The destruction of the statue has been condemned as ‘criminal damage’ and as an attempt to ‘eradicate history’.
It may, technically, be the former; it most certainly is not the latter.
Moreover, the actions of those involved have to be seen in historical context. History is not static; it is not somehow encased only in the monuments left behind by our ancestors, it is changing every day.
Which is why we need historians (those we have and future ones) to research, write, explain, and interpret that history.
Let us take the history of protest as just one example of the collective history of humanity over the past few thousand years. If we take the long view we can immediately see how ridiculous and insulting it is to dismiss Sunday’s ‘rioters’ as ‘criminal’.
Pretty much all of the rights we cherish in this country and throughout the world were won not given. These include the right to free speech (something championed by Far Right activists as much as those on the Left of politics); the freedom to practice whatever religion (or none) we choose.
To which we can add the right to political representation, and the right (of nations) to self-determination; the more modern rights to sexual freedom, gender equality, to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of race or disability.
Protest is not a recent invention.
History reminds us that people have protested about all sorts of things for as long as records exist (and presumably longer). I work on the period 1700-1900 and there are plenty of examples in my area of individuals, communities, and groups protesting about access to common land, to food resources, the right to vote, the right to form a trades union, and against the forcible examination of the female body, to name but a few.
There have been notable eruptions of popular rebellion against oppression: most particularly given the current news agenda, in the Caribbean against slavery. Too often the emancipation of slaves has been credit to a handful of well-meaning white men (like Wilberforce) and to the neglect of the black actors (named and unnamed) who contributed to it.
The actions of the enslaved have often been written out of history, and the efforts of white men lauded instead.
And we can see the role that violent direct action has played in winning votes for women, LGBTQ rights, and in winning freedom from oppressive regimes in Europe and elsewhere.
It would be lovely if protest was always gentle and respectful of property and persons. If governments would listen and consult with the oppressed and the exploited. History teaches us that they don’t; the reality is that for change to happen persuasion has to take place. Why should the rich and powerful conceded any of their wealth or privilege to those they control unless they fear the consequences of not doing so?
But power is very rarely given away, it is taken.
And before we get too precious about the violence that we’ve seen on the streets of Britain and America in reaction to the killing of George Floyd (and allowing for the fact that much of that violence cuts both ways – police ‘brutality’ and the ‘criminality’ of the activists), let us again remind ourselves of how states like the US and UK came into and have maintained their existence.
The USA was born in conquest. British, Spanish, Portuguese and French invaders (or settlers, discoverers if you prefer) brutally subdued the native indigenous peoples and seized their land. Then in 1776 a violent revolution took place and white colonial Americans overcame the lawful English government and (with the help of the French) established their own republic. They continued to build a nation using slave labour imported (violently) from Africa.
The British state is even more rooted in violence. England was born from dynastic wars reaching back to the 700s or earlier. Britain only exists because English armies subdued the Scots and Welsh and Irish. The British Empire (‘overwhelmingly a force for good’ apparently) was really a product of violent land grabs in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, maintained by gunboat diplomacy and periodic warfare.
The British Empire’s response to a national uprising in India was brutal
We owe our place in the world to violence: destructive, exploitative, nationalistic, imperialist, violence often justified on the basis that we (I mean white Britons) were members of a ‘superior’ race with a ‘civilizing mission’.
I could go on but I think the point is made.
Nowhere on earth has peaceful protest been the ‘norm’ for effecting change. Everywhere the nations that exist valorize violence in their national history. Yes, we might rightly laud the battle for freedom on D-Day, or the sacrifice of 60,000 British lives on day one of the Somme, but let’s not forget that war is the ‘extension of diplomacy by others means’ and power is equated to force.
If the marginalized fight back (or others take up arms on their behalf) we can hardly be surprised, nor, I would argue, can we deny them the rights and privileges that our ancestors won for us.
Black Lives Matter is a movement born of hundreds of years of exploitation and the frustration of the denial of equality and, in some cases, basic human rights. I cannot condemn them or those that support them, and can only hope that, as historians, we are part of the solution not a part of the problem.