The middle of a raging pandemic might not be the most intuitive time to be holding mass gatherings, but it also sort of is. The disease, the lockdown, the loss of jobs, the economic shock and the accompanying stress and fear have turned people’s lives upside down – and not in a fairly distributed way. There’s a lot of fury and frustration looking for an outlet.
Black and ethnic-minority communities have been particularly hard hit by the virus. This article (worth a read) attributes this disparity to a combination of factors, including, in the UK, more frequent overcrowding in ethnic-minority households, greater representation of ethnic minorities among medical staff, and failure to include representative numbers of ethnic-minority participants in scientific trials.
Given the above, the decision to hold Black Lives Matter protests right now makes a pretty strong point about the damaging nature of systemic racism. Black communities need no lecturing on the danger of a covid outbreak, and even knowing how harmful the virus is, they judge it to be a lesser danger than systemic racism.
I passed near Parliament Square the other day as people were gathering for a Black Lives Matter protest. As I approached, I was met with the unsettling sight of hordes of loud white men in their 40s and 50s flooding out of the Tube station towards Parliament Square.
I’ve seen scenes like that before, but always in one specific context: I live near a football stadium, and sometimes on my way home I pass the entrance after a match has ended and the spectators are pouring out. They are rowdy, they are frequently drunk and they are frankly intimidating.
So I thought the demographic a little curious for a Black Lives Matter protest, but I told myself “Don’t be so judgmental. They’re probably just going to support the cause”.
But then a group of them set up an “Ooooooorrrr!” sort of jeer, and another group across the street responded in kind. Then some of them started chanting “Everybody hates us! Everybody hates us!” and the chant spread through the crowd. That was the point at which I realised they were probably not off to support the Black Lives Matter protest at all. I swiftly took a left turn and trotted across the bridge to the other, quieter, side of the river.
To be sure, when I checked the news later, there were reports of far-right groups who had travelled from all over the country to hold counter-protests to object at the way BLM protesters had been pulling down statues of historical figures linked to slave trading and racism. They were there to defend their great British heritage, they declared. Apparently they did this mainly by chanting “Eng-er-land!” and “We’re racist and that’s the way we like it!” and throwing bottles at police.
Here’s some footage from The Guardian:
Is this a historic turning point in addressing systemic racism? It would be one good thing to come out of the pandemic.