There is a place for gestures in politics as protestors take to the streets

Hundreds joined the Black Lives Matter protest at Christchurch Park in Ipswich this weekend. Picture

Hundreds joined the Black Lives Matter protest at Christchurch Park in Ipswich this weekend. Picture: IAN BURT - Credit: Archant

As a middle-aged, middle-class, white man, it is perhaps presumptuous for me to offer any kind of opinion on the state of race relations after the Black Lives Matter protests of the weekend.

The statue of Edward Colston was thrown into Bristol Harbour on Sunday: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

The statue of Edward Colston was thrown into Bristol Harbour on Sunday: Ben Birchall/PA Wire - Credit: PA

But this is clearly the burning issue of the moment locally, nationally and internationally, it is clearly something that should concern all of us – whatever our personal heritage or the colour of our skin.

I have total sympathy with the aims of the Black Lives Matter protesters in tackling racism.

In this country the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the inequality that particularly affects the BAME community who have suffered many more deaths and serious cases of this disease than the general population.

And there are long-standing worries about how some BAME communities regard the attitudes of police in some parts of the country. No one should be surprised or offended if the community wants to express their anger about those issues.

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There have been questions asked about such demonstrations taking part during lockdown.

Personally, I would not have gone to a protest event simply because I am still concerned about the spread of Covid-19 and I would have told anyone who asked me to stay away for the same reason.

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However, I have seen that at many protests – including that in Ipswich – the vast majority of people were being mindful of social distancing guidelines. And the fact is that experts say the virus is much less likely to spread at outdoor gatherings like this than it is indoors.

More: Hundreds attend protest at Christchurch Park

We also have to accept that the killing of George Floyd is very raw now. People want to make their voice heard on that, and the state of racial inequality, now. Members of that community are feeling scared and angry. They want to have their voices heard now – not in three or six months’ time.

Those protesting made their decision knowing the risks and the dangers.

But I feel there was no justification for the violence we saw from a small minority of demonstrators, especially in London.

Violence seen towards police in London was totally unacceptable – as was the desecration of the statue of Churchill and of the Cenotaph. I hope the people responsible are arrested and are dealt with by the courts.

I have conflicted feelings about the tearing down of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol. I do not condone criminal damage in any circumstances.

However I do understand the pain it has caused over many years to the large BAME population in Bristol and the total failure of the city’s authorities over those years to address those concerns (whichever party has been in power).

For years the local authorities have said they want to take it down, but there’s always been a higher priority – a school to repair, a road to fix, homes to update. I understand that – but all the time a large number of Bristolians were becoming very frustrated. I’m not surprised that frustration boiled over at the weekend during the Black Lives Matter protest.

Yes, it was criminal damage. The statue shouldn’t be left in the dock (I’d put it in a museum showing the horrors of slavery). But I do feel that in this case the Avon and Somerset Police have better things to do than build criminal cases against frustrated campaigners.

And let’s face it, there’s been more debate about Britain’s role in the slave trade over the last four days than there had been over the previous four decades.

One last point on the local campaign. I was proud to see our local council lighting the Town Hall to mark the Black Lives Matter campaign and I was surprised that any politician could object to this.

More: Town Hall lit to mark Black Lives Matter campaign

Opposition leader Ian Fisher opposed the move – he said he supported the cause, but real change and action was more important than gestures.

But gestures have been a key element of politics for at least a century – and have very serious impacts and make people feel very connected to an issue.

Clapping for carers didn’t achieve anything in itself. Winston Churchill’s V for Victory didn’t achieve anything in itself. Wearing a badge saying NHS doesn’t achieve anything in itself. But they all help to make an individual or an organisation feel part of something much larger.

So lighting the town hall, which put no one at any increased risk and cost virtually nothing was a very good way of showing that to the council and the vast majority of people of the town that black lives do matter. And that gesture was very worthwhile.

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