British cities face a long overdue reckoning with racist monuments

A statue in Edinburgh was graffitied with 'son of slavery' and 'colonialist profiter'. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

With Liverpool, it was cotton. For Bristol, it was sugar; Glasgow, it was tobacco. Then there’s London which, aside from being a hub for shipping, also developed many of the financial instruments that allowed the industry to operate. It's a grim fact that many of Britain’s most progressive cities were built on the profits of the Atlantic slave trade. 

The evidence of all this has been fully visible – in statues and plaques, and in the names of streets and buildings – without ever being truly accounted for. As with so much of Britain’s imperial history, this issue has rarely troubled mainstream politics, even as it defines the country in the eyes of the world. 

The closest the idea of decolonisation has come to bothering that mainstream was in 2015, when the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which protested the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes and his record in southern Africa, spread from the University of Cape Town to Oxford. But that was reported largely as a matter of campus politics, of wokeness gone mad, rather than one of Britain’s history of racism. What’s more, five years later, the statue at Oriel College that the Oxford students were protesting still stands.

This week, though, something seems to have shifted. On Sunday night, attendees at a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol pulled down a statue of slaver Edward Colston that had stood in the city centre since 1895. Colston, who lived from 1636 to 1721, was a major local philanthropist who did much to shape the city, endowing almshouses and churches, hospitals and schools. But he made his money through the Royal African Company, which is estimated to have transported over 84,000 African men, women and children to the Americas. The BLM protestors threw his statue into the harbour. 

The incident has been criticised by some, mostly on the political right, as a symptom of mob rule: Remove the statue, they say, but not like this. Such critiques ignore the fact that, as Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said Wednesday night, “For 20 years, protesters and campaigners had used every democratic lever at their disposal, petitions, meetings, protests, trying to get elected politicians to act. And they couldn’t reach a consensus and they couldn’t get anything done”. The mob got it done.

The protest seems to have opened the floodgates, in Bristol and beyond. The city council has pulled the Colston statue out of the harbour, but the mayor Marvin Rees said it would be moved to a museum, where it can be displayed alongside information about the slave trade and placards from the BLM protest, to put Colston in context. Meanwhile, the city’s Colston Hall music venue has removed all its signage and committed to changing its name by the autumn.

Elsewhere, on Monday, the east London borough of Tower Hamlets removed a statue of another slave trader, Robert Milligan, from its site on West India Quay; the same day, the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, unveiled a commission to review and improve the diversity of London’s public landmarks. Plymouth is to rename a square named after another slave trader, John Hawkins. Bournemouth, Poole & Christchurch is removing a statue of scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, a racist and Nazi sympathiser, from its place on Poole Harbour.

More contentiously, the University of Liverpool is to rename Gladstone Halls, named for the 19th century Prime Minister William Gladstone, whose father John had been one of the largest slaveholders in the West Indies. Gladstone himself, however, was not. The city’s mayor, Joe Anderson, is also resisting pressure to rename Penny Lane – the one from the Beatles song – on the grounds that it’s not named after a slavetrader at all. The matter is contested, but for what it’s worth, the city’s International Slavery Museum thinks he’s wrong

Even if he’s right, there are plenty of other streets in the city that were named after such men. The same is true of Glasgow, where the Green Brigade protest group has been replacing street names with new ones commemorating people like Rosa Parks and George Floyd. The Stop Trump Coalition – which, despite its name, is a British pressure group – has even launched the crowdsourced “Topple the Racists” website, to highlight “statues and monuments in the UK that celebrate slavery and racism” and call for them to be renamed. 

The right’s other critique of this movement is that it amounts to rewriting history. But it’s very far from clear that a monument without context teaches history. (Surely a museum would be better?) It’s also not clear why, when everything else about the fabric and identity of our cities is continuously in flux, they are required to leave any statue, let alone one of a racist who treated other human beings as property, in its place forever. As historian David Olusoga argued in the Guardian this week, “The toppling of Edward Colston's statue is not an attack on history. It is history.”

Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall protest has restarted, incidentally. Perhaps, this time, he will.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.