What can we learn from statue toppling? Eminent historian Timothy W. Ryback provides us with a perspective from Europe.
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In spring 2020, statues were attacked and toppled across the United States. In Europe, there were similar assaults on statues of kings, queens, statesmen, colonists, and slave traders. While the attacks came amid Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd, by police in Minneapolis, they drew attention to monuments and statues that have gone mostly unnoticed for decades, even generations.
This lecture will survey the social and political forces behind the re-scripting of commemorative landscapes in Europe, from the French and Russian Revolutions to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It will then turn to the events last spring with a particular focus on Edward Colston, the 17th-century slave trader, whose statue was toppled in the port city of Bristol, dragged through the streets, and thrown in the harbor. The attack made headlines around the world, and raised important questions about social engagement in democratic societies: Was the toppling an act of vandalism or vindication? What precipitated the attack? Why didn’t police intervene? What was the legal status of the statue? What were the criminal liabilities of the protesters? Were there alternative remedies to toppling? What are the lessons learned?
Timothy W. Ryback is the director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, in The Hague. He previously served as the Deputy-Secretary General of the Académie Diplomatique Internationale, in Paris, and as Resident Director and Vice President of the Salzburg Global Seminar, in Austria. Ryback has written on history, culture and politics for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, among others. He has authored several books on the National Socialist era. Ryback is co-editor of Justice and Diplomacy (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Contested Histories in Public Spaces: Principles, Processes, Best Practices, to be published in September 2020, by the International Bar Association.