Cleo Lake is a former Green Party UK councillor and Lord Mayor of Bristol, whose pride in her heritage as a mixed-race Briton and experience of the racism endemic in British society inspired her to speak out against injustice and to become a politician, activist and artist.
This issue of Working Notes explores the concept of ‘Debt’ in a more profound way than its commonplace meaning of a sum of monies owed. This broader, deeper definition of the term relates to an issue that Lake has been foremost in: the battle for accountability and reparations for the harms of enslavement and colonialism in the UK; a debt that money cannot repay. Her unstinting campaigning for justice came to fruition earlier this year when the Motion for Atonement and Reparation for Bristol’s role in The Trade in Enslaved Afrikans (TTEA) was passed by Bristol City Council, enabling it to lobby the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry to begin the process of Slavery Reparations, making it the first UK city council to do so.
Lake was also involved in the Countering Colston campaign, which was started in 2015 to decolonise Bristol and push back against the legacy of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston, whose influence persists today through organisations including the Society of Merchant Venturers, and in his memorialisation at several sites in the city. The Black Lives Matter protests which erupted globally in summer 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd, culminated in Bristol in a bronze statue of Colston being pulled down and thrown into the river Avon.
Martina Madden of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice spoke to Cleo Lake by Zoom on Thursday, 25th March 2021. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Martina Madden: Thank you for agreeing to be part of this issue of Working Notes, which is about debt. Because it’s an area of expertise you have, I wanted to speak to you about reparations, but we’ll get to that! First of all, can you tell me a little about yourself? You’ve described yourself as a politician, activist and artist – it’s an interesting combination.
Cleo Lake: It is! So you’re exactly right, that’s how I describe myself. I’m currently a Green Party councillor in Bristol. I was elected in 2016, and I went on to become the Lord Mayor of Bristol in 2018, to 2019.
I’ve been an activist… I’d say that that really began more heavily in 2012, when there was a significant fallout within the Afro Caribbean Community and institutions over the cancellation of the St Paul’s Carnival, which is just over 50 years old now. That was also the 50th anniversary of Jamaican Independence. The carnival was cancelled, which caused complete outrage in the community. I attended meetings, I organised meetings, but then I went on from being a bit of a rebel to chairing the carnival, which was a challenge! That got me more known and then that led me to be elected.
Equally, I was also writer-in-residence at the Arnolfini, which is one of our bigger cultural venues in Bristol. I’ve been a dance artist – I have a degree in dance and creative writing, and I’m a director for Black Artists On the Move and an actress and director with Sheba Soul Ensemble.
MM: You’re a Renaissance Woman! That’s a really interesting background. And your election as Lord Mayor of Bristol in 2018 made you the first Black female Lord Mayor in the UK?
CL: No, I don’t know if it was in the UK. I think we also had one in Birmingham; I’d have to check. But, you know, regardless, it’s great. I mean, let’s also look at the first Green Party Lord Mayor of Bristol, which was the reality and, more recently – I was listening back to a clip from
MM: You were involved in the Countering Colston campaign – were you also instrumental in starting it?
CL: I would say although there was resistance from the collective to becoming a formal group, we did move to naming ourselves and claiming ourselves as a group. But yes, I was there from the start.
I’m an ex-pupil of Colston’s Girls’ School. Funnily enough, it was a school that from the age of about five, I would walk past with my mother and sister. When my mum was walking us to charity shops from where we lived, we passed by the school, and I’d say to my mum, “What is that place?” And she said, “Well, it’s a private girls’ school.” I said, “I’m going to go there.” She didn’t really take that on, but I went on to go.
I generally enjoyed my time, but did become aware later on in my school career who Edward Colston was, because we weren’t told. And every first Friday in November, we would have to go
So it was quite painful when I discovered who he was. I think it probably came about via Festival of the Sea – a big festival in Bristol. I think it was around 1996 where there were protests because of the celebrations and part of that was a replica of the Matthew ship, which was a John Cabot ship that sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland, you know, and I’m sure had interactions with indigenous communities. There was nothing mentioned in that festival about enslavement, about anything, and there were protests against it.
I remember seeing people from the community on the news and raising it in my English literature class at school. At the time it was the headmistress who was the tutor. I tried to raise the point of who was Edward Colston, and why are these people saying the statue needs to come down? I was just floored, basically told to shut up, and that these people protesting were just ignorant and stupid. So, I just sat there crying silently and just feeling ostracised and disappointed because the other students were also not educated. So that’s where some of this began.
In 2015, I think, it was a friend of mine, an artist called Libita Clayton. She was part of a collective based in St Paul’s, and for Black History Month that October she set up a mock pirate radio station, and she called it BS2 Resist & Revolt. BS2 is the postcode area of St Paul’s in Bristol, where traditionally, the Caribbean community and more Afrikan heritage and diverse communities live. It certainly has a very strong Jamaican presence. That’s where the carnival is and that’s where we had the 1980s riots, or uprisings, which were the first in the country. It was Brixton in ‘81, which commemorates its 40th in a few weeks… it was Bristol that went first in 1980, and again in 1986, because of a police raid on a Jamaican café.
BS2 Resist and Revolt was the title of her mock radio station, and she was a newcomer, so she wanted to understand this background. She had myself, another artist called Roz Martin, and a representative from Bristol Radical History Group, Roger Ball. And we started to talk about the powerful elites of the city – the Merchant Venturers etc.
At that point, – as an ex-student of Colston Girls’ I knew that in a couple of weeks, they would have their annual commemoration [of Colston] on the first Friday of November. The group were all shocked to hear that this went on, and was still going on. We decided then and there, let’s rock up to the commemoration, and challenge it in some way.
So we did. People made pamphlets educating people on who Edward Colston was. We rocked up, and handed out the pamphlets. I was actually invited in, as an ex-pupil, to go and observe the commemoration. So, I did. I hadn’t been back for nearly 20 years! That was quite interesting.
So that went on. We continued to challenge. There were other celebrations. On his birthday in November, there would be the Merchant Venturers Societies, the Dolphin, Anchor and Grateful Society. They’d rock up in their morning suits, mainly old white men. They’d process around the city, they’d have their banquets, they’d also go to the tomb of Edward Colston. They’d also get out relics, like pieces of his hair and his nails! So, really quite bizarre. Anyway, we kept chipping away – lobbying in the cathedral, lobbying in the schools.
They were very resistant at first, but over time, of course, it all shifted. They got rid of the flower. They decided that they would make commemoration centered on the girls themselves, because there’s some great activists actually in Colston Girls’.
It’s now renamed Montpelier High School. I went back as Lord Mayor to give the keynote speech at commemoration, which was great. So that all shifted. We also had lobbied at that time that change its name, and again, met with a bit of resistance. Once I was elected, I became harder for people to ignore. Even though they once had their own opinions about us as campaigners, once you’re a councillor, and then you’re Lord Mayor, they have to by convention give you that respect and that time.
One of the first things I did when I was elected as a councillor in 2016 was… We were told, you can attend cabinet meetings by the administration, and you can ask questions, but it can only be on things on the agenda. I saw that it was on the agenda that the council were going to sign off on £10 million for Colston Hall redevelopment. And whilst I support that, in some ways, because I’m an artist, I’m a cultural person, I want to have the best facilities in our city. What I questioned was, can we also discuss a name change if we’re giving that money over? And can we also look at the inequity in the city, given that you’re paying off £10 million with very few questions yet other institutions like the Malcolm X Centre that was gifted to the city after the riots in 1980, hasn’t really received any significant funds since then? They walk away without a penny. Others walk away with £10 million.
The Mayor was furious with me and said that I shouldn’t have raised it. However, the chair of Colston Hall at the time agreed that they would look at the name change.
One of our Countering Colston campaigners was also Marti Burgess, who was on the board of Bristol Music Trust, who run the Colston Hall. So that was also an impact – that we had key members in different positions who could influence, such as Joe Butch Brown, who is a professor of philosophy at Bristol University. Marti Burgess is now the first person of Afrikan heritage to become a Merchant Venturer.
MM: I want to talk to you about the motion for atonement and reparation, and the trade of enslaved Afrikans. It happened quite recently that Bristol City Council passed this motion, is that right?
CL: It was on the second of March. So just a few weeks back, and I think it needs to be clear that this has been something that has been an action led by campaigners as a strategy. Because these are campaigners, primarily, it started with the We Charge: Ecocide and Genocide campaign. They’ve probably been in existence for seven or eight years. One of the things they’re involved with is the Annual Reparations March [http://www.reparationsmarch.org/], which I think is in its sixth or seventh year. That happens on the first of August, which they call the 1st Mosiah – named after Marcus Mosiah Garvey, and it’s a march that would go from Windrush Square Brixton, to the Houses of Parliament or Parliament Square, handing in a petition to 10 Downing Street, charging the British State with ecocide and genocide, for the enslavement of Afrikan heritage people.
Maangamizi is a Swahili word. And that language is spoken typically in places like Tanzania, Kenya, and Congo [DRC]. So, this is an attempt by people in the diaspora to reclaim language and to reframe their own narrative, and it sums up the historic experience of people of Afrikan Heritage, but also the contemporary harm. The first thing they will say is we have to stop the harm that’s still happening. Whether that’s police violence, whether that’s deaths in custody, whether that’s disproportionate outcomes in mental health or schooling… a whole host of things. What happened last year, actually the way forward now, because of Covid, in some ways, is that the march, which is a healing activity in itself, to gather as a huge community with allies and march and demand, is now a reparation, rebellion grounding.
The idea is now that we just set up and try to occupy Brixton as the grounding where we can also, you know, hear speeches, listen to each other, plan forward. So those are the sort of people who’ve been behind the strategy for reparations, which is to call for the all-party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for truth and reparatory justice and unprecedented governmental inquiry, where we would be our own witnesses to our experiences and also, we’d call witnesses globally. It would also be an acknowledgement by the Government that there was a harm committed and the ramifications of that are very much with us today and need to be addressed.
So that’s what they wanted. And they decided a few years back that actually, what we could do as a strategy is to go through local government, local councils, to court, to get these motions through as a way of lobbying for this. I’ve been part of the march and the Green Party campaign going back a few years with people like Jenny Jones, and more recently, Scott Ainslie, who was one of our MEPs. Discussions have taken place because of Green Party support and past reparations motions at the autumn conference last year. It’s something that we support as a party and is now part of our policy. And, of course, motions were passed in Lambeth and Islington.
I tried to put this motion on the table under the instruction in collaboration with campaigners from July last year. That didn’t happen for various reasons. The initial motion did have other aspects in it such as, let’s have more equitable funding for our Black-led cultural institutions etc. So anyway, what had happened since then was quite positive in that campaigners were able to bridge some gaps and bring the Afrikan Heritage elected officials i.e. the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and myself together.
They called some community meetings for Afrikan Heritage communities at the beginning of this year, and also allies and institutions like the university, the church, etc., so that they could understand a bit more about reparations and what we’re asking for. And to understand that, well, money is important. It’s not just about money, because money isn’t going to restore everything that’s been lost, and it’s not going to guarantee non-repetition of history. So those were positive meetings, more people were on board. We were able to pass the motion on the 2nd March, which was great, because it was also the 40th anniversary of the National Black People’s Day of Action, which took place in London 40 years ago, where thousands of people took to the streets because thirteen teenagers died in a fire in New Cross. And there was no investigation carried out, in fact, to this day, no justice either. It’s highly likely it was a racist arson attack. No one was called to account, still haven’t been. I think the tagline was ‘13 dead and nothing said’.
MM: That’s a good overview. Money is not going to be enough to make up for the harms caused. But what you’re talking about is reparations within the UK, although you did mention ecocide and genocide, and that leads us into the issue of environmental injustice. Ireland is also complicit as one of the richest countries in the world which have largely been responsible for climate change, when it is countries in the Global South that are suffering.
Do you think that when people in countries in Europe say, ‘if we went further to make living conditions better for people in, say, Malawi, then we wouldn’t have to deal with so many refugees’ it’s just a cop out? Or do you think that it is a possible way forward?
CL: It may have some benefits and may have some negatives. It makes me think of when people say, ‘but we’re giving tons of aid to countries’. Well, you might be but many countries are also in a lot of debt. In fact, one of the first campaigns I got involved with was Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt. I mean, it’s absurd that Haiti is still paying money to France for their emancipation. Of course, Haiti was the first Black republic, and the first major enslavement revolt, which kind of informs the way towards abolition, but actually people don’t understand. We all understand that Haiti is a very impoverished country. We saw that with the natural disasters, again, you can tie that into climate change and whatever else. It would seem confusing to many people why on Earth these countries are still paying money to France, which is one of the richer countries on the planet. It’s bizarre. That needs to stop.
I think people will say all types of things. Local politicians will say, “Yeah, but we’re doing inclusion activities. We’re pushing forward in our diversity and inclusion agenda, and equality agenda.” Great. That needs to happen. But it’s not reparations, you’re not naming the historical harm. You’re not trying to atone for it. You’re not trying to educate people on the past and how that informs the future. And until you do, we’re going to keep getting problems because ignorance in society is often, you’re often ignorant in relation to the lack of education that you’ve had. So sometimes, we can all pursue our own education. But you can’t necessarily blame generations because they’re as good as this education system that they’ve been given, which we know now, in many ways is not fit for purpose, particularly when we think of our colonial past and narrative, and how we spew that out.
It’s only a couple of years ago that my son came home with homework, asking him if he would like to grow up and be like Christopher Columbus. Well, no, what a genocidal maniac! No, no, I don’t think so. We have the buzzwords now – decolonising the curriculum and blah, blah, blah, fine. You know, we also have things like representation matters. Representation does matter. And when we think of police forces, or institutions getting more people of colour, or whatever other protected characteristics involved in recruiting fine, but a lot of the time they don’t retain these staff. And also, do you just become part of a racist institution? You know, if the institution doesn’t change?
So, there’s many things and I think to try and more clearly answer your question. No, it needs to…that’s why also on the motion, I was clear that it’s not about saying something behind closed doors, and talking about the equality agenda and what you’re doing in administration. It’s about naming it and naming it publicly – reparations.
MM: Do you find that as a member of the Green Party in the UK that it is up to speed with these issues? Is climate justice both on a domestic and on a global level of vital importance? Here in Ireland there seems to be a lot of division within the Green Party between those who think it should be social justice led, and those who think there’s not really that much time for that – let’s concentrate on the environment.
CL: I think it’s a journey, and I think more people are understanding the links between social justice and economic justice equally. I think if we’re serious as a party, we have to be serious about bringing as many people as we can with us. So, let’s think about the average person in the UK. Let’s think about their economic situation, whether they’re frontline workers or whatever. What is their main concern? Well, their main concern at the moment is survival. That’s not to say they’re not concerned about the other wider issues of climate change, but they’re also trying to survive.
So how do we connect with them? If you don’t connect with them, then we won’t be a credible party. So, we have to embed that we are about people, and we’re about social justice, and that actually, social justice and environmental justice go hand-in-hand. That’s why Greens support reparations, and we’ve held workshops, etc. to further explain what we’re talking about. And of course, as we said, the campaigners charge ecocide and genocide, because they see those things as intrinsically linked. They see extraction and destruction to people and the planet as intrinsically linked. So, there is no separation for them. But it’s a journey.
I often say it was encouraging to see how the world has responded to this climate emergency – the youth strikes etc. But at the same time, where is the outcry for the poverty emergency, or the racism emergency? You’ve got to put those things on the same footing.
MM: Just to bring you back briefly to something you said earlier about a Debt Jubilee for the Global South. Would you see that as the most important item on the list for reparations in that sense?
CL: I think it would be very good, very positive. However, we also need to be real, that we have many issues with governance in places in the Global South. Nothing’s perfect. In fact, the ravages of neocolonialism are very much there. So, I back things like the emergence of a global, Afrikan people’s parliament that will be made up of an international community, and will be accountable. I have quite close contacts with Ghana, and I’m seeing that actually, young people on the ground are quite disenfranchised. They aren’t empowered – they can’t even get employment. So, you know, privilege is relative. And whilst we have our struggles over here, we all have, I believe, an element of privilege, whether we acknowledge that or not, in relation to others. But certainly being able to get away from the yoke of debt would be useful.
MM: And finally, Cleo, I just want to know what motivates you? These are huge issues that you’re talking about. Huge global inequalities. So how do you keep going, and what gives you hope?
CL: You know, I also say to people… what, actually, what do we want? Well, I don’t know about you, but I want to be happy. I want happiness, I want to smile, I want to laugh. I want to find joy. That’s what we should be aiming for. And it’s about stripping everything back and thinking, well, what are we doing here as humans, we’ve become so distracted with x, y, and z and manipulated, that I think we’ve kind of lost our way. It is demanding and you do have your ups and your downs. But because of my upbringing, with a British mother of Scottish heritage, who didn’t have the best start in life, but who committed herself to educating myself and my sister, and took us on protests from about the age of six, a lot has been embedded in me. And my father, who I describe as a proud Afrikan man born in Jamaica, tried – in the limited time he had with me because he passed away just after my 10th birthday – to make me understand that I was an Afrikan, that he was Afrikan at a time when there was some sections of Caribbean people and Afrikan people who are quite divided because of our history. And he gave me a book when I was nine years old called Black Americana, charting the journey of enslavement by the Portuguese to the present day. And I think those are all the things that have imprinted into me and made it part of destiny, whether I’ve enjoyed it or not, as I say to people, I didn’t come to rock the boat, I was born in a boat that was already rocking. And for me, when I feel like giving up, I feel well, I can’t because there’s all these young people now who need to be inspired or motivated or even understand that you can speak out and you can stand up and you can get into positions. And together we can actually change things.
MM: Let’s hope so. Thank you, Cleo.
 Bristol Green Party UK website. Accessed May 8th, 2021. https://bristolgreenparty.org.uk/councillor/cleo-lake/
 Morris, Steven. ‘Bristol council calls for parliamentary inquiry on slavery reparations.’ The Guardian. March 2nd, 2021. Accessed May 8th, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/02/bristol-council-calls-for-parliamentary-inquiry-on-slavery-reparations
 Countering Colston – Campaign to Decolonise Bristol website. Accessed May 8th, 2021. https://counteringcolston.wordpress.com/
 ‘Slave trader statue torn down in Bristol anti-racism protest’. BBC News website. June 8th, 2020 Accessed May 8th, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-52954994
 Bristol Green Party UK Website. ‘Council to Debate Reparations and Bristol’s Involvement in Afrikan Enslavement.’ “You could in fact argue that ‘Africa’ is the wrong spelling as it was changed upon the arrival of Europeans who substituted the ‘K’ for a ‘C’. Today the use of the letter ‘K’ signifies Afrikan unity and the importance of a shared political language and is used widely by the campaigners who have spent many years fighting for reparatory justice.” Accessed May 31st, 2021. https://bristolgreenparty.org.uk/council-to-debate-reparations-and-bristols-involvement-in-afrikan-enslavement/
 Colston Hall was renamed Bristol Beacon last year. ‘Colston Hall music venue renamed Bristol Beacon.’ BBC News website. September 23rd, 2020. Accessed May 8th, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-bristol-54240812
 ‘The ‘Stop the Maangamizi: We Charge Genocide/Ecocide!’ Campaign Petition (SMWeCGEC) is one of the ISMAR campaigning tools for mobilising our people’s power to exert upon the British Houses of Parliament towards establishing the All-Party Parliamentary Commission For Truth & Reparatory Justice, and other actions necessary to advance the process of dialogue from the ground-upwards, with the British State and society on Reparatory Justice.’ stopthemaangamizi.com website. Accessed May 8th, 2021. https://stopthemaangamizi.com/
 Marcus Mosiah Garvey was a Jamaican-born Black nationalist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement. History website. Jan 21st, 2021. Accessed May 8th, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/marcus-garvey