History is made and unmade in a moment. To witness such moments is thrilling. Watching the statue of Edward Colston pulled down was beautiful. A symbolic gesture, perhaps, but one that hurt no one, and one that taught many of us so much.
I am trying to learn and listen. Some things about the Black Lives Matter protests are very new and some are very old. No one is interested in white tears, but, hopefully, my political education continues and my views evolve. Before my daughter went off to the protest in London, we had a conversation about direct action. The visceral thrill of pulling down fences at Greenham Common in the 80s remains with me, as does being caught in various riots – kettled before they used that word. Police horses are scary, I told her, and she was incredulous, as horses belong to the olden days. I told her about being searched under the “sus” laws because I was with a friend who had committed the crime of being black and having a decent car.
She returned from the protest confident that something else had been toppled: the myth that the Extinction Rebellion activists were so white and old because young BAME people were not politicised.
Why does the statue of a slaver being rolled into the water mean so much? Well, all those saying it should have been done another way can read the recent local history. Councillors in Bristol have been debating whether to remove the statue for years. There was a weird compromise proposed that another plaque be put up noting Colston’s enslavement of an estimated 84,000 Africans, of whom 19,000 died, and that, as a Tory MP, Colston defended Bristol’s right to trade slaves. This plaque met with objections, less “offensive” plaques were suggested and, meanwhile, there he stood, offensively. It was direct action that brought him down.
I applaud this, as it brought to the fore Britain’s role in the slave trade, and this is exactly what links the protests here and the protests in the US. We know off by heart the Tory narrative on this: our racism is nicer than US racism. Don’t mention Windrush or Grenfell. Protesters are thugs. And they say this as we see the faces of those who have died in the pandemic, so many of whom just happen to be black or Asian.
We play out our identity politics in sad postcolonial denial. Brexit, of course, is the ultimate form of identity politics for those who decry such things. It is much easier to ship the cargo of racism and police brutality across the water than to look at our own history. Our leaders are not only in denial about the long-gone empire; they don’t even seem to understand that the Irish border exists.
Still, they are not the only ones with gaps in their historical knowledge. Mine are huge, and, watching all this, I think about what I learned from living in the US and how I learned it. In the late 1970s, I worked in a restaurant in Louisiana where the very old lady who shucked the oysters said that as a girl she was a slave in all but name – what the historians now call “neoslavery”. Slavery didn’t just end when the books told us it did. Every desirable property in New Orleans at the time came with “slave quarters”, although I have no idea what the estate agents call them now. I realised I knew nothing really about the American civil war, but, without understanding that, parts of the US don’t really make sense. The independence that the confederate soldiers fought for was based on what were politely referred to as “southern institutions”, and the chief institution was slavery. The desperation and poverty of black America cannot be seen outside this context. Nor can the tearing down of confederate flags.
Years later in Louisville, where another man was brutally murdered by the police, my friend, the writer David Matthews, took me to the Muhammad Ali Centre. Ali, this great hero, could not eat in the same restaurants as white people in his home town. So many Vietnam vets were there in wheelchairs to pay respects. It stayed with me. We were there to cover Barack Obama’s run for the presidency. We can argue all day over what having a black president achieved, but we sure as hell know what having a white supremacist in power means.
So we watch and repeat the phrase “structural racism”, which is useful, but somehow absolves us of action. It is a harder thing for many to grasp than a statue. This structure does not float above history – it is its deep foundation. In this country, the reckoning with the days of empire happens mostly on a cultural level. This is part of white privilege, from which I benefit doubtless. As the DJ Clara Amfo, quoting Amanda Seales, said so powerfully: “You cannot just enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues.”
No we can’t, and it is vital to make the connections between the Black Lives Matter protests everywhere and to educate ourselves. There is much I have not understood; there will be things I continue to not understand. There will be times when other things matter, too. As Audre Lorde said: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Amen to that.
But there are single instances when, as if tuning a radio, the static disappears and suddenly the sound is perfect and resonant, and we can hear what we need to hear: the sloshing as the statue fell unceremoniously into the water and the shrieks of joy from the protesters.
Yes. We heard that. We heard it loud and clear.
• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist.