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Privilege and Protesting Peacefully

Last updated on June 9, 2020

On Saturday morning, I was scared.

A few of us had been attempting to organise a small but visible, mostly silent, peaceful protest in Westport, Co Mayo to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as well as protesting racism in Ireland.

I’d been on the phone the afternoon and evening before, feeling a bit like a cold caller, phoning people who I thought might feel similarly minded to find out if they wanted to join us and could definitely commit.

We were SO aware of wanting to observe public health guidelines, we weren’t advertising on social media or anywhere else.

We didn’t want to undermine efforts to minimise the spread of Covid19 so insisted on face coverings even though we were outdoors.

I bought some chalk to mark out 2 metre spacing for the 20 or so we hoped to draw.

I was scared that we wouldn’t have enough people.

Black Lives Matter solidarity from Westport

I was also scared that we might have too many people.

That social distancing would be impossible to maintain and that this would detract from our essential messages.

‘It felt very powerful and supportive from passers by. I wanted to take a stand and chose a side, not sit silently as that would be siding with oppression in my view. Everyone is special and deserves to be treated as such.’

Judy

At NO point was I scared that the Garda (Irish police) would drive at us, fire pepper bullets or tear gas at us or use force of any kind let alone excessive

White people saying (as I’ve seen, even today) that the police have always been courteous and respectful with them but then, they’ve never been aggressive with the police are completely missing the point that this is part of white privilege.

The police was set up, in the US, to catch runaway slaves. When slavery became illegal, the police were tasked with enforcing laws that perpetuated a white supremacist agenda.

In the UK, where many have been triumphant about a statue celebrating a slave trader in Bristol city centre being taken down, others have been bewildered that a statue celebrating a slave trader was ever erected in a city centre. And many people have felt hated every time they’ve seen that, and other statues which honour slavery.

Some are upset about it. This chills me to the bone. That some people are more upset about a statue commemorating a slave trader than about people’s LIVES.

And some still deny that the UK has a racism issue.

‘Young black boys and girls are being excluded from school in the UK and around the world for simply wearing their hair the way it grows out of their head and being told it is unkempt, untidy or glorifies gang culture yet the same styles are lauded as high fashion on someone white.’

Martine Henry is way more articulate than I could be re all the ‘I get where they’re coming from but they should be protesting PEACEFULLY’ comments.

She has given me permission to share her words:

‘Peaceful protestors does not suit the narrative if there are black people involved. The narrative that black people are thugs/criminally minded/have a chip on their shoulder/subhuman etc must be maintained at all costs. It helps justify the systems of different treatment and white privilege.

‘This is racism, people will think they are not racist because they never use the word n****r. We see this in news coverage all the time an angry white mob will be described as “rowdy or high spirited” . People are angry so you know what, some shit is going to get smashed and burned. People looting are opportunists taking advantage of the unrest and making the conversation about them diverts from the real issue.

‘This is racism.

‘White people (and I am not going to get into a “some white people” debate so don’t) love to police how black people feel.

‘Don’t talk about slavery, it was a long time ago, get over it.

The American footballer [Colin Kaepernick] who peacefully took a knee and refused to sing the American national anthem lost his job. So we are not allowed to protest peacefully either.

‘Young black boys and girls are being excluded from school in the UK and around the world for simply wearing their hair the way it grows out of their head and being told it is unkempt, untidy or glorifies gang culture yet the same styles are lauded as high fashion on someone white.

‘This is racism. I have had discussions with white friends about racist micro aggressions I have experienced, people who would consider themselves not racist and they will say they don’t think what I experienced was racism and I am being sensitive or my favourite “calling the race card/making it a black thing).

‘A white person telling a person of colour what is and is not racism is racism. In US history, black babies were used as alligator bait, black women were cut open without anaesthesia to study how the female reproductive system works, look it up.

‘When you are constantly told if, how, when you can deal with and process this information as a black person within a system that has its knee on your neck there comes a time when the kumbaya shit is not going to cut it.

‘The white racist system shows time and time again for 100s of years that it values property and money over life, so if looting, burning smashing is the way they finally stand up and take notice so be it.

‘Let’s not forget the America we see today was won through violence theft and looting of Native Americans so they should be used to it by now. I won’t even go into the British Empire…’

Martine Henry

Recognising different types of privilege isn’t about giving into (or denying) guilt

We hear a lot about white privilege and male privilege but recognising the areas in which we experience privilege – an advantage which, in some cases, is based on something that has absolutely nothing to do with anything we’ve done to deserve it – means we can better listen to the people who experience prejudice in those areas and make life that bit kinder, fairer and easier.

We can then, hopefully, better understand how debilitating it is when such privilege and prejudice is entrenched, such as with systemic racism.

Here are just a few examples (in no order of severity) of what diferent types of privilege can look like:

  • educational privilege – from private schools to university education, living or having access to a good school district or even access to tutoring
  • intellectual privilege – being bright enough to retrain information and understand
  • financial privilege – money talks
  • beauty privilege – from higher wages (studies show consistent bias) to getting served first at a bar
  • age privilege – youth being prized over experience. Or, in pandemic terms, the elderly being almost dismissed
  • weight privilege – people are discriminated against based on size
  • class privilege – just look at the UK Government for examples of what the upper classes get away with while others are written off for far less
  • happy childhood privilege – ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) mean many survivors spend their lives recovering rather than thriving
  • hetero privilege – being able to love whoever you love without fear of attack
  • marital privilege – depends on the marriage obviously but society is more set up for couples and families
  • cis privilege – not having to feel like you were born into the wrong body
  • health privilege – being able to take health for granted (v fighting visible and invisible disabilities, injuries and illnesses) is an enormous privilege
  • mental health privilege – apart from the stigma, it’s exhausting
  • climate privilege – living in areas less likely to be impacted (so soon) by the climate emergency

I know parents who’ve spent days and days and days and days of lockdown, helping their kids adapt to online learning.

They have worked so so hard AND, as a result their kids (who have also worked really hard) will return to school when they reopen with an advantage over the kids whose parents haven’t been been able to help them.

Maybe they haven’t had reliable internet, they have had to work on the farm instead of studying, they’ve been ILL and surviving the whole global pandemic rather than learning and revising.

Maybe their parents have been working, risking their lives as key workers and this has impacted their concentration.

They worked hard AND they were lucky

The kids who return to school and are further ahead might be secure enough and confident enough to recognise that yes, they worked hard AND they were lucky to have space in the house to study, a parent or parents who supported them (even when they would rather have been outside playing).

Ideal world, they might then use their privilege to help their peers get up to speed, too.

Someone who isn’t so secure or confident might attempt (and probably succeed) in using their privilege to make fun of the kids who’ve fallen further behind. They might be telling themselves and others that they’re somehow intellectually superior when actually, it’s far from a level playing field.

We’ve all heard such justifications around race and gender etc.

My passport privilege (having always had an Irish passport) meant I could move to Ireland and be welcomed. Am learning more about the Direct Provision horrors and starting to educate myself in hopes of helping.

None of us do anything to deserve where we’re born or who we’re born to

Recognising all the ways in which we have privilege doesn’t mean beating ourselves up for it but hopefully learning to listen to people who’ve experienced more prejudice in those areas.

Which types of privilege have you experience of?

In some areas, like youth being more valued than age, people who are considered more beautiful being treated better than others, someone gaining and losing weight, moving between classes, we can go back and forth as circumstances change. Other things, we can never change.

Which types of prejudices have you experienced?

White privilege and male privilege are more weighted because entire legal systems have been set up to enforce them.

Why on earth was there ever a statue of a slave trader in the centre of Bristol?

We need to educate ourselves where school curriculums were whitewashed. Growing up Indian Irish in England meant I learned a very different version of history at school to at home.

This was all pre internet and instead of deep diving to educate myself, I actively opted out, distrustful of what I was being taught (it didn’t mention what I’d heard about what had been done in Ireland, India, Kenya etc).

Re the UK, I currently feel hopeful (while also hearing John Oliver, below, that it’s not enough) that so many white people who had no idea about what the British Empire actually meant for other people. They are now calling for a more inclusive version of history to be taught.

Just as the patriarchy hurts men as well as women, white supremacy hurts white people, too – we’ll ALL benefit from racial justice. From confronting our pasts. From processing, listening and healing.

And OBVIOUSLY ‘not all police’

‘The police stand with the community and the community stands with the police…

‘There is no excusing a police officer putting his knee and keeping it of the neck of a man who’s handcuffed, calling for mercy…

‘There is no excuse for 3 officers sitting there and not intervening as required not just by policy, not just by law but by our conscience if we have one…. we stand with the Floyd family.

‘We stand with our community of all colours, all faiths, all creeds. We’re going to march with them until they get justice because that’s what they deserve.’

Art Acevedo, Houston Police Chief on Amanpour and Co, June 2020

Just as I’ve been horrified to see the police brutality at peaceful demonstrations protesting police brutality (NYPD driving vans into protestors, London protestors being kettled, Washington DC protestors having an ‘entirely peaceful’ demonstration attacked by police with tear gas, rubber bullets and brute force are just a few examples), I’ve been heartened to see videos where the police and National Guard have stood with and kneeled with protestors (and agree with Keke Palmer that it’s not enough).

An experience from Germany

I’m not suggesting Germany doesn’t have its issues but their confronting their history after WWII helped contribute to a much bigger peaceful protest than our small Westport one (where I counted 46).

‘My 21 year old daughter went to the protest in Cologne. They gathered along the banks of the Rhine. There was chanting but no march.

‘We (husband and I) went to the march in Düsseldorf. They expected 1,000 people. Apparently there were 37,000. When the first marchers arrived at the parliament, the rest of us were still waiting to move from the station!

‘All wore masks and we tried to keep a distance from people – we were requested to march in lines with 10 people abreast. Chanting, singing and the 8+ minutes silence at the start.

‘We feel, individually and as a family, that equality is really important. As foreigners in a land which is unfortunately know for its racism and the growth of rightwing parties, we feel some pushback against “foreigners” in general but “not people like you!”

‘My daughters have a lot of friends, some of whom are Black, (east) Asian and Turkish. They see the discrimination and racism they face all the time and have always followed our lead on calling people out on it. Politely.

‘We are fervent believers in equal rights for all. In Düsseldorf there were no problems and no arrests. The police were there, not in full riot gear but not in casual uniforms either. They did have back up from other cities (could see that from their uniforms). It was friendly and there are several pictures of small Black kids on policemen’s shoulders.

‘Follow the lead of the Black leaders of the marches, get a good sign – something pithy (my favourites: “if you put smashed avocado on it, the whites will notice” and “the only thing that should be separated by colour is laundry”).

‘Be respectful of the leaders and the police. Stay friendly – you’re all there for the same reason. Wear comfortable shoes and don’t drink (water or whatever) unless you know the toilets are available.

‘It boils down to “no justice no peace”’

‘We walked from the main station to the parliament building – just over 2km away – along major roads in Düsseldorf. The whole march (over 30,000 people apparently) lasted from 2pm to about 5pm in all which is a long time for the cars that were held up to be stuck.

‘I didn’t hear any abuse (some cars had their windows up and we couldn’t really see the drivers’ faces) but a lot of people waved, joined in the chanting, and gave elbow bumps as we passed. It was all rather peaceful, actually.

‘It was odd. I’ve been on lots of demos. This is the only one where I’ve worn a mask and the police have approved!’

Sheona, Germany

From a smaller protest in London, ‘Just do it’

‘We had a local peaceful protest at Crystal Palace Park. To observe social distancing we lined around the perimeter of the park at 2m intervals. It was very cold up there – it’s a high point in London so it gets the wind and it was raining. But there was a good turnout. People honked as they went past. Lots of police – more than I would have expected. But it was peaceful.

‘I feel that the BLM movement has hit something – people are fed up with the far right dominating the narrative. They are more open now to really being properly educated about racism and how to be anti racist.

‘We wanted to show commitment to the members of our local community that their neighbours who are not Black are there to support them. Just do it. Don’t stay silent.’

Lynley, UK

Just as when men stand against male violence against women, I hope ever increasing numbers of white people standing for racial equality will help BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Colour) voices be heard, listened to and that we can revolutionise the whole world to be safer, more compassionate and sustainable for all its inhabitants.

If you’re still thinking, ‘Oh but your protests were peaceful’, I’ve heard so many stories about all being peaceful until the police escalated things. 50 years of research indicates that the police response is what makes the difference – if they de-escalate (or at least don’t attack), it’s more peaceful.

Bristol’s positive example

Each time I see the statue topple, it feels a little scary (what if it lands on someome?) and also like freedom.

I cannot imagine what it’s been like for people to have walked past it every day, feeling hated by a city that celebrated such a person.

‘To arrest suspects would likely to lead to injuries to suspects, injuries to officers, and people who were not involved in damaging property being thrown into a very violent confrontation that could have had serious ramifications for the city of Bristol and beyond.

‘Can you imagine scenes of police in Bristol fighting with protesters who were damaging the statue of a man who is reputed to have gathered much of his fortune through the slave trade?

‘Whilst I certainly do not condone crime or damage of any sort, I fully support the actions of my officers.’

Chief Constable Andy March

Silence is violence

‘We need so much more than that [a few police people taking a knee in solidarity]. Because ours is a firmly entrenched system in which the roots of white supremacy run deep and it’s critical that we all grab a f***ing shovel. To do anything less would be absolutely unforgiveable’

John Oliver, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (7/6/20)

We CAN topple white supremacy.

With love,

Eve Menezes Cunningham self care coach therapist supervisor

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