America’s protests began as a response to police brutality, in particular the May 25 death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police. But in the weeks that followed the incident, the marches and demonstrations have expanded in size and scope.
In 50 states and 18 countries, protesters have sparked a long-delayed conversation about structural racism, persistent inequality and the long history of white supremacy that has enabled injustice to persist.
Statues and obelisks celebrate the questionable heroes of a racist past, and the protests have spurred reconsiderations of these memorials in Congress and in legislatures around the world. But rather than wait for official decisions to trickle down, protesters have taken action themselves. It’s a monumental shift.
Richmond, for example, was the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Its Monument Avenue is home to prominent statues honoring Confederate leaders. In recent weeks, demonstrators painted the statues lining Monument Avenue with messages underscoring their connection to a history of racial inequality and injustice.
Perhaps the most well known is that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) vowed on June 4 to remove.
Another Monument Avenue statue honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis was targeted by protesters and, on June 10, torn down.
Virginia has more memorials to the Confederacy than any other state, but there are similar monuments spread everywhere in the South. Many were installed not directly after the Civil War but instead in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They literally solidified the “Lost Cause” narrative that cast the Civil War as a battle fought nobly over “states’ rights” rather than the right to own African slaves, and signified the South’s triumph over Reconstruction. They marked the streets and squares in which they stood as white-dominated territory — another sign of segregation’s success — but protesters are now reclaiming those spaces as their own.
Other monuments are being challenged as well. In the late 1800s, Christopher Columbus entered the American pantheon as Italian immigrants sought a representation of their heritage in our country’s founding myths. But today, Columbus is recognized by many as a violent colonizer who brutally subjugated indigenous populations, killing and enslaving thousands in the Caribbean and South America.
During the recent protests, statues of Columbus have been tagged, toppled and removed.
In Philadelphia, protesters vandalized a statue of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo. Known for his brutal policing of black and LGBTQ communities in the 1960s and ′70s, Rizzo opposed school integration and encouraged his constituents to “vote white.” The statue was later removed from its place of honor across from Philadelphia’s City Hall and is now in storage.
Monumental shifts are also taking place abroad.
In Belgium, protesters have targeted statues of King Léopold II, responsible for the violent colonization of central Africa in the 19th century. His rule in what is now Congo caused an estimated 10 million Congolese deaths between 1885 and 1908 and was distinguished by its atrocities but produced vast wealth for Belgium in the form of rubber and ivory.
In Antwerp, statues of Léopold have been defaced and set on fire. In Brussels, city authorities have been petitioned to remove all statues of the king by the end of June.
In the United Kingdom, statues of former slave traders, colonialists and defenders of empire have been toppled or defaced.
As the monuments come down, it remains to be seen what, if anything, will go up in their place. Some artists have begun to re-envision public space. In Richmond, Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” stands only a few streets removed from Monument Avenue.
Installed in 2019, the 27-foot-tall equestrian statue by Barack Obama’s presidential portraitist commemorates victims of state violence and stands as a rebuke to the Confederate memorials blocks away.
“To use the language of the monumental towards underserved communities, people who deserve to be seen on the great walls of museums, people who deserve to imagine themselves in their best light. That’s what the sculpture was designed to do,” Wiley said after its unveiling.
A monumental shift, indeed.