It has been hailed a moment of international significance, but Bristol’s call for reparatory justice is also the first milestone in an ongoing journey.
The motion passed at an extraordinary council meeting will galvanise support for a reparations and atonement plan, led by grassroots organisations, to address the city’s role in the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Africans and its enduring impact.
Bristol is also calling for the government to set up an all-party parliamentary commission of inquiry to look at how reparations might be delivered.
Former lord mayor Cleo Lake, Green councillor for Cotham and the Green Party candidate in the upcoming Avon & Somerset police & crime commissioner elections, tabled the motion on Tuesday alongside Labour deputy mayor Asher Craig.
“It is of international significance that this cross-party motion has passed,” said Lake, speaking after Bristol became the first city outside of London to pass such a motion.
“History is made. But now the speeches have been made, the real work will begin and it’s up to all of us to deliver on the fine words in this motion.”
Speaking during the meeting, Lake said: “This motion today is about equity and understanding and is as much to do with community action planning towards our own reparations plans as it is for government and institutions to acknowledge and give us the right to be heard on the matter.
“Reparations, as I hope was made clear in this motion, does include but goes beyond monetary compensation. The contribution of African civilisation, culture and people versus how we have been treated is one of the world’s great paradoxes.”
The cross-party motion comes as a result of a grassroots campaign dating back many years.
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Jendayi Serwah, of the Afrikan ConneXions Consortium, said Bristol was on the cusp of making history.
“The passing of this motion will be the first milestone in a long journey that began centuries ago,” said Serwah.
She continued: “We cannot emphasise enough the importance of Bristol’s support for the call to assert African heritage communities right to be heard through an all-party parliamentary commission of inquiry given the city’s role and complicity in the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Africans.
“The legacies of this history is a current affair demonstrated in several areas of people activity borne out by a plethora of statistics and lived experiences.”
In one of 72 statements of support submitted to Bristol City council, Dr Shawn Sobers, an associate professor at UWE Bristol welcomed the opportunity for the city to become a “global leader”.
He said: “Now is the time to do things differently, and consider how the decisions taken today can positively impact the Bristol city of the future.”
Craig told the meeting the removal of Edward Colston’s statue “was a symbolic demonstration of our city’s complex relationship with race”. She also spoke of the importance of joining together to walk the path of racial justice and healing.
Marvin Rees highlighted the need to understand the context of racial inequality.
“That means understanding the role that race plays, not just a historical act but as an ever-present factor determining life chance, life expectancy, social immobility, health outcomes,” said the mayor.
He acknowledged the complexities in conversations around race, class and social immobility and spoke of the need for discussions around reparatory justice to be attached to real policy.
Rees added: “I’m not just a mayor, I still experience the world as a black man and, even within this organisation, I experience the consequences of having black skin. Race does not disappear does not disappear just because we want to wish it away.”
The motion was passed with 47 voting in support and 12 Tory councillors voting against it.
Steve Smith, Conservative councillor for Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, said his group believes the motion “risks exacerbating some divisions by presenting a binary view of the world when the reality is much more complicated”.
While noting the good intentions behind the motion, he said that as it stood, he and his fellow Tory councillors were unable to support it.
The motion also resolves to implement community wealth creation strategies to produce more sustainable and
equitable growth whilst alleviating systemic poverty, acknowledging a just economy is the only way to achieve racial justice.
It also recognises that reparative justice should be driven by the experiences, voices and perspectives of African heritage communities.
Coming nine months after the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, when the eyes of the world turned on Bristol, Lake says the motion puts the city at the forefront of systemic change.
“The council has voted to start a national conversation and re-examine our past,” she said, speaking after the meeting.
“I want to be very clear this is not about rewriting history, but rather about casting a bright light on it. Instead of clinging to comforting myths about Britain’s heritage, let’s face up to the reality of our history – let’s talk about it – and let’s learn from that to create a better future for all of us.”
Main photo by Martin Booth