As a teenager, I once met a man who reliably informed me, he was from the only group
that could be discriminated against – he was white, he was straight, he was male, he was
Christian, and the world was against him. This happened before I had ever considered
politics, though it still struck me as a flawed and somewhat self-pitying argument. The
protests of the last few years, under the banner of Black Lives Matter, have been faced with a
similar response “All Lives Matter”, which seek to suggest that the plight of minorities
should be ignored in favour of a majority, who feel that having the status quo shaken is a
rebuke to them.
I saw grief, anger, passion and genuine political engagement.
Since the death, or more adequately the murder, of George Floyd, there has been a surge in
such protests and on Saturday 7 June, I went to one in Parliament Square. I too am white,
straight and male and have benefitted from those traits my entire life. I must accept these
advantages, which were granted on me by the lottery of birth and not use them to suck the
oxygen out of debates that have real-world implications for millions. One common motif on
placards at the protests summed this up succinctly ‘white silence is white violence’. I must
admit, I felt a little awkward at the protests, because of a fear that I was appropriating
someone else’s struggle, a white saviour plagued with white guilt. Of course, this was self-
indulgent, these protests were not about me and my role was not to communicate my
message, but merely to demonstrate an acceptance that the status quo is unfair and that the
responsibility for change falls on all of us, especially those who have received a bigger slice
of the pie, with extra helpings of whipped cream.
The fact that these protests were held in the era of Covid-19 cannot go ignored. Attending
protests at such a time is by many held to be a reckless and selfish act. Deciding on whether
to go, I considered this point of view. Then I noticed the hypocrisy. War is easily branded a
sacrifice; it is violence made noble by its use against a greater evil. Another placard
encapsulated this message ‘racism is a pandemic too’. Unlike war, the methods employed
were non-violent. The media, even when it admits that protests are largely peaceful, is only
really able to focus on the extremes, the exceptions. It dusts them clean, polishes them up and exploits them for more than they are worth. At the protests, I did not witness any violence.
I had thought that protests like this would be a necessary evil. I was wrong.
I saw grief, anger, passion and genuine political engagement. I saw the young and the old. I
saw black people, white people and those of all different persuasions. And peculiarly to these
times, I saw people dispense hand sanitiser and face masks. I had thought that protests like
this would be a necessary evil. I was wrong. They were caring, they tried hard to support
efforts to fight COVID-19 and, perhaps most beautifully of all, they provided a real sense of
community in a time where social distancing has left all feeling lonely.
In a brave act, a young woman of colour climbed the statue of Abraham Lincoln, whom Trump had said days before, was the last president to do more for African Americans than him. From here she led people in chants of ‘George Floyd’ and ‘no justice, no peace’. Some people might view such behaviour as iconoclasm or of denigrating history. I think what it actually represented is that history is alive, and it affects our present. Voices must be heard, even if words are spoken from behind face masks.