Figures from within Liverpool’s cultural and creative community share their opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement and the potential for change at a local level.
Jean-François Manicom, curator at the International Slavery Museum.
George Floyd’s story is one of racism, a story of discrimination, and a story of Black poverty, in the US but also across the world. It’s directly linked to the story of slavery. It’s one of the legacies. Police violence and state violence against black bodies started soon after the end of slavery with hanging, public execution. This is a continuation of violence against the Black body since the end of slavery.
I was not surprised at the protests, but I am surprised at how big the movement has become. People know that Black Lives Matter is not only the story of Black people, rather it’s the story of what type of society we want to live in. Large parts of society are unwilling to be ignorant. Many people know the reality and were able to immediately make the links from Minnesota to the rest of the world. People immediately made the link between the presence of Black people in the UK.
Following what happened in Bristol, I think the debate around statues and street names is very, very important. In Liverpool, I don’t think we should only focus only on Penny Lane. Sure, Penny Lane is important because it is emblematic of Liverpool, it’s in the story of The Beatles and is internationally known, so I see why it is seen as important. But I think it is dangerous to only focus on Penny Lane. A wider debate is what is the significance of a statue in the public space? What is the significance of a street name? Why do we not use a number like in some countries – 5th Avenue, for example. What does it mean to celebrate somebody? Society needs to reflect on that.
When you put emphasis on somebody and you give honour to a person from a particular time, you give honour to what they represent from that time. This often simply represents the economic value and apparent social value of this person. But at that time perhaps nobody was talking about ethical value. So these values which were agreed upon 200 years ago are not the same as now. We need to consider that not as a problem, but as part of progress. For example, if you agree with the values of [Edward] Colston, whose statue went up 200 years ago, do you also agree to only ride horses in the city? Do you agree to live in a house without electricity? Do you agree to die because there are no antibiotics? No. So, you’re agreeing to live in modernity, but do you live with modern values? It’s now comfortable for you to live with electricity, cars, trains, planes, but the values represented in those statues – are they comfortable to you?
There is also, in my opinion, a consideration around what the agreement is when putting up a statue. Can we agree, for example, a statue is only provisory? Maybe the starting mistake is thinking the statue is here forever. The starting point could be that the statue is only up for the duration of time the values it represents are acceptable. Colston had plenty of money and he helped the city with his money. Are these the type of values we want to pass down to our kids? If we find after real public debate that the values are not the same, can we try and find a way to move the statue on from that point? A cemetery for statues for example, or a warehouse, housing all statues which carry values which are no longer acceptable.
The debate is more complicated than simply to remove or to keep. It’s our past but removing the statue is not just removing the past. You can remove a statue but the past is still here. Understanding the past is better. Asking questions like ‘why was this person so popular?’. Because the money he represented was the only value then; but Colston stayed in the middle of Bristol for 200 years. The scandal is not removing the statue, the scandal is the fact that it was there for 200 years.
The debate is not about a political decision, it’s about a societal decision, so I think the discussion has to be open between groups of people like charities, organisations, the city council, historians, philosophers, academics, the public and the people who live in the area. There are traditionalists who have always lived with these statues, for example. We need to ask if they are comfortable with what this statue represents or can we imagine a better person to be there. Can we imagine flowers in its place, or a tree, in response to climate change, for example? A tree would probably be more helpful than a statue.
I have no answer. Or rather, I have an answer from my own perspective, but it should be about consensus. It’s about the type of world are we are going to live in. The world around you impacts your feeling. Your landscape is part of your mental construction, so when you promote the honour of certain people it will contribute to your feeling about the world around you. And this is a reason why the presence of ISM is so important in Liverpool. Even for people who don’t go inside, that they know there is an International Slavery Museum here is very important.
In terms of how systemic racism manifests itself in Liverpool, it’s interesting. On paper Liverpool is a very mixed society because of the presence of the Black community and of the oldest Chinese community in Europe. However, when you are walking in the city centre you see it is not that mixed. If you are not going to Toxteth, or the neighbourhoods that are not as affluent as the city centre, you do not see many Black people. Liverpool is a strange city because on paper it’s a mixed city, but the mix is not in the city centre or across much of the city. The city centre is very white and it’s very gentrified. So I think we have a lot of thinking to do in terms of Black representation in the institutions in the city centre of Liverpool.
It’s about confidence, feeling welcome and comfortable. You may not feel it’s normal to be working in the city centre wearing a suit; you may always be looking for the police, looking for cameras, feeling that you are not really welcome. It is tricky because people say [in a defensive tone] ‘Yeh, but they can come!’, but you have to ask about the conditions. Me personally, I am a BAME guy with a high responsibility position in my work, so I feel comfortable; but if you were not in this type of position it is possible you don’t feel that way in the city centre. The confidence has to be instilled generation after generation and the Black community has to have more self-confidence. And for that to happen a story needs to be built which says you’re welcome here and you’re welcome to have a powerful job. You can be a director or a doctor, not only the assistant or secretary of the doctor.
The more BAME people are visible the less it is problematic. The more you are asking for a meeting with the director of a bank or the manager of McDonalds and it’s a black guy, while the first time you may be surprised, and the second and third time, the fourth time you will not be surprised. It becomes ‘it’s just the manager of McDonalds’, it’s no longer ‘it’s the Black woman who is the manager of McDonalds’. As the BAME community we need more representation in powerful occupations.
In terms of the arts, we have a very strong and powerful community of Black artists within contemporary arts. ISM is also working with very famous, internationally known Black artists. Just before the lockdown we made an acquisition from Zack Ové. In Liverpool, the Bluecoat works with ISM because of their building’s historic links to the slavery trade. So, very often, ourselves and the Bluecoat are promoting Black artists, but I think we are the only real venues here that are putting that emphasis on the work of Black artists.
I hope there will be a legacy to the protests after the pandemic but I’m not sure. We are living in a society where the news is always breaking, so while now it’s George Floyd, after it will be another crisis, maybe an economic crisis, or the death of somebody else or another problem. So I’m a little bit afraid that people will say ‘OK, let’s do something for the BAME community’ and that’s it [mimes dusting of hands].
But what I’m not afraid of is that we now have the demonstration of a population can follow ideas. We have the proof in Liverpool and beyond that young generations lead, and ask for change. That will not go away. Maybe the Black Lives Matter movement will become less and less prevalent but the activists changing things will stay. I hope that the people who are leading big organisations will change things, but the story tells us that pressure has to be maintained. Martin Luther King, Black Panthers, all the civil rights activists, Women’s Rights activists; every advantage that was given came because of pressure. I hope that this pressure that has risen as a result of George Floyd’s death will stay in the heads of people who lead organisations and they will be questioning themselves. People will put them under pressure and they will be a little bit afraid of the things they would usually do because now it could be tricky. They will think ‘let’s think about this decision, let’s consult somebody to advise or let’s take it to public debate to decide’.
In this period of the Black Lives Matter movement, people living in Liverpool, the city council and the white population have to understand how proud they should be to have ISM in their city. We are the only big city that engaged in the slavery trade which has a big national museum. So when you look at Bristol, London, Nantes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, the big ports in Portugal and Spain, the big slavery ports in Netherlands – nobody does the type of work we are doing in Liverpool. And I am not just saying this because I work for ISM. We are alone in Europe doing this work. Liverpool has a difficult past. It may be painful to understand and accept the city’s past, but at the same time, in terms of fighting against ignorance, Liverpool is working much harder than anywhere because of ISM.
This piece is the fourth of a series of features on bidolito.co.uk. Read others here.
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