Chiswick Unbound – Weekend 11 /12 July 2020
“Things like racism are institutionalized. You might not know any bigots. You feel like “well I don’t hate black people so I’m not a racist,” but you benefit from racism. Just by the merit, the color of your skin. The opportunities that you have, you’re privileged in ways that you might not even realize because you haven’t been deprived of certain things. We need to talk about these things in order for them to change.”
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 of this year triggered a firestorm. The Black Lives Matter movement that has been active since 2013, broadly following the Zimmerman acquittal for shooting Trayvon Martin, has been at the forefront, not just in the US but here in the UK and elsewhere. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag has been the rallying point for protest against the killing of predominantly young black males by police either in the street or in custody. It was the 2016 fifth anniversary of the shooting of Mark Duggan that signalled the start of the first UK BLM public activism followed by the 2017 death of Edson Da Costa in police custody. Here in the UK the Floyd inspired firestorm has generated an impassioned examination of our own colonially inspired racism, our role in the trade of enslaved people and the lack of recognition of the impact and commercial benefits of empire on Britain’s economic development and the treatment of Black and BAME British people. The toppling of the statue of Bristol’s Edward Colston was a defining moment in that discussion.
This whole debate has been intense and emotionally charged. An issue that has been broadly smothered by our mainstream media and education has been catapulted into the sunlight. Suddenly books that have been the reading of a minority of interested people have been catapulted up the bestseller charts. The works of David Olusoga, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Akala and Peter Fryer are now ‘de rigeur’ for both the genuine truth seeker and the ‘virtue signaller’ alike. It seems that the BBC is re-releasing every documentary on the subject made in the last decade, many of them articulately researched and fronted by Olusuga. While there is much superficial woke noise there is some really positive argument. There have been some outstanding interventions by Black British and Commonwealth sportsmen and women as well as artists of all kinds. I am not always a fan of Sky Sports but if you have not watched their moving video featuring Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent then you should. It is here https://www.skysports.com/cricket/news/12123/12021574/michael-holding-and-ebony-rainford-brent-say-institutionalised-racism-must-be-eradicated-for-the-good-of-humanity
Talking to my friends of Colour I hear that many of them have had unprecedented conversations with their own friends and colleagues, often accompanied by apologies for past behaviour and failings. This is clearly incredibly positive but in the same way it can also be cursorily guilt assuaging and false. Some of my black friends are optimistically engaging in this conversation but others would rather that their well-meaning white acquaintances would actually stop ‘Mansplaining’ and just put into practice in their real everyday behaviour what they have suddenly started talking about. Nevertheless, the public exposure of the systematic racism that exists in its uniquely British form in our society is massively important and it should not be allowed to slip out of focus. Along with the immediate and urgent need to put in place a major change in behaviour towards the deepening and terrifying environmental and planetary climate crisis this is one of the most crucial issues of our time.
And yet, the backlash is upon us.
The response to the new vigour in the debate on race comes in many shapes. Much of it is in the usual forms favoured by the right and by racist groups for decades. The same methods of an angry physical presence that I can remember when Enoch Powell whipped up so much hatred with his Rivers of Blood speech, when the National Front beat up the officers of the Student Union when I was at college in Brighton – right through to the dog-whistles of Farage and his extreme wing of the Brexit party, the English Defence League and those (thankfully few) Burnley fans who wasted their money flying a banner over a football match. However, these actions require racists to stand up and be visible, to have the courage (not sure about that word but I will leave it) of their convictions and to let the world know who they are. These days, the wonders of technology and particularly Social Media, provide a whole new armoury of weapons directed against women (misogyny and racism seem to go hand in hand), people of colour but particularly, women from any kind of minority who stand up and challenge the patriarchy. Weapons that can be wielded behind a veil of sites fronted by avatars and robots by cowards afraid of their true identity or their sources of finance being known. The more I learn about some of these methods, the more I am sickened and the more respect I have for the people who stand up against this abuse.
I cannot say I am a major player on twitter. I don’t initiate much and I still only have around 2,500 Followers but I am prone to the occasional sudden burst of activity. I mention this because about two years ago I gained some insight into the problems faced by people of colour, particularly as in this case, a single mother, when I helped a friend with her accommodation problems. Although she had some available income the degree of documentation and the amount of down payments and deposits she was being asked for by letting agents, even before she got as far as finding a specific property, was almost insurmountable. It was clear to me that, in these days of Housing Crisis it is difficult for anyone but agents were clearly making it more difficult for a black, single mum. I offered to be a guarantor and, after my own documentary support resolved the issue she found accommodation for herself and her daughter. She completed her studies and has returned to Lagos where she is now making a good living in the catering business using her hard earned qualifications.
That experience led me to Tweet……..
“Helping my Nigerian friend get student accommodation in London. “No Dogs, No Irish, No blacks” is still prevalent in London.”
In my naivety I thought that simple truth, the experience of the Windrush generation and widely quoted, including in Prof Wole Soyinka’s Autobiographical writing, was hardy controversial. Instead, I accounted my first taste of genuine on-line abuse or trolling. Hardly imaginative, it contained the usual ‘n*gger lover’ and ‘fuck off back to Africa’ comments along with violent exhortations not to encourage immigration or more Africans to come to Britain. When I did not reply, the invective turned to accusations of cowardice for not responding. I merely re-tweeted with no comment, which for some reason particularly enraged them. All the twitter handles had less than 5 followers and seem to have all been since deleted and I now understand that this is the pattern of right-wing, racist, misogynist and homophobic trolling – that to avoid detection and prosecution, new accounts are open, used for abuse for a few days then closed down. Overall, the noise went on for three, maybe five days but it did leave me uneasy and slightly shocked. I am a safely private middle-class, white male and if this tiny, short burst of abuse could make me feel uncomfortable, how then those public figures that are treated to a volume of violent and personal abuse on a daily basis?
I have not always agreed with Diane Abbott politically but the increased exposure she received when she was on the Labour front bench certainly led me to admire her courage and her determination not to be silenced by the huge volume of abuse she receives. Her treatment last year on Question Time by Fiona Bruce, including sublimal if not direct racism by the BBC’s framing, was one recent example of how she suffers – even at the hands of the ‘serious’ media. However, the numbers concerning her Twitter abuse are staggering. Of the 25,688 abusive tweets sent to women MP’s in the first half of 2017, half of them – in other words as many as all the other women MP’s combined – were sent to Dianne Abbott. The sickening nature of many of these tweets is genuinely vile, with graphic threats of rape and other violent acts. Other women have talked about how they are targeted by hate groups and while women of colour or hijab wearing public figures are particular targets, it seems any woman who stands up for her convictions is deemed a fair target for the most appalling on-line abuse. Feminists are often singled out for rape-threats and other violent terrorisations just for speaking out. Any vocal woman seems to be offensive to these weak, insecure and clearly socially and sexually inadequate ‘men’. (I use the word guardedly).
Another Labour female black politician who has rocketed up the abuse charts in recent weeks is Dawn Butler, MP for Brent Central, who was a cabinet Minister in Brown’s administration. Her crime was to speak up in support of BLM. Apart from violent threats on Social Media physical threats against her and her staff including the frontage of her office being smashed and bricks thrown through the windows have forced her to close her constituency surgery and operate out of public spaces like the library and a shopping centre for safety and security. Imagine that! In what liberals would tell us purports to be a society that does not have the racism that we condescendingly point out in the US.
If all these, fairly classic right-wing racist tactics, were not bad enough I learnt last week of a new, virulent form of abuse that genuinely made me recoil in disgust. I follow a young journalist and political commentator from the Nova Media team (who I thoroughly recommend and can be found here https://novaramedia.com/ ) who is of Bangladeshi descent, Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar). She particularly incenses right-wing trollers because, apart from being everything they fear and hate, she uses her considerable wit to give back as good as she gets. I read that the abuse she receives reached a new level recently when she re-tweeted this article about a truly despicable low for the on-line haters https://mashable.com/article/hatewank-videos-harassment/?europe=true I had no idea that ‘Hate Wank’ was a thing and a quick – and here is a warning, disturbing and unpleasant – search can show you that this is indeed a category widely available on free public porn sites. Basically, pictures are ripped from the victim’s personal SM feeds and then the act of masturbation and ejaculation over the picture is filmed and when used as a tool for abuse is sent to the woman concerned. It crosses political barriers and many women from all public walks of life are denigrated in this way but clearly women of colour are particular, though far from exclusive, targets. Meghan Markle, for example, seemed to feature prominently in the sites I Googled. Almost unbelievably there seems to be little action victims can take as the antiquated laws concerning Social Media are not fit for purpose and the media platform owners themselves talk plenty but in reality do little to prevent hate and abuse on their sites.
I am not sure what, as an observer I can do about it. I specifically follow several women who have received abuse (and men – David Lammy seems to be going through a tough time as he speaks out against the Government racism being targeted at Windrush survivors) and make a point of re-tweeting positively and in support. I think too we should all call out such abuse and other racist, misogynist and such comments as we see them on social media – especially where it is from people we otherwise call friends. This goes beyond partisan politics and although right-wingers more commonly perpetrate such hate, there is too much personal abuse on all sides.
On the racist backlash against the BLM led debate it is important that the gains made are consolidated and apathy is not allowed to set in. I note a few from my feeds, not from real friends but some on-line readers of my blog and SM posts, that I have started getting a few comments in the ‘not again’ or ‘do you have to keep talking about this subject?’ There are other subtle forms of subversive material being posted with ambiguous headlines that cause people to casually re-tweet or re-post without fully reading the content and checking the source. The narrative about ‘cancel culture’ is a topic all of its own but some elements are certainly about ensuring that potentially hateful language and argument is given a platform. Being mindful of these subtle and subversive components of the debate and calling them out is important. Supporting people who have the courage to stand up against racist and misogynist trolls and all form of abuse is a positive act and we can all do it.
At this point I usually post a story about one of my Vinyl collection but for this next few weeks on the weekend blog I will instead post some links to new music by my friends and by the children of friends. In the spirit of today’s subject here is something by free spirit and friend Bumi Thomas. It has been my pleasure that our paths coincide from time to time since Seun Kuti first introduced us some ten years ago. I have actually posted about Bumi’s struggle against the government’s hostile immigration policy as, despite being born in Glasgow, she was given two weeks notice to leave the country. A long legal battle crowd funded by friends and supporters gained a two-year respite when she can re-apply for British citizenship but with no guarantee of success. The Guardian picked up her story and the most recent article is here. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jul/07/bumi-thomas-glasgow-born-singer-given-two-weeks-to-leave-uk It contains a link to her EP ‘Broken Silence’ she brought out in June and you can also find the haunting song ‘Lesso Lesso’ here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjfLQgnWl3M&list=RDMMCjfLQgnWl3M&start_radio=1
Probably my favourite song of hers ‘Close To Your Heart’ is about four years old now. Enjoy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSFmIuNw0fM