We shared the shock felt by many on seeing the video of the death of George Floyd. We were less surprised that such a thing could happen at all than by the way the officers concerned continued their action in front of a crowd and while being videoed. As we write, the incident remains the subject of legal proceedings but we think it fair to say the impression of arrogance and lack of concern from the officers that there might be any consequences for themselves put the incident in a class of its own.
We grew up in the 1960s. “A” was a teenager and “M” younger. We watched the US civil rights movement and the problems of racism in the UK from prosperous, white towns. This undoubtedly put us in a protected – if you like “privileged” – position. But it may have been an advantage that we never encountered racist attitudes at home or among people we met until we were old enough to form our own views on them.
We both grew up in a culture that treated all human beings as equal and equally deserving of respect. We genuinely can not understand how anyone can hate another human being. As the nature of protests has broadened and we have had more to think and write about, we are increasingly drawn back to the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr – “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”.
In 2016, we visited Washington DC and were impressed by the power and dignity of its monuments. We first visited the United States for our honeymoon nearly 30 years earlier and have returned frequently. We love many things about the country and have many friends there. We thought things were improving but never imagined racist attitudes and behaviour had disappeared or that Dr King’s work is complete. We also know that these problems exist in other countries, including our own.
Racism, Policing and Trust
We make no comment on the detail of current law enforcement policies or procedures on either side of the Atlantic. This is not because of we do not care, but because of complexity and lack of knowledge. Writing from the UK, we know there are many differences. One is the availability of firearms in the USA and the need for law enforcement officers to be prepared for a suspect to be armed. This is just one feature that is outside our experience. We also believe there have been changes in UK practice following the death of Stephen Lawrence and the recommendations of the McPherson inquiry but we have no real knowledge of what actually happens now. Current needs here are probably not the same as those of forces elsewhere. Increased resources and personnel may be one way to reduce temptation to cut corners.
We do want to comment on the number of ignorant and racist comments we have seen on social media following these events. We have seen others comment on the times they have been surprised, and even scared, when people they thought they knew and could trust have vented hate on social media. We have come across this ourselves. It comes from people here in the UK and elsewhere. The way hatred seems to have become acceptable is not new but is disturbing. Maybe it just opens our eyes to a reality that has been there. It is a reality we want to change.
We also want to make the point that trust is vital. People trust us because of what they think of us, not because of what we think of ourselves or what we can justify by some sort of “objective” criteria. “A” has too many instances of being let down by people he trusted, including those in the workplace tasked with protecting him as a disabled person. If we want to create a law enforcement system trusted by black people, we are going to have to listen to black people.
And we know one more thing for ourselves: silence is not an option.
Vandalism and a Slave Trader’s Statue
As we write this, we now also have to deal – in the UK – with violence and criminal behaviour in London and Bristol. In London, it is reported police have been attacked and injured. In Bristol, a statue to Edwad Colston has been pulled down and pushed into the harbour.
The risks of violence and criminality are inevitable when large numbers of people gather. Violent, politically motivated, agitators will attempt to subvert any movement and can be specially difficult to identify in advance in very large crowds. Simple criminals – from pickpockets to looters – will exploit a situation for simple criminal profit.
Many activists have and do oppose violence – not least because it distracts from the message. As has happened this time, the violence becomes the message. It is better television. It is a more dramatic picture. Politicians who do not want to take action on the main issue will make the excuse of resisting giving in to violence knowing it will appeal to a certain group of “law and order” voters.
We have been aware of the debate on violence and criminality in protest for decades. It was central to the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1960s. It was central to opposition to the apartheid South Africa when “A” was at university. “A” remembers long and heated debates as a student in which he opposed violence and criminality. But the key, then as now, was that there were alternative, lawful, avenues to make a point and to get results. At the time “A” thought – perhaps naively – that there were such alternatives. The apparent success of the civil rights movement led by Dr King was an example. But as time passes, it gets more difficult. Too much of his work remains to be done. Sometimes, it even seems we are going backwards. The frustration of black people becomes more understandable.
But reverting to the recent violence and criminality in the UK, we are again confronted by complexity. The easy answer is that any offences should be investigated and prosecuted as they would normally. Those convicted of attacks on police officers should receive the punishments they deserve. In principle, the same should be true for those who destroyed the statue – though the circumstances are different and we would expect the court to take that into account. The people who broke down the Berlin Wall broke the law. Rosa Parks broke the law.
The statue of Edward Colston should not have been pulled down. It should have been removed officially long ago. The plaque on it proclaims him as “one of the most virtuous and wise” people of Bristol. The saga of the attempts to do something as minor as changing that wording to acknowledge the source of his wealth demonstrates the difficulty of getting things done. The tortuous nature of the deliberations and the impression that black people’s feelings were undervalued disturb us. In circumstances like these, we have to accept there is a logic that says sometimes “a riot is the language of the unheard”. Our conclusion is not to condone the violence but to work harder to create a society where it is transparently unnecessary.
One important point is who we choose as our leaders. A large part of that is the processes we use to find them. This would not be the place to explain all the changes we think are needed in our own country of the UK – even if we were ourselves sure of them. Suffice to say that we think they will be many and far-reaching. They almost certainly include reform of Parliament and the “first past the post” voting system. It will not be easy to find the balance between action and discussion. In our – perhaps naive again – hope there can be wide ranging discussion leading to rapid action.
It’s not all about taking down a few statues.
First published on 11th June 2020
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