Euan McColm: Shamed by false dawns of outrage at injustice
The one consolation for the fact this crime took place was that it quickly became a defining moment in the battle for racial equality. Those who watched the footage united in righteous anger; the lives of black people mattered and this incident would be the catalyst for change.
Even the American president spoke out against the officers involved.
“What I saw,” he said, “made me sick. There’s no way in my view to explain it away. It was outrageous.”
You will have realised by the presidential remarks I quote that the film about which I write is not the distressing one of the death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer but the brutal beating of Rodney King by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991.
President George Bush’s condemnation of the officers involved seemed to sum up the anger of his nation. Surely things would change.
A commission established in the aftermath of the King case identified flaws within the LAPD. And, now everyone knew what those were, work could begin on addressing them.
What actually happened was, a year after they were filmed brutally assaulting King, the officers involved were cleared by a jury and Los Angeles erupted in flames as rioting spread across the city.
Still, lessons would be learned, wouldn’t they?
A little under a year after the LA riots, the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered in a racist attack at a London bus stop.
Though suspects were swiftly identified, police handling of the case was utterly inept, undermined by corrupt and racist officers. The justice system failed Stephen Lawrence and, in 1999, the full extent of the Metropolitan Police’s problem with racism was laid bare in a report on its handling of the Lawrence case, written by former High Court judge Sir William Macpherson.
The Macpherson Report declared the Met institutionally racist.
Didn’t that feel like a moment of huge significance? Here was the excoriating shaming of a major institution. Heads rolled and newly promoted senior officers gave extensive and thoughtful interviews in which they assured us that the death of Stephen Lawrence would mean something. Politicians begged forgiveness for a system rotten to its core and promised something better for members of ethic minorities.
And where has all this learning of lessons got us? Across America, protests about the death of George Floyd continue, while President Donald Trump uses his Twitter account to stoke division.
Across the UK, similar protests show that it’s not just our American cousins who’re wise to the bleak truth that the dice remain loaded against members of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.
In a powerful speech to the Scottish Parliament last week, the Labour MSP Anas Sarwar tore through a list of institutions – public bodies, civil service departments, schools – pointing out the desperate lack of people from BAME communities in senior positions.
Sarwar, once a rather cautious and slick politician, has – in recent years – thrown himself into the battle for racial equality. In the process of his campaigning, he has become one of the most substantial political figures at Holyrood.
Colleagues and opponents, alike, cheered Sarwar’s speech. For a moment, the delusion that this was a defining moment fluttered around the debating chamber.
But, for course, it was not a defining moment but another small step on a long and tortuously slow journey, made all the more difficult by openly racist remarks from populist politicians.
Okay, so we’ve let down the ethnic minorities, failed them and been shown up for our inadequacy, but how about progress in other areas of our white male dominated society?
What about sex equality? Surely we’ve made proper progress there? I mean, remember all those times we held up women who had succeeded as proof young girls could grow up to be all they wanted and more? Were those photo opportunities all in vain?
I mean, sure, if you want to be pedantic about it you could say these female role models such as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon are exceptions to the rule that says men continue to have the upper hand, but where’s the fun in that? Where’s the fun in admitting Sturgeon is a freak of statistical nature who has succeeded despite her sex?
I have watched her career for the best part of quarter of a century and the naked misogyny to which she has been subjected from various quarters has been quite astonishing. Relentless abuse about her appearance and her morality is just the layer of shit that comes free with being a senior woman in the public eye.
Another successful woman helpfully highlighting just how little progress has been made is the novelist JK Rowling, who last entered the current debate about gender with a thoughtful piece in which she wrote about her belief in the importance of the preservation of women’s sex-based rights. In outlining her views, Rowling disclosed the male violence that had played its part in shaping her feminism.
Among those who began shouting down Rowling most loudly on social media were young men for whom her brand of feminism isn’t good enough. Rowling was peddling hate, they said, she was weaponising her victimhood.
If you want to know how little progress we are making on the matter of sexual equality, look at the sort of abuse the wrong kind of feminists are getting these days. (If you’re a woman and you’re not sure what the wrong kind of feminism is, say something – anything – online and a man will be along directly to assess you).
A day later, when the Sun ran a repulsive front page story in which Rowling’s abusive ex-husband declared his lack or remorse, those same young men found a new target. They would stop demanding Rowling shut up and, instead, stand with her in the face of tabloid bullying.
Once an appropriate period of solidarity has been observed, hostilities will, I’m sure, be resumed.
Is the progress we tell ourselves we’ve made over the years real? It’s starting to feel to me very much like the same old people are dealing with the same old shit.
If I was a member of an ethnic minority or a woman (or both) I wouldn’t believe a damned word men who look like me say about their desire for change.
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