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How America's Racial Justice Protests Have Affected A Port City Across The Ocean


How did a police killing in Minneapolis lead people thousands of miles away in England to pull down the statue of a 17th century slave trader?


KELLY: Two weeks after George Floyd's killing in May, protesters in the English port city of Bristol brought down the statue of a man named Edward Colston. It's a reminder of how much influence events in the U.S. have overseas and how some other countries are grappling with the same kinds of issues we are in similar and sometimes different ways. NPR's Code Switch podcast tackled this question with the help of NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Here are the co-hosts of the Code Switch podcast, Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Frank, I'm hearing some background noise. Where are you?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Oh, yeah. Hi, Shereen. I'm in the heart of Bristol. This is a city in the southwest of England. It's about a 90-minute train ride from London. And right now I'm looking up at the empty pedestal that held the Colston statue for about a hundred twenty-five years.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Remind everybody; who was Edward Colston?

LANGFITT: Gene, he was the city's biggest philanthropist. His name was all over the city - Colston Towers behind me, lots of streets, a concert hall as well. And there was a plaque here that called him a wise and virtuous son of Bristol. It's actually still up. And what it fails to mention is that he made a chunk of his fortune shipping enslaved people across the Atlantic in exchange for sugar to sweeten coffee and tea that's such a part of British culture.

MERAJI: The big question here is, why did George Floyd's killing resonate so much in a place so far from the United States? And I know there are multiple answers to that question. One thing I was thinking about was a lot of people here have family ties over in the U.K. I, for one, do - a lot of people of color, too. Some of my Iranian family is in London.

LANGFITT: There's no doubt. I mean, I've met a lot of people here who have family in the States. And so when things happen in the States, it feels more personal. There's also a subtext, and that's kind of the shared history of Black people on either side of the Atlantic. Some people made that point. There's a guy named Michael Jenkins I was talking to. He's a local documentary filmmaker who was here during the protests back in June, and he sees a real connection between the killing of George Floyd in America with the state-sanctioned slave trade here centuries earlier.


MICHAEL JENKINS: Living in Bristol, we understand the history of this city and, you know, the issues that this city has with even acknowledging the part it played in the genocide of Black people through the slave trade. It just brings back all the things that you're taught about as far as, you know, the state versus Black people around the world.

LANGFITT: So I talked to Marvin Rees. He's the mayor here of Bristol, and he's mixed-race - a Jamaican dad, a white British mum, as they say here. He says another reason Floyd's death resonated is some of the modern connections between African Americans and Black Britons.


MARVIN REES: Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King - Muhammad Ali was one of the first names I knew as a young kid growing up. So you got to recognize the profile that there is to African American history and culture around the world. It's huge.

DEMBY: How did people react to pulling down the statue? Were they for it? Were they against it?

LANGFITT: You know, Gene, it kind of depends on where people are that you talk to. I mean, Bristol is a multicultural city. It's politically liberal. So there was a reader poll here in the Bristol Post that found 60% of people were glad the protesters did it. But if you look around the U.K. altogether, there was disagreement in terms of people thinking that they were glad it was gone but they didn't like the way it was done. Now, I talked to a guy named Duncan Smith. He owns a white working-class pub here not that far from where I am. And one of the things he says - he just didn't see, based on what Michael was just saying earlier, how George Floyd's killing had anything to do with Bristol.


DUNCAN SMITH: As far as I can see, the incident there was dealt with promptly and justly. That guy was charged with murder. It was a horrific crime. It was outrageous. But to take that across the Atlantic, that's where the logic stops for me. To develop into a mob and protest in this country for the way the police behaved in one incident in Minnesota is completely illogical to me.

DEMBY: So when the protests began in the United States around the killings of Breonna Taylor, around the killings of George Floyd, the police were sometimes incredibly aggressive and violent in the way they responded.

MERAJI: Yeah, like the clearing of Lafayette Square for that presidential photo op.

DEMBY: So how did the cops in Britain respond to the protests there?

LANGFITT: Really, really different, Gene, and not in the provocative way that we sometimes saw in the states. And a big reason for this is it's a different philosophy. Cops, quote, "police by consent." And what this means from a cop's perspective here is it's more important often to keep the peace than enforce the letter of the law at that moment, and that's why the cops here in Bristol let the statue fall. I was talking to a guy, Superintendent Andy Bennett. He's the Bristol police commander. He explained it to me like this.


ANDY BENNETT: In England, we can only hope to police and police well if we have the majority of the public on our side, understanding and seeing the way that we police and we are seen to be fair. What we got to decide is when we chose to uphold that law, and we decided that the public peace - the queen's peace as we call in England - was more important than one statue.

MERAJI: What did people in Bristol think of that approach?

LANGFITT: Protesters were really happy about it. They actually praised the cops. But there was criticism of Andy and his department, including from Duncan Smith, that pub owner I was talking to.


SMITH: They were aware of how it would look if they were to stop the protesters, and I think they were cautious and scared. They're afraid of being seen on one side of the argument than the other.

DEMBY: So, Frank, it's been three months since that statue of Edward Colston came down. What's changed since then?

LANGFITT: Well, it's really interesting, Gene. When the statue came down, it was like a dam break. And within days, you had workers taking off Colston's name from the tower behind me where I'm sitting. People started painting over Colston road signs. Meanwhile, Marvin Rees, the mayor - he set up a commission to reassess how the city interprets and portrays its history.

MERAJI: Data show also that Latinos are disproportionately affected by inequality and violent policing in the United States. And I'm wondering if, in the U.K., there are other communities of color who are affected by these inequities. And are they a part of the conversation that's happening right now?

LANGFITT: Less so now, but they have been in the past. So, for example, police are nearly 10 times more likely to stop a Black person than a white person here. But they're also about three times more likely to stop someone from South Asian descent than a white person.

MERAJI: Got it.

LANGFITT: In July there was a London artist who had a new statue hoisted up before dawn on the pedestal. It depicted a protester who had a fist raised in a Black power salute. Now, the local government did not authorize it.


DRE SALVINI: I care where that...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Why are you here, man? Why are you here?

SALVINI: 'Cause I care where that statue came from.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Why are you here?

LANGFITT: And when I got here, I saw a guy named Dre Salvini. He's a middle-aged white guy, and he was arguing with a crowd of mostly young Black people. Now, Dre said at the time, you know, he had nothing against this new statue. It was a work of art. But he wanted it taken down.


SALVINI: It looks nice. I just don't like the way it's been erected. I don't like the way it's been done behind my back.

LANGFITT: So up walks a student named Mohamed Aidid and joins in and gets into, like, this 20-minute debate with Dre over racial history, the democratic process. And then I asked Aidid about the new statue.


MOHAMED AIDID: I think it's beautiful. I think it stands for so much that Bristol has needed today. I finally felt like I'm - there's not a direct insult to my humanity, to my life.

LANGFITT: The next morning government workers unbolt the statue, and they take it down. And once again, just like now, the pedestal's empty.

(SOUNDBITE OF D.P. KAUFMAN'S "BRAVERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.