The fallen Christopher Columbus statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol after a group led by American Indian Movement members tore it down in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 10, 2020. Image: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons

Protests against racism unleashed by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis spread all over the United States, Canada and parts of Europe in May and June of this year.  

As the protests spread, so did the practice of toppling statues in public spaces commemorating historical figures associated with the slave trade, the Confederate side of the American Civil War, or European colonization.

In the United States, protesters toppled or beheaded statues of Christopher Columbus and Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederate states, while in the United Kingdom, protesters threw a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, into a nearby harbour.

These are laudable attempts to tackle the legitimization of racism and challenge historical narratives based on white supremacy. Both are much-needed in a world where power dynamics in many countries are still based on neocolonial and racist structures. 

However, while it may seem as though the dismantling of statues is a new phenomenon, it is worth keeping in mind that different manifestations of this practice have taken place in many parts of the world over the years, and that there are valuable lessons to be learned from past experiences.  

For example, South Africa’s 2015 #RhodesMustFall movement, which saw symbols of colonialism removed from university campuses across the country, left us with the lesson that while the removal of statues can certainly be a cathartic moment, it can also end up becoming simply a superficial gesture unless there is meaningful change in terms of curriculum changes and power dynamics within these institutions.  

Spain’s 2007 “historical memory law,” which led to the removal of busts and monuments honoring fascist dictator Francisco Franco and eventually to the exhumation of his remains from a public mausoleum in 2019, taught us that efforts to reexamine problematic parts of our history eventually have to be translated into legislation in order to have long lasting effects.  

Colombia’s efforts to empower conflict victims to use art — especially murals and performances — to reappropriate and resignify public spaces that witnessed acts of violence into spaces associated with reconciliation and human rights teach us that it is not enough to simply dismantle old narratives, but that it is also necessary to collectively construct new historical memories that promote inclusion and understanding. 

In Canada, there are renewed calls to rename monuments, buildings and streets across the country that honour colonial figures, not as a symbolic act, but as part of a process to identify and address historical injustices as well as systemic inequities that continue to exist.  

“If we’re going to rid ourselves of these symbols and rid ourselves of these names and these monuments, we also have to move to decolonize our education system, our health-care system, our criminal justice system,” Paul Lawrie, an associate professor of history at the University of Winnipeg, told CBC News.  

So, in a sense, toppling a statue, despite its hugely symbolic implications, is the easy part. The real work begins now, when we are being challenged to reflect on the ways in which white supremacy shaped our societies’ pasts and continues to have an impact on our lives today. A key aspect of this process will be to find ways not to erase or obscure dark parts of our history, but to find ways to enable those who have been excluded from official narratives to have their stories heard, in an effort to learn from past mistakes and build more democratic, pluralistic and equitable societies.  

Lorenzo Vargas is a communication for development specialist and researcher on citizens’ media. Lorenzo coordinates WACC Global’s communication for social change program, which supports community media and citizen journalism initiatives in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Africa. WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people’s dignity and community. It is a member of the ACT Alliance.

Image: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons