Greetings to you today, January 25th, 2021
My name is Dr Shawn Sobers, and it is an honour to make this statement today in solidarity with the Colston 4.
George Floyd in the United States, was killed on May 25th, which is a date known as African Liberation Day. It is so named to commemorate the day in 1963, when the Organisation of African Unity was founded in Addis Ababa. African states came together to form a transnational entity to improve the life quality of African people, and to ensure that all Africans enjoyed human rights and justice. African people have faced racist violence and incidents globally through slavery, through colonialism, through Jim Crow laws in the United States, through the Apartheid system in South Africa, and in the UK racism have perpetuated through racist policies in housing and policing – the Sus laws, the hostile environment and the Windrush scandal, not to mention the scores of violent racist attacks that have remained ignored and the high numbers of Black people unfairly criminalised and trapped into the criminal justice system. Some of us call this by Swahili terms – the Maafa, and the Maangamizi – the attempted holocaust of Africans through slavery and the ongoing attempted destruction of a free and unified African people globally.
On African Liberation Day 2020, an African American man named George Floyd was killed by a state policeman in Minnesota, USA, for the alleged crime of passing a counterfeit $20 note. The killing of George Floyd, and the video of the policeman’s knee squashed into his neck for an unrelenting 8 minutes and 46 seconds, shook the world. Africans and African descendants are still, literally, under the foot of the oppressor.
On June 7th here in Bristol people took to the streets to show their solidarity for George Floyd, and support for Black people who continue to face racist violence and become victims of racist policies sanctioned by the state.
The city of Bristol has its own story in the history of the oppression of African people, it’s a story that not only includes contemporary examples of racist attacks and state brutality on innocent Black people, the story stretches back to how the fortunes of the city itself made its wealth and international trading position on the economical system that relied on the enslavement and subjugation of African people – in what is commonly known as the Transatlantic slave trade.
Between approximately 1723 and 1743 Bristol became Britain’s most profitable port city involved in the slave trade, overtaking from Liverpool. Although he died in 1721, Bristol born Edward Colston was one of the key people to have paved the way for the city to arrive at such an infamous prominent position in this brutal and evil international market system. As Deputy General of the Royal African Company from 1689 – 1691, Colston became one of the most powerful Britons involved in the transatlantic slave trade, reportedly responsible for the shipping of over 84,000 kidnapped African men, women and children who were captured and sold into slavery in the Americas and Caribbean, and tens of thousands more didn’t survive the journey across the Atlantic. By the time Colston left the Royal African Company in 1692, the transatlantic slave trade had made him an extremely wealthy individual, He returned to Bristol, made a loan to the Bristol Corporation, became a member of Society of Merchant Venturers, and the cult of Colston in the city began. 174 years after his death, the statue of Colston was put up.
Now to fast forward back to the 7th June 2020, and the anti-racism and Black Lives Matter protest in solidarity with George Floyd and other victims of racism abuse. In the fight against racism, the conditions which allow racist actions to exist and flourish must be challenged, and not only the racist action itself. In Bristol, the statue of Colston, protected by Grade 2 listed status, became a symbol of how much this city was built on the enslavement and oppression of African people. And the extent at which it still upholds the systemic values and structural inequalities perpetuated by those same slave traders and oppressors they continue to celebrate. The glorification of the architects of structural racism that still exists today.
When the statue came down, it was people saying they did not want the city to be represented by the architects of structural racism anymore. It was people saying Bristol can learn from its past, and the city can be better than this. It was an act of patriotism, not wanton vandalism. An act of love for the city, not hatred. An act of hope for the city, not criminal damage. An act of building the future of city, not destruction of the past. Over the past 20 years there were plenty of formal attempts at having the statue removed, and also for the plaque to be re-worded. In 2020, a year like no other than we have lived through in peacetime Britain, with the effects of the Covid19 pandemic, there was a different outcome to this age old question – what is the city of Bristol doing to commemorate the lives of the millions of Africans it transported and sold into slavery.
The answer to how the city should commemorate this history is still up for debate, but the answer was clear in how people did not want the city to represent this history – through the narrative of one of the slave trade’s most powerful leaders. History was not erased on the day the statue came down, history was very much remembered.
The fight against racism is not a fight against statues, but the Colston statue became a symbol of a structural inequality that is so much bigger than the statue itself. Do we care more about the abstract principle of an inanimate object that has had no meaningful improvement in the lives of any living person, than the very real injustices that are continued to be faced by African and African descended people in the city, in Britain, and across the globe, that is the actual focus of what the Black Lives Matter protests were shining a light on?
Remember the name of George Floyd and the sadly many many more who were killed and maimed in racist attacks before him.
Remember the enslaved Africans who fought for their own freedom, and forced condition for the abolition of the slave trade to have to eventually happen.
Remember the people of Bristol who are fighting every day for the city to be a fairer and more equal place for people to live.
I am here today in solidarity for the Colston 4. I know I would rather they be known as the Bristol 4.
I leave you all in peace and with Love.
Blessings and honour to the ancestors.