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Statues, churches, vandalism, and the nationalist and colonial tales we like to call ‘history’

Let’s stop pretending that property destruction is ‘violence’—it’s an important form of symbolic, non-violent protest

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsSocial Movements

A statue of Queen Victoria was toppled in front of the Manitoba legislature amid growing outrage over the discovery of unmarked graves belonging to Indigenous children, Winnipeg, July 1, 2021. Photo from Imgur.

Every so often the media and political pundit classes work themselves into a frenzy of finger-wagging over the vandalism, toppling, or destruction of an historical monument or statue. This week in Canada there happens to have been an uptick in such incidents culminating in July 1 (“Canada Day”) marches and demonstrations that witnessed, among other acts, the toppling of a statue of Queen Victoria in front of the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg. I have neither the time nor the space to highlight all the examples from coast to coast. The scale of the anti-colonial counter-marches, particularly on a statutory holiday that is normally celebrated by settler society with a preponderance of alcohol, fireworks, and a smattering of mythologizing about both history and “multiculturalism” was significant.

It is also important to understand that these counter-marches were absolutely related to a wider anti-colonial upsurge in Canada over the last two months, in response to revelations of unmarked mass graves at a number of residential schools. The outpouring of both grief, and justifiable anger led to an unsurprising anti-colonial and anti-missionary sentiment, which in turn led to a number of churches (mostly Catholic) being burned to the ground.

But the corporate media and political punditry framing of these events has followed a familiar trajectory of denunciation. Newspapers and commentators across Canada and even the United Kingdom quickly denounced the “vandalism,” as a “counter-productive” and indeed “barbaric” tactic. In Manitoba this denunciation and appeal to “respectability” politics has transcended the narrow political spectrum in the electoral arena: Tory Premier Brian Pallister, Liberal leader Dougald Lamont, and NDP leader Wab Kinew have all condemned the toppling of these statues as either “violent” or “criminal” or “counter-productive” in some way. Even a respected elder like Murray Sinclair weighed in long enough to condemn the acts as a “set back” on the path to reconciliation.

We have seen these same talking points over the years, every single time a statue of John A. Macdonald has been defaced, or another colonial, white supremacist, or slave-owning historical figure has been toppled. There is always a hue and cry about the alleged inappropriateness of the tactics, the alleged affront to “History,” the alleged anachronism of criticizing historical figures by contemporary standards, the alleged sanctity of property itself.

But rarely is there any deeper reflection, or even minimal self-awareness when it comes to the standard media and political narratives about these same kinds of tactics and actions when they take place elsewhere.

Hundreds of statues of Lenin and other symbols of Soviet era communism have been defaced, toppled, and smashed in Ukraine over the last decade. The typical response in Western media has been to empathize with the vandals (despite the fact that many of them were far-right and neo-fascist in their ideology), and a common sentiment in the comments sections of these kinds of news stories about an alleged “popular sentiment” in Ukraine has been: “about bloody time.”

Similarly favourable spins were given to the coverage of the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003, and to the destruction of a statue of Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli in 2011.

What Western media and commentators did not do in those cases was condemn the perpetrators for “property damage.” They did not criticize the tactics as “counter-productive.” Nor did they criticize the perpetrators by suggesting that their modern day vandalism and morality was anachronistic, because Lenin or Stalin (for example) were historical figures, and right or wrong, “products of their time.” Nor did they wring their hands over the alleged threat to remembering “history” itself, the good, the bad, or the ugly. “History” was never under threat in those stories about monuments in Ukraine. No, in those narratives, history was being written by those acts of destruction. The destruction and the revisionism were—to paraphrase Bakunin’s words, not the Western capitalist media’s framing—also acts of historical creation.

No, when people in other countries deface or topple symbols they consider oppressive—whether of historical figures a hundred years or more ago, or whether of more contemporary dictators—our first inclination is to empathize with the vandal, especially if the target of their rage or reason is considered appropriate to our worldview. We do not typically fetishize “property” in these cases, and lament the tactics of the vandals. We do not typically mock the vandals for their alleged failure to understand the value of memory and history.

Only when the targets of defacement have been revered by our own nationalist and colonial mythologies, do the usual attempts at empathy and understanding go out the window. Suddenly, property is sacrosanct. Suddenly, the tactics are inappropriate; even ludicrously called “violent” and “criminal.” Suddenly, “history” is placed on a pedestal that these same state-corporate commentators have spent their entire careers trying to destroy (through, among other things, the most banal neoliberal austerity cuts against everything from well-funded archives to post-secondary education). The very people crying about the sanctity of “history” when a colonial statue gets toppled, are mysteriously silent when the education system itself is gutted. The very people crying about the sanctity of “property”—and the alleged “violence” its toppling entails—when a statue is vandalized, are mysteriously silent about the theft of an entire continent from its original inhabitants, and indifferent to the actual violence, the ethnic cleansing, the scalp bounties, the forced relocations, the kidnapped children, and genocide that was integral to Canadian history, if not inherent to settler-colonialism as a phenomenon.

When righteous and popular anger leads to similar acts in faraway countries, there are no appeals on behalf of the monuments and statues in Western media narratives and commentary. There are certainly no paeans in the corporate media to a capital-H history threatened by the loss of those monuments. But when a hitherto-revered nationalist or colonial statue is toppled here, suddenly alibis for their protection are found everywhere—especially in the fantasy that the targeted historical figure was a “product of their time.”

But if you can understand or empathize with the toppling of Lenin, but cannot understand or empathize with the toppling of Queen Victoria, or Garnet Wolseley, or Bishop Grandin, or John A. Macdonald, or an archetypal ethnic cleansing US president like Andrew Jackson, or why statues of Confederate generals and other figures have been defaced or taken down all over America over the last several years—then you’re not really trying to understand. If you’re a political “leader” in Manitoba who can pretend to pay tribute to its own history, from the Riel and Métis resistance of 1869-70, to the resistance of 1885, to the 1919 General Strike, but you recoil at the “counter-productivity” of toppling a symbol of Victorian era colonialism and empire—then maybe it’s time you just stopped speaking.

Imagine if the British media (and much of Canadian media too) was as outraged over the thousands of dead children lying in unmarked graves near residential schools across this country as they are about statues of anachronistic monarchs (a redundant pairing I realize) being toppled by First Nations youth in this country.

The calculated decision to be outraged over the latter, and not the former, is itself a colonial expression. It is itself a form of privilege. The selective outrage over vandalism when it is serves one’s political worldview, is also a colonial and nationalist expression. As a descendant of British colonizers in this country going back to the 19th century, I for one was happy to see July 1 appropriately on fire with an orange wave of anti-nationalist and anti-colonial sentiment. That kind of metaphorical fire, that comes directly from a context of simultaneous grief, love, and rage—the ongoing legacy of genocide in this country—is the only kind of power that will save us all from the literal fires burning in British Columbia and elsewhere across the planet. Because the people who want to save these statues in the ostensible name of history are the same people lighting the planet on fire, refusing to acknowledge climate change, refusing to do what it takes to create a zero-emission economy and society, refusing to honour the spirit of the treaties, and refusing to fund history and the humanities in the first place. They are not protectors of “History.” On the contrary, they are the hand-maidens of its demise.

But just in case anyone’s particularly worried about the loss of “history” or the “impropriety” of toppling statues of monarchs—like Queen Victoria’s fall in Winnipeg—here’s a representation of the toppling of the statue of King George III that was carried out in New York City in 1776.

Pulling down the statue of George III, New York City (1776). Oil on canvas, by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel.

Not only did the world not “forget” about George III or capital-H history more generally, but they got this handsome “historic” visual commemoration of the toppling many years later.

The fact that the US settler “revolutionaries” went on to erect hundreds of their own monuments to colonial figures—and now decry any and all attempts to topple them—shouldn’t distract us from the real lesson: none of them gave a shit about the “property” that this statue entailed, or worried about the alleged loss of historical memory that its toppling entailed, nor did they spend five seconds wringing their hands about the “counter-productivity” of their own actions. And I assure you, it didn’t “distract” any of them from the “real issues” as they saw them.

Let’s stop pretending that property destruction is “violence,” and that it is somehow “beyond the pale” of acceptable behaviour. It is not. In fact, it is one of the most common forms of symbolic, non-violent protest in all of human history.

Paul Burrows is a parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, and red wine anarchist.

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