It is nearly four years since Black Lives Matter had their first major protest in London. Emulating their US counterparts, the protesters held up their hands and chanted ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’, a chant popularized after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. By then it had been known for a year that before his death Brown almost certainly said no such thing and had lunged for the arresting officer’s gun before being shot.
Still the London protesters chanted what they believed Michael Brown had said, as they processed along Oxford Street, accompanied by unarmed British policemen who couldn’t have shot them if they’d wanted to.
Two weeks later a crowd gathered in Hyde Park chanting ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ and other BLM slogans. By the end of the evening a police officer had been stabbed, four other constables had been injured and a young man chased into the middle of one of London’s busiest streets and set upon by three men wielding a machete. It isn’t so very far away, this cocktail that is roiling America. But it is one import that we could most definitely do without.
Scenes in London last weekend were less dramatic than in America, but after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer (now under arrest) they simmered in the same atmosphere: that here is a cause so undeniably clear and just that anything — even the law — must bend before it. In the US, protests were swiftly followed by rioting, looting and burning across the nation. The admirably diverse minority of protesters who have already ruined this cause are ransacking and burning an equally diverse range of targets, black homes and shops among them. For their part, the major corporations appear to believe that the looting of their stores is simply a good opportunity to reaffirm their allegiance to BLM, announce the hiring of more diversity officers and otherwise beg the mobs of protesters and antifa activists to pass them by. Justin Timberlake and Harry Styles were among the celebrities who committed to pay the legal fees of people arrested.
For days CNN egged things on in similar fashion. Then last Friday evening protesters gathered outside the channel’s headquarters in Atlanta, graffitied the station’s logo, smashed glass front, hurled projectiles inside and tried to storm the building as the police held them back and terrified journalists reported live from the lobby of their own workplace. Had the attackers been Trump supporters the network might have had something to say about it. But over the days that followed, ‘frustration’ and ‘a sense of not being listened to’ continued to be trotted out by CNN as the reasons why America was burning.
Like America, Britain is still meant to be in corona lockdown. But in both countries, this one cause was granted a mass exemption. On Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered in Trafalgar Square, and from there processed to the US embassy by way of Downing Street where parts of the crowd stopped to shout ‘Fuck the police’ at the men and women on duty.
Politicians who spent recent weeks shaming people over their lockdown childcare arrangements seemed supremely relaxed about this. Few even dared to notice. One who did attracted the attention of Dawn Butler MP, who just last month was claiming that Boris Johnson’s promise to relax the lockdown was ‘sending people out to catch the virus’. On Sunday, the same Dawn Butler harangued a fellow MP who presumed to worry whether the London protest might lead to a second corona spike. ‘Don’t you dare!’ Butler boomed. ‘Don’t even go there!’
Britain’s media turned out to share this BLM exemption clause. With thousands of people gathered around her, a reporter from Sky News declared: ‘Of course gatherings of this nature are illegal at the moment, but people are feeling very strongly about what they have seen in the United States.’
When the matter of the law was raised to a somewhat theatrical young protester he declared the virus was something ‘we might not all catch’ whereas ‘they’re killing people’ and so he needed to stop people being ‘killed and beaten up and blown up in the streets’. You might say any number of things to that young man if you had a chance. You might ask why the police in Britain are so indistinguishable from the police in America. Whether the police in America are quite what he thinks they are. That while the violent actions of some US police might be motivated by racism, other factors (not least a heavily armed citizenry) also exist. You might even ask why when a white American like Tony Timpa was suffocated by police in 2016 this same rioting and looting did not kick off.
Yet as with his American counterparts you can predict the list of claims that would be trotted out. Like other protesters on Sunday he might try to pretend that Mark Duggan was an entirely innocent man, incomprehensibly shot by the racist British police. And besides, there is Grenfell Tower, the ‘hostile environment’ and much more. That whole panoply of untruths and half-truths that have been pumped through our society all but unopposed to persuade people to believe that the least racist societies on earth are in fact the most racist.
If you are a public figure, it is very tempting to go along with this, like Timberlake and Styles. But consequences have a habit of catching up with people as they do with societies. Last Friday the NBA writer Chris Martin Palmer could be found on social media posting a photo of a burning building in Minneapolis. ‘Burn that shit down. Burn it all down,’ he tweeted. A day later he was denouncing calls for peaceful protests. ‘That doesn’t do anything,’ he railed. ‘They don’t pay attention until you start burning shit.’ A day later Palmer’s own neighborhood was being attacked. ‘They tried to climb the gates,’ he gasped on social media. ‘They had to beat them back. Then destroyed a Starbucks and are now in front of my building. Get these animals TF out of my neighborhood. Go back to where you live.’
Indeed. You have to be careful what you assert at moments such as this, what claims about your society you are willing to mainline, which lies you are happy to just wave along.