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‘I felt so powerful’: Jen Reid on inspiring the next generation after Bristol protests

Jen Reid’s defiant gesture defined the Bristol protests. Now she’s showing today's youth how they can change the world themselves

jen reid bristol protests. Jen Reid stands in front of the new black resin and steel statue portraying her

Jen Reid stands in front of the new black resin and steel statue portraying her. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

On 7 June 2020, the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was pulled down from its plinth and thrown into Bristol Harbour as the world was waking up to the historical injustices and ongoing systemic racism which surrounds all of us. Jen Reid, who was in attendance, spontaneously climbed onto the empty plinth and raised her fist above her head. That defining moment was memorialised in a statue made in collaboration with artist Marc Quinn, called A Surge of Power. Reid has written a book, A Hero Like Me, imagining these events from a child’s point of view, proving to them that they have the power to change the world. 

The Big Issue: What is a hero? 

Jen Reid: Heroes demonstrate extraordinary bravery in the face of adversity, standing up for what is right and just. They may display acts of heroism in many different contexts, such as saving lives, fighting for justice, advocating for the oppressed, making significant contributions to society or climbing onto plinths where slave traders once stood dressed as a Black Panther and raising their fists! 

Who are your heroes? 

Nina Simone actively participated in the civil rights movement. Despite adversity she showed unbelievable courage, perseverance and she stood 10 toes down in her truth. Her impact extends beyond her time. James Baldwin fearlessly tackled themes of race, identity, and social injustice, leaving a lasting impact on American literature. His work transcended boundaries, offering a universal perspective on the human experience.

Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted due to his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam war exemplified his unwavering commitment to his principles. Angela Davis’ contribution and dedication to liberation continues to inspire generations in the struggle for equality. And Joyce Reid, my mum. Her selflessness and unconditional love makes her my number one hero. Her unwavering dedication, guidance and wisdom has shaped me into the powerful woman I am today.

How does it feel when people refer to you as hero? 

After A Surge of Power was placed on the plinth and removed shortly after (within 24 hours), it took me a few weeks to realise the enormity of what I had done and shied away from the attention.  A friend then said to me that I needed to realise what seeing my statue on the plinth meant to them. I then thought how I would feel as a child or teenager growing up and seeing a bold and powerful Black woman with her fist raised and I probably would see her as a hero. So now, I welcome it and feel honoured that some people see me as their hero. 

On that day back in 2020, what compelled you to climb up on to the plinth?  

Climbing up onto the plinth was a spontaneous act. Having said that, after witnessing the Colston statue being bound with rope, dragged through the streets, and thrown into the harbour the adrenaline coursing through my veins might have been the reason. I unceremoniously landed tummy-first onto the plinth. When I finally stood up and raised my fist and eyes to the sky, I felt so powerful. 

What would it have meant to have a book like A Hero Like Me to read while growing up? 

It would have meant the world. Representation in books is crucial for children as it validates their identifies, belonging and self-worth. It allows them to see themselves as valuable and
capable individuals.   

What message do you think children need to know? 

Jen Reid: It’s important for them to know that they have the power and the responsibility to shape the future as they are the generation of change. Their voices, ideas and action can bring about meaningful transformation. It’s essential for them to recognise their collective potential and believe in their ability to make a positive impact.  

Do children have a better understanding of inequality and unfairness than many adults? 

Without a doubt. Adults have more life experience and knowledge, but children’s thought processes are often less clouded by societal norms, biases, or complicated rationales. They see situations more clearly in terms of right and wrong, making them more likely to point out unfairness when they see it. 

Since the 2020 protests is there more kindness, peace, courage, or justice? 

Since then the impact is varied. While there have been instances of increased empathy and acts of kindness, the overall levels are difficult to gauge. The movement showcased the courage of individuals standing against racial injustice, encouraging others to speak up. While systemic justice is an ongoing process, the BLM [Black Lives Matter] protest raised awareness and initiated discussions on racial inequality and police reform. 

Are you worried about the Public Order Act 2023 and what it might mean for our right to protest?  

I think we should all be worried. The POA 2023 is authoritarian and in breach of our human rights. The police already have the power to manage protests effectively without this act. How are we meant to hold those in power to account if we are unable to take to the streets and protest? 

This month sees the 75th anniversary of Windrush, what does that mean to you? 

For me and people of West Indian descent the Windrush anniversary symbolises the contributions and struggles of our parents and grandparents who came to the UK seeking better opportunities. They played a major role in helping to rebuild Britain. 

What would be the best way to mark the anniversary? 

The best way to do this would be by establishing a national holiday, which would symbolise a commitment to social justice and recognition. It would be a step in the right direction to acknowledge the injustices faced by the Windrush generation and their descendants, drawing attention to the need for equality and rectifying past wrongs. 

A Hero Like Me by Jen Reid with Angela Joy, illustrated by Leire Salaberria, is out now (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, £7.99)  

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