The protesters tearing down monuments to slaveholders and perpetrators of genocide are often accused of “erasing the past.” But their actions are bringing closer scrutiny on the figures these monuments celebrate — allowing history to be retold from the viewpoint of their victims.
Anti-racism is a battle for memory. This is one of the most remarkable features of the wave of protests that has arisen worldwide after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Everywhere, anti-racist movements have put the past into question by targeting monuments that symbolize the legacy of slavery and colonialism: the Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Virginia; Theodore Roosevelt in New York City; Christopher Columbus in many US cities; the Belgian king Leopold II in Brussels; the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol; Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister for Louis XIV and author of the infamous Code Noir in France; the father of modern Italian journalism and former propagandist for fascist colonialism, Indro Montanelli, and so on.
Whether they are toppled, destroyed, painted, or graffitied, these statues epitomize a new dimension of struggle: the connection between rights and memory. They highlight the contrast between the status of blacks and postcolonial subjects as stigmatized and brutalized minorities, and the symbolic place given in the public space to their oppressors — a space which also makes up the urban environment of our everyday lives.