Talk Description to Me

Episode 56 - Toppling Statues

June 19, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 2 Episode 56
Talk Description to Me
Episode 56 - Toppling Statues
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Toppling a statue is a powerful, emotional and symbolic act. Often celebratory, sometimes angry and vengeful, the removal of a statue -- whether by lawful means or mob rule -- is an event rife with potent and dramatic visuals. In this episode, Christine asks JJ how statues are brought down, and what it looks like when they fall.

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JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to Me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed-out in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

Now, we've given some content warnings in the past, but this one is is unique and textured because we're going to be talking today about statues. And they're the bringing down of statues in public places. And so the reason that it's complex to frame this is that the dismantling of a statue often has a celebratory feel, and is often a good thing seen as a good mark of social change. But the truth is, it is a symbolically violent act, it is a kind of Van revengeful act that is not purely happy. So we're approaching this topic from a bit of a sense of fun, and trying to get at the visuals of what for me at least has been a completely mysterious process. So the last year has seen a lot of this. And so we just want to say that even though we may seem light hearted in our approach, or our reactions, we're clear, we're as clear as we can be that this is, in many ways, not a laughing matter. And it's a bit like the kind of laughter that can happen after a funeral or, or a traumatic event where lot, being able to laugh at something is a way of taking a deep breath after something traumatic. So no disrespect in any way is meant towards the process involved and people who have suffered genuine harm from the the people or the monuments under discussion. However, there does kind of come a moment where in the public consciousness, we take power back. And one of the ways we do that is to laugh at something when it's appropriate. So this got started for me by something that happened in Toronto recently, which is where JJ and I both live. And it was the dismantling of a statue of Edgerton Ryerson, who was a historic figure in Canada. He's the founder of university and he was instrumental in the beginnings of the residential school system, which was an appalling part of of the Canadian story. And so his statue came down. And it's a, it's a story of what happened since as well. But it got me thinking about how I don't really get how a statue is, is is brought down. And I don't know what they're made of. And I feel like that's kind of an emblematic visual in the world that when a regime or a tyrant or the someone who was honored is no longer honored. There's a very much a symbolism and a theater to how that change happens in the public mind. And so I wanted us to talk about that. And JJ, you are you're totally on board.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, for sure. And you're absolutely right. These statues are symbols, right. They're symbols when they were erected. They are symbols as they stand, and they are symbols when they come down. So it's not surprising that there are some wild and dramatic visuals that are associated with those moments when the statues are being felled. And, you know, I think as we're talking about this, as we're describing this, we're going to try largely to steer clear of the politics of these moments and stick to describing the visuals. That's, that's why we're here. But there's going to be some background information that will be necessary. So some of the politics are unavoidable. But you know, we're going to try not to linger on that. And just to reiterate your your warning, Chris. I'm not going to be describing moments of actual gore or bloodshed. But you are absolutely right, that there is a violence embodied in many of these statues, and the stories behind them, but there's also a violence in the way these statues are pulled down. That might be disturbing as well. So even though we're not going to be describing moments of physical gore and bloodshed. Some of these descriptions might be disturbing in and of themselves.

Christine Malec:

I was following the protest that was happening near Ryerson statue and things were just fine and people were there as a kind of visual or a protest, and then quite a bit later in the evening, there was the Ryerson statue has been toppled and has been sent into Lake Ontario. And I was quite shocked. I'm, I'm not sure. Actually, JJ have we had a statue toppling in Toronto before? And what is so what I wanted to know was, What did it look like? How did they do it? They didn't just spontaneous a 123 shove, like surely that's not enough to topple a statue?

JJ Hunt:

So this statue was in downtown Toronto, right at Ryerson University. The University that bears Egerton Ryerson name is right downtown and this statue which has been under threat for a number of years, there have been a number of groups that have you know, very loudly shouted that they want this statue down. It has been the focus of attention it has been the focus of protest. And when the mass grave containing the remains of the 215 residential school children was discovered in late May, this statue became the focus of more protests, it was covered in graffiti. So just a little bit of visual background here. The statue itself is a larger than life statue. It's a metal with a green patina. I'm not sure if it's bronze, or copper or even zinc, but it's a metal with a green patina. So it looks like a green statue. And Ryerson, the man is standing atop of this pedestal, the pedestal is also metal. And he's about 10 feet off the ground facing the street, backed by a wall of IV. Ryan's right hand his extended palm up and open. In his left hand, there's a book and he's wearing what I believe is like an open academic robe, which is draped over his arms. So that's what the statue normally looks like. And then it got covered with graffiti, and it was severe. So the pedestal was covered in spray painted phrases, the phrases were covering the wall behind him the street in front of them the curb, if there were phrases like "dig them up", "215", "genocide", "go home", all over. And then the side of the head of the statue was covered in a thick red paint which was dripping down onto his chest dripping down onto the pedestal, it looked like the statue was maybe hit with a with a can of full open can of paint. And then as the week went on, dozens of pairs of children's shoes had been placed at the base of the pedestal. This was like we discussed that this memorial to the children all around the statue. And then last week, in the videos that I saw, it looked relatively calm. There were these protests around there were gatherings around the statue. And people started to film in the videos that I've seen again, a relatively common subdued protest, where a single rope was tied around the neck of the statue, and the statue was pulled off of its pedestal. Now there was no filming of the of the individuals who were doing the polling, but it was it was a relatively straightforward pulling off of the pedestal that the statue tipped forward. And the head that it fell off the metal statue of Ryerson fell off of the metal pedestal, his head hit the curb with a with a hollow clang. And then it toppled onto the street on its side so very much intact, but broken off at the at the feet. And it had suffered a little bit of damage when it hit the curb, but it was a relatively solid piece of metal. I mean, it was hollow but but thick enough that it didn't take too much damage and then and then it lay in the street. on its side. That that point, the statue was draped with a flag. This is a flag that's well known to many Canadians who are familiar with indigenous protest movements. I'm not confident that I have the most accurate or appropriate name for it. But in most news reports, it's commonly called the Mohawk Warrior Flag. This is a flag that features the head of an indigenous man and profile at the center and it's surrounded by a golden yellow sun with pointed shafts of light that's against a red backdrop. So this flag was draped over this statue which had you know, the red paint that was dripping down it and then had some some scrawled graffiti on it and then several pairs of tan lines moccasins were placed on to the flag draped statue. And photos were taken. Some of these photos appeared in newspapers and on TV and across social media. And this was all happening in the daylight. But then when night fell as you said, Chris, it got more violent. Again the group seemed to be relatively small and relatively calm. But more graffiti was scrawled on to the statue as it was lying on its side it was rolled down the street, it was streaked with more paint, including some bright pink paint, which I found oddly disturbing. I'm not entirely sure why something about the how bright this pink color was against the green tinted metal and the light was very harsh because it was all light from people cell phones like bright it was just something about it that I found really disturbing. And then some of the protesters, the people who were involved in this scene, they took hammers, and they wedged the claw parts of the hammers into the statues neck like chisels, and then they beat on the on the hammers with with small sledge hammers, trying to use them like a chisel and then once they had broken holes in the sides of the neck, they got a grinder out and they cut the metal all around the neck, and they severed the head from the neck when it was about halfway off. And it was just kind of dangling, frankly kind of like a loose tooth. They took sledge hammers and they bashed their head off of the body. And I saw a photo of this on the on the CBC News website. Have a photo of this this head this bashed off head on the sidewalk and there are three feet stepping on top of it. One foot is is wearing a Birkenstock style sandal. One of the feet is in a running shoe, and then one is wearing this furred-top sandal, a fuzzy furry sandal. And the head is completely bashed in on one side there are gaping holes in on that one side what was bashed the green patina is gone. So it's a kind of just a rusty brown metal and there are a drips of orange paint that streak this bashed inside and then on the other side that was green. It's mostly now this thick red paint that's dripping down over the statue. And because of the light this was taken at night, there were heavy shadows that cover the from the from the statues brow that cover the eyes. And then you're right. A few days later, this the head of the statue starts to move around, it spent some time in Lake Ontario. And then a few days later, the head turned up in news photos 100 kilometers away on a metal pike. And this was on a piece of land in Caledonia, Ontario, which is the site of a longtime land battle between six nations of the Grand River and local developers. And the head now stands on a metal pike with a strip of torn black electrical tape over its mouth.

Christine Malec:

Now maybe this is already newly minted urban legend but I read that the head went into the lake and just coincidentally fetched up on the beach of indigenous land. I don't even need to comment on that. But I don't know how I got there. It but from what I thought I read was it was by chance. Now that seems improbable. But I like the idea. I like the legend.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, I think there are going to be lots of lots of stories being told about the head of Ryerson. And I think they've offered to pass it around the people who currently have it are offering to send it to other indigenous communities who are having their own land battles so that this head of Ryerson can be put on display.

Christine Malec:

Get in line, get in line.

JJ Hunt:

Ya, tales will be told.

Christine Malec:

Oh it's an instant legend. And yeah, that's very violent the way you describe it an eerie looking. And yet there's a satisfaction there's a certain satisfaction there. So this is, you know, our local story of statue toppling, but there's been much toppling of statues in this past year. And I think, JJ, you'd been looking at some images from the US.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, I read a stat somewhere that 168 Confederate symbols were removed from across the US in 2020. And all but one of them were following the murder of George Floyd. So this was a huge movement following the murder of George Floyd. 94 of these symbols, were monuments were statues. And some of these were removed in a in a lawful and organized manner. So city officials, town officials, state officials, whatever listened to the populace made their own decisions and and took these statues down in an organized way. So typically what that means cranes and cherry pickers are used, depending on the size of the statue. So the crane will will lift a basket with some workers up to the statue and they will wrap straps around the statue. If it's a person on a horse, they'll put the straps under the belly of the horse, if it's an individual, they'll put straps under the arms, whatever is required, they'll strap this the statue, and then attach those straps to a crane. And then the crane will lift the statue off of its base l unbolted or some severed in some way from the base or platform or whatever, they'll pick it up by the crane. And then they'll set it down the lie down usually flat on a flatbed truck, strap it down, and they'll drive away. And that's usually there's a there's a crowd around or this media round, sometimes there's cheering sometimes or protest by both sides. That's what it looks like when it's official and organized. But sometimes these statues don't get pulled down in an official and organized way. Sometimes they get pulled down by mobs of angry people. Generally speaking, at some point, someone climbs up to the statue with a rope, or a heavy duty strap like a winch strap. And often a loop is placed around the head of the statue. So there's a very practical side to this, which is that the the head is what is exposed. And you can make a loop in advance when you're on the ground and then fling it over the head. So that's easy, and it'll cinch around tight. And so there's practical reasons for that. But you know, I have to think there's a violent symbolism to looping a rope around a statues neck right like, certainly, from a visual standpoint, it is a very potent image to have a rope put around the neck of a statue. And then for the most part, in most of the videos that I've seen, most of the footage I've seen, the pulling down of the statues is done by members of the crowd, not by vehicles. So it's not like these statues, if they're, you know, if they're modest in size, if they are life size, or just a little larger than life size. A group of people like as if they're participating in a tug of war will hold on to the rope or cable or whatever, and pull, they won't use vehicles, which is not necessarily what I would have imagined before going through the footage. So you know, people hold the rope and yell "1-2-3 heave!" and they all pull in unison. And sometimes it only takes a couple of poles to get these things down. Because this is some interesting history, there's some interesting history to the way the Confederate statues went up. So one of the narratives about Confederate statues is that these are important works of historical art that date back to the Civil War. And that might be true in some cases. But the fact is, many of these statues were actually mass produced a half century after the war. So these are, in fact, cheaply built, they're poorly built. They were available by catalog from companies that made or ornate lawn ornaments and grave markers. And I'm not trying to comment on the politics of these statues or the movements that put them up. If you're interested in that. There's some fantastic reporting on that out there. But I just want to comment on the material of the build. The physical construction of a lot of these Confederate statues is that they are cheap, they are poorly made. And what happens when they get toppled from a height. So if they're standing on a pedestal, and someone yells heave and everyone pulls on the rope, what happens is, they tumble forward, they hit the ground, and they often cave in, they get totally smushed. These are not like big, strong metal statues, they crumble. And there's a great example. There's some videos online of 1926 Civil War monument in Durham, North Carolina, this was a few years back, that the statue was pulled down. And it's a pretty simple statue, slightly larger than life size. It's a standing Confederate soldier wearing a wide brimmed hat. And this the soldier has a you know, a musket in front of him with the butt on the ground in the in the barrel of the musket standing straight up parallel to his body. And, and what happens is there's a there's a group of people, several people filming the large cheering group of people, someone climbs a ladder that's leaning against the back of the concrete pedestal on which this statue stands. So the pedestals maybe 15 feet off the ground, and a bright yellow winch strap. So like a it's a flat strap is tossed over the head of this statue and the person gets down off the ladder. The crowd starts to pull, you know he he heave and when the statue tips forward, it brings a slab of the concrete base with it so it doesn't snap at the feet or the ankles. It's the the actual top of the pedestal that comes off. So the the slab of concrete comes attached to the feet of the statue, and the statute tips forward and lands headfirst in a garden bed. So it lands on dirt not on concrete and lands in a garden bed at the base of the pedestal, and it gets crushed like tinfoil, the weight of the concrete slab behind it, that cheap metal, which was probably zinc, and it's hollow, like a, like an Easter Bunny, you know? You get those chocolate Easter Bunnies?

Christine Malec:

Um hum, um hm.

JJ Hunt:

It's that kind of flimsy and hollow, and it completely crushes it. So the statue is doubled over, it's crushed, it's left completely unrecognizable, just from falling down, the head and the neck of the statue are compressed into the torso.

Christine Malec:

Gasp!

JJ Hunt:

The legs are twisted, and they're flattened, they're completely bent into. So when it lands ultimately lands the slab is actually facing up. So if the statue wasn't damaged, it would be standing straight up. But the statue is bent completely in half, and the shoulder is resting on the grass. It's completely bent. And at this point, some people move in some people, you know, give the statue the finger a few people kick and stomp on it and the crowd starts cheering. Totally wild, get totally outrageous. But that's what these statues some of these statues a large percentage are like when they come down. They are cheaply built and built and they get they get crushed.

Christine Malec:

That sounds kind of more satisfying even I think there'll be a certain satisfaction Look, it was hollow all along.

JJ Hunt:

Exactly. The symbolism certainly works. If you are if you are in a frame of mind to think that this was just a hollow statue all along. This was cheaply built... The symbolism is there for the taking.

Christine Malec:

Can you give some visuals of the crowd response when it comes down? Like I get the people are happy. But can you say a bit more about the expressiveness of that what it looks like?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, I mean, it's obviously it's different in every situation, but it gets specifically in this in this. A lot of the Confederate monuments that come down, lots of people cheering, right, it's a big celebratory moment, lots of cheering, lots of chanting, usually a handful of people rush in, and they want to kick or they want to spit, or they want to, you know, hit it with a hammer or something. There are those moments. So there's there's a funny interplay between a handful of people who want to continue the violence who want to continue the, you know, who wanted to seek vengeance, and in the hammer, right, this thing, right. And then there are some who are wanting to just be part of the moment in history and are maybe caught up in the moment, and they are cheering and screaming and applauding. Some people are laughing, you're right to say that it's like there's a celebratory feel there, generally speaking, is celebration. But that's not always the case, right? Some of these things like this, this whole scene that I just described was in the middle of what looked like the middle of an afternoon, it was bright and sunny and whatnot. I think when some of these things happen later at night, if they happen in direct response to an event, as opposed to just like it is bloody well, time to get rid of this, you know, yeah, that makes it feel a little more violent, it's a little more fresh. And so the people who are there are maybe angrier, and they're yelling indirectly into each other's cameras, like someone will be filming and there'll be kicking the, you know, the downed monument, the felled monument, maybe there'll be cutting off its head that is like, you know, we described with Ryerson, that's a thing that often happens. Those are the moments when it's obviously angrier, it's obviously more violent. And, and there's a clear tension. And often the, from a visual standpoint, the fact that it's being filmed at night, with spotlights from cell phones and things like that, it just adds to the drama and the tension in the videos.

Christine Malec:

Obviously, dismantling of statues is not a new is not a new thing. And I'm thinking of Saddam Hussein. And that was a very big moment that was highly publicized was when his statue came down around her stand. There was maybe a bit of planning around that.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, that was a huge moment. And you're right that this has been going on forever. As long as there have been statues going up, people have been tearing them down. That's been since the beginning of history. But this is one of the more famous moments in recent history, the 2003 toppling toppling of this 39 foot tall statue of Saddam Hussein that was promoted as the symbolic end to the Battle of Baghdad. And the videos and images that came out and were shown in in the US and in Canada by CNN and BBC and whatnot. The way they focused their footage, the way they focus that, you know, their lens on this event was very interesting. So now you can go back and you can look at all of the footage, you aren't just getting that same seven minute reel replayed over and over again. Now you can go back and look at all the footage and it's pretty interesting. So the first images and video clips from this, this time this moment show crowds of Iraqi men gathering at the base of a large cement pedestal upon which this metal statue stands and it's a big statue like as a 39 foot tall the pedestals probably close to the same height. And the pedestals you know, maybe as thick as a as a great Redwood it's a great big, thick, concrete looking pedestal. And in a ladder is set up against the side of the pedestal. And, and a few men climb up and they and they take a thick rope and they loop it around the neck of the statue, it's a noose and they throw this rope around the neck of the statue. And then they these men start passing around a sledge hammer, and they start chopping away at the pedestal like they're chopping down a tree, but it's big, it's really thick, so they pass the sledgehammer around, they're hammering away, but they're barely chipping it. It's really solid, they would never ever be able to take this thing down by hitting it with a sledge hammer. So then what happens is an American armored Recovery Vehicle -- basically, picture a tank, but instead of a big gun pointing off the front of it, it's got a crane off the front of it. This armored vehicle rolls through what is clear at this point to be a relatively small crowd of men. So when the camera pulls back, and you see this whole square with the statue standing in it, you can see in this moment, that it's not a massive crowd of people. But the armored vehicle goes right through the middle of it. And then the camera angles change and we get back to close ups and in the close ups the crowd looks much more... excitable and engaged and it looks like a thicker crowd of people when you're filming from right in the heart of it. So the armored vehicle rolls up. And the the crane arm is extended toward the statue. And a few US Marines climb the crane arm and they basically get themselves just about face to face with the statue of Saddam Hussein. And, and one of them takes an American flag and drapes it over the face of the statue. And the wind is such that it keeps this flag in place for a few seconds. It's just completely covered. So again, lots of cameras shooting this moment. You've got Saddam Hussein standing there, the statue's right arm is extended up toward the sky, very grand gesture, but he's got an American flag covering his face and there's a rope around his neck and the crowd is cheering. And then, you know, some time goes by they're trying to figure out how to get the statue down. And ultimately what they come up with is a chain that's wrapped around the statues neck so not this rope, not this the the noose that's put around his neck, there's no way that would be effective. They take a chain from the armored vehicle, they wrap that around the statue's neck, they attach that to the crane, and then the crowd is all backed away, the flag is gone. And the footage, for the most part doesn't show the vehicle. They only show the statue so mostly what you get is a close up of the statue. The chain goes taut, and the statue slowly begins to tip forward. And even over the cheering of this relatively small crowd but you know, excited crowd you can hear the metal crunching as the statue slowly pitches forward. Now then the left knee on the statue goes it snaps should severs and then the right knee snaps. But somehow the statue stays more or less upright. It's tipping over but it's still standing because there are internal supports beyond the hollow shell and they keep pulling on this thing and finally what happens is it tips forward but it doesn't fall completely to the ground it remains rooted to the pedestal. It's basically parallel to the ground sticking straight out from this pedestal but the the arm that was grandly reaching for the sky is now you know pointing on an angle down toward the ground. Ultimately the you know the armored vehicle pulled back to yanked it to the ground. Then the crowd moved in and they cut the head off and they dragged the head around the city. All told, it took like two hours for this to happen and CNN covered the entire thing. They had the cameras on the whole time. And then after they edited it down into a small tight package, and they were very careful about what they showed, right? Honestly, people teach entire media classes based on how this was how this was presented by mass media. How big was the crowd? You know? Well, if you show a lot of those, you know, just those those big shots from far away, you can see that the crowd wasn't very big. So mostly they use tight shots from within the group. How many people were locals? And how many people were medium members and military high? You know, how much time did the media spend showing the moment of the American flag on the face of the statue, which really only happened to for a few seconds. But, you know, according to the front page newspapers, that was the image that was everywhere, but it only took a few seconds, compared to the hours that were spent with the American military, trying to figure out how to take this thing down in a relatively safe manner. It was a really fascinating, both from just like, how do you get this honkin statue to come down? And also how do you film it? How do you use this on TV? It looked like the triumphant end of a war. But was that the moment Was that the end of the war? Ob iously that is well beyond o r scope. What I can say is that t was really juicy footage t made for great front page pho os. And like I said at the begi ning, these statues are powerful symbols, whether they're oing up whether they're left sta ding or being torn down.

Christine Malec:

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Ryerson Statue Toppled
Confederate Statues Toppled
Saddam Hussein Statue Toppled