If there’s one thing that has clearly emerged from the recent whirlwind of debate surrounding the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the consequent upsurge in the global Black Lives Matter campaign, it’s that every western country has its own distinctive relationship with the global history of racism and imperialism; and Scotland, of course, is no exception. The street names in our great cities tell the tale, the statues illustrate it; and when Kayus Bankole of the band Young Fathers created his light-and-sound installation for this New Year’s Message From The Skies event in Edinburgh, displayed in the courtyard of the City Chambers, he barely had to look yards from the building to find the names of those – Dundas, Bute – whose families grew rich on the proceeds of the trade that we were once taught was all about “tobacco and sugar” but which in fact also included the notorious “third passage”, the brutal slave journey from Africa to the Americas.
So we should perhaps be unsurprised, if nonetheless concerned, to see the emergence this week of a new phase of home-grown far-right activity in Scotland, with Glasgow’s George Square taken over twice in a week – on Sunday and Wednesday evenings – by black-clad groups, almost entirely male, claiming (like their associates in London) to be there to “defend statues”, after the statue of the slave-trader Edward Colston was unceremoniously tipped into Bristol harbour the previous weekend. On Sunday, they turned up to stage a counter-demonstration against Black Lives Matter marchers who, while not threatening any direct action, had raised questions about some of the figures celebrated in George Square statues.
The police asked the Black Lives Matter demonstrators to leave the area for their own safety, and most did so. What followed, though, was a disturbing scene, as a crowd of several hundred black-clad right-wingers roamed around the square looking for adversaries, attacking people trying to work as journalists and yelling racist abuse at anyone who appeared to belong to an ethnic minority; they also shouted slogans associated with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish racism. Police asked the victims of abuse – not the perpetrators – to leave, telling one that he was “making it worse” by being there.
No arrests were made on Sunday, so it’s perhaps not surprising that a right-wing group calling itself the National Defence League was emboldened to reappear at the square on Wednesday evening, this time to confront a small peaceful march in support of asylum seekers who have been suffering dire conditions during lockdown. Once again, those supporting the asylum seekers were led away by the police for their own safety, although this time six arrests were made – “on both sides”, as the police put it. On this occasion, though, suggestions of equivalence between the two groups drew some resistance. “Why is the BBC giving this the ‘both sides’ treatment?” asked Green MSP Ross Greer. “One group organised a peaceful rally for vulnerable people; the other turned up purely to attack them.”
And about all this, there are several things worth saying. The first is that Scotland is not alone in facing an upsurge of right-wing activity, more coordinated and perhaps better funded than it has been for decades. The internet has facilitated the circulation of ideas and conspiracy theories around such groups, strengthening transatlantic links; and in a sense Scotland is more fortunate than many other countries in not having an active far-right party as a major part of its political landscape and also in having a government which, though sometimes failing in terms of action against racism, can at least be relied on, in a crisis, to send out the strongest signals that this kind of politics should have no place in our public life, as the First Minister did on Wednesday night.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, anyone can sympathise, at least in outline, with a police force making public safety and violence reduction its priority, when faced with an ugly-minded mob seeking to vent its aggression. Yet for years this kind of approach – seeking to remove points of conflict and to reduce the threat of violence “on both sides” – has been criticised as inadequate by campaigners against anti-Irish and anti-Catholic hate crime in Glasgow; and now, as some of those involved begin to link into a wider global movement based on white-supremacist fantasies, and often using overtly fascist symbols and imagery, we can see with ever-greater clarity what a dangerous line we are now treading, between advising people to go home for their own safety, and simply conceding our public space to far right hate-groups whose views are rejected by the vast majority of citizens.
And of course, history is not short of examples of how a violent minority, however small, can begin to dictate the fate of a whole society, if they are not confronted and resisted at an early stage; and of how repeated police failures to confront hate-crime, and the bullying threat of it, can shatter trust between the police force and minority communities. So at the very least this looks like a moment for Scottish society, including its police force, to look seriously at the long-term signals we are sending, when we fail to arrest and charge those who threaten public disorder, while attacking and abusing people of ethnic minority origin, and chanting slogans based on racist hate-speech.
And it’s also time for the vast majority in Scotland who prefer to live together in harmony, and to celebrate the rich diversity of our 21st-century life, to start to think creatively about how, despite all the pressures of lockdown, we can start to stand up for the Scotland we want and to take our public spaces back from those who seek to make them scenes of hatred and exclusion – places where we worship the statues of white male leaders long dead, while venting the aggression of long-gone wars against everyone who has a different tale to tell or a new song to sing, and who no longer wants to bow to those same false gods.
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