As weathered statues and murals that memorialize long-dead American bigots and horse-straddling Confederate leaders continue to come down in cities across the country, London Mayor Sadiq Kahn has announced an initiative that takes a closer, more considerate look at the public landmarks that grace the squares and streets of his city. In recent days, London, like in numerous other European cities, has seen its residents participate in massive demonstrations staged in solidarity with Black Lives Matters’ stateside movement to end racial injustice and police-inflicted violence—the largest movement of its kind in generations.
As outlined in a June 9 news statement, the new commission, dubbed the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, aims to “review and improve diversity across London’s public realm to ensure the capital’s landmarks suitably reflect London’s achievements and diversity.” In addition to ensuring that no existing public landmarks—including statues, historical plaques, murals, all forms of memorials, and even street names—are overtly harmful or offensive, the commission will look to increase the representation of “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, women, the LGBTQ+ community and disability groups.”
Established to “review the landmarks that currently makes up London’s public realm, further the discussion into what legacies should be celebrated, and make a series of recommendations aimed at establishing best practice and standards,” the commission will be comprised of historians along with council leaders and members of London’s arts and cultural communities.
NEW: Today we’ve unveiled a new commission to review and improve the diversity of London’s public landmarks.
We must commemorate the achievements and diversity of all in our city – and that includes questioning which legacies are being celebrated. pic.twitter.com/dro06UQB7Y
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) June 9, 2020
As the mayor’s office explained: “London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, with more than 300 languages spoken every day, yet statues, plaques and street names largely reflect Victorian Britain—as highlighted by recent Black Lives Matter protests.”
Establishing the special commission will formalize Kahn’s previous efforts to foster a diverse urban environment where everyone is equally represented through public statues, memorials, and the like. The mayor’s office notes that following the 2018 installation of a statue of British suffragist leader and feminist icon Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, Kahn and his senior team “have held discussions with council, community and arts leaders across the capital to assess the best way to improve diversity in the public realm.”
Proposed landmarks supported by Kahn include an Anglo-Sikh War memorial and a national slavery museum or memorial. Kahn has also supported erecting a statue of Stephen Lawrence, a Black teenager who was murdered in a racially motivated attack perpetrated by a gang of white men while he waited for a bus in southwest London in 1993. A botched, corruption-plagued police investigation, high-profile criminal trials followed, both accompanied by a frenzied media circus. Two of Lawrence’s killers were not charged with the crime until 2012. Stephen Lawrence’s father, Neville Lawrence, has relentlessly crusaded for justice since his son’s murder, and has been vocal in the British press in the weeks since the May 25 death of 46-year-old Houston native George Floyd at the hands of members of the Minneapolis Police Department—the event that sparked what is now a global protest movement.
“I’m all in favour of our city reflecting the values that we have and also the diversity of our city—more murals, more blue plaques, more statues of people that reflect that side to you,” Kahn told BBC 4’s Today, noting his support for a statue in memory of Lawrence. (The inaugural Stephen Lawrence Day, April 22, was observed in 2019.)
In the interview, however, Kahn stopped short of pledging to remove any specific current statues or memorials in London, namely one of Winston Churchill. A statue of slave trader and plantation owner Robert Milligan has since been removed from the London Docklands Museum.
Tonight, we have removed the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan that previously stood at West India Quay. We have also announced a review into monuments and other sites in our borough to understand how we should represent the more troubling periods in our history. pic.twitter.com/Thfz3UHU96
— Tower Hamlets Council (@TowerHamletsNow) June 9, 2020
“There’s a conversation to be had about the national curriculum properly teaches our children about people’s warts and all, and some of the things they’ve done we don’t approve of. But there are some statues that are quite clear cut—slavers, quite clear cut in my view.”
This past weekend, Bristol made international headlines when—at the same time statues of figures associated with racism, cruelty, and intolerance were actively being removed in the U.S.—a group of demonstrators toppled an 1895 statue of notorious 17th-century slave trader Edward Colson from its plinth and rolled it to the city’s harbor before chucking into the water.
Outside of Kahn’s commission, the Guardian reports that Labour Councils across England and Wales will take a closer look at whether or not any existing statues located in the public realm within their respective jurisdictions have links to slave trading or plantations and, from there, will considering removing them. Manchester has also independently launched a review of its statues and memorials.
“Our capital’s diversity is our greatest strength, yet our statues, road names and public spaces reflect a bygone era,” said Kahn in the statement. “It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been willfully ignored.”
He added: “The Black Lives Matter protests have rightly brought this to the public’s attention, but it’s important that we take the right steps to work together to bring change and ensure that we can all be proud of our public landscape.”