Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Just my opinion...

We all have opinions, some of us choose to share them, some act upon them, but the majority as a whole stay silent. Just from time to time making a brief statement which is driven by their opinions and beliefs on a certain matter.

Right now the world is a pretty troubled place. The fight for climate change raged throughout last year, rightly so, changes need to happen. Something I will get back to in a bit.
Then of course Covid-19 struck the world hard at the start of the year. Most of the world is still squirming trying to get a hand on the matter. While conspiracies deny it's existence, the main focus lays at the feet of the governments who globally have acted too hard /soft, fast/slow and whatever other variations you can dream up. Everyone is an expert. Which brings me to now... BLM.

George Floyd, and the unlawful death which triggered massive uprisings in the USA and UK, not to mention other countries who have reacted to this death in a way which can only be described  as the straw that broke the camels back. A brutality, observed and filmed very clearly on the streets of Minneapolis, then shared globally caused what I can only describe as near unified outrage. Regardless of creed or colour, more people in the civilised world saw this or heard the story, and were truly disgusted to hear such a thing could happen in 2020 in public, in the West, during such an incident.

I am going to blissfully ignore Mr Floyds background, and any incident which lead up to the events, and just focus on the gross and totally unacceptable level of force used against him for such a prolonged duration. This part is the part that needs to be paid attention to. Arguments will be made about Mr Floyds background, I hear them, and agree if true, it paints a picture of a very unsavoury man. However, regardless of history, once subdued and controlled, he becomes a normal citizen again. Posing no threat, there is no longer any need for use of force. From the moment he was cuffed and controlled, the situation should have been scaled back.

So there is it, the single part of the action which triggered an uprising of people around the world to say enough is enough. People took to the streets, so social media, and to television to name a few platforms to show their support and solidarity to the movement. But that was just the beginning.
From peaceful protests, it started to turn nasty, and like most events like this, a small minority took it upon themselves to turn things nasty. As has happened in the past at other protests and rallies, groups of people, the majority of whom are fundamentally not interested in the cause whatsoever, joined in. Setting fire to cars, damaging public property, and eventually spiraling down to behaviours such as looting, or violence against the police and other people who they felt did not support their actions.

I am all for peaceful protest, and by this I do not mean silent. Hell no, I mean people able to voice their opinions, speak their minds and share their stories. Chant, sing, scream, be heard, for this is a message which needs to be heard, and spread to everyone.
We as a society will NOT tolerate mistreatment of people by the authorities.
We the people will NOT tolerate unfair treatment of any person or group based on their appearance, beliefs or cultures.
We the people DEMAND accountability of those in the public domain.
We the people INSIST on equality for all those who participate in a fair society.

But its not that simple is it?
Years of behaviours by many parties has led us to what has until now been an impasse. Authorities who has behaved irresponsibly and unfairly, without being held to account. A society who has decided that violence and criminal behaviour is the right way to react and retaliate. And a majority of the population who have stood by idle claiming they are not a part of the problem, so therefore cannot be part of the solution. Until now.....

Now is the time. A population already in an empathetic mindset from all that is going on with Covid-19 is watching and acting on what they see. A sedate society, suddenly able to hear and see what is happening, and actually afford it enough time and thought to appreciate the injustices that occur. The people stand united against the continuation of this behaviour.

To be clear, my perspective, which I appreciate is that of a while male in his 40's, so will differ to others who have different experiences, is that there is not this not a common occurrence. Certainly not in the UK anyway. The stories we here of BAME individuals fearing for their lives when they go out to work each day, the knowledge of one simple encounter with the police could result in their death, and living in fear of blue lights in the rear view mirror are spectacularly over played. In my opinion.

Please remember this phrase "in my opinion". If it differs from yours, I make no apology. Opinions are part of discussion, which itself is part of a wider debate. To have a different opinion is a healthy thing, and helping others understand how you reached that opinion is both interesting, and an important part of change.

Right now we are starting to hear stories from the people, from A-list celebrities, some of whom have stayed quiet about their experiences until now, and others who have championed this cause for a long time now. Right through to every day people finally feeling their have a platform and a voice to be heard with. The ones the resonate with me the strongest are those who have faced battles to achieve the simplest of goals. To be accepted into the popular group in the work place, or just to achieve a dream of having a certain job. I struggle more with the plight of the A-list celeb who has made it, and quickly forgotten their struggles as they now enjoy the highlife. Only to return to their stories when the cause gets momentum, and there is popularity to be found in once again supporting it. 

Seeing young ladies run in front of crowds of grown men who are trying to mob the police, putting themselves in the line of fire. So passionate about the cause they are marching for, that they will put themselves in harms way to protect the message, and make sure their voices are not lost in the clouds of mindless violence. Those are the voices I want to hear, these are the people I will listen to, and try to understand what their goals are. They are the people who will carry this movement to the next level.
Whilst I am on the subject of this, I think it only fair to mention there were men doing this too, including one confronting the mob with the simple but clear message "come on man, you are fuckin this up for us bro". Pleading with them to stop the stupidity, and keep the protest peaceful and on message.

I feel right now like I have woken from a bit of a daydream, walking in ignorance, and now finally seeing what is happening, and what else needs to happen from here on in.

The "I'm not racist, so I can't be part of the solution" approach is a very common one, and one I am certainly guilty of. That is not to say I will not call out and speak up against racism if I see it, and feel I can make a difference. Not long after changing jobs some years back I went on a training course with a colleague. During the time we spent out on road with the instructor it became obvious to us that he had some very blinkered views, and he made some outrageous racist comments about our surroundings and the people around us. On returning to work, I formally reported this behaviour, and he was dealt with accordingly, and never used by the company again. I don't mean this as my "token anti racist gesture" by all means. There have been many other occasions where I have openly spoken my mind about behaviours and conversations being had. This is just "that one" where I decided to escalate the situation to its conclusion. 

The message now is, "Its not good enough to not be racist, we must instead be actively ANTI-racist". Something that took me a moment to get my head around, daft I know, but now I hear it properly, I get it, and I am on board. Does being anti-racist mean going to rallies, signing petitions etc. Well, to me, like most things, it is about doing what YOU can do in your situation. The circles you mix in, the workplace, friends etc. Not everyone can just get up and march, for a multitude of reasons. But everyone can be a part of the uprising. Everyone has a voice in one shape or form. It might not be over a megaphone, but even taking the time to support movements for even the smallest of changes can be of use. 

Sign petitions, but please, choose your battles wisely. At times like this there is a lot of passion and fire, and messages are easily lost with either a poor choice of words, or a misguided attempt to fast track change. Demands of government must be clear, with good reason, and achievable. Be it local or national government, the approach needs to be the same. A 3 line petition demanding equality, an end to prejudice, and other such "simple to achieve" goals, while well intentioned, will gain no momentum. The key here is the agenda.

To make change, there has to be a plan, solid goals, and an agenda to achieve them by. We are too used to seeing popular politics at play. Pledges to have sweeping reform to appease the disgruntled, and quiet the crowds. Dispersal tactics, not true change. This NEEDS change, and now is the time, so the approach must be measured and considered. Taking to the streets and being heard gets attention, the masses can play a part in that. But once a committee of people representing all walks of life is assembled, it is down the the voices chosen to speak for the masses who we rely on to move forward, and discuss what changes must happen, and how. 

There are plenty of loudly spoken "leaders" out there. Some able to fire up a crowd, some able to pacify and negotiate with those angered and upset by what is happening. But choose wisely, and make sure your voice carries far enough to help guide who is put forth to speak on your behalf. You only have to look on social media to see how many variations of the message are out there. Some seriously hard hitting social influencers have posted their own takes on what change is needed. And the range of messages swings wildly from one extreme to the next. I think the key here is the work "extreme". Nothing to either end of the spectrum is the answer here. Violence is NOT the solution, but then neither is sitting by idle, and allowing the momentum to be lost, and the voices to once again fall silent. 

Another key here is region. While this whole thing was really triggered with the death of George Floyd in the USA, it is important to remember that I/we do NOT live in the United States. Regardless of what hype some choose to believe, no matter how many stories are told of living in fear of the police every day, the UK simply does not have the same ingrained problem as the USA. Most of our officers are not armed, most roadside stops are not made at gunpoint, and most officers attempting to apprehend someone, rightly or wrongly, do not have the ability to use lethal force. This is not to say harm has not come to people in police custody, or at the hands of the police on the streets, of course it has. As this is what we are fighting against. The unlawful treatment of persons at the hands of the police, and force used above and beyond acceptable and necessary levels. Slogans such as "hands up, don't shoot" have far less relevance in the UK than they do in the USA.

There is of course a flip side to all of this, and that is behaviour of the public, which triggers reactions of the police. Speaking to a friend recently we touched on the "expected behaviours". Those behaviours which have become expected by our peer groups, should an encounter with the police occur. Over the years, as tensions have risen between ethnic groups and the police, somewhat driven by the treatment of their members, it has become more and more common to become aggressive and combative from the start of any encounter. Immediately becoming defensive and non compliant with the requests. These are the cases where we generally see mobile phone footage emerging from, showing what appears to be unnecessary physical conflicts between officers and members of the public. 
The part to remember here is both parties feed from the behaviour of the other. If a man doesn't wish to comply with a police officer, the officer will respond accordingly, attempting to detain the person. 
If the action of the person is to immediately become combative, then it is likely the officer before instigating such a challenge will request more support. Immediately we have a situation which appears at face value to be heavy handed and some sort of power show. But in fact, the numbers of officers present is driven by the assumed response to the attempt to speak with the person. 

It is a vicious circle now, and I mean that both figuratively and literally. With more and more peer pressure to not tolerate being stopped by the police in any way whatsoever, and the police unwilling to deal with such stops without more officers being available "just in case", we have reached an impasse. But one which requires work from both sides to move forward. There have without any doubt been some appalling incidents involving police offices and unprovoked hands on approaches, not to mention unreasonable levels of force.
That said, it would be unfair and stupid to ignore the fact that simple stops, be they roadside stops, or stop and searches, have turned ugly for no apparent reason, with attacks being made on the officers simply for daring to stop someone they wish to speak to. And of course, not forgetting that some of the time, the stop has clearly been justifiable on its conclusion.

Sadly there are those out there, who even when presented with facts, will argue them for the sake of it. Say for example a black male is stopped and searched by the police, and found to be in possession of a knife, and after a struggle is arrested. Some would argue still that the male was unfairly targeted and searched by the police in the first place. Rather than focus on the positive that a knife was taken off the streets.  Of course the argument is partially valid. What was the reason for choosing that male in the first place. Why was he targeted by the police.  And this is where awkward statistics come into play.

Many years back, when it can be argued that there was far greater undertones of racial inequality, and strands of racism running through the police force. When the UK was still seriously ignorant towards any form of equality, there was without a doubt an unfair bias towards black and minority groups. 
Statistically for every 10 people stopped by the police, lets say 8 were BAME. If 10 out of every 100 stops resulted in an arrest, statistics would point towards BAME individuals being 4 times more likely to be committing some sort of offence than a white person. 
When you skew the statistics like that, even when you move on from such levels of racism, and start to have a more intelligence led approach to matters, you still have statistics that lead you to stop more BAME individuals than white. Is it right, heavens no! Does it start to explain the imbalance, possibly?

Unfortunately the situation we are now in is generations after the inequality first really started to become obvious to people, but the situation appears to be getting worse. But why?
This is where dialogue is important. To understand exactly why a black youth seems more likely to be stopped by the police than a white youth. And for the police to understand why it affects the BAME communities to seemingly be targeted this way.
At the same time, it is also important for behaviours on both sides to change, and for those from BAME communities to understand that the majority of police officers have no axe to grind, and are genuinely there to try and make our streets safer for us all. It is hard to shake beliefs which have followed you through life, especially when you are of an age where you can personally recall such times and inequality. But it is important for our future generations to break free from these beliefs and ideals, and take a new approach. 

I am spending too much time on this one issue, time to move on. It's a key part of the situation, however I know my comments and observations will not match those of others, so shall not dwell. This is part of the key discussions which need to be had at a much higher level, by a respected group of representatives. Obviously the biggest issue here is sometimes once opinions start to differ, our trust and belief in someone we once chose to speak for us changes. You only have to look at the outcry against people who have spoken out against some of the actions of "protesters". 

When damage to public property started to become a thing, key figures from the BAME community spoke out. Some seeming to support the violence as some sort of extension of peoples voices. Others were very much opposed to it, and said it needed to stop. The same has happened with the swathe of public apologies for past behaviours by some celebrities, with some coming out to defend their actions, and others agree that an apology was called for. Leigh Francis for example, aka Keith Lemon. He made a video apologising for his representations of black celebrities in his show Bo Selecta. Driven clearly by the rising support for some equality and balance for all, his message was clearly well intended. Some said too little too late, some applauded the apology, and some questioned why it was ever necessary, and that no harm had ever been intended. We will all have our own opinions on such things, I am not going to try and change that. 
However the interesting thing to observe here is that some black celebs who have come out in support of Leigh, and the characters portrayed in the show, have come under fire from others for being "racist" or perpetuating the racism in the entertainment industry. Some of these people have faced racism themselves in their day in the spotlight. So who is right? 

Is it impossible to agree to disagree where the blurry line is, and should we focus on defining once and for all what does and does not constitute racism? Is that even possible to do so, without needing to look to each situation for context? Can you make a stand against things such as the "n" word, while people in some high profile walks of BAME society continue to use it, in a "justifiable" way?
Can you justify the use of a racial slur because you are from a certain group in society? How do you then define who can and cannot use that slur, and when they can. Surely it is easier to identify something as harmful and derogatory  and simply say enough is enough, EVERYONE? Or is that some form of censorship and oppression in itself?

In a recent conversation with a friend on the above matter, he had the following to say.

" I hate the use of the word and the legitimisation of it in certain circles...It shouldn't use it in any context end of..Why would people who have had to suffer its use toward them think that by calling each other by that word diminish it's continued harm throughout the world on a daily basis...Can't have it both ways ...Why do black people use these words amongst themselves..other nations and races wouldn't dream of it...Never heard a Jew call another Jew a yid....Never heard another Asian call themselves paki...So on and so on."

I am inclined to agree.

However I know that if I were to have the same conversation with other friends I would be told that it is the black mans right to use the word, and that within their own social groups it's meaning and context is far less offensive. That is unless of course it is being used purposely as a derogatory term, in which case again it's fine, as it is still within the community, so its context is different once again. Surely this is an impossible matter in itself, and this is just one word! But then what do you do with popular music, accessible by all, which uses the term? Is it wrong for any non black person to recite the lyrics to these songs? All very confusing indeed. Yet one of the most frequently used racist words unfortunate enough to be in English language. 

Time and time again we reach these points of disagreement. Not only across the broad scope of the population, but within the BAME communities themselves. Are those slightly more liberal than others somehow letting the side down, or betraying their own communities by having a lighter take on some parts of the situation? I don't think so, in fact I find it refreshing that in the midst of such times, with so much pressure being put on certain social groups to stick together, stand as one and be heard, that the individual voices are still audible,

During another conversation, discussing peoples stances on the protests, and how some were not only starting to turn ugly, but also starting to go off message, I was somewhat saddened to learn that the daughter of a friend from within the BAME community questioned her perception and beliefs on the situation. Asking if she was somehow out of touch, and wrong for not understanding some of the extreme anger and hatred being demonstrated by some on the marches.  To hear that someone who should be supported by such a community felt they did not belong, so to speak, is very sad indeed, and just goes to show how deep the divide really goes.

This divide, some would say is part of a plan, to divide the BAME communities, to weaken them, forcing them to accept a second tier existence. Others like myself, would simply argue that there are rifts between those who stand fast in their timeless beliefs. Beliefs such as  that the white man is the oppressor. And will always demand that there has been no change in the situation for decades. While other more progressive minds will see change can and has occurred, and with the right pressure, support and direction, can continue to do so until we reach complete equality. Hopefully, in my mind at least, the latter group of progressives will be the ones to lead the way ahead during this uprising in public support for change. The rational and constructive trains of thought can plough on with progress, and make a change that this generation can be proud of.

Whilst writing this piece, a few days have passed, many more conversations and discussions have been had, and a number of events have continued to unfold. Some I am totally comfortable with, others I am less enthusiastic about.

The toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol a few days ago for example, was a true eye opener. Whilst I have been familiar with the situation in the USA for years now, and the open resentment towards the confederate flag, once popularised by the roof of the General Lee in the Dukes of Hazard, I have blissfully been unaware of the history of other similar subjects in my own country. The subject of statues. It is easy to ignorantly follow suit and just assume that statues are good, and represent positive things in our countrys past. However the falling of the Colston statue taught me otherwise. The celebration of an oppressor and slave trader, certainly not something that has a place in the modern UK.

Now, before I continue, I have to say this.... Is it right for the public to take matters into their own hands, and remove such objects?... Under normal circumstances, certainly not. However, in this situation, the removal of this single statue has kickstarted and fast tracked the discussion about other statues, which I must confess is a good thing, especially with others with questionable messages remaining. But there is an issue, and again it falls to opinion... Whilst some see a single action of a person depicted in such a statue as reason enough to have it removed, others will disagree strongly. Churchill for example.... Some insist that his actions in the 20's were that of a racist, power hungry white man. While others will point out that he was the leader who was at the helm of the country when we defeated unquestionably one of the  racist people of recent history. Tough one there... And I am sure many other such examples exist where opinion is split.

In such matters, is compromise acceptable? Or should all demands be met without challenge or consideration. In times like this it is far too easy to swing wildly from one side to the other, without consideration of the future consequences. 

This brings me onto the next matter. Stop and search. As I touched on earlier there are some questions to be answered about the methods and mindsets behind stop and search. Recently we have seen a massive increase in the use of Section 60's following any marge events of unrest, or in situations which are building towards unrest. The demonstrations in London recently for example. I think most are familiar with what a Sec 60 is these days, however here is a quick link to the exact wording of what one is, straight from the Met Police Website.  Met Police Section 60

In short....

Section 60 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (s.60) gives police the right to search people in a defined area during a specific time period when they believe, with good reason, that: serious violence will take place and it is necessary to use this power to prevent such violence; or that a person is carrying a dangerous object or offensive weapon; or that an incident involving serious violence has taken place and a dangerous instrument or offensive weapon used in the incident is being carried in the locality.

These have often been seen as a method of pushing out mass unjustified Stop and Search purges, often targeting black youths. On the flip side, it can be argued that such occurrences often result in removal of weapons from the streets. I have been stopped numerous times by the police myself. Spoken to like an idiot by over keen officers determined to find something wrong. Both on foot and in the car. The most notable times of recent was on a High St after a serious car crash, which had somehow resulted in a 20 on 20 running battle between a group of Turkish men and a group of black men. 

I arrived shortly after this disorder had been dispersed, and was completely ignorant to its occurrence. The road was still closed, and I walked across slowly, as at the time I was dealing with an injury. A bus which had been stationary started to move off, and sounded its horn at me, before coming to a stop as it was blocked. I approached the bus and using some strong profanity suggested the bus driver open the doors and talk to me about what he had just done. Within seconds I had 3 or 4 police officers running up on me, surrounding me and getting in my face. Complete overkill, this was just an argument. 

On speaking to a senior officer the following day, and becoming aware of what had actually happened, I penned an apology for my actions. One way to look at it is the officers should have been more professional, it was something separate, and I should have been dealt with accordingly. The other is to appreciate the incident they had just dealt with, and understand the duress they would have been under a short while before. Seeing tempers flaring again, their reaction, to me, in hindsight, was understandable.

So, back to Stop and Search. Today it has been announced that there is consideration to stop doing it. Now if this means entirely, I see problems ahead. If it means address how it is conducted, and as I have discussed before, make officers more accountable for it, then I am all for it.

Being stopped isn't nice at all, especially in certain circumstances. At night in the car, you have a police car behind you, lights flashing, bringing the worlds attention to your situation. As you stand at the roadside giving details, the world looks on in judgement.
On foot, in some circumstances, even for a simple non aggressive stop, the person being stopped may be cuffed "for theirs and the officers safety". It's a strange phrase, and most would observe someone in cuffs and consider them as detained for committing an offence. Because it doesn't happen every time, sometimes it is considered a removal of freedom, and a precursor to actual arrest. 
In fact the phrase is a valid one, and the reasoning for the cuffing is also understandable, and in most cases in no way to try and remove someones dignity or make them look like a criminal.

We hear stories of people be taken to ground, tased, or even shot, for making a movement which made the officer make a snap decision, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, and inflicting harm on the individual they have stopped. By cuffing the person, the liklihood of making a movement which is innocent in nature, but perceived as threatening, is far less likely. That is where the "for your protection" comes into it. Obviously the "for my" part is based on those who would intend on causing harm to the officer.

Maybe the answer here is to place anyone in cuffs for the duration of a stop. Many people willingly get into the back of a police car when stopped in a vehicle, but don't see this in the same light as being placed in cuffs. From my own perspective, if this were normal procedure, I would be far less inclined to be upset by being cuffed, than if it were an optional and discretionary choice by the officer. Maybe this change would help remove the stigma from the cuffing part of stop and search. A conversation just now with a friend pointed out that in most videos of black people stopped which have gone viral in the UK, the person is cuffed or being physically detained when crowds start to gather and get upset. Unlawful detention is how it is seen, rather than a standard roadside stop.

Stop and search is certainly not without its issues. Simply giving people the power to stop and search someone based on probable cause is a risky things at times. And if you give this power to an individual or a group of people with an agenda, things can get out of hand. A short while ago I watched a video which recalled the time when the founder of the Black Cycling Network was stopped by the police while out cycling with friends, and was stopped at a red light. First he was accused of jumping the light, then detained for a search under the misuse of drugs act as the officer claimed he could "smell cannabis" and it appeared to be coming from Mani's person. The whole thing was filmed and published, and was a clear display of misuse of power, not cannabis. It is situations like this that we as a society need to be vocal about. Demand the matter is reviewed, and that the officer(s) are held accountable.

And there we are, full circle. Accountability is the key to all of this, along with society and its 60 million strong voice (in the UK). While we demand change from our leaders, insist on legislation to push through reforms in how certain groups of people are treated in society, it is important to remember that we should also demand better from one another. 
Call out racism, point out discrimination. One of the things this outpouring of emotions has shown us is that we are not alone. The majority see the need for change, and want to do what they can to make it happen. We do this by speaking up when things are wrong. Supporting someone we see in a bad situation. But not with anger and violence, but in a measured and controlled way. 

If  you see someone being mistreated, get names, get numbers, check on the welfare of the individual, and make sure you see the matter through to the end. Injustice can be painful, embarrassing , or simply inconvenient, but the one thing it should never be is repeated. By standing together, speaking up and using a rational combined voice, it is time to be heard, and it is time for there to be channels to be heard through, rather than hoping a video goes viral and people show their disgust. 

I have dragged on with this for long enough, so thank you for taking the time to get this far... To coin a phrase "you are free to go". 

I hope if nothing else, this has caused you to form your own opinions on what I have touched on. I don't expect everyone to agree, I hope some completely disagree, its part of the process. But I do hope anyone with a moment of time will give some consideration to what comes next, and how we move forward.

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