Silence is violence – Part 2

Silence is violence – Part 2

Last week I was introducing the work of Rebecca Solnit and now want to turn to her comments on the murder by a white Minneapolis policeman of a black man, George Floyd, and on the worldwide demonstrations that followed this. In a bit that will lead me on to the tricky concept of “speaking for.” Of course the demonstrations in the US, which were sometimes violent, drew a furious backlash from the increasingly unhinged Trump and his supporters.

Solnit comments on this backlash: “much of the finger-wagging has been about property destruction [by those protesting the murder], and it is dismaying to see that some are more upset about broken glass than public killing—or rather that  they seem to believe that society ought to rest on a foundation of stable property relations, not human rights and justice.”

I would amend this to suggest that we do want stable property relations, but ones based on human rights and justice. In a situation in which relations of production are also based on human rights and justice (and Marxists will know why I used the verb “based”).

Solnit comments further on the protests and on “the direct and intentional violence against journalists across the nation. Reporters have been arrested while working, thrown to the ground and pepper-sprayed, and fired upon while broadcasting. Photojounalist Linda Tirado is now blind in one eye after being shot by police.”

The protests swiftly took on an international dimension. In London there were huge demonstrations; the authorities recognised that these contravened Covid-19 lockdown laws but took the wise approach of allowing them to go on. At one of these the great British actor John Boyega made an impassioned speech (he’s on the left of what I trust will be the photo illustration for this week’s column).

White policemen knelt down in solidarity, a famous Black American way of protesting racism (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you it’s called “taking a knee”). At later events in the UK and across Europe whole football teams did the same. This is important, as in the UK and Europe there is a grim history of systemic racism on the part of the police, sports bodies and sports supporters.

Commenting on events in the USA, the British foreign secretary Dominic Raab (one of Boris Johnson’s least talented, most odious, lickspittle Ministers) opined that the UK wanted to see a “de-escalation” of tensions in the USA, which drew the following admirable response from Black British journalist Afua Hirsch: “If he had bothered to listen to black British people, he might have discovered that many of us do not want de-escalation.

We want protest, we want change, and we know it is something for which we must fight.” In the same way that in Lesotho you should, please, shout yourselves hoarse in the throat demanding better governance.

The worldwide response protesting the murder of George Floyd prompts the difficult question, can one category of oppressed or marginalised people stand up for the rights of another? Do they have the right to? Can women, ethnic minorities, refugees, LGBT+ people and other groups usefully join each others’ struggle? Can those who are not oppressed or marginalised realistically and usefully join in?

My answer is yes, but a difficult yes and a compromised one. Some years ago in this paper I tackled this question under the topic “the ethics of representation.” I don’t want to go back to that, but one instructive dialogue comes to mind, which I didn’t bring up at the time.

I don’t know how many of my readers have seen Spike Lee’s excellent film Malcolm X (if you have and if you enjoyed it, try to get hold of Lee’s—also excellent—book on his struggle to persuade Hollywood to make the film, By Any Means Necessary).

There’s a scene in the film where Malcolm X is approached at an airport by a white female student who tells him how much she and her friends admire him and that they stand in the struggle with him. I can’t remember the exact wording that follows, but he addresses her as “Sister” and then, very courteously, tells her he is leading a struggle of black men and women and she can’t be a part of that.

But what she can do is campaign amongst her own community to get them to look in the mirror and to listen to the venom they spew and  to change. So, she’ll be part of a parallel strategy, if not part of the main one.

Chris Dunton

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