On 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol pulled down the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in spectacular fashion. Among the jubilant crowd, which jumped on the statue and rolled it down the street before pushing it into Bristol harbour, was 50-year-old Jen Reid, attending her first protest.
She walked towards the now empty plinth upon which the statue had sat since1895 and stood on top of it with her first raised. “It just felt like I was cleansing it,” she says, speaking in November. “It was remembering George Floyd, remembering all the slaves who died at the hands of Colston, and the people of Bristol who’ve had to look at that statue on a daily basis.” An image of Reid standing on the plinth with her fist raised went viral on social media. She went home feeling victorious and defiant. “I had a surge of power,” she says.
Five weeks after the protest, a resin-and-steel figure of Reid was installed clandestinely at the site where the statue of Colston once stood, a surprise to the Bristol city council and local residents. The powerful sculpture was erected in the early hours of the morning by a team directed by the artist Marc Quinn.
When Quinn initially got in touch with Reid, she admitted she didn’t know who he was. “I was speaking to my niece who is a fine art student and I said ‘Marc Quinn’ and she spat her coffee out and said: ‘Do you know who he is?’ I just thought it was a guy who wanted to make a statue,” she says. Talking to Quinn subsequently, Reid spoke about the power she felt being on top of the plinth. As a result, Quinn entitled his statue was called A Surge of Power.
Yet Reid insists that the significance of Quinn’s sculpture has never been the person it portrays. “It’s not about me,” she says. “It’s about what it stood for: what was there before and what was there after.” She points to the 12 black women, from the Rising Arts Agency, who, in turn, stood in front of the statue and raised their fists in defiance. “Tears came down my face. I just got so emotional. Even if that’s the only thing to come out of it – those girls feeling empowered to see another black woman out there raising her fist – then my work is done.”
But in many ways, Reid’s work has really only just begun. The statue was taken down by the council a day after it had gone up; Quinn said he would pay for the costs of its removal. Reid says she wasn’t surprised but she feels the speed at which it was taken down – compared with how long the Colston statue stood, despite a decades-long campaign by residents for its removal – speaks volumes.
“In Bristol, the only plaque that is there to commemorate enslaved people is a tiny one by the river, but you’ve got Colston everywhere,” she says. She has called on Marvin Rees, Bristol’s mayor, to work to remove other slavery iconography from the city. The slave trader’s name has long been commemorated across Bristol, in everything from memorials to schools. One of the other main objects of protesters’ ire, the Colston Hall music venue, changed its name in September after a three-year refurbishment, reopening as the Bristol Beacon.
At first, Reid described herself as an “accidental activist”, but she has recently started to embrace the role. She has travelled around the country, doing interviews and taking part in discussions, with the hope of continuing the conversation around racism that was started by the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. During the pandemic, she has also taken part in international panels online, including at Florida International University in the US and University of Regina in Canada. But she says it’s the talks she gives to school pupils that she enjoys the most.
“I just tell the story of what happened and the kids are so receptive to it,” she says. “For me, it’s about the younger generation: finding out what their views are, what they would like to see change”.
Reid has even met with ardent critics of the Black Lives Matter movement in Britain, as well as a far-right group in the US. She has debated with people who told her the protests were divisive and that the unfair playing field in the UK had nothing to do with race. “It’s not difficult for me to look somebody in the eye and have that conversation,” she says. “If you don’t, then nothing is going to change.”