Saturday, 6 December 2014

ON WHITE, BLACK, AND A RED MIST



 Media traffic across the pond continues to be dominated by the Grand Jury verdict in the tragic death of Eric Garner (video here but be advised it contains distressing scenes).  

 Following hard on the heels of the decision not to arraign in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, it has served to ramp up the heat under America’s always-simmering race cauldron.

 Standing at a distance I am always struck by how much of a trauma race seems to represent to the American psyche compared to here in the UK.

 I am not of course saying we do not have our own racism problems – a white man living in a largely white part of town does not get to make such complacent assumptions.

 I know that Britain has plenty of localities where skin colour will play a major and everyday role in people’s lives, but I am thinking now in terms of the overall national consciousness. It seems to me that in terms of the national scene, race has a power to dominate the agenda in the US to a far greater extent than it does here.

 This is, by the way, not withstanding the best efforts of a liberal media spearheaded by the BBC to stir up racial tensions wherever it can. But somehow it just seems that we in the UK cannot put our heart and soul into it in a way that seems to come so easily across the water.

 On reflection it is not that difficult to figure out what the difference is between our two countries and it comes down to one word: history.

  Britain overall has far more national history than the US (the Anglo-Saxons had a fairly well-developed system of jurisprudence six hundred years before Columbus’s dad was out of short trousers), but race is paradoxically one area where the United States has much more history than we have.            

 Until the 1950s and the onset of large-scale Commonwealth immigration the UK was a largely monochromatic society where a person would hardly ever encounter a non-white face in the street, hence the opportunity for racial tension (at least of the black/white variety) pre 1950 was close to zero.

 Compare that with the US where by the 1950s race had already been a prominent and controversial feature of American life for two centuries! 

  For instance, over here we have had nothing to compare with the traumas of US domestic slavery.

Britain’s slave trade was of course equally brutal but it operated largely overseas and so was out-of- sight, out-of-mind with regards to polite tea-drinking British society. In contrast, American slavery was something experienced in the home and in the street everyday rather than just something read about in the Times. Such things will inevitably scar a nation's conscience and it has so in the US.

 Here we have had no bloody Civil War fought with race as a prominent factor, have seen no Jim Crow laws, mourned no Martin Luther King.

Quite simply race has not had the time to seep into the national consciousness to anything like the same extent here in the UK as yet.  God willing, and if our history take a more harmonious path,  perhaps it need never do so. 

All of which is an overly- long introduction to a post that isn’t really about race at all but rather about how racial tensions in the US might sometimes make it difficult for our American cousins to see the wood for the trees.

 I think that this has happened in relation to the Garner death where the simple equation of white cop/dead black man has caused a red mist to descend which is allowing few to think clearly.

In both Ferguson and Staten Island a black man died at the hands of white police. Many have concluded therefore that both deaths are attributable to racism. But it is easy to place an apple next to an orange and say: there you are- fruit! 

 To me the Garner death falls into a different category to that of Michael Brown’s.
I do not say that his death was race-motivated either, since none of us really have the facts on that. All we can say is that the two cases contain obvious differences.

 In that sad video of Mr Garner’s last minutes on earth I see no obviously racial element to the incident, indeed I understand that not all the officers involved even were white.  

Let me tell you what I do see.

 I see a man (his skin colour immaterial) questioned over an allegation that he is selling untaxed loose cigarettes. He is clearly unarmed and surrounded by several police officers. That latter fact immediately places the matter on a different footing to Ferguson where the police officer was apparently alone and hence more vulnerable.  

Eric Garner’s alleged offence was next-to trifling, and many would question whether it even ought to be an offence. Nevertheless it was.

Ought he to have been breaking the law, even a minor law? No

Ought he to have submitted to arrest? Yes, and if he had then he would still be alive.

 But in my view neither of those factors can excuse what happened next which was a wholly disproportionate employment of force against a non-violent man.  

 It is true that the officers had no way to know that Mr Garner was in such poor health when they piled on top of him, but in my view, good police training ought to include the consideration that a person might have such problems especially when he is clearly overweight. 

But I have to suspect that police training these days increasingly reflects the degree of risk to the officer rather than to the public. Certainly that is the impression created by how that training is put into practice over here.

We have all known or read of potentially dangerous situations where police are called to an incident and they either arrive mob-handed or else they do not arrive at all. Clearly someone somewhere has carried out “a risk assessment” of the situation beforehand.   

 How different to the story that I heard related on the radio just yesterday of a dramatic encounter from the 1970s where several unarmed police officers relentlessly pursued a group of IRA terrorists through London’s streets despite the fact that they were being fired upon and had no means to defend themselves. Hard to imagine that happening today!

 I do not say that I expect police officers to put themselves in unnecessary danger but it ought to be clear that risk is a part of the job for which they have signed up.

 But in our risk-averse culture overwhelming police numbers and disproportionate force are now routinely deployed in order to eliminate the remotest element of danger to the officers themselves. This use of overwhelming force seems to have become the instrument of first resort rather than of last.

 And the issue is compunded when we see this action being taken in the enforcement of relatively minor offences, and not even in pursuit of the kinds of crimes that we wish to see the police tackle.

It is ironic that here in the UK as soon as we stopped referring to the police as a force and instead began calling them a “service”, they seemed to embark upon a path that is increasingly less about service to the public, and ever more about force!

 The style of British policing has undergone an unpleasant transformation in recent years. Police helicopters now hover over our neighbourhoods incessantly, investigating who-knows-what. Grim-faced armoured Robocop figures have long since replaced the friendly bobby on his beat. The use of tazers - sold to the public as a way of dealing with armed assailants without resort to the routine arming of policemen - now seems to be obligatory upon anyone who resists arrest whether they are armed or not.

You no longer have to be a young black man to feel intimidated in the presence of modern policing. As a middle-aged white man I now instinctively feel uncomfortable rather than reassured by the sight of a policeman and as someone whose instincts are to support the police in the execution of their Romans 13 duties, that is a sad thing indeed.  

 There has been no national debate about whether this is the style of policing we wished to see, it has simply been imposed upon us.  

 This new kind of policing might be justified if it were driven by the need to respond to exceptionally crime-ridden times but (somewhat remarkably given our many social problems) we keep being told that crime is well under-control these days, even in New York where the murder rate has plummeted in the last two decades.   

 Whatever other factors might have been at play, I maintain that it was the use of disproportionate force which was fundamentally the reason why Eric Garner died and not the colour of his skin.

There is a debate about policing that needs to be had on both sides of the Atlantic and we must not allow the descent of the racial red mist to obscure that fact.