200 years – Have we learnt nothing?

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On 26th May, I watched a video on Twitter where I saw a policeman kneeling on the neck of a detained person who was complaining that he couldn’t breathe. Another policeman was doing his absolute best to prevent the filming of the incident.

It became apparent that the detained person was not well, either unconscious or dead and I posed this question on the platform “did they kill him” – you all know what the response was.

In the following days I shared a number of videos on twitter that showed indiscriminate violence or racial discrimination and profiling from a variety of police forces. I saw people being tasered in cars, people injured permanently by the indiscriminate use of rubber bullets and pepper pellets. I saw peaceful protesters being extracted from crowds, police vehicles driven at crowds, senior policemen punching and shoving innocent people and the press being arrested in what can only be deemed an attempt to stop legitimate reporting.

I changed my twitter profile to contain text that I thought would show support for this abomination that was happening in front of me and I continued to share videos showing some of the worst and the best of humankind.

Not long after I was approached by a friend who showed me that my words were offensive to some. I hadn’t realised that what I’d written would be at all hurtful, so I checked what she had said, and I started to learn just how uninformed I was.

The text I had used on my twitter profile included the phrase “All Lives Matter”. In my ignorance I had no knowledge that this had been used by opponents of Black Lives Matter. That it had been used to water down the message and to intimate that all lives are equally at risk. To me, in my ignorance it made sense, all lives do matter, even just reading one article made me see that I genuinely had made a terrible mistake.

I don’t want to be like my parents and grandparents generation, I do want to see change happen, so I read some more and learned some more but it was the image I saw an image of a little girl holding a sign that gave me the simplest explanation:

We said Black Lives Matter,

Never Said Only Black Lives Matter,

We Know All Lives Matter,

We just need your help with #BlackLivesMatter

For Black lives are in danger

Born to white working-class parents in Stoke on Trent, England, I was brought up with racism. It was rife throughout my childhood in the 1970’s and I do, without a doubt, still carry some of the prejudices that I learnt during that time. There was a black family that lived three doors down from us. The communal commentary about how they lived, about how they avoided prosecution for planning and building violations “because they are black” still stick with me today and I suspect my language, even in this article isn’t as correct as it should be and when I dated the daughter of that family, her parents were as uncomfortable with me as I was with them. I thought that was normal. I never once questioned why.

At fourteen maybe fifteen, she was the most beautiful person, inside and out, I felt very lucky. I saw no colour, what I did see was that her parents were wary around me and didn’t like me in their house. I saw my parents allow her into our home, but their tone was never the same or as welcoming as it had been and would be with other (white) girlfriends and I am certain that I learned some of that behaviour.

Over these past days I’ve read and watched and read some more about black history and particularly black American history. A history of slavery that was removed from private individuals under the guise of abolition but that covertly and cleverly keeps people of colour in slavery and strips them of their citizenship through the penal system. A history written predominantly by white corporate America to ensure there is sufficient free or low-cost labour to keep the economy on track.

I had not understood or linked the abolition of slavery to the criminalisation of black people. The conversion of open segregation to mass incarceration. I had not understood that they are stripped of their citizenship, prevented from voting for life, ultimately preventing any significant change through democratic means.

In the opening of the musical adaptation of Les Misérables, Inspector Javert hands Jaen Valjean his probation notice and says

“this badge of shame you’ll show until you die, it warns you are a dangerous man”

Nearly two centuries later America are still making people carry a badge of shame by asking if they are a convicted felon on job applications. They need to feed their for-profit penal system and maintain a stream of cheap labour, and continue to impose their dominance over a group of people that have never really been free, despite the thirteenth amendment – or maybe even because of it.

The book Les Misérables , from 1845, was not a racial commentary, but it did address the poverty and penal systems of the day. It ended in a popular uprising, in a revolution. A revolution that was crushed by brutal military intervention. Why are you so surprised that the same behaviour and poverty today is bringing its own revolution? History is repeating itself fed by the same oppression, greed and inequality.

I quoted an adaptation of that novel earlier, the fact I know of it and have read some of it, is likely in itself a product of my white privilege, but this quote from the author I thought was quite poignant. Of the book he is quoted as saying:

…It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door…”

It’s close to two hundred years since Hugo wrote the book and nearly as long since the thirteenth amendment was supposed to abolish slavery and yet misery and death are still knocking at the door.

I can’t change what I’ve done, how I’ve acted or what I’ve said in the past. I can promise that it has never been done through obvious and determined malice but from a place of ignorance. If I have hurt or offended people along the way I am sorry, I apologise openly and vehemently. I am determined to educate myself and do better.

I see why we need to say Black Lives Matter, I see why “All Lives Matter” dilutes that message. I hope I can do better and continue to learn. I hope some of you reading this will to. If we can bring about true change and true equality then all lives will benefit, but we have to remove the fear, poverty and discrimination that puts black peoples lives at risk.

Below I have linked to some easily accessible and informative pages on Wikipedia and YouTube that anyone can access if you are reading this blog. I would also urge you to do your own research, read some more detailed information and watch some films and documentaries, educate yourself even if it makes you uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable watching, learning and publishing this.