Towards the end of Mozart’s signature opera, Don Giovanni, the eponymous character meets his squire Leporello in a graveyard, next to a statue of “Il Commendatore”. In the very first act of the opera, Don Giovanni had killed Il Commendatore after attempting to rape his daughter, Donna Anna.
At the graveyard, as Don Giovanni was teasing Leporello, the towering statue begins to speak, and warns the libertine seducer that he will soon pay for his sins. In a moment of frivolity and overconfidence, Don Giovanni invites the statue to dinner, and the statue accepts. In the final scene of the opera, the statue arrives at Don Giovanni’s home and asks him to repent. Don Giovanni refuses, at which point the earth opens up beneath their feet with fires fuming high, and the statue pulls Don Giovanni down to hell.
That memorable scene in Mozart’s opera has now become an apt metaphor for the towering statues of racist colonialists and mass murderers adorning urban landscapes in the United States and Europe coming down from their pedestals and taking the very history that had placed them there down with them to the lowest depths of hell.
But there is more to this battle of the statues than meets the eye.
The battle of the statues is now global. Its most recent episode began in Bristol, United Kingdom, where the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was brought down in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter uprising sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in the US. It then quickly spread to the US and the rest of Europe.
In the US, the battle had begun decades earlier over the detested Confederate flag, and is now extended not only to Confederate statues and statues of other racists and white supremacists, but also to military bases named after racist generals of the Confederate army.
But the battle is not limited to the US, UK or even Europe. In South Africa, the people started their fight to bring down the statues and namesakes of white supremacist colonisers back in 2015. And now, people are calling for the statue of Theodor Herzl, the racist ideologue of Zionism, to be brought down in Israel, too.
In short, it is the entire history of European racism and colonialism with its global consequences that is now on trial. This battle will not stop until this overdue reclaiming and rewriting of world history comes to full fruition.
The Black Lives Matter uprising in the US first and foremost targets the statues of racist slaveholders and mass murderers like George Washington and Christopher Columbus, but the list is endless. It was less than a year ago when I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera about the staging of a racist statue of President Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Well today, that statue is coming down for good, along with countless other statues of racist, colonialist, mass murderers from Cecile Rhodes to King Leopold II of Belgium, perhaps the nastiest piece of work in the already atrocious history of European colonialism.
What is at issue here is more than just what these statues represent and literally stand for. What is at issue is that these statues occupy and pollute public spaces. People are asked to look up to, literally, and admire these men as their role models as they go about their daily lives.
I live just a few blocks from Columbus Circle in New York, and in London, I have passed by Winston Churchill’s monumental statue in Parliament Square many times. In both cases, I have always shivered in disgust thinking how could these characters tower so high over the public space where human beings walk. People in the US and in Europe are now taking that disgust to the next decisive moment.
In their edited volume, The Politics of Public Space, Setha Low and Neil Smith have brought together a collection of timely essays mourning the disappearance of public space around the world. Indeed, while public spaces remain vital for any hope for a democratic future, state and commerce have taken control of such spaces in many countries across the world.
Public spaces, ranging from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Zuccotti Park in New York, are definitive to public dissent, and bringing down racist statues polluting them is tantamount to reclaiming these spaces.
People are, today, reclaiming the symbolic registers of these public spaces and redefining them as a prelude to rewriting world history. The question is not just what statues come down, but what statues, if any, go up. These statues are the insignia of world history – not just the history of the US or Europe. They bring the nasty history of racism and colonialism back to the consciousness of our own contemporaries.
How would the British feel if they saw a towering statue of Adolf Hitler in Berlin? That is very much what the Indians and many other peoples in Asia and Africa feel when they come face to face with the statue of Churchill in London. The problem with Europeans is that they think since Hitler and Churchill were against each other, then the world must be on Churchill’s side. We are not. We can easily say the hell with both of them. The world knows and understands and supports the reasons why we detest Hitler. The world must also know, understand, and support the reasons why we equally detest Churchill.
In 2015, the BBC published a piece in which it outlined the nastiest racist remarks by Churchill and in its typical BBC newspeak titled the piece “The 10 greatest controversies of Winston Churchill’s career.” There is no controversy about this nasty piece of Churchillian racism: “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
There is no controversy around the fact that Hitler was a racist mass murderer. So was Churchill.
A key question is no longer whether these statues should come down or not. The question is why it took so long.
The ruling white supremacy in Europe and the US had occupied the public sphere with such a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness that when Native Americans, African Americans, or any other kind of American except white racists said they did not like a statue, the response was the same old idiotic white supremacist mantra – you can “go back to where you came from”.
Where exactly are the Native Americans to go “back” to, or African Americans for that matter, or any other Americans? Who died and made racist white settler colonialists the owner of the space they have violently stolen from their rightful inhabitants and then littered with these statues?
These statues were never innocent bystanders. They were cast and erected to claim the public spaces around them for white people only. It is not accidental that most of these statues represent the most vicious racist mass murderers in history. These statues are meant to frighten and silence people into obedience. These men did not build their own statues. Others did – others who thought these monuments were necessary like a totem pole to claim the land, generations after generations, whenever their ideologies of white supremacy were in need of being publicly and violently reasserted for non-white people to watch and learn and be quiet.
These mounted statues carry a double-edged sword. Don Giovanni never thought a stone statue of a dead Commendatore would come back to life to take him to hell for his sins. But it did – as do the statues of Columbus, Leopold II, Herzl, Washington, Lee, and a whole parade of similarly racist, xenophobic mass murderers are coming back to life, walking into banquets of power and dragging those who still believe in them to a special place in hell.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.