Acts of vandalism against monuments by anti-racism protesters in various parts of the world following the killing of African American man George Floyd by US police show a long overdue need for an open and civilized public debate about placing certain pages of history in the right context, the secretary-general of Europa Nostra, a leading pan-European movement to protect cultural and natural heritage, has told Sputnik.
"It is very sad that we have come to this point, we at Europa Nostra can never express solidarity with violence, but at the moment we can only discuss where do we go from now on. This is like an alarm bell. It’s a very worrying incidence that has happened and it means that there is an urgent need to confront and to have in a civilized and proper way a discussion on what to do with the monuments of that type," Sneska Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic, the secretary-general of Europa Nostra, said.
The activist said that anger had transformed the anti-racism movement into violent acts against specific statues — those glorifying personalities who played a role in the slave trade and slavery.
In the United States, the statues of Confederate General Williams Wickham and Confederate President Jefferson Davis were toppled in a public park in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.
Statues of Christopher Columbus were also toppled across the country as protesters recalled his treatment of the Indigenous communities during the colonization of the Americas.
"It is a historical moment because all of us, not just the United States, but also the rest of the world, we are now urged to somehow reconsider whether we have all done enough and whether we are doing enough in our own organization, in our own lives to open a proper and civilized discussion on the contested history and contested heritage. We have that all over the world including in Europe," Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic said.
In Belgium, the statue of Leopold II was removed in Antwerp after it was burned and splashed with paint in protest of his role in the colonization of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In the United Kingdom, Black Lives Matter activists defaced the Cenotaph war memorial and a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London. In Bristol, a statue of 18th-century slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into the harbor by protesters.
"Of course, we in Europa Nostra can never express solidarity with the violent aspects of any civic movement, whether it is violence to people or whether it is violence to objects or monuments. But at the same time, we need to have some understanding of how it is possible that we have come to the 21st century and still so many of these type of stories have not been properly discussed in the local authorities, in the bodies that are there [for it], be it historians or schools or local authorities. Obviously, far too little was done," Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic said.
Following the acts of vandalism in London, Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm would review all monuments in the UK capital to assess whether they reflect the city’s diversity.
As for the situation in Bristol, on June 10, its Mayor Marvin Rees said the statue of Edward Colston would be retrieved from the harbor and exhibited in one of the city's museums.
"I think it was a very good decision of the mayor of Bristol who said that they would take the statue out of the water and they would put it in the museum with the necessary interpretation and telling the story, because by destroying the statue you don’t destroy the fact that that person lived, did what was done and that is the part of the history of the country, of the city and of mankind," Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic said.
The only civilized way to deal with the cultural heritage of the controversial periods of history is to place the monuments in museums and in the right context, with full explanations presenting all sides, and to learn what happened and take it as a lesson for modern society, the secretary-general believes.
"Of course this is opening a very large conversation because there are really many statues of many important people, it’s difficult to judge their behaviour with standards that we have now in the 21st century. At those times, their behaviour was not considered illegal. That is why we have the development of the humankind. We have come to the point that now it is illegal. We need to put their stories and their heritage in the right context," Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic said.
The secretary-general emphasized the need to tell the full story, saying, however, that it is not something that can be done overnight.
"It requires many people to be involved and it requires honesty on all sides," she added.
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May sparked a wave of protests against police brutality and institutionalized racism, which has now spread to all 50 US states and numerous countries worldwide.
On Sunday, anti-racism protesters in Milan vandalized the statue of Indro Montanelli, a famous Italian journalist of the Corriere Della Sera newspaper and founder of Il Giornale daily, defacing it with red paint and writing the words "racist, rapist" on its base. Montanelli is known to have purchased a 12-year-old Eritrean girl as his wife when he served in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in the 1930s. The act is the most recent case involving the vandalism of statues of historical figures who were engaged in slavery or racist activities that are unacceptable if judged by the norms of the modern world.