Wednesday 10 June 2020

Snakes and Ladders: #blacklivesmatter, Covid-19 and why we must make the best of constitutional moments

Do you feel bad or uncomfortable about us doing this?”

“I do. But I’d also feel bad and uncomfortable if we didn’t do this. So it’s six and two threes.”*

A little list

Those, who follow Matron may remember that she has been quite vocal over the last ten weeks of lockdown about idiots, who risk their own lives and others’ by doing stupid things in public that risk transmission of a deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic. Testosterone laden jocks that just can’t live without their daily regimen of pull-ups on the outdoor gym equipment in the local park. Couples with small children that, by keeping a safe distance from each other, take up so much public space that they can't distance themselves from anyone else. Joggers, usually male, who see this as an opportunity to shave a few more seconds off their all-time record and who see "other people" as nothing more than inconsiderate obstacles on their road to fame. Those two girls, who hardly look up from their mobile phones when they force other pedestrians into the path of oncoming traffic while their dog's leash creates a deadly tripwire across the pavement. Dominic effing Cummings testing his effing eyesight. They’d none of them be missed and Matron very definitely has them on a list.

And then there are those other, more ideologically motivated idiots, who think that this whole lockdown thing is at best a government-sponsored hoax and at worst an infringement of their human right to get a haircut. Matron is of course not the first to point out the irony that many of those that come out on the streets in protest (whether with or without an assault rifle) to proclaim that “the country needs to get back to work” are not necessarily talking about their own “right” to work, but about the “right” of others to provide to them the services they feel entitled to receive. Anyone for patriotically picked strawberries? Don't worry! Waitrose has your back.

But having said all that, this pandemic and the related lockdown does, of course, have an undeniable economic impact on many people that we will only be able to appreciate in its full effect when government subsidies like furlough schemes, mortgage payment holidays and tenancy eviction bans run out. It is by now a truism that the virus affects all of us but does not affect us all in the same way. And eventually a balance will have to be struck between the harm it causes to individual and public health and the individual and societal harm we will suffer from an extended lockdown. Matron gets that. And yet…

Stay home, save lives, protect... sorry, what was the other one?

The new infection numbers in the UK remain high, the daily death rate seems to have plateaued (for now) at an unhealthy 100-200 a day on a seven day average, and the infamous “R” number remains stubbornly around the “1” mark, meaning that we will likely be living this new normal for quite a while longer. With the official UK death toll having reached more than 40,000 and the excess death toll now exceeding 60,000, this is no time for complacency. The longer this drags on, the more damage it will cause. To our health, our economies and our democracies. Which is why Matron has been stubbornly on the side of those, who have urged caution about relaxing the lockdown and who insisted that opening up too early would likely prolong the agony and cause repeated relapses. Being shut in the house for months was not fun. Having to go back inside after you were allowed to play outside for a bit is unlikely to do anything for anyone's mental health.

The mettle of our pasture

So why then did Matron ultimately decide to throw caution to the wind last weekend and join the local Black Lives Matter protest?** There is a lot to be criticised about that decision and many have indeed shown their disdain for those, who have taken similar decisions because they felt that, on balance, the harm of contracting and possibly spreading the virus does not measure up against the harm caused to them and their fellow humans by structural inequality, discrimination and oppression.  People on “the left” have been accused of “changing the coronavirus narrative overnight” to suit their social justice warrior agenda, while others have argued that this is a fallacy because a clear cost/benefit analysis would undoubtedly show that the number of black lives that will be saved by the protests is below the number that those protests will risk by further spreading the infection. This could be particularly important, some also say, in the light of the empirical fact that the UK BAME Covid-19 death rate is more than twice that of white people.

However, from what Matron can observe from her own safe and secure, remote-working, lily-white, middle class vantage point, this may be the wrong way to look at it, at least when you see it through the eyes of someone, who has likely already been subject to continued exposure to the disease throughout the entirety of the lockdown because their badly paid job has suddenly been elevated to "key worker" glory, and who may consequently not feel that joining a protest will add much to the risk that they have already been expected to take. That higher BAME death rate may of course have its origin in genetics. But not a few have argued that it is much more likely that socio-economic factors and existing systemic inequality played a much more significant role in causing it (if only we could have an inquiry designed to find out more about this. Oh. Wait…!).

So, if you and yours are already dying from Covid-19 because you are deemed essential for keeping the wheels of capitalism turning, you may have a different perception of the risk you take by protesting against the very system that already kills you in greater numbers than your white peers.

But that does not apply to Matron, of course, who has spent the last ten weeks safely locked down in her cosy flat in a posh suburb of one of the UK’s major cities. So why were we there, placards in hand and with a drawn look of persistent health anxiety on our faces? "Is this really the time?" some of her mates will ask her? "Can’t this wait until we managed to get a handle on this pandemic?"

If not now, when then?

It's a seductive argument. After all, white supremacy, police brutality and systemic (economic and political) inequality have been around for longer than any of us. They're probably going to be good for a few more weeks or months. Why not wait with all the protesting until we can do so safely?

Well the first counter-argument to that is that if you want to be a good ally to a community that fights oppression but of which you yourself are not a member, it is not your call to make when to schedule the revolution. So even if it is scheduled for 4am tomorrow morning, you drag your weary body out of bed and you show up.

But the more important argument is that we are currently living through what is known in the trade as “a constitutional moment”. One of those rare moments in time, when something so exceptional has happened that it shakes even average people out of the inertia bubble they usually inhabit. A moment where real change is actually a possibility.

Both the anger that has erupted following the death of George Floyd and the bravery of people, who currently grant us real-time access to their own lives and personal experiences despite the risk to their lives and livelihoods, is not something that can just be bottled and saved until a more convenient time. Because there is a good chance that by that time the attention of those who need to see that anger and that courage will once again have been diverted to other matters. It is now that hashtags like #unMUTEny or #BlackintheIvory show us what it is really like to live in the average Western democracy as a black man, woman, actor, scientist, student, nurse, doctor, bus driver etc. And it is now that this insight will hopefully motivate us to take action.

The discussion surrounding British colonial history - to take just one example - matters now, not because black people are speaking about it. They have always spoken about it. It matters because for what is likely to be a very brief moment in time, white people are likely to listen. And having the other person listen is important when you’re trying to have a conversation.

Snakes and ladders

Constitutional moments focus the mind and facilitate change at speed rather than through small, incremental, trickle down moves. On the game of Snakes and Ladders that is our political system, they allow us to move from place 29 to place 84 in one fell swoop (before we likely slide down a few more places when the backlash comes and we next step on the head of a snake).

To wit: it has taken Bristol Council until 2018 to agree that the plaque on Edward Colston’s statue should include mention of his slave-trading activities. It then took over two year to do exactly nothing to follow up on that agreement because a final wording could not be agreed. After the protestors' decision last weekend to donate the statue to the newly established Bristol Underwater History Museum, it took London a mere two further days to remove the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan from its position at West India Quay. Which means that, oftentimes, these things only happen during constitutional moments when acute pressure is applied. And to apply acute pressure, you need the numbers, in a very visible way. Even in the times of Covid. 

Constitutional moments are not moments to be wasted and they are not moments that can be scheduled, delayed or conserved for later. Some of the constitutional moments Matron has experienced in her own lifetime include the Chernobyl disaster (which led to moves in many countries to divest from nuclear power), the fall of the Berlin Wall (which ultimately led to the end of the cold war), the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS crisis (both of which sparked big movements and led to better rights protection of LGBTQ+ people), the Snowden revelations (which caused a review of the laws governing government surveillance in many countries) and the accusations against Harvey Weinstein (which started the #metoo movement).

None of the issues that led to these constitutional moments were invisible to the naked eye before the respective events occurred. In all cases we knew or had an inkling of what was happening or we were aware of the risks. We just didn't really want to know. But if we had to make a decision today of what our response to those constitutional moments should have been, would we really trade the improvements that have come from them and the progress we managed to make as a result for a safe few weeks, if there had been a pandemic at the time? 

So when our BAME friends and neighbours tell us that the brutalisation of their community is a pandemic that has raged for centuries (mostly wilfully ignored by us “dear white people”) and that the time to act is now - because for this very very short moment in time, people might actually be willing to do something about it - should we not respect that view and adjust our own cost-benefit analysis accordingly?

As someone, who enjoys white privilege, Matron has undoubtedly committed many micro and maybe even macro aggressions against BAME friends and colleagues in her life. At the very least she has benefitted from her whiteness in innumerable ways. To become aware of and unlearn that is her responsibility going forward. 

But right now, at this particular constitutional moment, there is work to be done by all of us. And even though protesting in the middle of a pandemic is not the only way to bring about change, it is one way. And it is the way that has been chosen by those most affected. And that’s ultimately what matters.

Actual conversation with Mrs Matron on the way to last week's Black Lives Matter protest. 

** It should be noted at this point that Matron is much more of a coward than this post suggests and that the protest she and Mrs Matron joined was in fact billed as "socially distanced" and was mostly true to that promise, because it took place in a massive field just outside the city centre with next to no police presence. Had it turned into something like London or Seattle, she would most likely have chickened out, dropped her sign and run. So this piece is not primarily about making people feel guilty for not joining protests. It is about making people, who did join despite the Covid-19 risk, feel less guilty.

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