Raise a glass for the iconoclasts: toppling statues, dismantling white supremacy and the colonial order.

In the midst of the COVID-related lockdown I wrote of how “time passes at the tenor of a slow murmur” to try and describe the sense of a distortion that I was feeling. It might have been apt at the time, but the weeks following have passed at a different, much quicker tempo. Now the institutions (police, prisons) and systems of oppression (white supremacy, anti-blackness, colonialism) that seemed so fundamental to daily life that they must have been born with the changing of the seasons are teetering on the precipice. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has sparked a rebellion that has spread and taken form in all corners of the globe. Suddenly, time is a blur as history crashes around us.

Of course, history is literally crashing as statues and monuments are made to fall. There should be no regret at this. Apart from the aesthetic and cathartic symbolism of these acts, they are also necessary attacks upon the continuing pageantry of white supremacist, colonialism. Writing about national anniversaries – but directly relatable to monuments and statues – Wiradjuri man Nathan Sentance states that they “exist to maintain australia’s self-image of innocence by celebrating colonisation and colonisers in spite of the suffering First Nations people have experienced and continue to experience”. He adds that “history becomes whatever justifies the colony’s oppressive structures and makes Non-Indigenous australians feel proud and not guilty”. There isn’t a separation between ‘abstract’ historical narratives and material structures of oppression, they are entirely bound to each other and the overturning of the material consequences requires an undoing of the stories that uphold them.

These current acts of iconoclasm are perpetrated not only upon those murderous colonisers who’s existence we’re told to revere, but against the entire interwoven mythology where, if any concession is given to the genocidal bloodshed of origins, it is quickly followed by proclamations of colonial progress and the moral supremacy of this order. We don’t have to look far to know that this ‘progress’ entails much the same as ever before. This is, after all, a time where the devastation wrought by mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP takes the form of uninhibited colonial arrogance in their decimation of millenia of Indigenous culture (see here and here). The iconoclasts have had their stories of strength and survival denied, their dignity and intelligence denied, their lives made expendable, through such narratives of white superiority and black criminality or of the civility of the coloniser and the barbarity of the natives. Where there is the inclusion of other stories, it is a version co-opted to build the myth of white/coloniser benevolence.

These acts of iconoclasm occurring right now should not be read as a search for an objective truth that history can reveal. It is not correct to already imagine a balancing of voices to find the ‘middle-ground’. Ghassan Hage reminds us that “it is always the dominant who have an interest in the dominated forgetting that there ever were sides in a conflict”. No, for now there can only be the concentrated effort to knock all dominant and dominating ‘truths’ from their pedestal so that there is space for as many countering and alternative experiences to take their place. There is no unity or balance to be found yet (if ever), there is still a need for partisans.

So everything must be torn down to expose the lie. During the Spanish Civil War, peasants ransacked churches, taking possession of the gilded ornaments and burning the buildings that were both representations and material sources of their centuries of oppression. In Paris this past week, some protesters looked the same way at the inventory of museums, attempting to reclaim an artefact stolen by the colonial order. That the self-delusional logic of white supremacy could consider the exhibition of such items as evidence of knowledge gained, lessons learned and current neutrality – instead of being an ostentatious reminder of colonial plunder – is exactly why the actions now cannot be restrained by ‘objectivity’.

This momentum is everything and cannot stop until all the enclosed, colonised ground is cleared. In these acts of sweeping away new relations will form. This will be necessarily confronting and uncomfortable. I might find black and Indigenous people less interested in working with me as they turn towards each other in greater-than-ever-before mutual recognition that has little time for other alliances. I’m good with that. I might be alongside other non-Indigenous POC thrilled at this crumbling white supremacy but also more aware of the need to examine our own position as settlers and in relation to anti-blackness. Bring on the complexity. I might have to cut off more white people who still won’t break from the comfort of liberalism, or I might find increased possibilities to act alongside those who take this opportunity to get off the fence and throw a little risk into their game.

Let this momentum that has risen for black life and as the most complete threat to white supremacy and colonialism retain its vitality and urgency. Let it be a verb that inspires constant movements that spread geographically to diffuse targets, always active as a diversity of forms that cannot be contained. Be wary of attempts to capture it as a noun that describes one thing: the ‘movement’. Be wary of any insistence that it must narrow its focus to a few specific targets. Dismantling white supremacy and colonialism will fundamentally alter the destructive forms of life that are enmeshed in this society. It will only be salvaged if we lower our sights. Be careful of those who assert the need to ‘make demands’ or to ‘be realistic’. Be careful of those who will say that it is necessary to ‘slow down’ or that ‘these things take time’. These are attempts to capture this moment and re-direct it back into the pathways to futurity of the established order.

This brings me back to the statues. As I raise a toast to the iconolasts, I have only one hesitation. Bringing them down remains a vital part of recognising history’s presence now and must feel so liberating for those who’s lives are most dishonoured by their presence – Indigenous people toppling conquistadors or black folk bringing down enslavers. But let’s not lose our imagination and copy forms of actions for the sake of it. There is still so much to do. Those of us invested in this, even if mostly as an act of solidarity, have thousands of risks we can take. It’s not necessary to only become trapped in the discursive and symbolic corners defined by the culture wars – a swamp that reactionaries and conservatives everywhere know well and feel comfortable wading into. Stay outside the rules of their game. Keep pushing out into new directions.

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