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A city in revolt, seen through the eyes of its Labour mayor

This article is over 2 years, 10 months old
This BBC documentary follows mayor Marvin Rees as he faces up to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s interesting—and infuriating, says Huw Williams
Issue 2758
The protests are a crisis for Labour mayor Marvin Rees
The protests are a crisis for Labour mayor Marvin Rees (Pic: BBC)

Bristol has had some momentous struggles and protests over the past year.

The most significant was the huge protest last year that threw the statue of slaver Edward Colston into the dock.

This act reverberated around the world. That this event in Bristol was even mentioned in the eulogy to George Floyd by Rev Al Sharpton at his funeral is testimony to its impact. 

Statue Wars—One Summer in Bristol, focuses on this event, mostly through the response of the Bristol mayor Marvin Rees.

Rees is the Labour mayor, from a poor working class part of the city, and is of dual heritage.

There are moving accounts of his experiences growing up in the city. It is also a shocking indictment that he received large numbers of racist threats and abuse following the removal of the statue.

Rees articulates the impact that statues of slavers and the celebration of Colston in the city had on him.

Shortly after the protests, a 21 year old black NHS worker leaving his shift from Southmead hospital was run over in a racist attack.

He was lucky to be alive. Rees visits the man and his family and we get to hear powerful testimony from the family how it made them feel.

Only our collective power can end oppression
Only our collective power can end oppression
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Bristol is a city of extremes of wealth.

The areas of Clifton and Sneyd Park have properties to rival rich areas of  London, selling for millions. Meanwhile in areas such as Hartcliffe, Lawrence Weston, Southmead and Lockleaze child poverty is at around 50 percent.

Rees comes across as someone who is deeply aware of this. But he arrives at the conclusion that to come out fighting in defence of the statue being torn down is to somehow alienate Bristol’s white working class.

Throughout the programme there is an assumption that the protesters were “middle class.” White workers are sort of typified by the far right racists “protecting the cenotaph” in the days that followed.

There is a distinct feeling that the BBC could not contemplate that many white workers might also be anti-racist.

Yet it shouldn’t be difficult for the BBC to find some, instead of making lazy assumptions.

Those that protested on 7 June were overwhelmingly young working class people and the protests, like those in the USA, were incredibly multicultural.

Many activists’ experience at the time was that there was huge support for the protests across the city.

Rees backed the prosecutions of those who removed the racist statue. Thus is justified by saying that neither the council nor the police have a choice in who they prosecute for breaking the law.

But police do make choices about who they target. 

In Bristol if you are black you are 6.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched.

The last segment of the programme focuses on the other seminal protest in Bristol over the last year—the Kill the Bill protests. We know that the protesters were attacked by the police.

But Rees sides totally with the cops.

The programme is worth ­watching in some senses—but be prepared to shout at the screen.

Statue Wars—One Summer in Bristol, Thursday 10 June, 9pm, BBC2 and then on BBC Iplayer

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