Whenever there’s a storm of distress back in the States, you can feel the winds blowing here in London. That’s partly because the UK and America have such a close relationship, and partly because American culture, American news – and Americans – are everywhere. Brits follow the U.S. in much the same way that the U.S. follows Britain, except that while Americans might be mesmerized by the Adventures of Meghan and Harry, Brits might be mesmerized by burning cities and overall chaos back in the colonies.
And so the urban unrest that has engulfed the U.S. in the wake of the George Floyd killing has captivated much of the UK. Protests are planned here in London, Birmingham and Manchester, with more probably popping up in other areas. London has a very large and engaged community of black people, and it’s not surprising that they’re taking a lot of this stuff personally. But even Brits of other ethnicities are engaged.
The other day, on an excursion just down the block to an ice cream truck – things are slowly progressing here, COVID-19 wise – my daughters and I made an order for some various treats. The Ice Cream Guy, a Cypriot, noticed my accent and asked if I was from America. I said I was.
“Terrible, what’s happening there,” he said.
“It is,” I replied.
“What do you think of it?” he said. “What’s your view?”
It was polite of him to ask. I could tell he was trying to sort out whether I was a decent Yank, or one of the other kind.
I just told him the truth: “I think it’s terrible what happened to that guy,” I said. “The cop just kept kneeling on his neck even after he was already dead. It was cruel and unnecessary. Of course people are pissed off about it.”
He agreed, said it was a terrible thing. We took our ice cream, I paid him, and he and I wished each other well.
I imagine the overwhelming majority of Brits – and most people around the world – feel the same way as the Ice Cream Guy. There’s a lot of anger and confusion over how this kind of thing keeps happening over and over, with no accountability or justice.
I feel that anger and confusion. But I also have questions about the response in the U.S. Not the rage, or the violence. That’s to be expected. People can only be kicked around so long before they decide to kick back – and the U.S. decided a long time ago that the most effective way to kick back is to break and burn whatever happens to be handy. If you don’t believe that, take a look in the rear-view mirror of American history, way back to the violence and riots that took place while America was still a colony and Great Britain was in charge.
My main question about the response in the U.S. is the role white people are playing in it. Let me first say this: White people should be upset. They should be engaged. They are the majority, they control the power and the money, and they have a civic duty to oppose injustice whenever they see it. If more had done that a long time ago, maybe we wouldn’t still have black men and women killed by police at such an alarming rate.
At the same time, you look at the protests happening now, and you sure do see a lot of white folks creating havoc. They’re on the front lines, pushing against the police perimeter, shouting through bullhorns, smashing store windows. They are purportedly there to support BLM and other causes. But there’s reason to doubt their real intentions, at least some of them. There have been more than a few instances when whites were doing things that seemed suspicious.
A pair of white women were seen vandalizing a Starbucks during a protest before waltzing away and trying to disappear into the crowd, and a black protestor confronted them about it. The same thing happened after a white man smashed store windows before a Minneapolis protest and moved on.
There’s a worry that far-right infiltrators and agitators are showing up at these protests just to create havoc and bring the wrath of law enforcement down on black people. There’s also a worry that some far-left groups are just there to protest whatever it is they need to protest this week, regardless of whether it does any good for the black community at large and the very specific problem of police brutality against people of color, knowing that they can go back to their white lives in their white communities and disappear, free and anonymous – which is a luxury their black brethren don’t have, never had, and probably never will have in our lifetimes.
I started wondering how black protestors feel about their white comrades on the front lines. I wondered if they questioned the motives of white protestors who are particularly aggressive. I wondered whether it might be a good idea for white protestors to approach black protest leaders first, and ask what their roles should be in the protests.
I decided to pose this question in a post on an American expats Facebook group I joined. I requested that only African-Americans or people of African or Caribbean descent respond. I figured it would be a chance to learn something, to get a perspective from the ones most at risk.
My specific question was this: Do you think white protestors should approach black organizers first and ask what their roles should be? Or do you think it’s fine for them to just join in and do what they want to do?
Most people in the group supported the post and respected its intent. Of course, a few people got triggered by it. The ones who did were almost all white. They opposed the idea of restricting the comments to a certain ethnic group. They questioned the intent. They wondered this and that, and if wasn’t that, it was this. Interestingly, people of color didn’t seem to have a huge problem with it.
The one thing I learned from the blowback is this:
Some white people just don’t know when to shut the fuck up and listen.
Anyway, here were the responses from the black commenters. There is a lot to be learned here, and I hope you take the time to read them:
- “I just want these same folks to be just as ‘vocal’ when it comes to voting in local and national elections.”
- “To be honest I am not thinking of white protesters, rather the issue at hand: My black brothers murdered by the police on the daily and numerous racist injustices happening to us every day.”
- “I love it. This needed to happen. Most of them were born in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Totally different mentality then 35+”
- “Are you kidding? We need protesters from all walks of life being out there with us. If you’re angry or sick and tired of police brutality and police getting away with murdering innocent people and/or unarmed black men, then you should be out there. If you believe racism is wrong, then you’ve got to stand up for what’s right. It’s the only way we can effect change. We ALL have to be in this together.”
- “I literally just posted on my page about this. It is worrying and sad that we can’t see white protesters and think they are just as outraged as the rest of us but it is a thought, are they just adding fuel to an already out-of-control fire? I also think this was bound to happen and all communities are tired of what is happening especially after seeing so many protesters with guns of all kinds used during the protests against the lockdowns, being met with no resistance even after entering a government building. However, marching down the streets because a black man was murdered and getting tear gas thrown at them while being peaceful is what’s causing things to escalate. My heart is breaking and smiling as I see beautiful people stand up against injustice. I just hope they are not being pushed blindly to a greater slaughter.”
- “Black people make up around 12% of the American population, so white people need to be there. Ideally we would stay home and they would protest on our behalf so that we aren’t facing police brutality while protesting police brutality.”
- “Unite! Be on the front line with Us…if you happen to be turned away or yelled for just walking because you’re white— then you may get a tiny idea of how black Americans may feel.”
- “As a mom of 2 black sons living in America, I have seen how police target black men (not all police, not all black men) but I’ve seen it with my oldest son. Now that I’m in London and they’re in the US, I still worry about that.”
- “Enough is just fucking Enough! It happens more often than what is on the news—and we’re tired of dying because of the color of our skin. You want to walk peacefully with us? Come! If you feel you’ll receive retaliation—-cover up and walk with us — wear a mask and gloves, sunglasses — and no one may tell you’re white but watch out for the police because they may think you’re black.”
- “Good Q. I would say they need to do their thing, what’s in their hearts. They need to be on the front line. There was an instance where they formed a protective line to keep police from abusing and arresting black protesters. They used their privilege brilliantly. I’m proud of them.”
- “Please stop posting the MLK memes and quotes. That has nothing to do with what is going on right now. This is a different time, and MLK was not a pacifist. He was a strategist. I’m more concerned with the actions of the police right now against the protesters. Peaceful protesters are being shot at, tear gassed, and the police are fanning the flames.”
- “I am mixed so I am going to assume I am ‘black enough’ to comment. I am assuming my brown skin, having been subjected to hate crime and my black mother gives me license to have an opinion. It has taken me time to comment because anytime I hear some form of only people of colour or white people etc. can talk it makes me very uneasy. It defeats the point. I understand what the op is trying to accomplish but respectfully disagree. Throughout the civil rights movement many white people stood toe to toe with black activists and even lost their lives. We need the whole community regardless of their background to stand shoulder to shoulder with the black community as a community of the people.”