In 2017, in the wake of racist violence in Charlottesville, I wrote in these pages about statues, memory, and history. A lot has happened since then. Following global outrage over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police—and a litany of other deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement—protests around the world have toppled statues at a rate that would have been hard to imagine even a few weeks ago. In some cases, protestors have physically removed statues, while in others officials have opted to remove them preemptively.

Thinking through the intentions of how, where, and when a statue came to exist offers a way to consider the story a statue tells, and if that story belongs in a public place in 2020.

The most remarkable thing about this iconoclastic moment is the global scale of its critique. To be sure, there have been previous conversations about removing memorials to racist historical figures not connected directly to U.S. slavery, such as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which began at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and spread to Oxford and Harvard Law School. Generally, though, the debate in the United States has until now focused almost entirely on figures associated with the continuum of U.S. slavery, the Confederacy, and the Ku Klux Klan. That has changed.

The night of June 9, a Boston statue of Christopher Columbus was beheaded, and a statue of Christopher Columbus in Richmond was toppled, set on fire, and dumped in a lake. Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, announced on June 10 that the statue would be placed in storage while next steps were considered. On the night of June 10, protestors toppled statues of Columbus in Minneapolis and Jefferson Davis in Richmond. By the time you read this, there will probably be more names to add to the list. These domestic protests echo global moments of 2020 iconoclasm. In Bristol, protestors toppled a statue of seventeenth-century slaver Edward Colston, throwing it in the Avon. In Ekeren, Belgium, city officials removed a statue of King Leopold II—who oversaw the genocide of 10 million Congolese—after protestors splashed it with paint.

In 2017 one of the most popular arguments for preserving slaver and Confederate statues in their current places was a slippery slope argument: “If we remove a statue of (this slaver), what about monuments to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson?” In 2020 the question may well become: “Well, what about statues of Washington and Jefferson?” I expect coming weeks will see radical changes in how and where we commemorate Founding Fathers who enslaved other men and women.

At the same time, this iconoclasm is also moving from questions directly relating to slavery in the United States to broader issues of social justice and historical injustice. In addition to Columbus statues coming down, for example, Philadelphia officials recently removed a statue of Frank Rizzo, who had, while mayor of the city (1972–80), exhorted residents to “vote white.” As the kinds of statues that are removed by the state or toppled by the people moves from the specific ambit of slavery and the Confederacy to broader questions of settler colonialism (Columbus) or racist state violence (Rizzo), it is easy to wonder if any statues will remain. In a recent update on the whataboutism that was popular in 2017, Howard Dean wondered if Franklin D. Roosevelt was safe, given his initial reluctance to admit Holocaust refugees to the United States.

As we struggle to find criteria for which statues to preserve and which statues to remove, asking “Does this statue work by causing pain?” would be one place to begin.

Thinking about how and why statues go up might help us to think about if they should come down. Once a statue is in place, it is easy to think of it as an eternal and inevitable presence—a view that informs the notion that removing statues is tantamount to “erasing history.” However, statues don’t happen by accident; it takes the concerted will and money of an individual or group to have a monument take form in stone or metal in a public place. Thinking through the intentions of how, where, and when a given statue came to exist in a given space at a given time offers a way past scaremongering about slippery slopes and the erasing of history to consider the story a statue tells, and if that is a story that belongs in a public place in 2020.

Not everybody gets to have a statue. Statues are expensive, and consume the limited resource of public space. Historically, a statue, by the mere fact of its existence, identifies its subject as a hero. This notion informs the old adage that “nobody ever put up a statue to a critic.” In his book on barbed wire as an ecology of modernity, philosopher Reviel Netz points to barbed wire as a form of “static violence.” Barbed wire controls space without the need for human intervention simply by causing pain to animals or humans. And in her essay “Can The Subaltern Speak?” literary theorist Gayatri Spivak develops the concept of epistemic violence, particularly the violence intrinsic to the Western effort to make the colonial subject into an “Other.” By combining these two critiques, we might contend that, in many cases, statues are a form of static epistemic violence.

Statues of Columbus, Davis, and Leopold II, to name but a few, intrinsically identify their subjects as heroic. As such, they valorize the violent exploitation perpetrated by their subjects as both heroic and good. Like barbed wire, such statues keep enacting hurtful narratives without requiring ongoing human intervention.

As we struggle to find criteria for which statues to preserve and which statues to remove, asking “Does this statue work by causing pain?” would be one place to begin.