The Whiteness of Public Space

The Whiteness of Public Space

Tom Trevatt

When Edward Colston’s statue was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters in June 2020 there was both praise and condemnation from both sides of the political spectrum. One of the strangest images that emerged was of Piers Morgan praising the protestors, while Keir Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party condemned them for their actions (while agreeing that it should have been removed long ago). Of course, since at least the 1990s the legitimacy of Colston’s statue has been under scrutiny, with many years of local campaigning failing to remove it.

Since the toppling, many memorials to known colonialists or slave traders in Britain, Europe and the United States have been removed. The public debate about the history of these figures, and more, has grown exponentially in the ensuing weeks, to the point where Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square has been under discussion.

A week after Colton’s statue met a watery end (somewhat ironically the protestors dumped it in the harbour), crowds of many hundreds of the Democratic Lads Football Alliance (DFLA) descended on London in order to “protect the statues” from a similar fate. While these counter-protestors clashed with police, urinated on memorials, and caused drunken violence across the capital, the mainstream media’s approach to them seemed to, if not legitimise them, put them in the same bracket as the BLM protest.

Noteworthy was the ways in which the Black Lives Matter protestors were deemed “thugs” by the Prime Minister, yet the far-right DFLA aggressors were not similarly characterised. Indeed, Johnson’s pronouncement seemed to suggest that the far-right and the BLM protestors were much the same.

Black Lives Matter movements in the US and UK have grown in popularity, and every weekend since the police killing of George Floyd there have been protests in many major cities. The large numbers of people on the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism has raised concern amongst many who worry that the proximity to others will cause an increase to the infection rate of coronavirus. Not without some validity, these concerns have been echoed in the national press, primarily, of course, the right-wing media (in fact, many reports have shown that these marches did not create any significant spike).

While minorities and people of colour have an increased risk of infection, severe illness and higher rates of hospitalisation, the ways in which infection and race intersect is somewhat under theorised in all but the most recent news reports. Contributory factors include systemic health and social inequities, occupation, diet, supposed Vitamin D deficiency, lack of access to healthcare, or simply not being believed by healthcare professionals (some science has suggested erroneously that Black people feel less pain that their white counterparts).

Colloquial speculation about the reasons for this disparity often falls back on the usual tropes of personal responsibility, either blaming BAME people for their own “poor life choices” or assuming a biological explanation. Yet, what reports often show is that systemic social factors are the main drivers of this differentiation. That even a viral pandemic affects racialised subjects differently should prompt serious questions to be asked about conditions of life under neoliberal capitalism. Instead of this serious systemic analysis, the danger is that BAME communities will be seen not as the greater victims of the COVID-19 crisis, but as the most virulent carriers, thus demarcated as “dangerous” subjects.

The intersection of issues of public space, race and infection is of critical importance in understanding these phenomena. Who or what is seen as legitimate in public space – whether taking ownership of this space by PoC in order to remove a statue to a slave trader, or to protest against racist policing tactics, or who should be allowed to gather during a pandemic – is determined according to a norm of what is considered “acceptable” behaviour.

I would like to propose that this notion of acceptability, what is normal, underwrites both what public space looks like, who it’s for, and how we, as a population, respond to what are seen as transgressions of that normal. Indeed, it will be argued, the fierce defence of the limit between normal and abnormal is a founding feature of authoritarianism, a personality trait that tends towards the acquiescence to fascist regimes.

It will also be argued that Starmer’s inability to accept the methodology of direct action, to deem it unacceptable behaviour, his recent insistence that he is on the side of law and order in his disastrous address on the issue of BLM and his performative kneeling all point to a form of Liberalism that is comfortable with, if not complicit in, the outgrowth of forms of ethno-nationalisms and authoritarianism.

A standout claim in Theodor Adorno’s vast sociological study The Authoritarian Personality is that the tendency to be more accepting of authoritarian regimes is tied to a strong belief in manners. What is deemed necessarily, almost naturally, “proper” about good manners, and the desire to violently enforce any transgression of those social norms, is that the person displaying good manners is “normal”.

Abnormality, deviancy, otherness, or difference to the “norm” is seen as legitimate reason for punitive, often violent response. The sociological experiments conducted in this study drew on Freudian psychoanalysis to understand how experiences of authority during childhood could lead to differing views on it in later life. The study showed that subjects who had adverse reactions to the authority of their parents, who responded by, rather than internalising and understanding that authority, kept it as a constant powerful figure that was always commanding them, were more prone to developing authoritarian personalities.

This reaction, it emerged, produced very fragile egos that needed the constant reinforcement of strongly policed social norms in order to survive. These subjects Adorno concluded, would often demand or exert strict admonishment of deviant or transgressive behaviour – the implication being that this strict demarcation between what is “good” and “bad” buttresses their ego’s inability to understand authority as anything other than an external force.

In the context of a global pandemic that is killing people in their tens of thousands, fear of death compounds the tendency to police social norms in authoritarian personalities, creating the perfect conditions for the acquiescence to more fascist regimes. The backlash against BLM, even in mild forms, and the reassertion of the idea of public space as for a certain type of activity, seems to point to the same tendency Adorno identified. Strongly delineating between “good” and “bad” behaviour, with the good being identified with the idea of normality, or neutrality is important here.

Recently a video emerged of two St Louis based lawyers pointing an assault rifle and semi-automatic pistol at a group of peaceful BLM protestors walking past their mansion on the way to protest at a nearby location. The violence with which this reaction emerged shows a deeply rooted belief in what should be allowed in this couple’s streets, and what should not. The movement of bodies through space in public is seen differently depending on how those bodies are coded. Black bodies are coded differently than white. White bodies are seen as obeying codes of decency, they are acceptable, normal, neutral. But the political Blackness on display in the BLM marches is transgressive. Public space, then, is seen to be coded for neutrality, normal, conventional, in short, whiteness, where Black political action is transgressive.

Thus, the removal of statues to slave traders and colonial figures brings into public space a politics that authoritarian whiteness assumes was not a feature previously. The assumption of neutrality of public space, whereby action to “disrupt” that neutrality is seen as transgressive, therefore codes this space as non-political, natural; the status quo, then, is seen as non-political, unmarked, white.

What the actions of BLM protests and others show is that there is no non-political space, indeed these spaces are laced with the celebration of colonialism, a constant reminder that for centuries, and still today, predatory capitalists extracted value from land that was not theirs, and labour from people they had purchased. The authoritarian personality, thus, reacts by admonishing the transgression; either through violent actions on the streets of London, or the front garden of their mansions, or through uptight social media posts that decry the danger posed by protests in light of the pandemic.

In 2011, the London riots that erupted after the police shot an unarmed black man, Mark Duggan, precipitated a “clean up” response. Well-meaning residents of middle-class boroughs of London came out in force with their brooms to sweep away the mess left by the riots that saw more than 3000 people arrested.

The race and class dynamics that had sparked the riots were no less evident in the clean-up, voluntary wardens of peace, white liberals decried the destruction of property and eruption of violence, somehow ignoring the deep-rooted tensions that gave them context. The same distinctions between cleanliness and dirtiness were in evidence then as they are now. Broom-wielding civilians were doing their duty then, just as those who “protect the statues” are today – defending public space from transgression.

This return to the “normality” of good manners, clean streets and the absence of politics in public space threatens us again today. When the leader of the opposition can assert his strong position on law and order and belittle the growing protest movement in the same breath, it is evident that he is appealing to the authoritarian tendencies in society who see BLM as a transgression, thus laying the groundwork for stronger appeals to fascist forms of governance.


Tom Trevatt is a lecturer on MA Art & Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London and in Graphic Design at The University of Creative Arts. He is completing his PhD, The Axioms of Petroculture: Art and Transformation in the Second Age of Oil, in the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths.