It's kind of amazing. For weeks we have been arguing about the minute details of viral transmission. Can you be outside? How often can you be outside? Can you be with other people? How many? And how much distance should you keep from each other? Then masses of people gather in cities across the world for a protest and the authorities do nothing. It just goes ahead.
The irony of protestors chanting 'I can't breathe' as they raise the risk of catching and spreading a respiratory disease blows the mind. Granted, outdoor transmission is considerably rarer than indoor transmission – and, besides, most of these protesters are young and would be okay if infected with Covid-19. But after weeks of people having to miss surgeries, funerals, weddings and last moments with their loved ones, you would think people would have to have a good reason to organise an outright mass gathering.
Was it? The protest was against police brutality in America but, like a virus, it quickly spread. 'Fuck the police!' protesters in London are now chanting. The British police killed two unarmed men in 2019. One of those killed by police officers last year was Usman Khan, the London Bridge terrorist who had stabbed two people to death. Funnily enough, nobody was heard chanting 'fuck the police' then.
Yet of course, the London protesters are outraged about events taking place in the US. It would take a chilly soul not to feel angry watching the video of George Floyd pleading for his life as a police officer kneels on his neck. I hope the officer is prosecuted. Still, not every conclusion being drawn from the event is legitimate. A writer for Essence magazine states, in an article named 'Burn It All Down', 'From Breonna Taylor to Ahmaud Arbery and now George Floyd, a national pandemic can’t even stop White people from killing us.'
All of these deaths are awful and unnecessary. It is worth observing, though, that an unarmed black man is more likely to be struck by lightning in the United States than killed by a police officer. Also, white people are murdered by black people at more than twice the rate that black people are murdered by white people. Now, to be clear, this would not be relevant if someone said 'isn’t it awful that George Floyd died?' or 'how can we reduce police killings?' Then these facts would be strange and obnoxious to bring up. Imagine if your relative was murdered and then someone said, 'cheer up, that was statistically unlikely', or, 'did you know that it's often the other way around?' You would want to slap the teeth out of their mouth.
Yet these facts are relevant, since we are not debating Mr Floyd’s death, but the reaction that has followed it. When people are beating counter-protesters, assaulting shopkeepers, attacking journalists, destroying businesses, burning churches and vandalising memorials on the premise that there is a vast, one-sided epidemic of violence, such statistics become relevant. Because the premise is untrue.
It is true that many protesters have not been violent and indeed have opposed violence. It is also true that police officers have been violent towards reporters and peaceful protesters. Yet there is no excuse for the widespread lawlessness or, worse, high-minded justifications for lawlessness that we have witnessed. That these protests have been taking place in the context of a pandemic, when we were told weeks ago that protesting during the Covid-19 crisis was the height of selfishness, is the icing on the cake.
Of course, American protesters could say it is none of my business as a Brit, and there is something to that. I think someone’s right to have their 'lived experience' go unquestioned ends when they transform the experiences of others, but it isn't my country. Still, when hundreds of people stand cheek by jowl in London in the middle of a pandemic, barking 'fuck the police', it gives you the nasty sense that these riots could spread. Rioting is contagious.
In Britain, as in the US, leftists are angry after being disappointed by the ballot box, with the British left mourning the loss of Corbyn and the American left mourning the loss of Sanders. Both British and American progressives have a visceral hatred of their leaders, with Boris Johnson and Donald Trump inspiring an exceptional fury. In Britain and the US, young people are bored and frustrated after spending weeks inside. The summer is heating up.
I say this without any excitement, and very much hope that nothing comparable to the chaos we have seen this week occurs in Britain or anywhere else, but people must be careful – and make it clear that if rioting does happen we will have no respect for pseudo-intellectual sophistry about its virtues.
By the way, if you protested in Trafalgar Square at the weekend, you are free to think that I am terribly wrong – but please consider not seeing your grandparents for a while.