The media, Black Lives Matter and a rare transformation
Social media helped light the fuse and now even right wing newspapers are changing the tone of their language. Has there ever been such a rapid, global shift in attitudes, asks Raymond Snoddy
Without the mobile phone no-one would have ever heard of George Floyd. He would just have been another black death in US police custody, another death among many worth perhaps a NIB in a British newspaper.
A still photograph of a man pinned to the ground by a knee on his neck would not have had much impact.
It was mobile phone footage and its duration – an assault that lasted nearly nine minutes - as other officers looked on doing nothing, that revealed the full horror; the exceptional nature of what happened.
They were images picked up by both the social and traditional media and beamed around the world that struck a nerve and resonated with the manifest injustice of it all.
A powerful symbol was created which may alter fundamentally how racism, and fairness are judged in future.
It created a call to action answered by hundreds of thousands in many countries far from the American Midwest.
Scottish friends – white - who hadn’t been on a demo since university days, if even then, went on a perfectly socially distanced demonstration attended by a couple of hundred people in a Stevenage park to support the Black Lives Matter campaign.
People have been touched in unusual ways.
It is difficult to think of many examples of a communication of images by media in all its forms that has had such a dramatic, and instant effect on public attitudes on such a scale.
Then just to underline the obvious, that this wasn’t just a problem limited to the policing of Minneapolis, the cops in Buffalo, New York state, gratuitously pushed over 75-year-old peaceful protestor Martin Gugino who suffered serious head injuries as a result.
The Trump reaction that Gugino may have set up his own injury may be just another nail in his declining hopes of re-election.
In the UK the demonstrators in London who defaced the statue of Sir Winston Churchill and in Bristol the mainly white demonstrators, who carefully and with considerable skill, pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, initially split the press along predictable lines.
For the right-wing papers those who ended up dumping the Colston statue into Bristol harbour were thugs who should be brought to justice – a line echoed by the Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Yet by Floyd’s funeral when the statue of 18th century slave owner Robert Milligan was removed officially by Tower Hamlets Council with the help of a JCB from outside the Museum of London Docklands, and the future of dozens of other such statues was under review, there was a change.
Papers such as the Daily Mail became noticeably more even-handed.
There was no sign of the usual frothing at the mouth or denunciations of enemies of the people.
Instead there was a more thoughtful approach.
A splash headlined 'Toppling The Past' even spoke of a cultural revolution exploding across Britain.
While inside it became: “Labour’s Cultural Revolution” which is really fair enough because it is indeed 130 Labour Councils which are reviewing the position of their slavery-related statues.
Although as The Times noted the issue may rapidly be transcending politics as Conservative councils started to come under pressure to take similar action.
By Daily Mail standards the paper’s editorial was reasonable. In the context of the Cecil Rhodes statue outside Oriel College Oxford, the paper argued that instead of trying to airbrush Rhodes from history it would be better to try to understand the forces that made him.
“For better or worse, he and the empire he helped build are an indelible part of the history of the British people black and white,” the Mail concluded mildly.
As Lord Patten, chancellor of Oxford University noted, some of the black academics railing against the Rhodes statue benefited greatly from being recipients of Rhodes scholarships.
We can now say without much doubt that the phenomenon that is George Floyd will lead to a reassessment of how black and other ethnic minorities are treated in the UK in a way that nothing else has quite done – not even the Windrush scandal.
It is long overdue.
Yet so far as the UK is concerned there are a number of problematical issues, which this remarkable international wave of emotion has revealed.
The London demonstration with many thousands of people crammed together without the slightest attempt at social distancing was irresponsible and could spark a new outbreak of Covid-19 in London just when the virus is starting to wane.
In answer to demonstrators comments that they were prepared to make the sacrifice for a higher cause, the response is Yes, but you haven’t the right to sacrifice other lives.
That’s over and we must let it go and hope it won’t amount to a politically correct version of Cheltenham races.
The much more serious issue is that of the ahistorical approach – applying today’s moral values to what was normal in the past.
Should statues of Henry VIII disappear because he beheaded two of his wives and was responsible for other innocent souls being burnt at the stake because of now obscure disputes over religion?
Should Oliver Cromwell, responsible for the massacre of thousands of Irish civilians in Drogheda and Wexford, be removed from his plinth outside the House of Commons?
After all Sir Francis Drake was also a slaver before his victory over the Spanish Armada.
Now may be the time to remove the statues of slave traders and owners to places inside museums where the context can be explained because slavery was, and is, an abomination even though the riches generated may have been used to fund universities and public works.
But there again Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and principle author of the Declaration of Independence, almost certainly responsible for the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” was a slave owner.
Let not the present mood, positive in so many respects, lead to a witch-hunt of all the statues of people we dislike, or dislike for one aspect of their characters and deeds.
The statue of Churchill is in Parliament Square because he led the country against Nazi Germany not because he opposed Indian independence.
History should be understood, not destroyed - although even historians sometimes disagree.
Simon Schama is phlegmatic about the disappearance of statues. As he points out, the bronze statues of Roman emperors were often melted down by their successors to turn into coin.
The real legacy of George Floyd should be a profound transformation in how people treat each other irrespective of race or belief rather than how many statues from the 18th century are pulled down, officially or otherwise.