A worthy cause, but in a COVID-19 world?

George Floyd’s 25th May 2020 death was an abhorrent example of racism towards African Americans in the USA. Although it already existed, it helped the #blacklivesmatter movement spread, with protests against racism across the world. I don’t condone the rioting and looting that has accompanied a lot of that in the USA, although I understand the anger that has motivated it and empathise with the genuine causes. Racism has no place in a modern civilised society.

The #blacklivesmatter movement is an important one. It needs all white folk like me to sit the f*ck up and pay attention. Whatever your politics, more than lip service or tweeted support for the latest hashtag has to be paid. White privilege is real, prejudices need to be unlearnt, and the balance needs to be redressed.

“…not all philanthropy and roses…”

I must shamefully admit to (non-deliberate) ignorance regarding much of my home town’s past in the slave trade. Edward Colston’s name echoes throughout Bristol’s history and permeates it’s landscape. Schools, streets and buildings are named after him. It’s not all philanthropy and roses however; His membership of the Royal African Company in the late 17th century, including holding it’s highest office of Deputy Governor in 1689, saw him profit from involvement in the slave trade. The company trafficked many thousands into lifelong servitude, and a significant portion to their deaths. Little wonder, therefore, that in recent years, there has been significant reappraisal of Bristol’s commemoration of him.

On 7th June 2020, a protest under the banner of the #blacklivesmatter movement took place in Bristol. Activity soon centred around the statue of Colston in Bristol’s city centre, that in dramatic fashion was torn down by protestors and thrown into the docks, in an ironic echo of the throwing overboard of dead and dying slaves en route to America by sea years ago.

Reading the news, over afternoon tea in my back garden with my wife (how dreadfully middle-class!), I was astounded. It’s a cause I support and empathise with, but the confrontational mob nature – really “full on” stuff. Last week Minnesota USA, this week Bristol! I can certainly understand the anger and motivation, though I was very taken aback. To use an English vernacular, I was knocked for six.

“Initially, I genuinely didn’t know what to think…”

Friends and acquaintances of mine were there, and social media was soon ablaze. A mix of pride, uncertainty and shock from across the friendship and political spectrum. Initially, I genuinely didn’t know what to think. My personal left-wing politics and disdain for racism, juxtaposed to my frequently somewhat staid attitude towards such direct action, despite my often hair-trigger temper (aggression on a rugby pitch is one thing, but I’ve been in high stakes / high risk tense situations often enough to know I strongly dislike confrontation).

I made comments on a couple of social media posts, alluding to my uncertainly. Amongst the subsequent responses and conversation, a few “friends of friends” verbally leapt upon my comments like packs of passive-aggressive baying hounds. Passions were certainly running high. Those that know me, know that in situations like that I am very seldom lost for words in defence of things I believe in. However, I was quite literally stunned into silence by the maelstrom. I spent much of last night in brooding introspection…upset by what I’d seen and read for a number of reasons.

To employ a cliché, the “cold light of day” has certainly brought with it some clarity. I applaud the cause and support it. I have stood by such causes on principle with passion in the past, taken action, and have been dismissed from high office as a result. I wish the statue had been taken down by more conventional means, but action was needed. There have been calls for its removal for several years since the 1990s, including local MPs and a 10,000+ strong petition. I am very glad it has gone, as it was certainly time for it to go.

BUT…

The health implications of a densely-packed gathering like the protest worry me, with the pandemic times we are living in at present. World-leading (but not to be proud of!) UK death rate statistics make very unpleasant reading. Those I spoke to, or whose opinion I am aware of, say they viewed the lack of social distancing etc in such a protest as an acceptable risk. Accepting personal risk for a cause you believe it is both fine and admirable…but what about the risk to others? What if any of those taking part unwittingly pass corona on to those more vulnerable, after they have headed home? The elderly neighbour over the garden wall, the child in the supermarket, someone on public transport. How acceptable are all these risks?

In conclusion…

I consider this blog post my “vent” on the issue and will now say no more on the subject. #blacklivesmatter is the most worthy cause in many long years, and one we need to pay serious attention to. I have been dismissed from high office for standing up for what I believe in and (physically) attacking racism.  But, the health and well-being of a nation, many of whose citizens have died in the current pandemic, is important too.

How acceptable are ALL risks?