Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol brought its citizens face-to-face with its ugly past, a ground report by Susan Newman and Jeni Van Heerden
Sunday’s Bristol Black Lives Matter protest was the latest and largest of a string of protests that have taken place in the city since the murder of George Floyd. What began as another city's solidarity demonstration focused upon the contemporary systemic injustices experienced by black people became a historical moment in the story of Bristol’s connections with the transatlantic slave trade and the failure of the city’s official institutions to recognise and break from its historical past through education and decolonisation of the city, for example, by renaming of streets, buildings and schools and a dedicated museum on the interconnection of commerce, colonialism, and slavery that has shaped the city.
Thousands gathered on College Green at one o’clock for speeches carried by voices of rage. Volunteers distributed masks and hand sanitizer. The names of those who have died at the hands of police violence were read as demonstrators kneeled for 8 minutes and 45 seconds. The depth of silence was punctuated by the cathedral bells chiming two. The relative discomfort of kneeling on the ground was a reminder of the agonising duration of Floyd’s murder. The crowd rose with resounding applause and prepared to march into the commercial centre of the city towards Castle Park. But events would transform the march into a moment of genuine historical significance.
A statue of Edward Colston, the Bristol-born merchant and slave trader, stood in the shadow of a high-rise office block sharing his name. It would always be a focal point of today’s demonstration but few would have anticipated the level of militancy that saw protestors entwining the statue with rope and forcefully dislodging it from its plinth. The toppling of the statue was met with raucous cheers of celebration, anger, and defiance.
The plinth was quickly occupied by black demonstrators that expressed the pain of their trauma and call for unity, mobilisation, and persistence in taking this movement forwards. One woman ended her emotional impromptu speech with a call for revolution. It felt like a revolution.
A gathering remained around the plinth as most protestors continued on the march through town to assemble peacefully at Castle Park for a final round of speeches. Back at the plinth, demonstrators took turns to kneel on the neck of Edward Colston before carrying the statue towards the water’s edge and threw it into the harbour in view of Peros Bridge, named in 2000 after a known slave from the 18th century. What had begun as part of a worldwide movement caught the heart of the city and forced a confrontation with its colonial past and the continuity of this legacy today.
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