People v Statues

Thoughts on the Government’s crackdown on dissent from East London Humanists – (Newham Recorder opinion piece 7.4.21)

Why this Government’s new-found obsession with monuments? With tens of thousands of Covid deaths, mass unemployment and a crippling national debt, memorials may seem a low priority. Yet this is the time Patel and Johnson have chosen to press ahead with plans to increase the penalty for causing damage to up to 10 years. That’s more than many defendants receive for rape.

Newham has witnessed some of the worst atrocities committed against memorials in recent times.  87 graves were desecrated in West Ham Jewish Cemetery in 2005. Headstones of children were targeted. A mausoleum was wrecked. In October 2016 this paper reported the wanton smashing of 25 marble headstones at Manor Park Cemetery.  None of these unspeakably hurtful acts, and numerous others elsewhere, prompted an increase in penalties. Tough punishment is already available.

Make no mistake, it was the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol during Black Lives Matter protests last year that proved a crucial catalyst for this new expression of moral outrage by our Government. Edward Colston made his fortune from trafficking human beings. Countless men, women and children died or endured monstrous suffering from his vile trade. For years the authorities resisted pleas to remove the monument celebrating his life from its place of honour. Rightly or wrongly, all legal attempts having failed, some took the law into their own hands. Four accused are due to stand trial at Bristol Crown Court. It is not coincidental that Bristol has seen some of the biggest protests against the new bill and its raft of measures cracking down on dissent.

The proposed increase in punishment supposedly reflects the emotional and symbolic importance of memorials. All the more reason to recognise the obnoxious symbolism of memorials which laud slave-traders.

The Government bill raises profound questions about what sort of country we want. Older readers will recall disruptive demonstrations against the Vietnam war, apartheid, and the poll tax. New laws stifling the right to protest weren’t felt necessary then.  In a democracy Government should try to understand and address grievances, not suppress and punish those who protest about them.

Paul Kaufman
Chair East London Humanists

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