In September 2018, after demonstrators in North Carolina tore down a Confederate monument for the second time in a year, we published an article about the consequences of Christopher Columbus’s attempt to conquer the Caribbean and the motivations of the members of the ruling class who subsequently erected statues to his memory. At the time, our point of departure was the Christopher Columbus statue in Tower Grove Park, St. Louis—a subject of controversy which nonetheless appeared secure on its pedestal. Today, that statue has been removed, along with dozens like it around the country. But how do we ensure that what grows in the space those statues monopolized will fulfill the emancipatory ambitions of the people who toppled them?
The Christopher Columbus statue in Tower Grove Park was taken down in June 2020 at the high point of a powerful uprising in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black people. In the course of this movement, courageous demonstrators toppled dozens of statues honoring slave traders and enslavers, colonizers, Confederates, police, and others who uphold white supremacy.
The park board of commissioners had debated what to do with the statue in Tower Grove Park for years, claiming that it was technically illegal for them to remove it. Then they ordered city workers to remove it a week before a scheduled protest, denying protesters the chance to tear it down themselves. Apparently, the commissioners had no qualms about breaking the law once it became clear that the people of St. Louis were going to take matters into their own hands.
The board was more concerned about the potential damage that protesters might cause the statue—and the reputation of those tasked with protecting it—than they were about the harm that the statue inflicted on the people of South City, to whom it served as a daily reminder of whose lives and voices count in St. Louis. The Columbus statue stood in the park for over 130 years, its silent presence speaking volumes about how those in power believe that Native and African Americans should be treated. We can take some small comfort in the fact that the Columbus statue, like other racist monuments the world over, was repeatedly defaced, vandalized, and covered in red paint over the decades.
In the span of a few years, across North America and beyond, statues like these have gone from being ignored—by those who can—to being scrutinized and attacked. This process picked up momentum after Trump was elected and shifted into high gear last year. Internationally, protesters made headlines by attacking monuments from Cape Town, South Africa and Popayán, Colombia to Hamilton, New Zealand, Nuuk, Greenland, and Martinique in the Lesser Antilles. In the most dramatic scenes, protesters in Richmond, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Bristol, and Antwerp rolled statues through the streets, set fire to them, and unceremoniously deposited them in bodies of water.
This was the context in which officials in dozens of cities across America, including the board of Tower Grove Park, removed monuments to Columbus, George Washington, and other icons of white supremacy. Many municipalities did so explicitly in order to protect what they considered the artistic and historical value of the statues. Officials also feared that protests against the monuments might sustain the uprising, which focused on both historic and contemporary targets. Many municipalities resorted to removing monuments without warning under cover of night. In other cases, private citizens used their own wealth or raised funds to protect the memorials. Some stood guard with weapons to protect them.
In response to the confrontations that took place during the uprising, many conservatives have doubled down on their version of the past, clinging to a mythology that is increasingly discredited outside their echo chambers. In their narrative, the consequences of the American colonial project—genocide, slavery, racism, and other forms of oppression—go unnamed. Some conservatives seek to codify these myths into law via bans dictating how race and history can be discussed in schools.
To forbid people from discussing past atrocities is to pave the way for a new generation to perpetrate them again. Some of today’s far-right reactionaries go further, embracing these atrocities outright and aiming to repeat them.
Liberals have responded to statue toppling according to their own playbook, seeking to take advantage of grassroots social movements to channel social momentum towards their own agenda. As statues come down and streets are renamed, they propose heroes of their own to glorify. At its worst, this approach takes the persistence and defiance via which certain oppressed people have asserted themselves—their triumphs in the face of the adversities forced on them by a racist power structure—and uses these to make an advertisement exonerating the same power structure that oppressed them. With new names on the streets and new statues on the pedestals, the state can reinvent its image, concealing the continuities from the time not long ago when the streets bore different names.
No one should be elevated beyond reproach. Rather than uplifting new heroes or representatives, we should destroy the mechanisms that perpetrate oppression in the first place. We need changes that go beyond the merely aesthetic.
Politicians will always seek to control us for their own benefit, whether by pouring more money into police departments or by taking a knee while donning Kente cloth scarves. We are most powerful when we work together outside their paradigm, setting our own goals on our own terms—as people did last summer.
The toppling of these statues served as an occasion for historical education, bringing long suppressed conflicts back to light. Those who charged that the iconoclasm of 2020 was an attempt to conceal history were themselves seeking to obscure the issue. Toppling those statues produced more discussion about what they represent than had ever taken place while they stood sacrosanct on their pedestals.
But whose agenda will the absence of these statues now serve? Will we let patriots—whether conservative or liberal—take advantage of this absence to whitewash the bloody history of the United States of America? Will we forget that the statues were only removed because of fierce direct action, not the magnanimity of commissioners? Will we settle for the absence of the statues, forgetting the things that were destroyed by those who erected them?
One way to continue this struggle is to pan back from those statues to the environments in which they were erected, with the intention to create liberated spaces that last longer than a single protest or movement. Freedom is not just a matter of abolishing oppression, but of creating new possibility.
In St. Louis, we could shift our attention from the removed statue to Tower Grove Park itself, built on land owned by Henry Shaw, the wealthy slave-owner who commissioned the statue of Columbus in the first place. Tower Grove is a public park, but the ways that people can occupy and utilize the space are still dictated by the ruling class. Who has access to the park, for what purposes, and for how long are determined by the same people who kept the statue in place until June 2020.
In St. Louis, there is a desperate need for housing and other resources—should a homeless encampment take root in the park as a self-organized step towards eventually repurposing the city’s empty buildings? In this city, we are denied the space to enjoy ourselves without buying and selling—should a weekly dance party pop up? Likewise, many of us simply cannot get access to the things we need through the capitalist economy—should we organize a Really Really Free Market in which to share resources without money changing hands? Perhaps there should be a space for neighborhood assemblies, in which to discuss all the daily issues we face and how to address them directly, without state intervention.
Those whose ancestors were robbed of their relationship with this land should be allowed to reestablish it on their own terms. And we should leave a some of the park alone so that the foxes, owls, foliage, and all the other living things that call this part of South City home may thrive once again.
What could take place in a place like Tower Grove Park is limited only by our imaginations and willingness to defend it. Toppling the statues is only the first step. It gives us a glimpse of what is possible—and how to get there.
In 2018, it seemed optimistic to imagine that statues of Christopher Columbus around the country like the one in Tower Grove Park would be toppled and removed within two years. Today, it seems optimistic to imagine that the settings where these statues stood could themselves be reclaimed and transformed. But a few years into the future, that, too, may be thinkable.
In that spirit, we can conclude today as we did three years ago: Let’s not just topple the monuments, but uproot the pedestals as well.
We should not remove the statue simply in order to have him out of our minds. Perhaps Columbus should stay, covered in a new coat of red every October, with a new plaque reading, simply, “MURDERER. RAPIST. COLONIZER.”
As we enter an era of exposing these men, let us do more than simply rename institutions that are still exclusive concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power. If a street we’re forced to traverse as commuters on our way to exploitative jobs or boring classes is renamed after someone we like, it will still be a part of our boring commute. If neighborhoods are renamed after better people, but we’re still policed and excluded or only allowed to exist as consumers, we will have failed once more. Indeed, what’s the use of renaming Shaw Boulevard if young men like VonDerrit Myers, Jr.1 are still gunned down there by police with impunity? Our task is not simply to change the names that sanctify an alienating and oppressive society, but to fundamentally transform this society.
Likewise, we should take care not to elevate the individuals that we ourselves gain inspiration to positions of glory in place of the heroes of white supremacy. Better there be none above us, and none below. Let’s not just topple the monuments, but uproot the pedestals as well.
-“Each Crueler Than the Last”—On Statues of Christopher Columbus and the Men Who Raised Them, September 2018
Another version of this text and our earlier essay “Each Crueler Than the Last—On Statues of Christopher Columbus and the Men Who Raised Them” are available together in one pamphlet, These Unnameable Objects, as a PDF or a paper zine from A Boulder on the Tracks. We also recommend Thomas Martin’s “Beware Lest a Statue Slay You.”
VonDeritt “Droop” Myers, Jr. was killed October 8, 2014, less than a month after Michael Brown. His death lead to another wave of anti-police marches, property damage, and burning US flags. The city government and police defended the officer who murdered him, Jason Flanery, and claimed to have cleared him of any wrongdoing. Not until Flanery crashed his police cruiser while drunk and high on cocaine a few years later did the police department finally judge his conduct unacceptable and fire him. ↩