Sunday 7 June 2020

#Black Lives Matter!

Dear all, this was a topic I wasn’t expecting to write about. Being neither black nor prejudiced against to the point where my life might one day be in danger from someone with a tiny mind and a big gun, it seemed better to amplify articles like this one written by people who face such prejudice every day and support the #BlackLivesMatter movement that way. But the movement reached the UK in a big way today. My timelines on all my social media are full of people who aren’t listening or ‘getting it’ because it’s something that happened ‘way over there’ and the heck am I letting what might be the most significant social revolution of the past half century past die when I could have done something. So here is my take on world events of the past month. 

First a history lesson (perhaps not the one you’re expecting). When I was seven the only thing I could do to any ability worth noting was spell. I have no idea why, it just happened to be a warped side effect of my brain. It was invaluable, not just because I was already the type of kid who spent his spare time writing endless stories and cataloguing his music collection in alphabetical order. It also meant that, a year before leaving primary school, I finished the Midland curriculum’s most hated ill-conceived stupid concept of the 1980s: The Spelling Workshop. How did they ever think writing complex words on a coloured background and asking you to read them back to yourself as opposed to, oh I don’t know, reading them in a sentence as part of a book was going to work? As my school had nothing else for me and knew I quite liked history, they gave me a set of obsolete cards from the 1970s on figures of historical importance (which seemed like ancient history in the early 1990s and a time that couldn’t have any possible bearing on ‘now’). Whoever wrote these cards clearly had a ‘lefty’ slant, though at the time I was struggling enough with my physical left and rights to be aware of politics. These cards changed all that. I quickly learnt all of the things that they didn’t teach you in schools (normally): that Winston Churchill wasn’t necessarily a whiter-than-white war hero but an occasionally racist bigot who considered most of the subjects of The British Empire beneath him and thought racism the lesser of the Nazi evils. That the Russian Revolution had the strongest democratic ideals across history before it was warped by a figurehead with a power-ego that had this been in space would have sunk entire planets. That social change and unrest was not necessarily something to be feared but something that could make the world a fairer place for everybody, which seemed like a good idea to me. I mean, everybody wants to be treated fairly right? What’s so bad about that?   

Mostly though I learnt about the man who is still my hero even over and above the musicians I discuss on my site. I discovered Martin Luther King. I found out how in ‘his’ time people thought what he was doing was outrageous and wrong and how when he had to he broke every law in the land. Because he did it all for the right reasons, time and time again, no matter how much they tried to stop or silence him. He carried on because he knew it was right – and through his eyes I knew he was right, too. I was in awe of how he stood up to the bullies who wanted to keep him quiet, even when what he wanted was best for everybody, because I knew how strong bullies were and the ones on my playground didn’t even have guns (well best for everybody except the odd white millionaire business owner who, y’know, had had enough breaks already in this life). I cheered him on as he stood up to evil cruelty not with hate but with love and understanding, standing up for a peaceful revolution of a problem that had become violent more because white people thought that way than black people did. I wept great buckets when, without knowing the ending, I discovered the way in which my hero died, so violently and so in the face of everything he stood for, just short of his promised land. Then I cheered on again as I read of all the good that was done in the name of my hero, meaning that his assassination ended up doing some good in the end. I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t born in such a backward and alien time, thanked the Gods that be that change had happened eventually, loved the fact that I had actually learnt something that was worth learning at school for a change (while wondering why this wasn’t on the curriculum properly) and handed in my coursework (where I think I got a low mark for being too ‘emotional’, as if it was possible to write about the Civil Rights Movement and not get emotional, but hey ho that’s all a bit foggy and another outrage for another day).

The more I grew up, though, the more I realised that I had been naïve to think that one man, even in death, had really changed anything. That what I had read about existed only in history books and pamphlets rather than the world I lived in. Racism was still on the news, all the time, that some poor soul had paid for their livelihood or their life simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with a skin colour that was different to whoever happened to be in charge. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t on television and wasn’t being discussed in parliament but it was clearly an ongoing entity of racism that bared it’s ugly teeth every so often. There were no black people where I lived back then in a village in the middle of the Midlands and I didn’t meet any until my teens (and then never in the same classes), so in some ways it was easy to forget that such a fight had ever once been fought. That, I fear, is what happened to most people of my age and nationality: we didn’t see the suffering because it wasn’t reported by a generally white media, but it was happening all around us all the same. The difference is I had had access to those historical biographies when my classmates had not and it stayed with me long past the point when other primary school memories had died.

And why would it die out? The sad fact is that the people in power – the people with the best jobs or the guns or an address in Downing Street or The White House – have nearly always been white. The few that haven’t been have had to work so hard to be in that position of power that I can’t blame them for being unwilling to risk it all for speaking out to people who aren’t listening; I wouldn’t have been brave enough to either. I’m willing to guess too that most of the white people in power were so posh they didn’t have to do their Spelling Workshop in Primary School and that even if they had they certainly hadn’t read the biographies that I had. A problem out of sight is one out of mind. But that’s only true if you’re white, otherwise it is a problem potentially of life and death. Of being an unlucky statistic because of something innocent or even something not innocent that a white person wouldn’t have had to think about twice. I always felt that injustice burning in me as a child thanks to what I read. I know it as an adult now that I am lucky enough to have a few black friends and have heard the stories of their background – stories that, with my white privilege, seemed barely comprehensible. 
Other people who hadn’t read what I had surely would have thought the same if they had known these stories to be true, but they then assumed they couldn’t possibly be true because they hadn’t seen it, or if they had seen it assumed it was exaggerated. Because it wasn’t happening on our street it couldn’t be true. But the world is a lot bigger than the street and village and even the country that we grew up in and bad things happen in it, often out of sight unless you look for it and I did. As I said, I’m probably not the one who should be writing this. Clearly if this is your reality you know about it already and you don’t need me to tell you how bad and unjust and plain wrong most of the past few hundred years of history have been. The way certain people can’t travel to certain parts of town without getting beaten up, or apply for a better job, or call out a policeman without him having his neck sat on, or being shot in your own home in the middle of the night because of a ‘wrong number’, or even how we only recently stopped paying ‘reparations’ to the offspring of slave-owners, long after the point when my seven-year-old self would have blown a gasket had he realised.  But if you’re one of the people who hasn’t seen or realised this, then you are perhaps one of those people looking at the television and thinking the world has gone mad. The truth is – it always was and you didn’t see it.

Most of the objections to the protests (plainly not ‘riots’, that’s rich white man mediaspeak) seem to fall into two categories. One is ‘gee, all those people gathered together at a time of a pandemic, that’s not very smart is it?’ Well, another way to look at it is desperate. As a history student I know that society changes in fits and starts, from groaning pressure fitted to a system that’s outdated until it finally gives. I also know how few of them there have been in the Civil Rights movement: Dr King’s death was one, his polar opposite Malcom X’s death caused another, Stephen Lawrence’s murder brought in some new laws and debate. But moments of great change like the murder of George Floyd, that make the news beyond the neighbourhood where it happened and unite the world in disgust, don’t happen very often. We have to make the best use of it before that disappears. If that means risking lives in a pandemic then well we’d rather not but sadly so be it: justice is so long overdue that we can’t risk any delay. Some people have said to me that as the pandemic is affecting BAME lives particularly maybe they should be extra cautious. But what they don’t seem to understand is why BAME people are affected so disproportionately: because black people are more likely to be impoverished, less likely to have healthcare and chances are will be the ones left without a job once the pandemic is all over. This isn’t a movement that can wait for the pandemic to safely fade away and die because it is one so tied to it, because the pandemic that was the straw that broke the camel’s back of how utterly dreadfully mistakenly evil and corrupt and unfair our current system is. Certainly I consider protesting to be one hell of a lot more important than going to the beach or standing in a busy shop or testing your eyesight in Durham while dancing to Abba in your pants and given the lack of policing at all three of these events the powers-that-be apparently consider them much more ‘important’. The hypocritical cretins.

The other objection is that the protestors aren’t being peaceful and are breaking laws of curfews and graffiti and unrest. The first and most obvious thing to say is that the trigger that caused this riot – a white policeman kneeling on a black man’s neck – wasn’t peaceful either. The second is that the hand of peaceful protest was already extended once and ended in the assassination of my hero back in 1968. The third is that, yet again, the point of view of the people with all the people with all the power (i.e. guns) are the ones the mainstream media are showing because, well, that’s how the system works – sadly we didn’t change it enough in the past to represent all points of view so of course you’re going to see white talking heads on TV news if they’re available, not black ones. This revolution feels different this time though, not least because so many of the people who are there at the many gatherings around the world are sharing them on social media and showing what really happened. And guess what? The people with the power aren’t as whiter-than-white as they claim to be. I’ve tried to look for every piece of real footage I can over the past few days, not just the ones I want to see, and overwhelmingly 95% of them feature the police throwing the first stones, or more likely the first tear gas canisters. The fuss today is over a policewoman in Britain who got hurt and ended up in hospital; footage shows that she herself ran into a traffic sign and got knocked off her horse – none of the protestors were responsible at all. The vast majority of people do want peaceful protests anyway. But even the very very few minor incidents (mostly thrown water bottles and vandalism) that are taking place: well, it is hard to be peaceful to a world that’s been so violently to you your whole life, especially when it still won’t sodding listen. Or imagine how you’d feel walking past a statue dedicated to the man who might have enslaved your great-grandfather or great-grandmother every day while those who fought for civil rights go unrewarded and unrecognised. Plus after everything society has plainly got wrong the past few hundred years, I certainly won’t be kept up at nights worrying about a bit of graffiti.  That can wash off. Intrinsic racism can’t.

Something else I hear a lot is ‘but aren’t they breaking the law?’ Well, technically (but not as many as the president has this month alone). But since when was the law the ultimate decision-maker in what is right and was what is wrong? And what rights do laws from centuries past have to control those of us who, however slightly, are more forward-thinking than our ancestors? Without people brave enough to break the law there would have been very few of the rights that are nowadays taken as a whole-hearted unbreakable unassailable right. We would now be living in a very backward world instead had nobody ever broken a law: no votes for women, no votes for the poor and slavery would never have been abolished. Without Rosa Parks breaking the law we might still have segregated busses. Without The Beatles and those who followed we might still have segregated concerts. Without Martin Luther King’s life and death we would surely still be trying to changing the narrow-minded laws that still existed in the 1960s. Change has to start somewhere however small and today that small change is staying out after curfew and chanting and encouraging your police to take a knee in honour of a fellow human being and telling the world why it’s not alright to carry on the way things were before, that we’ve had enough, that it stops right here right now. If a law being broken means greater equality and less injustice in the world then, well, it was a bad law and one that demands you break it. Even, perhaps especially, if it’s a law being decreed by a braindead melted orang-utang in a business suit three sizes too big for him. This is the only way human beings can live and grow – by agreeing, generation by generation, what laws are outdated and what we can’t possibly let slide any longer and changing the laws accordingly.

I have also seen it said that ‘#alllivesmatter’ and shouldn’t that be the hashtag. Yes. Yes they do. But no it shouldn’t.  That’s the whole entire point of what’s going on, night after night. All lives matter and until all are treated equal that statement will never, can never, be true. Yes, white lives matter too but as a ridiculously small percentage of deaths out there are black people killing white people, until that percentage changes the hashtag #whitelivesmatter’ really doesn’t matter. It’s a statistical anomaly, no matter how many times somebody tries to wave biased media coverage against some white girl being groomed in front of me. The fact that is happens so rarely it makes the news is the whole definition of white privilege: when it happens its news. When it happens to black people, it isn’t news because it happens so often and so many times. This is the fire that’s burning now and the fire that needs putting out. This is the outrageous injustice that needs addressing. We can deal with other things on an individual basis later. Right here, right now, is where the help is needed because it has gone on for too long and at last, at Godalmighty last, there might just be a slight chance of a change.   

It is 2020 now, thirty-odd years since I read about Martin Luther King’s life history. I was so convinced as a seven-year-old that the flames of outrage that had started back then was a fire strong enough to put out all the injustice and inequality in the world once we became adults. After all, none of my friends were racist, because no children really are – that comes later, with ignorance, power and (depending where you live) a big gun that makes you feel more powerful than you really are when you were so stupid that becoming a cop was the only good job you could get (it’s always really really bothered me how low the qualification levels for policing really are given how much power they have; I famously got censored at my job for telling the people of Runcorn ‘next time you ask a policeman the time he might not be able to tell you’ when it was revealed how low they really are, but that’s another issue for another time). My younger self would have been so shocked and so betrayed and so angry by the events this year – not just the famous ones but the ones that didn’t even come close to making it to the British news because, hey ho, unfair deaths happen to black people all the time. I realise that I still am – that I got used to life being that way, but that never meant it felt ‘right’. It doesn’t, it sucks, its long time past that it was changed and that time is now.

I have spent most of the interim years since I was seven horrified that true unquestionable equality to the point where everyone of every colour, gender, religion and class gets treated equally as a matter of birthright hasn’t happened yet. I longed for my generation to be the ones to do it when we came into power. Instead I feel very guilty that it has taken the generation behind us to add another stepping stone to the long line of paving slabs reaching towards equality that have gone before it and mortified that due to being poorly I cannot join in any marches personally. I can, though, do my part signing petitions, re-tweeting others and cheering on my brothers and sisters of every colour in and take pride in the fact that finally something is being done about an unspeakable wrong I have carried around with me since childhood. Hopefully, once 2020 is a distant memory filled with anecdotes about toilet paper and face masks to bore our grandchildren with, we will look back and see it as a disruptive year for all the right reasons – the one that made us realise where each country’s weakest parts were that still hadn’t been resolved from generations past and the year that made us come together in unity across the globe, rather than one that kept us back through injustice and social distancing. Let’s hope it sees an end to the powers wielded too viciously by the police, the powers wielded too stupidly by the president and especially to the powers that dictate who gets the best jobs and gets to live in the best house and gets the least trouble in life based entirely on the colour of their skin rather than their ability or character. I say good on everyone brave enough to fight a system when they know that it is wrong. It is you who are on the right side of history – not your ‘law-abiding’ colleagues or your confused friends or especially your shameful president, all of whom will be judged harshly and poorly. It is you who will be recorded in the biographies of the future handed out to bored children at school who have run out of spellings to do. It is you who will inspire them to go however much further will be needed in the future. I had a dream when I was seven, inspired by a much bigger dream dreamt by a much greater man than I, and it fills my heart with such greatness that finally that dream might come true. Please let it happen. Till then be safe, be kind where you can afford to be and be brilliant. History is watching you.