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Why we need to keep respectability politics out of the Black Lives Matter movement

*Content warning: descriptions of racial abuse and violence*

As Black Lives Matter demonstrations continue in central London, we are continuously reminded of the media’s insatiable appetite for respectability politics when reporting on such events. The latest evidence comes from the viral photograph taken by Dylan Martinez of Reuters. In the image, BLM supporter Patrick Hutchinson is shown carrying an injured white man away from harm. The man slung over his shoulder is presumed to have attended the white supremacy riot on Saturday, an event that was organised in direct response to the recent action taken by BLM protestors against offensive city monuments.

Hutchinson initially saw the conflict erupt from a distance. At the top of the stairs near the Southbank Centre, he witnessed a fight break out between what he described as “far-right EDL hooligans” and anti-racism protestors. He stated that the man in question had become separated from the rest of his group, and was now laying on the floor being beaten by BLM supporters.

Patrick Hutchinson carrying a white man away to safety. Photo credit: Dylan Martinez/REUTERS.

Hutchinson explained the rescue to the BBC: “I was just thinking of a human being on the floor. It wasn’t going to end well had we not intervened. I had no other thoughts in my mind apart from getting to safety.”

On his instagram account, Hutchinson wrote: “We saved a life today”.

In an interview for Channel 4, Hutchinson likened this instance to the recent police brutality case which led to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He suggested that if the other officers who had witnessed the murder had intervened as he had done for this man, then Floyd would still be alive today.

Hutchinson elaborated on his reasoning behind the move to Sky News: “I didn’t do it for him per se. I didn’t want to see him perish or die, but I really did it for the young men and women of BLM. I didn’t want their names tarnished with such an incident.”

Undoubtedly, Hutchinson’s efforts were selfless, and I don’t necessarily disagree with his actions. What I do take issue with, however, is his likening of this scenario to the case of George Floyd as it seems inappropriate to align a victim of racism with a suspected racist. Furthermore, we cannot attribute the failed intervention of the cops in Minneapolis to passivity or inertia; their involvement was not a matter of negligence. Rather, it was demonstrative of their faithfulness to a historically racist system. Finally, the situation here in London was not as black and white as Floyd’s; whereas cops have the duty to protect others, Black bystanders who witness violence are under no obligation to put themselves at risk by stopping it. Hutchinson’s desire to protect the BLM protestors from receiving jail time, however, is an understandable motivation.

Deviating from Hutchinson’s own words, it is more prudent to examine the implicit saviour narrative which is now being pushed by the media following this incident. For example, in the aforementioned Channel 4 report, the interviewee labels Hutchinson a “national hero”.

By romanticising these unlikely moments of peace, harmony or alliance between anti-racism protestors and racists, the media delivers a series of encoded messages. Firstly, it suggests to audiences that racism can be overcome if Black people only have the ‘patience’ to deal with its perpetrators. It implies that Black people should withstand racial abuse long enough to try reasoning with those inflicting it, no matter what kind of harm and trauma this causes them. Secondly, it hints that Black people who do not behave like Hutchinson, who decide to fight fire with fire, who retaliate against verbal and/or physical violence are somehow wrong. In celebrating Hutchinson’s almost undue sense of compassion, the press implicitly demonises protestors who might choose a different course of action under similar circumstances.

The fact of the matter is that this is not a case of needing to “communicate better”. Black people cannot “break bread” with racists. We should not be expected to “put aside our differences” when one party’s opinion involves the complete invalidation of the other’s basic human rights. We cannot “take the high road”; this is not a “let bygones be bygones” scenario. Ultimately, we cannot “be the bigger person” if the opposition does not even view us as a person. By circulating this image and hailing the story that goes with it, the media is imposing unrealistic standards on Black protestors.

Perhaps even more dangerous is the fact that this celebration of Hutchinson goes hand and hand with the media’s sanitised descriptions of the racist mob that descended on the capital. Though the group claimed their purpose was to protect London’s statues from further desecration by Black Lives Matter supporters, reports of drug use and intoxication quickly arose, multiple instances of violence against police officers ensued, and the riotous crowd began shouting a cacophony of racial slurs. In one such clip you can hear a man shout “Burn-a-boy” while another yells “Throw some petrol on the Black c***!” and lights a BLM placard on fire. Another few videos show men raising their hands in what appears to be the Nazi salute — the height of irony given that they were supposedly there to defend Churchill’s achievements in WWII. Furthermore, many had simply come to erase the Black Lives Matter message by reiterating problematic phrases such as “All Lives Matter” and “White Lives Matter”.



Whitehall is now blocked off by police. This happened moments ago: pic.twitter.com/RDaIAbNUUB — Dominic Casciani (@BBCDomC) June 13, 2020

Rioters mimic what appears to be the Nazi salute. Source: Dominic Casciani.



One of the protestors sharing his views while wearing a White Lives Matter t-shirt. pic.twitter.com/S2b6QZI8hp — Ed Clowes (@EdClowes) June 13, 2020

One man wearing a ‘WHITE LIVES MATTER’ shirt explains his reason for attending on Saturday. Source: Ed Clowes.

However, these instances of blatant racism have been conveniently left out by mainstream news outlets covering the event.

Focusing on the article which accompanied the image, Reuters reported:

“In some cases [Black Lives Matter protests] have sparked counter-demonstrations by people who do not agree with all of their aims and methods, and these have included people from far-right groups.”

“Some” downplays the many instances of violence which were prevalent throughout the day. Further, suggesting that the BLM movement “sparked” these events indirectly places blame for the destruction and chaos that ensued at the feet of Black people who are simply demanding equality. Finally, the use of phrases such as “counter-demonstrations” and “far-right” as well as the notion of it being a mere disagreement has the effect of legitimising the views of white supremacists, as if their racism is a only matter of differing political ideology rather than a direct affront and threat to Black people’s lives.

Likewise, BBC, Al Jazeera and ITV referred to the mob as “far-right activists” or “far-right protestors”, and Sky News described the violent outbreaks as “scuffles” while labelling the attendees “counter-protestors” and “rival demonstrators”.

This persistent avoidance to clearly identify the group’s outright racism works alongside the Hutchinson narrative. The effect? News outlets manage to downplay the risk this mob poses to Black people, and imply that Hutchinson’s unprecedented show of tolerance is always replicable if Black people are only willing to forgive and engage with the oppressor.

Whether or not you agree with Hutchinson’s rescue of the man is irrelevant. The key issue is this: the media should not only shine the spotlight on BLM supporters who fit the ideal, non-threatening image of what a Black protestor should be. Respectability politics has no place within the Black Lives Matter movement. After all, if the politics in question centres on the continuous disrespect of Black people, then we cannot expect those protesting to always behave ‘respectably’.

#Protest #EDL #BlackLivesMatter #respectabilitypolitics #reuters #media #farright