When I saw photos of the statue of Jen Reid, the Black Lives Matter protester, erected in the early hours yesterday in the spot left vacant by Edward Colston, I caught my breath. Of course I knew deep down that she wouldn’t be up there for long. This act of rebellion would be swiftly stamped on (I didn’t realise how quickly). But in that moment, just for a moment, it was a feeling of pure joy to see the figure of a black woman standing proudly in protest against racism, being honoured by the City of Bristol, and visible to the world’s media. I felt like I could breathe again.
We are in the midst of a reckoning on the history of not just Bristol, but the entire world when it comes to the way white Europeans have oppressed, exploited and mistreated people of colour and in particular black Africans, to gain status and wealth. The legacy of this violent history are the systems and beliefs that continue to threaten our lives and put barriers in the way of our accessing justice, resources, jobs and democracy.
For black women like me, the hazards are many. We experience harassment and abuse, and our roles as leaders in movements for change are too often underestimated or completely overlooked.
People in Bristol have been debating and disagreeing for decades over the statue of a man responsible for the exploitation and deaths of tens of thousands of West Africans. The democratic processes we were supposed to have been relying on to resolve a no-brainer have absolutely failed us. No wonder protesters lost faith in democracy and took the decision to remove Colston out of politicians’ hands and make it impossible for them to reinstate him.
Perhaps that is what gave me some hope that the statue of Jen Reid would be not just tolerated, but maybe even admired and celebrated by the city for long enough for its people to claim her, and then to use their democratic rights to choose her. It is hard for people to choose what they haven’t seen or understood.
Mandu Reid is the leader of the Women’s Equality Party.