As with everything so far in 2020, events have taken an unprecedented and surreal turn since the genuine and utterly justifiable Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in the United States. The pulling down of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol last weekend has shifted both the conversation and the focus of protests to trying to rewrite history rather than realign society to a position where everyone can live peacefully and enjoy the same rights.
The last few days have seen a variety of strange events – Gone with the Wind and Fawlty Towers deleted from streaming services for fear of causing offence to protestors, far-right groups organising vigils across the UK to ‘guard’ statues and scenes in central London at the weekend (Saturday 13 June) that were more reminiscent of Mad Max than any social justice movement. Instead of being in a position where we are having constructive and meaningful conversations about how the principles and aims of Black Lives Matter can be integrated into our planning for the future and political ambition, we are in a position where anyone who speaks out about protecting our heritage is being labelled as racist, far right groups are trying to position themselves as defenders of the nation, and any real debate is being stamped upon for fear of causing offence.
The pulling down of the Edward Colston statue was understandable and perhaps something that should have happened long ago. The way it happened is also understandable but what is unfortunate is the subsequent madness that unfolded over the proceeding days. This is not the way forward to achieve what we at Groundswell want to see. Why can we not direct our passions towards looking at ourselves and the people we work with, rather than statues of people that lived – and died – more than 300 years ago?
We believe in focusing our attention and energy on educating and interacting with others – from the same and different cultural, faith and ethnic backgrounds. This is how we can begin to put right what is wrong and unfair in society. And there’s lots that needs to change – many older institutions still are not as open to people of colour as they should be; more needs to be done to tackle the clear inequalities causing worse outcomes for BAME communities in the current COVID-19 crisis; topically on the third anniversary of Grenfell, there are still too many outstanding questions about why so many people from BAME communities met their deaths that night, and about what has been done since to avoid a repeat. Pulling down statues won’t solve any of this – working with and interacting with our neighbours, no matter their backgrounds, and talking about how we can improve society will begin to produce those answers.
We have a lot to do – of that there is no question. To change mindsets – among the ‘protestors and counter-protestors’ as the media has dubbed the two groups – is no mean feat. But the past is the past and there is no changing that. As so often, it is our young people who are the greatest hope for the future. They are still forming opinions, still looking for guidance and the best way to live their lives, and are less damaged by the prejudices that are around them every day. We need to promote their voices and collectively be a voice of reason at a time that can see a historic change.
2020 for many reasons has been a terrible year. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives to a deadly and still uncontrolled virus, millions have lost their jobs and hundreds of millions have had to endure economic and other hardships. Attempts at achieving social justice have turned into protests against the system that could be remembered for their violence and destruction rather than what they achieved. But the year is only halfway done. Let’s make the next six months about overcoming our many troubles, let’s talk to each other, let’s spend time with each other (as far as social distancing allows of course) and let’s turn the debate away from tearing down lumps of metal and towards tearing down discrimination, prejudice and injustice.
Here at Groundswell, that is what we are about. We have been running our #CoronaKindness campaign since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, where we have been mapping local community groups, food banks and others offering help across London and more widely in the UK. We have been promoting our #CoronaHeroes who have gone above and beyond at this time of national emergency. We have created and promoted content to many thousands of Londoners about the impacts of the crisis on undocumented migrants and the BAME communities, we have hosted events about the faith response to COVID-19 and the protests stemming from the George Floyd murder. And we have lots more plans in the pipeline – join with us, map your community and peacebuilding activities, join our social media presence and let’s work together to make a difference. Together we can, apart we are just lone voices shouting into the darkness.