The power, and the impotence of protest

Protest against the Iraq War in London in February 2003

15th February 2003. London is brought to a halt by one of the largest protests it had ever seen. I wasn’t there, but I should have been. Less than a year earlier I had returned to the U.K. after six years living in the Middle East. I knew the region well and although I’d never been to Iraq I knew people who had and was certain that Saddam, evil bastard though he was, was not a threat to the West. The “Weapons of Mass Destruction” did not exist, Saddam had had nothing to do with 9/11. There was no Casus belli – Britain was being used by a belligerent American President. It would all end it tears.

I should have been there. I was to write a piece for a Dubai newspaper the following month which argued that the war, if it happened, was all about oil. As a recently retired Shell executive this was a controversial thing to do ! I had no insider information but I was pretty sure I was right. I was.

So why wasn’t I at the protest that February? Rather disgracefully I think that I just failed to make the effort. When I later read Ian McEwan’s novel “Saturday” which takes place on the day of the demo I knew that I had goofed by not being there – not, of course, that it would have made any difference if I had been. Except to me.

Back in the late 1960s, when I was a student, the two big issues were the War in Vietnam and Apartheid in South Africa. I took part, in a small way, in protests against both in London. The activities were largely peaceful and non violent though protests against the Springbok rugby tour of 1969 sometimes got violent and were unlawful. Ironically it was probably the Right Wing American politician Barry Goldwater who best summed up the case for extreme protest “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

This brings us to the huge protests on both sides of the Atlantic against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The fact of protest is admirable. This was both a horrific event in itself but also a symbol of the continuing racial inequalities in the United States. If Mr Floyd had been a white man he would not be dead – it’s as simple, and scandalous, as that.

The assumption of racial inequality underpinned mankind’s greatest crimes from slavery, the Holocaust to Apartheid. And also, it cannot be denied, to Empire and the genocide of First Nations peoples. The perpetrators of these horrors were white, their victims black or brown. So the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is of much wider relevance than the tragedy of Mr Floyd.

Britain was at the heart of the slave trade a fact that tarnishes our history irreparably. (We were also one of the first countries to abolish the trade but for a century or more white Britons got rich on the slave trade and slavery). One of its beneficiaries in the late 17th Century was Edward Colston and yesterday his statue was toppled and thrown in the harbour in Bristol.

The vandalism in Bristol was, of course illegal. But was it “extremism in the defense of Liberty” and as such not a vice? Or was it Virtue Signalling by Hard Left protestors – you pays your money and makes your choice.

Will the events in Bristol make a happorth of difference to the lot of BAME people. Of course not. Will they make some people more aware of the iniquities of slavery ? Maybe, but there are better ways to do it. There was a Museum of the British Empire in Bristol until recently but it closed through lack of support. This seems to me an area where we could be “Learning from the Germans” – as I said in my review of Susan Neiman’s book. Yes the presence of statues of slave traders in our cities is an affront. Yes the absence of any substantial museum telling the story of a Empire (including Slavery) is an omission in a country that does museums rather well. It’s not a noble history, but like the Germans we should be honest enough to tell it.

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