Monday 8 June 2020

Edward Colston Toppled

As a former student of the University of Bristol, I am delighted that the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in that city was torn down and dumped in the harbour in the recent Black Lives Matters demonstration there. ‘Criminal damage’ the Tory politicians are predictably calling such direct action.  No, far from it:  the criminal damage was having the wretched thing up in the first place, thereby honouring a man who made untold profits out of untold human misery – a racist heritage of brutality and oppression which continues into our own times.

As a current student of William Morris, I recall the tearing down of the Vendôme Column on 16 May 1871 by the Paris Commune and the clearing of Nelson’s Column from Trafalgar Square in News from Nowhere.  These were great gestures of collective liberation, real and fictional, which set an admirable context for Colston’s demise today.  The other traces of the slave trader’s disgusting presence in my old university city – the names of streets and schools which commemorate him – now need to be cleared away too; and then – in a project rather nearer to Morris’s own heart – since it concerns his beloved Oxford University - we need to get shot of that statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes which currently graces (or rather disgraces) the front of Oriel College.

Tuesday 2 June 2020

'I Can't Breathe': In Solidarity

In the June 1885 issue of Commonweal Morris wrote: ‘we have not far to seek to find violence without justice in the present.  Do men choose a miserable life, or are they forced into it?  No one wants violence if a decent life for everyone can be obtained without it.  But it is to be feared that the natural sequence of enforced misery will be violent revolution … will that be the fault of the wretched or of the system which has made them wretched’.

His words bear forcefully upon the mass uprising that has shaken the United States over the last week, after the police murder of George Floyd on 25 May.  These protests may not actually be aiming at revolution in Morris’s sense, but they are certainly an uprising against brutal misery and oppression inflicted on the black population of the country by its deeply racialised capitalism and a white-supremacist President who is just itching to unleash the military upon his own people.  Not that you need the actual army when you have paramilitary thugs like the National Guard at your disposal.

What the world feared China might do to protestors in Hong Kong, it has, ironically, seen come to pass in the so-called Land of the Free.  Such moments of uprising, messy, confused and violent though they always will be, are also moments of political self-definition and choice: either you take a stand with the oppressed, however modest that gesture may be, or, through silence, you allow State repression to run its ugly course.  Morrisians, both individually and through such collective channels as they have access to, must surely do the former.  Otherwise, what could possibly be the point of seeing yourself as a ‘Morrisian’ in the first place!