Responding to Common Arguments Against Black Lives Matter

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Roughly three weeks ago Black Lives Matter protesters gathered at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle, near where I live, as part of the activism sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Not long into the day a ‘counter-protest’ turned up calling themselves ‘Defenders of Newcastle’ who said they were there to stop BLM protesters taking down the statue of Charles Earl Grey. Grey was prime minister when slavery was abolished in the British Empire, so it seemed absurd to tear his statue down. Only, the protesters never said they wanted to take the statue down; Grey’s monument is a good spot for a protest, like the BLM protest there the previous weekend — plus the statue stands on a 135 foot-high column so unless protesters had brought a crane, or intended to choreograph into a human ladder, Grey was not coming down. With police separating the two groups, DoN protesters started to shout ‘scum’ at BLM protesters, who began to shout it back, until it was a chant going both ways.

After seeing this I wrote an angry facebook post (because that’s how the person of 2020 is supposed to express anger isn’t it?). The post ended with something like, ‘If you support Defenders of Newcastle you’re a fucking idiot’. Which expressed my feelings, but I’ve wondered since whether this post isn’t also part of the problem. Many of the people against BLM think protesters are creating problems where there aren’t any, are over-critical and attempting to tear everything down — be it a statue or an idea of national pride. The people who support BLM tend to think this other group are idiots, are ignorant, racist, unsympathetic. The clash is a vicious circle: whether it’s online or in the streets it becomes another manifestation of those two crowds shouting ‘scum’ at each other, and the original point of it all gets lost in the conflict.

But I imagine most people who use the following arguments have just never thought about these issues before. Most don’t possess a burning hatred of black people. The majority of people against BLM know racism is wrong and understand the racism in something as archetypally unjust as a police officer pressing his foot down onto a black man’s throat, but they’ve never been introduced to concepts like ‘systemic racism’, ‘white privilege’, or contextualising racism. Supporters of BLM sometimes assume everyone is educated on these things and so should automatically agree with them.

I’m not saying there aren’t people who are irrationally racist, driven or hateful. Like the people doing Nazi salutes next to Churchill’s statue — the irony doesn’t seem to bother them, if they realise it at all. Reading or debating won’t do anything for these people. I recently heard someone online say You can’t reason someone out of a belief that they didn’t reason themselves into. So what do you do with these people? I don’t know. Shout ‘scum’ at them and stand your ground?

But hopefully most people are open to having their views changed. This article responds to 12 common arguments against BLM I’ve seen over the last few weeks. I saw most of these arguments on my social media feed, many of them people I went to school with. Them and my dad, who has said most of these things to me recently.

1. ‘All Lives Matter’

No one claims they don’t. BLM includes white people. The aim is solidarity, but also the acknowledgement that black people have it harder, whether through finding it harder to be hired or as more likely to be victims of police violence. ‘White Lives Matter’ is someone already winning a race — who started out in first place — complaining it’s unfair that other people are getting help.

White people seem to hate the idea they are ‘privileged’ because they don’t feel privileged, they have tough lives like everybody does. No one denies this, but people’s lives are shitty for many different reasons, some of them universal, some of them due to having a certain colour of skin. I don’t consider my life great but I can see that none of the reasons for that have anything to do with being white.

Although not the first to use the phrase, Trump popularised ‘All Lives Matter’. It uses the language of inclusion, literally ‘all’ people, and so seems inherently anti-racist. But these three words are a clear play on ‘Black Lives Matter’ only with Black crossed out. No one is denying all lives matter, but white lives very clearly do matter to society, unlike many black lives. Making it about ‘all’ people makes it about no one in particular, and so wilfully ignores the purpose of BLM entirely.

2. ‘George Floyd was a criminal. If he hadn’t committed a crime he wouldn’t have had anything to worry about.’

Immediately after the video of George Floyd’s murder appeared online, police responded that Floyd was being arrested for using a fake $20 note. This has since been shown to be a lie. It’s also been said he was high on meth. Also a lie. It’s possible he was high on marijuana (which is legal in most states of the US) but there’s no sign this is why the police were ‘arresting’ him. Their motivations aren’t clear.

‘He had a criminal record including armed robbery of a pregnant woman. He shouldn’t be held up as a martyr. BLM should find a better poster-boy.’ It’s true Floyd had done bad things in the past. But this doesn’t mean he — or anyone — should be brutally murdered in the street. And it seems very unlikely the man who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, knew about Floyd’s criminal past or factored that into his actions. And it’s entirely possible to feel sympathy and solidarity for someone wrongly killed without glorifying their past actions; the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

I’ve not seen anyone heroize Floyd as an individual. He’s not become so much a martyr as a symbol. His fame has been because of the video of his death. Many acts of police violence go unfilmed and so it’s unsurprising that the killing that sparked such protest was attached to an affecting video. It’s very hard to get people to pay attention to police violence, hence a video with a clear narrative helps. It doesn’t absolve Floyd of his crimes, but his crimes don’t absolve Chauvin of being a murderer.

3. ‘People are making this about race when the problem is police brutality.’

Police brutality is a problem that affects all demographics, but it disproportionately affects black people. People who advocate ‘colour blindness’ — who say George Floyd’s killing was a policeman killing a civilian, the racial element being unimportant — often believe BLM is creating a problem where there isn’t one. But this is similar to ‘All Lives Matter’: it ignores race — which black people certainly can’t ignore, given society roughly reminds them of it every day — rather than eliminating it. If the problem is about race and you say you are colour blind then you are denying the problem exists.

‘Derek Chauvin’s wife is Asian which disproves the whole idea he is a racist.’ There are different forms of racism; Asians are victims of racism in the US but much less so than black people: racial hatred for African-Americans is deeply entwined with American history. It’s entirely possible to devalue the lives of black people while being married to an Asian woman.

People with no relation to racism or who live in places where there is none (often because there are no people of other races there) sometimes feel as though black people continue to ‘bang on’ about race when they should leave it be. A ‘don’t talk about it and it’ll go away’ mentality. But the world, the structures around us, make race relevant to black people — while also allowing white people to forget they are white, because to them it’s irrelevant.

This sort of thinking, when flipped, creates a focus only on black people, leading to the complaints that BLM ignore ‘black on black violence’. But once again no one claims this doesn’t exist; but its existence depends on interpersonal factors between the individuals involved, or social factors like growing up in a poor crime-prone neighbourhood, not due to race, as a large amount (not all) white-on-black violence is.

4. ‘No one rioted when [name of white person killed by police or by black person] died.’

I don’t know how country-wide it spread but in the north of England Lee Rigby became an online poster-child in some people’s eyes: he was a young soldier in the British army who off-duty was knifed to death by two black British-Nigerians who said they killed an army man to avenge the deaths of Muslims in the Middle East by the British army. This is a horrible crime. But it is an isolated incident. It’s not a common occurrence for Muslims to kill people in the British army. The two men killed Rigby for their own reasons, not because of systemic racism, which is what BLM is responding to.

Rigby’s parents responded they don’t want their son used as a symbol of hatred against black people.

But Rigby is just one of countless people who’ve been referenced as proof of a double standard by which people don’t care about the murder of whites and overvalue the murder of blacks. ‘Where was the riot for these people?’ My response is: why didn’t you riot for them? Why is it you only care about these deaths now, or only see them as having some political relevance, now they’re usable as a ‘counter’ to BLM?

5. Statues tell our history. They shouldn’t be torn down, or at least that should be decided democratically.’

The tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol sparked a wide culling of statues around the country. Colston was a businessman who gained a great deal of his wealth from the African slave trade. Some people have been surprisingly angry about the taking down of a statue of a man they’d never heard of. ‘Those things were in the past, why make a big deal out of them now?’ The statue coming down is more about removing the symbol of Colston rather than giving some final judgement on him. Why would it be acceptable to have a symbol glorifying a man who played a part in enslaving people?

‘The statue was put up because of his charity work. He put the money from the slave trade into charities and built hospitals still in Bristol today. It would be hypocritical to tear the statue down but use the hospital.’ Keeping it up because of his charity work implies a sort of good-bad weighing-up on the scales, but sometimes horrible people do nice things, that doesn’t excuse them. I didn’t see the same people advocating they keep up the statue of Jimmy Saville, even though he did decades of charity work and even put lots of moneys into hospitals. As for tearing down the statue but still using the hospital: statues and hospitals mean very different things. Statues are symbols of a person. A hospital is something actively managed by many people every day. No one walks into a hospital and says, ‘Before I have this operation you must tell me, who made this hospital?’ A hospital is its own thing, a statue of a man is very much about that man.

For years now Colston’s statue has been complained about by some locals but politicians did nothing to take it down, or weren’t fast enough doing it. Protesters took it into their own hands — it was democracy of the crowd.

And statues are not history. Read a book.

6. ‘Winston Churchill was a war hero. It’s disrespectful to just say he was a racist and ignore the rest of his legacy.’

Some people have defended Churchill’s statue from being torn down, despite the fact no one tried to take it down. Someone wrote ‘…is a racist’ below the statue (now removed) but it should be noted that in almost every protest in London Churchill’s statue is vandalised or dressed up with silly props, it’s part of the protest culture — it is only this protest people have complained about it.

The idea that we’re now, collectively, ‘only talking about the bad things about Churchill’ and marginalising his achievements ignores that his achievements are all that’s been talked about for eighty years now. This is the first time the majority of people in Britain have been made aware of Churchill’s crimes, such as his purposeful creation of a famine in India that killed tens of thousands, and his racist views — he once declared the superiority of the ‘Aryan race’ — and only a few weeks of this, as opposed to eighty years, is considered heresy.

‘He did more good than bad.’ What are Britain’s Indian population — many of who moved, or whose ancestors moved, to Britain because the British Empire had destroyed the industry and social cohesion of India during the colonisation, then starved its people and left abruptly — what are these people to think of Churchill, who is likely no hero to them, despite them being British citizens as much as anyone? No one has asked to tear it down, just for acknowledgement.

7. ‘Regardless of how they feel, people shouldn’t be breaking the COVID19 lockdown to protest.’

That the protests coincided with the COVID lockdown is bad timing, although it’s possible the mass bottling-up of lockdown played a part in bringing many people outside to support BLM. Protesters ‘going against’ lockdown has been a key point of contention. Most protesters have been wearing PPE, and despite protests starting over a month ago and the virus having a two week incubation period the death toll has remained similar over time.

Did some protesters lack PPE and could they have distanced better? Yes. But there was a noticeable double standard in the way the protests were reacted to as opposed to other instances of social gathering. Images of almost entirely white crowds gathered on beaches, in parks — and at least one rave I’m aware of — fostered some derision from the media, and social media, but nothing heated. Politicians didn’t make an issue of it. These breaks with the lockdown were done purely as recreation and many happened early into the crisis when chances of infection were highest.

Comparably, BLM protesters had legitimate reasons to be outside, they were driven by solidarity and rage, and this happened later on into the lockdown. Politicians said they shouldn’t protest until after the pandemic is over, newspapers negatively reported on them, and it was a popular topic for angry social media posters. I didn’t see a single one of the same people complain about people gathered at beaches.

8. ‘I agree the killing of George Floyd was wrong but that doesn’t mean people should be out rioting and looting.’

Protests have been almost entirely peaceful, especially here in the UK. Complaints of rioting and looting have mainly come from America. They make up a small percentage of protesters but a disproportionately large percentage of news coverage. It’s another example of aversion to addressing racism by centring the conversation on something else.

Common consensus seems to be that protests are okay but riots are not and that they only harm small, local businesses. I’ve not seen any examples of this; in one American city rioters burned down a Target, a major supermarket chain, not local shops. But even if small businesses were harmed — and this is a bad thing I agree — this line of thinking implies that riots serve no function and are entirely avoidable. But riots are legitimate outpourings of anger: as Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Riots are the language of the unheard’.

(This is without getting into footage recorded in the US showing managers leaving their shop doors open in the hope they’ll be looted, a shop owner who threw a brick through his own window not knowing he was being filmed, police leaving bags of rocks where protesters will soon meet, and many others…)

9. ‘How can people think racism still exists when there’s so many successful black people?’

Anthony Joshua, usually a source of national pride, received backlash after speaking to crowds gathered at one BLM protest, where he encouraged people to put their money into black-run businesses.

One facebook post I saw said (paraphrasing), ‘How dare AJ badmouth Britain after we gave him the privilege of representing us at the Olympics.’ This thinking draws a line between British people and black people, a separation which doesn’t actually exist. There’s also a strange entitlement at play here, that we Brits ‘allowed’ Joshua to fight for us, rather than him being the best fighter at the time and so earned a spot in the Olympics.

In America the point is often raised that racism surely can’t still be a thing since they elected a black president. Over the last few weeks a UK iteration of this argument has appeared but with Obama replaced by any black person with a good deal of success, money, fame. Frantz Fanon called this ‘black faces in high places’. Because some black people are successful doesn’t disprove systemic racism or that all or even most black people aren’t disadvantaged. Joshua as a symbol of the fact black people aren’t disadvantaged is a surprisingly telling example: Joshua worked hard to get where he is and is a good athlete, but finding success as a professional boxer is very different from getting a job as, say, a lawyer or doctor, which are a lot more restrictive to poorer people; and Joshua was lucky to be coming into his prime as the UK was pumping money into boxing — usually underfunded — in preparation for the London Olympics.

And of course he doesn’t owe anybody anything.

10. ‘Things are better than ever for black people. People just love being victims.’

In 2016 Will Smith said to an interviewer, ‘Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed,’ which has been repeated a lot the last few weeks. And statistically it’s true: compared to previous decades black people do have easier lives and are victims of less police violence. And the combination of mobile phones, social media, and more progressive attitudes, does mean more attention is given to individual acts of racism than ever before.

But this quote is often used to express the sentiment that black people should be grateful for the progress that’s been made and stop complaining. But people don’t rate their problems based on other people’s, or other generation’s. (It’s the same argument I remember my teacher making in school when she’d say to the class, ‘There’s starving kids in Africa who would love to be at school right now, how dare you complain about it!’) There’s still racism and so it still needs attention.

It’s a good thing acts of racism are now often filmed. It’s not good most past acts of police brutality happened unseen by the world. It doesn’t make sense that because it happens less we need to talk about it less if traditionally we didn’t talk about it enough.

11. ‘If Little Britain is getting taken off TV then White Chicks should be taken off too.’

Reminiscent of the argument that if it’s wrong for white people to say the n word then it shouldn’t be tolerated for a black person to call a white a ‘cracker’.

But the n word has a long history linking it to centuries of slavery and oppression. The word cracker means nothing. If you’re a white person and you get offended at being called a cracker… then you’re forcing yourself to be offended, likely because you think it’s unfair you’re not allowed to say a word but ‘they’ are. These people are very likely to be the sorts that label other people ‘snowflakes’ when they fit the definition perfectly (as, ironically, most people who sincerely say ‘snowflake’ do).

Likewise blackface has a history, and so Little Britain using it whether intending to harm or not is existing as part of that history, following on from minstrel shows and cartoonish racial stereotypes. White Chicks is just funny. White people aren’t offended by ‘whiteface’ because that conceptually isn’t a thing. Context always matters. Doing things purely ‘on principle’ is often pointless.

And protesters didn’t care about this stuff anyway. No one was waving banners saying they demanded Fawlty Towers be banned. This was a decision by networks to pull these shows. The fact it has taken up such a large chunk of the media discourse represents another wilful act of aversion.

12. ‘We don’t have racism in the UK anymore. That’s an American thing.’

Every person I’ve heard make this argument also made at least one of the previous 11, thereby disproving their own point. Since the beginning of protests in the UK there has been backlash, people trying to change the narrative and deny a voice to protesters, and much demonization of BLM.

If you believe racism in the UK is ‘over’ then just look around: for the last month there’s been very little but racism.

The common thread of all 12 points is that they’re steering the conversation away from racism. And so the best counter is to steer it back. To always return the conversation to racism. Overt and systemic. This isn’t about whether White Chicks should be banned for being racist to whites — time spent on that is time lost from the conversation about race.

To be labelled a racist is now one of the worst things a person can be accused of and so no matter a person’s views they will actively try to avoid it. In the past racism could be done openly, and during the 20th century many more people were happy for racism to define their identity, but as racism has become less fashionable its manifestations have become subtler. Outright, violent racism still exists in the UK but most racism is systemic. When something is built into the social fabric it stops being noticed. People express and believe in these views unwittingly and unconsciously. And so racism isn’t in most cases about a wilful act but about ignorance. And this makes people defensive, because they aren’t doing anything purposefully racist so it seems common-sense that they aren’t doing anything wrong. But it’s possible to be racist without thinking of yourself as racist, or without ever outright spreading hate towards black people, as counter-intuitive as that might first seem.

This article is just 12 points brought up out of hundreds. A point-by-point countering is a very basic thing. Too basic. Because all I’ve done here is argue against anti-BLM rhetoric, rather than present an alternative. Or even present understanding. You won’t find any understanding in political back-and-forths and opinion pieces. You need to go to other places for that. Read Akala. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates. Talk to people. Protest. Don’t buy into the idea that culture, politics, all of it, is just one big argument, a never ending tug-of-war. Understanding each other is the only thing that will save us.

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