First thoughts, second thoughts, and third thoughts

I’ve often said that Terry Pratchett was one of the greatest Pagan theologians, although he wasn’t a Pagan. In his books Small Gods, Pyramids, and the series about the witches, he often explored ideas about how gods might might come into being, and how they interact with the world. He was also, in a quiet and humorous way, a passionate advocate of thinking about things more deeply, looking beyond the surface of things, and being compassionate. (If you missed that about his writing, read it again.)

In the Tiffany Aching series, there’s a great passage about first thoughts, second thoughts, and third thoughts:

“First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft.”
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Continue reading

Black Lives Matter

I support equality. That means I support equality across the board – Black, Asian, Native American, white, lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, genderqueer, cisgender, people with disabilities, older people, people of all religions and none.

The thing about equality is that it is not enough to say, in a vague and woolly manner, that you support equality for everyone, or that “all lives matter”.  Specific groups of people are being persecuted and killed in specific contexts, and there is a particular historical context for that persecution. That means that we have to understand the particular struggle in the particular context. That means we have to do the work to get involved; and to be good allies, we need to listen to the people who have been engaged in the struggle, and use our privilege to promote their voices and agendas, not talk over them and erase their voices. Ignoring the fact that Black people are being disproportionately targeted and killed is adding insult to injury. The reason we are focussing on the fact that Black lives matter right now is that there are large sections of society, most of them armed and dangerous, who seem not to agree.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

So that is why I want to add my voice to the statement, by millions of people, that Black lives matter. Black people are significantly and structurally disadvantaged by the system in the United States of America, and in other majority-white societies too. Black people are getting killed and attacked in large numbers. That is the result of systemic and ingrained racism.

We are focusing on Black lives right now, because they are the ones getting killed in huge numbers. LGBT people, women, and people with disabilities are much more likely to be killed if they are Black. Black men, women, and children have been shot to death by police. There is a full list here, going back to 1999. These deaths are completely out of proportion to the crimes committed by some of those killed; there is no death penalty for shoplifting, for example. Many of the people killed were innocent of any crime. None of them deserved to be killed.

It is hardly surprising that faced with the massive injustice of these deaths – 14 teenagers have been killed by police since Michael Brown’s death (and half of them were Black), including 12 year old Tamir Rice – people are driven to riot. It is hardly surprising that when a peaceful protest is faced by tanks and  guns, people start rioting. When the authorities are doing everything in their power to destroy your community and take away your well-being, of course you are going to riot.

Why have I been silent about this issue since 14 September 2014? Because I am so horrified by what is going on that I couldn’t find the words. I have hardly posted anything on this blog since that post – but I have been posting numerous articles on Facebook about Ferguson, systemic racism, and other killings of Black people, trying to change hearts and minds, and reading stuff myself, trying to get educated. I have joined a Facebook group that is campaigning against racial inequality, and involves real dialogue between Black people and white people. If there was a #BlackLivesMatter protest in England, I would join it. (Mindful of the issue of allies not speaking over the people we are trying to help, I am not sure it would be helpful if I organised one.)

Here in England, anti-racists and allies are busy campaigning against the racist bigotry of UKIP and other far-right groups. There are significant concerns that their anti-immigration rhetoric is being picked up by the mainstream parties. I am also engaged in a campaign – Movement for Justice by any means necessary – to prevent LGBT asylum seekers (the vast majority of whom are from Africa) from being sent back to countries where they would be persecuted. The asylum and immigration system in Britain is deeply unjust, and members of the MFJ mailing list (including me) write to the government to ask them not to deport people. Also in the UK, there is a massive backlash against people with disabilities and a rise in homophobia and transphobia, all triggered by the rhetoric of the neo-conservative ConDem coalition.

If I was in the USA right now, I would be out there joining in the protests – but using these 5 tips for how to be an ally by Chesca Leigh. As I am not in the USA, I am trying to figure out what I can do to fight racism here at home, and trying to raise awareness about the issues via Facebook and Twitter and everyday conversations.

As a Pagan and as a human being, I believe that all people are equal, but that different oppressions arise in different contexts, and therefore we must address oppression and inequality in context, and we must engage in the struggle for equality, using all the tools at our disposal, because nothing is going to be handed to us on a plate by the powers that be – every right that we possess has been struggled for by generations of activists. The right to vote in Britain was gained by riots in the 1830s, and the protests of the suffragettes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rights to fair pay, maternity leave, health and safety at work, equal pay, limited working hours, and all the rest, were gained by the efforts of trades unions. It is a myth that we get these things by waiting patiently.

I will finish with a quote from Rosa Parks:

I’m tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.

Patheos Pagan on Ferguson and Police Brutality

Other Pagan bloggers speak out 

Systemic racism, othering, and alienation

I can’t imagine killing another human being. Can you?

I can imagine the circumstances where I might do so, if it was kill or be killed. But I don’t want to dwell on the details.

Research has shown that soldiers have to be trained to kill, otherwise they shoot to maim rather than to kill. The deep instinct of a human being is not to kill another human being.

So how did we get to a situation where, almost every week it seems, another young Black man gets shot by a police officer in the USA? How did we get to a situation of Israelis slaughtering Palestinians in Gaza, war in Syria, ISIL murdering Yezidis and Christians?

I believe that the answer is that the killers must be trained to see their victims as not human. They see them as other, as being of less worth than a person of the same ethnic group or the same religion as themselves. We can see this in white supremacist ideology and in the deadly rhetoric about the Palestinians, the Yezidis, and Christians in the Middle East.

The situation with the Palestinians, the Yezidis, and Ferguson, Missouri are all linked in my mind – not just because they were all happening at the same time, but because the root cause of all three situations seems quite similar: two distinct groups (ethnic and/or religious) occupying the same space, one of them more powerful than the other, and desiring the elimination or subjugation of the other.

I am not arguing for assimilation of one group into another – assimilation is just as violent and destructive as elimination (look at the effects of such policies on Australian Aborigines and First Nations peoples). I am saying that we need to respect and value diversity as a healthy way for a community to be.

There are many processes by which one group comes to regard another group as “not human”. One of these is the alienation produced by capitalism, in which we are divided from ourselves, divided from the work of our hands, separated from Nature, and separated from each other. Instead of seeing other people as people, capitalism sees them as commodities, resources, units of work and cost.

But the practice of othering is far older than capitalism. Look at the mass slaughter of the Crusades, the persecution of heretics and alleged witches, the pogroms against the Jews throughout medieval Europe. In each of these, the targeted group was seen as less than human. There was even a medieval legend that Jews had tails. Jews were made to dress differently so as to be easily identifiable, and to live in separate enclaves (ghettos and shtetls). They were only allowed to work at certain occupations, such as moneylending.

Now compare these with the systemic racism against Black people. Black people are regarded as other; they are discriminated against in employment and education; they are treated as potential criminals wherever they go; their hairstyles referred to as “unkempt”. It is only a generation or two since the end of segregation in the United States. But the attitudes that gave rise to segregation are still widespread.

Combine that with routinely giving guns to the police, and the authoritarian and white supremacist attitudes of many police officers, and it is hardly surprising that so many Black men and women are getting killed, just for “walking while Black”. Even in the United Kingdom, where access to guns for the general population is far more restricted and the police do not routinely carry guns, more Black and minority ethnic people get arrested or stopped and searched than white people. And there are still shootings of Black and minority ethnic people: Mark Duggan, Jean Charles de Menezes.

Many white people seemingly cannot understand the legitimate anger and frustration of Black people. Try to imagine being afraid just to walk down the street, in case you get arrested and killed. Try to imagine being afraid just to send your son to school, in case his walking out the door in the morning is the last time you see him alive. Try to imagine being turned down for employment just because of the colour of your skin. Try to imagine people asking where you’re from, and not accepting the answer of a place in the same country, because you must be from somewhere else, right? Try to imagine being someone’s token Black friend. Read about the experiences of Black people in being confronted with systemic racism, ingrained in the very institutions that we take for granted will treat us as equals (unless we are female or LGBT, but that’s a different blogpost).

This is a quote from Pam Duggan, Mark Duggan’s mother:

Mark was a peacemaker. He had a soft heart and he loved life. I have to be strong for the sake of Mark’s children, my grandchildren, and the rest of my family. But my life has changed so much since the police shot Mark. Sometimes I’m scared to go out. And if I see a police car driving down the street my whole body starts to shake. I think that the officer who killed Mark could be in that car or that they’ve got guns and might do to someone else what they did to Mark.

A Huffington Post article compared the scenes in Ferguson with the street battles of the Civil Rights era. The only difference was that the Ferguson photos were in colour and the police were more heavily armed.

Even middle-class Black people are not immune: look what happened to Charles Belk and Henry Louis Gates. And it is not just Black men who are targeted: many Black women have also been killed by police.

Recently I posted some UK government statistics on my Facebook wall, comparing the numbers of arrests and convictions of Black and minority ethnic people in Britain, and asked whether people thought that they represented racism in the justice system. One person shared the following anecdote:

A doctor driving a blood sample to the lab late at night, in his own car. Stopped by the police, who want to give him a breathalyser test, check his licence, and want to know what’s in the bottle. They give him a very hard time while he repeatedly tells them: he’s a doctor, he works *here*, he’s driving the blood to *here*, yes, this is his car, no, he is sober, he is on call, he doesn’t drink when on call…. Eventually a phone call from the lab wanting to know where the blood sample was convinces the police he really is who he says he is, and they let him go suspiciously. White lab staff find this bewildering and inexplicable, they’ve never heard of the police bothering doctors on call before. Black doctor doesn’t, and notes that this is why he wears a respectable suit-and-tie at all times when driving his expensive car.

That is institutional racism. The assumption that a Black person is more likely to be a criminal, that the expensive car they are driving must be stolen, that they are involved in a gang, or shoplifting, or that they have a gun or a knife.

The Macpherson Report defines institutional racism as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

Systemic racism is a similar concept to institutional racism, but it occurs when the way a society is structured systematically ends up giving advantages to some and disadvantages to others. Individual racists are a problem, but it is when the system gives them a free pass to act out their violent supremacist views that we have a systemic problem. Consider the difference in response to the Ferguson protests and the Bundy protests. Benjamin Corey writes:

The piece that completely tipped the scale for me was this piece which illustrates the response to protestors in Ferguson compared to protesters at the Bundy Ranch. At the Bundy Ranch, armed whites confronted the government to stand along side a rancher who’s been stealing from the government. They went as far as having weapons drawn on the police– and the response? The government backed down.

Compare that to Ferguson, where protesters have been met with police who were more armed up than the folks I served next to in Operation Allied Force (and I’m not even kidding).

If you do not believe in systemic or institutionalised racism, have a look at these statistics. Black people are systemically discriminated against in housing, schooling, and employment, from preschool onwards. Black children are more likely to be suspended from school, punished more harshly for misdemeanours, and regarded as less innocent than white children. African American job candidates are less likely to be hired on the assumption that “they do drugs”, and more likely to be arrested on suspicion of drug possession, despite the fact that white people take more drugs than Black people. Black people are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, and more harshly treated by the system than white people. Frankly, I am not surprised that the people of Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets in protest. I am surprised that they didn’t start a revolution.

August 15 protests in Ferguson. Photo by Loavesofbread

August 15 protests in Ferguson – a peaceful protest. Photo by Loavesofbread

So what can we do about systemic racism? I honestly don’t know, apart from the usual suggestions of education and cultural change. But I do know that we need to acknowledge its existence and start working to bring about change.

One very striking example of the transformation of a racist society is that of South Africa, and its Truth and Reconciliation process. South Africa is still a society with large economic and social injustices, but it is a lot less racist than it was.

The first step to rectifying the situation is to acknowledge the endemic racism in the system. We need to stop seeing a specific group of people as being of less worth than other people. We need to stop being frightened of people who dress differently, walk differently, or talk differently. Instead of trying to force people into a dehumanised mass of work units, we need to see every human being as having inherent worth and dignity.