Historical figures under attack after George Floyd’s death

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Mike Forcia raises his hands in the air as people photograph the fallen Christopher Columbus statue at the Minnesota state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP)

Washington: The rapidly unfolding movement to pull down Confederate monuments around the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death has extended to statues of slave traders, imperialists and explorers around the world, including Christopher Columbus, Cecil Rhodes and Belgium’s King Leopold II.

Protests and, in some cases, acts of vandalism have taken place in such cities as Boston; New York; Paris; Brussels; and Oxford, England, in an intense re-examination of racial injustices over the centuries. Scholars are divided over whether the campaign amounts to erasing history or updating it.

At the University of Oxford, protesters have stepped up their longstanding push to remove a statue of Rhodes, the Victorian imperialist who served as prime minister of the Cape Colony in southern Africa. He made a fortune from gold and diamond mines where miners labored in brutal conditions.

Oxford’s vice chancellor Louise Richardson, in an interview with the BBC, balked at the idea.

We need to confront our past, she said. My own view on this is that hiding our history is not the route to enlightenment. In Bristol, England, demonstrators over the weekend toppled a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the harbor. City authorities said it will be put in a museum.

Across Belgium, statues of Leopold II have been defaced in half a dozen cities over the king’s brutal rule over the Congo, where more than a century ago he forced multitudes into slavery to extract rubber, ivory and other resources for his profit. Experts say he left as many as 10 million dead.

“The Germans would not get it into their head to erect statues of Hitler and cheer them, said Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, an activist in Congo who wants Leopold statues removed from Belgian cities.

For us, Leopold has committed a genocide. In the U.S., Floyd’s death May 25 under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer has led to an all-out effort to remove symbols of the Confederacy and slavery.

The Navy, the Marines and NASCAR have embraced bans on the display of the Confederate flag, and statues of rebel heroes across the South have been vandalized or taken down, either by protesters or local authorities. Pressure is also mounting to remove such monuments from the U.S. Capitol.

On Wednesday night, protesters pulled down a century-old statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. The 8-foot (2.4-meter) bronze figure had already been targeted for removal by city leaders, but the crowd took matters into its own hands.

The monument was a few blocks away from a towering, 61-foot-high equestrian statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the most revered of all Confederate leaders. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam last week ordered its removal, but a judge blocked such action for now.

The spokesman for the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, B. Frank Earnest, condemned the toppling of public works of art and likened losing the Confederate statues to losing a family member.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who has proposed removing all Confederate statues in the city, asked protesters not to take matters into their own hands, for their own safety. But he indicated the Davis statue is gone for good.

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