Protesting

Sorry about the delay in posting. I’m working on a long essay about the Black Lives Matter protests. There isn’t really anything to say about the American ones, other than to voice full throated support. The British edition of these protests seems slightly more problematic, though.

Of course, I support BLM and condemn the inequality they seek to draw attention to but I’m uncomfortable with the level of aggression and antagonism over issues that seem, in Britain, to be endemic and caused more by a history of inequality than by individuals intentionally pursuing a racist agenda. Somebody’s got up a petition on Facebook condemning the history department in the school I work in for teaching colonialist history. This seems unfair, and the History teachers, already mildly hysterical from over-work, are upset. I think these activists should remember that they are not just attempting to tear down old institutions, they are attacking harassed and over-worked teachers who liked them and worked hard to provide them with an education.

I understand the desire to harness the energy generated by the furious outrage and disgust at the killing of George Floyd. Using the same name for a British civil rights organisation, though, serves to highlight the differences in the circumstances of BAME citizens in the two countries. British people need to point out that Black Lives Matter because BAME Brits experience discrimination and insult every day; Americans need to point out that Black Lives Matter because unarmed Black Americans keep being openly murdered in cold blood by their own police force. The comparison is unhelpful. Rather than emphasising how outrageous the treatment of Black people can be in Britain, it allows “patriotic” white Britons to congratulate themselves for not being as bad as the Americans.

They will also say that our complaints are groundless. Conflict between British police and the black community is nowhere near the catastrophic levels of the USA. So why, they will ask, are we jumping on their band-wagon? We’re just impressionable followers of American trends. It’s just a fad. (To be honest, it does seem like another example of American Cultural Imperialism, transmitted through social media. Why can’t we have our own name, to reflect our own, long-standing independent civil rights movements?)

I accept that there absolutely is a problem in Britain, but if we appear incendiary, those most in need of listening will just be further alienated and pushed to the right. The far right will use it as ammunition against us. If people are listening, then they are basically already on our side and don’t need to be yelled at. I love you guys; I’m aware of my white privilege, and I’m sorry about all of this. I support you.

I know that if we don’t shout loudly, everything will just carry on as normal, but we have made a lot of progress in my lifetime, and, unless we’re intending to stage a military coup and put them all up against a wall and shoot them, we’re never going to win an outright victory. We’ll need to learn to live with these people.

The majority of British people adore Churchill for his wartime achievements. They’re never going to give him up as an icon, so we’re going to have to introduce his less attractive qualities more tactfully or they’ll just reject our position wholesale. Similarly, taking down statues of Peel and other more dubious figures from our past could be read as an act of cowardice. We are trying to wash our hands of our own history, to dodge our responsibility to face up to who we are.

Even if your ancestors were trafficked into this country, every benefit you gain from membership of our community, from working traffic lights and road repairs, to (at least partially) funded education and healthcare, to relative political stability, to at least occasionally functional legal and security forces has been underwritten, in part, by the funding and engagement of people some of whom did, said and believed some pretty unpleasant things.

Even if you are BAME, if you attend a university that was endowed at some point in its history by (invariably) a man who made his money from the Empire, then the continued prosperity, or at least survival, of that institution is reliant on that historical endowment. You are benefitting from his crimes.

You could drop out, but I’d advise staying in and using the bastard’s legacy for a good end – get yourself educated and use your education to fight the good fight.

Similarly, don’t pull down the statues – put them in museums, perhaps, or put up a plaque that explains their true legacy. Or better still, commission another statue, alongside it, to give the post-colonial perspective on their grandeur. That’d give support to modern, struggling sculptors and help maintain civic culture. (Though god knows where the money would come from!)

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