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In an English City, an Early Benefactor Is Now ‘a Toxic Brand’


Bristol is, for all intents and purposes, the town that Edward Colston built. Tearing down his statue has reopened a painful reckoning with the past — one that has long divided this port city of 460,000, laying bare its contradictions. It is multicultural but segregated, festive but given to spasms of unrest, liberal but enriched by the lucre of slavery.

After the protesters toppled Colston, they dumped him in Bristol Harbor, a theatrical touch that recalled the rebellious British subjects in colonial Boston. But this protest was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, not the Boston Tea Party, and it poses a nettlesome challenge to Bristol, similar to that faced by cities across the American South, where statues of Confederate generals are teetering.

Protests have also broken out in London, Paris, Berlin and other European cities, drawing attention to police brutality, targeting monuments to Winston Churchill and King Leopold II of Belgium and igniting anguished debates about the difference between marking history and venerating its most oppressive actors.

“Some are elated about the statue coming down; some are confused; and some are very fearful and angry,” the mayor, Marvin Rees, said in an interview. “Some people are saying, ‘Colston is Bristol, and therefore Colston is me. And if you take that statue down, you’re taking something of me down.’”

It has put Mr. Rees, the son of a Jamaican father and a British mother, in a tricky position. As mayor, he said, he could not ignore criminal damage to public property. He also worried about crowds massing at a time when the coronavirus is still killing hundreds of people a day in Britain. But as a child of Jamaican immigrants, he said, “I could not pretend I was anything but affronted by the statue.”

“Colston,” he said, “may have owned one of my ancestors.”


Read entire article at The New York Times