It’s not vandalism, it’s justified
Defaulting to claims of “vandalism” when it comes to racist monuments impedes our society’s progress
This week on: “It’s About Damn Time We Talked About This,” we’re covering the defacing and destruction of statues. This type of vandalism is being reported in the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and right here in Regina, Saskatchewan. Nearly two years ago, the John A. Macdonald statue in Victoria park underwent a small modification at the hands of a white man from Vibank, Patrick Johnson. Johnson had painted the hands of Macdonald’s statue bright red, and said in an interview with CBC that the red paint symbolized the blood on Macdonald’s hands, due to his role in the operation of residential schools. Regardless, his actions were seen by many solely as vandalism.
More recently, in early June, the Saskatchewan war memorial near the Legislative Building was spray painted with the words “JUSTICE FOR FLOYD #BLM,” which organizers of the BLM rallies at the legislature said was not an action affiliated with them, but rather the action of an unknown person. Regardless, media has continuously implied connection between the vandalism and Regina’s rallies, which consisted of peaceful gathering, marching, and speeches, and requests for respectful social distancing. Premier Scott Moe’s response was that “peaceful protests are welcome, but vandalism is not.”
Vandalism is defined as the willful defacing or destruction of property that doesn’t belong to the perpetrator, so at a very base level, these events would be considered acts of vandalism. However, that assessment doesn’t take into account the true motives behind the acts. It’s one thing to, for example, egg someone’s car out of spite – but these acts of “vandalism” were done to propel an often ignored human rights issue into public view. I believe the reduction of these public acts to “vandalism” is an injustice, bordering on a tactic of manipulation, because it downplays the validity of these acts of protest and distracts from their true purpose. Meanwhile, those ignorant to the social problem belittle the protests, the people who performed them, and the human rights issues they emphasize.
Civil disobedience was a concept explored by John Rawls, an American moral and political philosopher. Rawls came up with qualifiers for public acts of vandalism or destruction that justify them as appropriate measures. A couple of these qualifiers are when the acts target a clear violation of justice (specifically violations of equal liberty), and when they’re intended to have a stabilizing effect on society.
The second qualifier according to Rawls, disobedience with an intended stabilizing effect, is hard to pinpoint. These acts could be considered divisive, as the media coverage and conversations following “vandalism” put pressure on people to choose a side. The sides available to choose from, however, are the human rights of Black and Indigenous people versus the rights of the statues/monuments. I’d like to think that anyone with a conscience would choose the rights of people over the rights of a statue or monument, but many still experience more outrage when these statues are defaced than when they learn of the atrocities that are still committed against Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC). That is not a stable society, it’s a society that values symbolic materials over human lives – and societies like that always have an expiration date.
In order to stabilize this society, we need to commit to decentering and then abolishing the Euro-Western-centered moral compass we have. Common apologism for the atrocities of white supremacy is based on the idea that those behaviours were “just the way things were done.” Well, I’ve got a news flash for you – those norms were only in place because the colonizers put them there. The devastation of residential schools was not an unexpected surprise – colonizers enforced the schools until 1996 because that devastation of Indigenous peoples was the intended result. The devastation of slavery was intentional, too, and its generational trauma on Black people was no secret, but colonizers encouraged it and reshaped it to make the current prison system (if you don’t believe me, watch the documentary 13th).
To stabilize, we need to understand that the social norms of our past (and the norms being revealed at present) are only possible in a society based around white supremacy. For white people, to stabilize we need to commit to amplifying the voices of BIPOC instead of only trusting our own, because a society that’s built its morality around white supremacy is doomed to perpetuate atrocities. A society built on white supremacy is not stable, so the dismantling of that supremacy is essential, and the defacing of statues that celebrate colonization and slavery brings to light just how many people get more enraged over spray paint on a statue than they do over human rights violations and genocide.
Going back to Rawls, his first point that good civil disobedience targets a violation of justice is quite obviously represented in these cases of statue defacement. Floyd was murdered by a uniformed police officer while other officers watched, hands in pockets, as he died. This shows a disgusting entitlement; these officers expected no consequences for their actions. It’s easy to believe our officers are different, but the fact that no officers in Saskatoon have ever been charged for the infamous Starlight Tours that date back to 1976 begs otherwise.
John A. Macdonald played a major role in genocide against Indigenous peoples. When questioned on the effectiveness of the agents of the Indian Act in 1882, Macdonald told the House of Commons, “I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.” Literally starving a people into compliance seems like a medieval siege tactic, but it is a real part of our country’s very short history thanks to Macdonald and many like him. The blood of thousands is on his hands, so it’s hard for me to understand why people would defend his image. Some defend further by saying he’s an integral part of Canadian history—Satan plays a pretty integral role in the Christian faith, but if churches started putting up his statues, you’d probably begin to wonder who they truly worship.
In response to Scott Moe and others’ calls for a stop to dangerous “vandalism,” I want to finish with this quote by Stokely Carmichael, a political activist and organizer in the United State’s civil rights movement, which applies in Canada as it does the United States:
“Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for Black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart … [but] He (King) only made one fallacious assumption: in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”