There's a common conception that "neutrality" or silence around issues like Black Lives Matter is apolitical. That in failing to take a public stance on an issue, you're somehow absolving yourself from involvement altogether. And here's the thing: that's not true. Neutrality is a political stance. Silence is a political tool. In not explicitly speaking out about certain things, you become more than an innocent bystander: you become part of the problem. You perpetuate the political climate that allows these things to occur and to go largely unspoken. And to be clear, when I say "you" here, I'm absolutely referring to myself, too. I haven't done enough in the past to speak about and act on the things I care about, usually because I’m afraid of the ramifications of doing so. However, there are times when failing to speak out because of fear of personal consequences stops being excusable, and this is one of those times.
I'd just like to debunk a few quick arguments, if I may.
1. "They aren't even protests at this point. It's just looting. I can't support them when they're obviously just in it to get a free pair of trainers."
There's been a heavy focus from people who are speaking out against the protests on looting. This is a completely disingenuous way of turning public mood against a political protest and painting it as the misguided actions of a bunch of no-good rioters.
It's important to bear in mind that the looting that has formed part of these protests is not inherently a separate part of the protest where people are taking advantage of the existing chaos to make off with a TV or two. Looting could be seen as a political expression from people who are tired of property being valued above their lives. It looks like selfish opportunists to a lot of us, and, in certain cases, particularly where the looters or destroyers of property in these protests are white protestors who don't have a personal stake in these protests, that might well be the case. When we're talking about protests from economically disadvantaged people, however, we can't separate looting from a societal structure that commodifies human life and labour and values materialism over existence.
It's also important, I think, not to focus solely on looting, as though that's all that's going on, and not, y'know, protests about police murdering Black people. There's a reason that people trying to denigrate these protests focus on looting, and it's not just because they're outraged about it; it's because it's very easy to get mad at people for looting and to pretend that the source of your rage is property theft and destruction rather than a Black Lives Matter protest. If you see someone talking about these protests like it's just a looting free-for-all, remind them that the whole reason these people are out on the streets in the first place is because police keep murdering Black people.
2. "Look, I'm totally on board with it all, really I am, but why is it just Black lives that matter? Surely all lives matter?"
Here's the thing. Yes. Objectively speaking, and from a purely philosophical standpoint, of course all lives matter. But, speaking practically, society and many individuals within society do a piss-poor job of showing it.
"Black lives matter" does not have a secret hidden "only" tacked onto the end. It means that Black lives are consistently undervalued, under-represented and quite literally ended by law enforcement with absolutely zero accountability, and it's a rallying cry for those who believe that this is not acceptable. It isn't excluding other lives from mattering; it's including Black lives. We can't say that all lives matter until we show that Black lives matter. That's the bottom line. This is a short rebuttal because it honestly is that simple.
3. "This whole thing is liberal, leftie lies. I looked at the data myself and it clearly shows that the police kill more white people than Black people. Do you even do numbers?"
Clearly more so than you, my dear fictional opponent, because even I know that you can't use data in an argument unless you know how to interpret data. Yes, it's true that the police murder more white people than Black people in the US (and indeed in the UK), but this is for one very simple reason: there are more white people. Black people make up 13.4% of the population of the US and yet 23.4% of people killed by police are Black. You know what that means, fictional opponent? It means that, statistically speaking, you're more likely to be killed by a police officer in an interaction or altercation if you're Black than if you're white.
In the UK, the statistics are slightly different, but we're not in the clear. The number of BAME people killed by police is roughly consistent with the BAME population, but BAME people are far more likely to be shot (30% of fatal shootings are targeted at BAME people) than white people. I searched but couldn't find this data split down into Black and non-Black people of colour. However, I did find that Black people are subjected to police force four times more often than white people in London.
As for racism outside of police brutality – well, I'm sure we all remember the Windrush scandal, where thousands of majority Black people from the Commonwealth were told, in 2018, that they were here illegally, despite having lived here their entire lives and having followed correct immigration procedure at the time, and where the Home Office's actions were later found to have been motivated in part by an "ignorance of race". But don't worry, because we totally punished Amber Rudd who was the Home Secretary at the time and resigned over it, by *checks notes* doing absolutely nothing and now she has a radio show. So that's fine.
Oh, and if 2018 is too long ago for you, then it might interest you to know that, as of May 15 2020, 22% of coronavirus lockdown infarction fines have been given to BAME people, who make up 14% of the population.
4. "But why do the protestors need to be violent? Can't they just, I don't know, kneel?"
My sweet, sweet fictional opponent. If only Black people had tried that in the past. Oh wait, many Black people have, and they were ridiculed and ignored. Remember when the US Vice President and age-ravaged Ken doll, Mike Pence, walked out of a NFL game after several players knelt during the national anthem in protest at police brutality and then wondered why protestors weren't being peaceful any more? You're the reason why, buddy! You, and everyone like you who scoffed and rolled their eyes at peaceful protests! Not to mention that white people love to point at Martin Luther King and say "Look! Peaceful protest works!" and neglect to mention that Martin Luther King was... still murdered for it.
Because here's the thing. We, both as white individuals and as a predominantly white society, absolutely do not get to dictate how our racism is protested. We just don't get to say, "Look, I know you're angry with us for being complicit in your systemic oppression and murder, but could you just, y'know, keep it down a bit?" Especially when Black people have tried protesting peacefully and quietly and we just shoved wax in our ears. We don't get to ignore people speaking up for literally centuries and then cry when they start to shout.
It's also apparent that the vast majority of violence being caught on camera at these protests as we speak is perpetrated and escalated by police. Several people have lost eyes, either to rubber bullets or tear gas canisters. Journalists from the US' free press have been targeted and shot at by police. A Black man, David McAtee, was murdered by police during a protest about police murdering unarmed Black men. None of the officers involved had activated their body cams, and police now say that security cam footage shows that McAtee fired at them first, but there's no audio in the video and it's sketchy at best, to be honest with you.
And, yes, there have been shootings and murders perpetrated by protestors and looters (here recognising that there is an overlap between the two, with some protestors looting out of rage, and some looters being opportunists, often white). We need to acknowledge that, particularly in the death of David Dorn, a Black retired police officer, who was found dead after apparently being murdered whilst protecting a pawn shop from looters. It would be disingenuous to pretend that his murder did not occur simply because it fits a neater narrative. There are currently no eye witnesses or suspects in the murder, so the circumstances are unknown, and I don't think it suits to speculate without evidence as to whether he was murdered by protestors, looters, or anyone else; nevertheless, he deserves to be remembered and counted just as much as the others who have been killed or wounded in these protests.
Finally, I want to very briefly address what you can do to help. Obviously, there are protests that you can attend if you're able; it's worth having a look and seeing which ones are happening near you. However, I recognise that we're currently in the midst of a goddamn pandemic, and so attending a protest isn't a viable option for everyone.
You can also, of course, donate: the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which pays bail to those who are trapped in jail due to lack of funds, is an option, but it has been overwhelmed with donations and has suggested donating to Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block and the Northstar Health Collective. These are all local organisations for Minnesota. Unicorn Riot livestreams protests to avoid media censorship and there are other bail funds you can also donate to. There is also a memorial fund for George Floyd. For UK based anti-racist work, there are multiple charities who always need donations. This is not by any means an exhaustive list, but it's a couple to get you started if you're able to donate.
As white people, we need to not be silent any more. Our silence makes us complicit in that violence. If we see people being overtly racist, or covertly racist, or just saying uninformed, ignorant shit like "But all lives matter!!" then we need to step in and educate. We need to stop expecting Black people to do all the work on this. We need to listen to, uphold and uplift Black voices, and always prioritise Black voices when we're talking about Black lives, but we can't let them speak out alone.
And listen. I know it's tough to speak out sometimes. I get it. You think I enjoy getting the hate mail that comes with it? I don't. I had to eat five whole consolatory slices of cheese after a particularly vitriolic message earlier this week. But a bit of hate mail because you're loud about other people's rights to survive is absolutely nothing – nothing! – compared to having your right to survive constantly called into question. The ramifications for white people who are vocal on this issue pales into insignificance compared to the ramifications for Black people who are, y'know, simply existing a lot of the time.
Doing the work as white people to educate ourselves on white supremacy, structural/systemic racism and privilege is also vital. We need to have our minds open to accepting that we are the problem, and listen when we're told that our actions are perpetuating the problem. There are many great books that explain this very well. If possible, it's best to get these books from independent and particularly Black-owned businesses rather than Amazon, but obviously we're in a pandemic, and it's better to read them than not. There are plenty of reading lists available online, but here's a few to get you started:
Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness by Michelle Alexander White Rage by Carol Anderson Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Cullors Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X Kendi Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo Safe: on Black British Men Reclaiming Space edited by Derek Owusu Dear Ancestors: poems and reflections on the African diaspora by C.P. Patrick Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I think that's probably it, for now. I'll leave you with this: Black Lives Matter is not a slogan. It isn't three words that you can just say, half mean and then forget about. It's something that you have to dedicate yourself to showing and working towards, and it's not negotiable. Black Lives Matter; no ifs, buts or what abouts. It's a complete sentence and we need to start saying it like we mean it, and then proving that we do.
Anwen Kya Hayward was born in 1992 and has been quietly fuming about it ever since. She has a Master's in Myth, Narrative and Theory, a terribly behaved cat and a bit of a thing for iambic pentameter. Her first novella, Here, the World Entire, was self-published in 2016, and she's currently working on a collection of writing about grief.