Just before the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union, Jo Cox, a Yorkshire Member of Parliament was murdered by a right-wing extremist with a gun that he had constructed himself. Shootings are rare here because we have strict gun laws.
That murder did not happen in a vacuum; the shooter was part of a wider discourse of rising racial hatred and bigotry. The campaign to Leave the EU was particularly virulent in its racism, with posters of refugees labelled as a “swarm”, and claims that Turkey would soon be joining the EU, together with maps showing that it is next door to Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Many people voted to leave the EU because they thought it meant that we would be ejecting all the immigrants – not just people from the rest of the EU, but people from India, Pakistan, Africa, and the Middle East. The Remain campaign also mentioned the ability to ‘control our borders’ but said that we would be better able to do that if we remained in the EU.
It is hardly surprising then, that in the immediate aftermath of the vote, there was a wave of racist hate crimes. Hate crime increased by 57% in the first month, and 42% over the next three months. People started collecting incidents in a Facebook group and Twitter feed called Worrying Signs, and on a Tumblr site called Brexit, this is what you have done. The people who voted to leave the EU didn’t all do so because they are out-and-out racists; the main reason given was the desire to ‘take back control’ (also deeply problematic) and the second biggest reason was wanting to decrease the number of immigrants.
In response to this rise in racist and xenophobic attacks, Allison, an American woman living in London, suggested people wear safety pins to show solidarity towards EU citizens and other communities who are targets of racist abuse.
The safety pin idea was inspired by the “I’ll Ride with You” campaign in Sydney in 2014, which was to protect Muslims from a wave of bigotry aimed at them on public transport.
The safety pin campaign in the UK was criticised by people who have been on the receiving end of racist abuse, because no-one would listen to them before, and they were accused of exaggerating the amount of racism that exists, and they were understandably sceptical that it would make any difference. They felt that it was just there to make the safety-pin wearers feel they had done something. It was also labelled ‘the visual symbol of #notallwhitepeople’.
My immediate response was to think that the safety pin is not there, as it was originally described, just to say ‘I am a safe space, you can sit next to me, you can talk to me, you can ask me for a help.’ That’s not enough.
What the safety pin should be for is a reminder to the wearer to do something if they hear or see racist, misogynist, homophobic, or transphobic attacks.
As Twitter user Hev (@SpareMeMary) wrote:
If you’re gonna wear a pin, make sure you’re ready to step in when you witness racism in public. Don’t you DARE wear it and stay silent.
If you don’t feel safe to challenge the perpetrator, at least move to be with the victim. Get them away from the perpetrator and to a place of safety.
The safety pin in the USA
In the wake of the election of Trump to the presidency, there was a huge wave of racist, transphobic, misogynist, and homophobic incidents. In response, people in the USA have started wearing safety pins too. The #safetypinUSA campaign comes with a pledge:
If you wear a hijab, I’ll sit with you on the train.
If you’re trans, I’ll go to the bathroom with you.
If you’re a person of color, I’ll stand with you if the cops stop you and/or whenever you need me.
If you’re a person with disabilities, I’ll hand you my megaphone.
If you’re LGBTQ, I won’t let anybody tell you you’re broken.
If you’re a woman, I’ll fight by your side for all your rights.
If you’re an immigrant, I’ll help you find resources.
If you’re a survivor, I’ll believe you.
If you’re a Native American, I’ll stand with you to protect our water, your burial grounds, and your people.
If you’re a refugee, I’ll make sure you’re welcome.
If you’re a union member, fighting for one, or fighting for $15/hour, I’ll be there.
If you’re a veteran, a college student, a member of the working or middle class, I’ll fight against austerity measures and for more publically funded assistance for all.
If you’re sick or just human, I’ll take up the fight for universal healthcare.
If you’re tired, me too.
If you need a hug, I’ve got an infinite supply.
If you need me, I’ll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me too.
People who are already wearing safety pins as part of the U.S. campaign have said that people of colour have thanked them for their solidarity.
Some other people have expressed concern that the safety pin may be worn by violent bigots to lure people into thinking they are safe.
The safety pin is just the beginning
Things have already been terrible for Black people, indigenous people, and other minorities in the US. Racism is far from over. For the next four years at least, the USA is going to be an even worse place to live for women, LGBT people, Black people, Muslims, Native Americans, Latino/a/x people, and other minorities.
When members of these groups tell you that they are terrified by Trump’s election, don’t just say that they are exaggerating or over-reacting. Don’t tell them to ‘just get over it’. Ask them what you can do to help.
When one of your relatives makes a racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-disabled, or misogynist comment over Thanksgiving dinner, don’t just roll your eyes and sigh inwardly. Challenge it, and make it clear that their attitude is not acceptable. Yes, I know that they will lapse back into their bigoted views the next day, once they start hanging out with their Trump-voting friends. But the failure to consistently challenge that kind of bigotry is one of the factors that got us where we are now.
If you hear a bigoted remark whilst out in public, challenge it. If you see someone being attacked (whether physically or verbally), don’t stay silent. If the perpetrator is too scary to tackle, try to get the victim away to safety, and make sure they know that you don’t agree with the perpetrator. In these situations, silence from bystanders is assumed by the perpetrator and the victim to be approval of the perpetrator’s actions.
It would be a good idea to set up a Facebook group, Tumblr, and/or Twitter hashtag where post-election bigoted violence can be collated.
Someone has already set up a website where post-election resistance actions can be collated: it’s called “And Then They Came For Us”.
ICAAD (International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination) reports that under the current Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), only 3% percent of all hate crimes are documented. The FBI has a victim assistance program, but I cannot find a simple way to report a hate crime to any central body, as there is in the UK.
If things get even more unpleasant, as I suspect they will, more organised resistance will be needed. Safe houses for Muslims and LGBT people, for instance, and maybe for women who have had abortions, and the doctors who carried them out, as well. Civil disobedience campaigns will be needed. Solidarity networks are being created (see Rhyd Wildermuth’s article on forming solidarity networks at Gods and Radicals).
Civil courage can be learned
Some people have commented that they don’t know how to respond in cases of racial harassment and violence. Fortunately, there are resources for those who find this difficult.
There is an excellent cartoon guide to what to do if you witness an Islamophobic incident (which would work well for any form of bigotry).
There is also an excellent workshop outline for developing civil courage available from Unite Against Fascism (and I have made a copy of it on the inclusive Wicca website, and added a new section called Resisting fascism, where I will add more links as they become available). I would strongly suggest holding this workshop in UU churches, Pagan camps, and wherever there is space available.
First they came …
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
They (in the form of vicious thugs who believe that the vote for Trump has given them licence to attack minorities) are already coming for Muslims, LGBT people, Native Americans, women, Black people, and other visible minorities.
We know how this goes. Let’s speak out against hatred and bigotry and violence now. Consider it a practice-run for if/when Trump sends in the highly militarised police and starts rounding up Muslims and undocumented immigrants; or if/when they begin to implement Pence’s horrible anti-LGBT ideas.
Further reading / resources
The Black Lives Matter movement arose in response to the violent deaths of three unarmed Black men: teenager Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Suddenly, it seemed, the media silence around such deaths at the hands of police or other authorities had broken. The names of unarmed Black adults, teens, and children assaulted or killed by police came blazing across our news feeds, seemingly a new name every week.
For many of us in the Pagan movement who do justice work, it felt like scales had fallen from our eyes. We may have been aware that our society is racist, that Black people are still suffering from the aftermath of American slavery. But we were living under the illusion that since the gains of the Civil Rights era, we were still slowly moving toward true equality.
The well-publicized deaths in 2013 and 2014 showed how wrong we were. In the US, unarmed Black children and adults can be killed by police (or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman) with no repercussions—and such assaults happen frequently. This is not a society moving toward equality for Black people. Rather, it’s a society whose systemic racism has simply become more subtle and well-disguised. “Black Lives Matter” is a powerful slogan because in so many arenas, our society still treats Black lives as though they do NOT matter.
The anthology Why Black Lives Matter (Too) emerged from Voices for Equality, a Facebook group established by Mary Canty Merrill in August 2015. Merrill describes the group as “a dialogue-into-action community against social injustice and inequality.” After Voices for Equality agreed that the proceeds of the book should support challenging the effects of racism in the justice system, they chose The Sentencing Project as the beneficiary. To quote from its website:
Founded in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.
Our work includes the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns, and strategic advocacy for policy reform. As a result of The Sentencing Project’s research, publications, and advocacy, many people know that this country is the world’s leader in incarceration; that racial disparities pervade the criminal justice system; that nearly six million Americans can’t vote because of felony convictions; and that thousands of women and children have lost food stamps and cash assistance as the result of convictions for drug offenses.
The opportunity to support The Sentencing Project is, by itself, a good reason to pick up a copy of the anthology. However, the anthology has a broader mission than either The Sentencing Project or the Black Lives Matter movement as it was originally conceived. Black Lives Matter (Too) critiques racial injustice in the United States in a huge variety of contexts, and it does so with equal servings of research and personal narrative.
As a writer and editor, I can tell you that anthologies are never of completely consistent quality. Some pieces will always be stronger than others, and this is true of Black Lives Matter (Too). A good anthology, however, should have “something for everyone”—a variety of pieces so that almost any reader should be able to find something to connect with—and the anthology does fulfill that mission.
For example, there are a number of strong pieces from white activists who tell personal stories of discovering and confronting both their own racism and our society’s. Patheos Pagan’s own Cat Chapin-Bishop, for example, has an engaging essay that does this admirably. I also particularly recommend the piece by Rebecca Wiggins, which lays out the issue of systemic racism briefly and clearly and then provides a list of concrete strategies for response. Either would make an excellent introductory essay for a person or group just beginning to learn about racial injustice. Frustratingly, however, the anthology is organized alphabetically by author’s last name, not topically or by placing complementary essays in groups. This arrangement results in the middle of the book being dominated by essays by white activists, most of whom seem to be responding to the same writing prompt, “Why Black Lives Matter to Me.”
If the reader presses on through the repetition, however, some of the strongest essays are buried near the back. I was particularly struck by Rhonda Lee Richoux’s piece, which addresses how one can be a person of color (in her case, Filipino) and still be thoroughly indoctrinated in racism. This essay is immediately followed by my favorite in the collection, a piece from Native activist Bee Schrull that celebrates the accomplishments of Black scientists, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs while mourning the creative Black lives that have been lost to injustice. Some of the strongest Black writers are also included near the back of the volume: a piece by Muthu (Jordan) Weerasinghe protesting the inattention that Black Lives Matter has given to Black women and gender-nonconforming Black people, and an essay by Anthony M. Wiley about being Black and in a position of authority in the military.
These and many of the other pieces in the book would make excellent reading for a discussion group that wants to educate itself about systemic racism. I am disappointed, however, to say that I cannot recommend assigning the book as a whole to a “newbie” group. Sadly, Black Lives Matter (Too) suffers from poor editing. In addition to the ineffective system of organizing the essays, the anthology is riddled with grammatical errors that can interfere with comprehension. In some essays, sentences were so vague, unclear, or just plain muddled that they left me scratching my head. (Take, for example, this uncited statistic from p. 11 of the introduction: “A 2015 Huffington Post survey shows that three out of four white Americans believe that racism is a ‘somewhat serious’ national problem, compared to nine out of ten Blacks—that’s 68 percent of Black respondents, compared to 31 percent of whites.”) Other problems were content-based; one essay, in apparent innocence of Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda, uses the stereotypical image of the “crafty” Jew to criticize a former business partner.
The weak editing is particularly problematic in the first twenty-five pages of the book, which are the key parts for connecting with and drawing in an audience. Unfortunately, it is not clear who the intended audience is. Mary Canty Merrill, who drew the material together and wrote the introduction and conclusion, seems to address a sympathetic white audience on the back of the book, where she asks readers to “confront your own white privilege and fragility as you examine racial justice and equality in a revolutionary way.” The book’s prologue by Mirthell Bazemore, however, is written for a Black audience, whom Bazemore chastises for language and dress that she doesn’t see as liberatory (xx).
This prologue is followed by Merrill’s long framing introduction, which gives historical and sociological background for systemic racism. Some parts of this introduction are excellent, giving talking points and facts about topics such as internalized racism, discrimination in health care and employment, and inequality in the justice system. Merrill, whose PhD is in a psychological field and who works as an organizational psychologist, is particularly strong on the topic of mental health, and she provides careful, clear definitions of jargon such as “privilege” and “microaggressions.” Her conclusion for the book is also effective, outlining concrete strategies for readers to address racial injustice. Yet other sections of the introduction—particularly the opening pages—are much less focused, with abrupt changes in tone, facts stated without citation, and ad hominem attacks on other researchers.
These problems are especially frustrating because they distract from what is essentially a strong argument. Why Black Lives Matter (Too) could have easily been crafted into an effective introductory text for white readers who are curious about but perhaps still skeptical of the racial justice movement, and based on the back cover blurb, this seems to have been Merrill’s intent. Because the writing is not properly organized and edited for this audience, however, it preaches best to the already-converted.
Despite these issues, I can still recommend this book for educators and activists who are working with people who know little about or do not yet support the movement. Merrill’s introduction provides all the material an educator needs to give an effective introductory lecture. Educators can then pick and choose readings from the collection of essays for a combination that will draw in and then effectively challenge their chosen audience. Merrill’s conclusion, which outlines concrete strategies for activism, can be assigned whole cloth to guide future action. With this strategy, Why Black Lives Matter (Too) should be a powerful resource for anti-racism educators.