As I write, it is raining heavily outside. Yet, if I walked to Dundee Airport, and got into a small plane, and I flew to Edinburgh Airport, and then I flew in a larger plane to California, where I have always wanted to visit, I’d get there in about 31 hours, and there would be no rain. Or, if I could have got to California in the blink of an eye, there would be no rain. Another difference would be -day here, night there.
So, as I write, it is raining outside and it is dry; it is daylight in some places and darkness in others. It always depends where you’re standing. There’s no difficult science in any of this. It’s obvious. And, none of it matters much, most of the time, unless you are planning a long trip, and you need to calculate international time zones. And, travelling a long way in the blink of an eye is not possible today, anyway. Except, in our minds.
In Dundee, we’re around 8 hours ahead of the time in California. If, continuing on my imaginary lockdown trip, I flew to Minneapolis in Minnesota, I would need to travel another 1474 miles. There would then be around six hours of time difference between the imaginary Harvey Duke, standing on a street in Minnesota and the real Harvey Duke, writing in Dundee. Such a big time difference in one country is something I find amazing. It feels a bit like when I was a child and I thought that – across the River Tay, Fife was a different country, and if I went beyond its’ hills, it would be dark there when it was daylight here.
In Minneapolis, in mid evening on May 25th, 2020, a black man, George Floyd, was arrested on a street outside a small shop by 4 police officers. He was suspected of using a forged 20- dollar bill in the shop. Three officers forced him to the ground. One officer -Derek Chauvin – put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, and held it there for more than 8 minutes. A fourth officer kept people from coming closer to see what was happening. George Floyd said repeatedly that he could not breathe. People passing by asked Derek Chauvin to take his knee off the man’s neck, but he did not. George Floyd called the officers ‘Sir’, as he explained he could not breathe. Eventually, he called out for his mother. And then he died. Murdered slowly, in front of the whole world, as the events were captured on video, by a passer-by.
In Dundee, during the same 8 minutes and a few seconds, when a police officer was killing a black man, at the side of the road in Minneapolis, I was asleep. Most people in Dundee, in Scotland, in all of these islands were asleep, as it was the early hours of morning here. It would be the following day when we first read about the murder. And then we saw it.
When people watched the killing of George Floyd, although the video itself is very clear, we saw different things. Sometimes, very different things. What we saw didn’t depend on what time zone we were in, or how many thousands of miles we were from the scene, or if we were on that street in Minnesota. It depended on what we knew and felt before and after we saw it.
If you are a black man or a woman or a child slapped or punched, kicked or beaten, handcuffed, or spat on, bruised or shot at by a police officer anywhere in the world; and you watch a black man plead for his life, call for his mother, only to be ignored, only for the last breath to come out of him as the murderer looks at a camera unconcerned, your anger and fear and rage at such blatant injustice will be stronger than what I feel. And, I am a white man who has long been angry, and fearful, and full of rage at injustices like the murder of George Floyd, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, or the death of Sheku Bayoh in police custody in Fife in 2015. Black men killed by white racists. And, I will never forget standing on a stage in Dundee, speaking at a public meeting, alongside the mother and father of Surjit Singh Chhokar, a young man killed in Overton in North Lancashire in 1998 because of the colour of his skin. I remember the fathers long grey beard, and I remember his eyes and his wife’s eyes which looked as if they had been sad forever.
It is too easy for those of us who have never felt the daily fear of racism to think that the cry for help: BLACK LIVES MATTER can be answered by thinking or saying – yes, all lives matter. And maybe I’ve used that phrase myself in my thinking in the past, and good people use it today, and do not realise it’s favoured by some racists. Yes, all lives matter; but black lives do not matter to far too many people and black people are dying because of that. Black people are being murdered because we live in a deeply racist world. A world where the history of slavery is not confined to museums or the statues of slave-owners. Every hour, in lots and lots of time zones, the legacy of slavery lives on in the pandemic of racism. In millions of acts of racial abuse. And whenever police and other state forces are involved in that racism, the result is often incredibly brutal, and it can be deadly. That is why one filmed murder ignited a global movement for change. The combustible material was many years in the making.
When young black people say to the world BLACK LIVES MATTER, they are not saying – “but no one else does”. They’re saying to the world – look at what is happening to us; look at that video of George Floyd, and see it from our time zone: the time zone which is like – some things have not changed for hundreds of years, the hatred of the days of slavery is still with us, and it’s this backward time zone all over the world, and we’ve had enough of it.
I believe we all need to support the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement whatever colour we are, and help to turn it from a slogan into a reality, where white racists, whether they are in uniform or not, have their guns and their licence to kill and traumatise black people taken away from them.
Recently, as regular readers of this blog will know, I got a bit burned out. I saw too much suffering in my work as a Welfare Rights Officer every day. I saw too many ordinary folk on the edge of suicide. I’d always thought I was a fighter who would never have to take a step away from any frontline. But I was 57, a bit tired, a bit scared, so I had to take a break to heal. I had become so close to giving up completely, I had to be careful when I was recovering. I needed to avoid anything which I felt was too stressful. I avoided not just work things, but things like – friends and comrades asking me to come to a demonstration or go to a meeting. Mostly, I reluctantly declined. Even now, bad things can make me shudder like I’ve had an electric shock.
I have not returned to the manic activism of my youth, but I try to help, where I can. One thing which has encouraged me was when I saw black and white young people, overwhelmingly working class, joining together, demonstrating even when they came under pressure not to, and they were talking about changing the world, and socialism, and how racism and capitalism are joined together, as Malcolm X once explained. And, I saw some older folk dismissing the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement as pointless, as dangerous, or disrespectful to history. When I heard those cynical voices, I realised – I never want to become so tired I become one of them. Rebelling against what is bad in the world and fighting for what is good, no matter what the cost, is where I will always belong. Maybe, it’s the time zone where we all belong. Maybe that is: the new normal.