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I’m a great believer in human rights and when the topic comes up, I make it clear to my students that you either buy into human rights wholeheartedly or you don’t buy into it at all. There is no halfway house. You cannot pick and choose which bits you like, or decide that there is a time limited offer, a bit like a sale, on one month but not the next, and then on again. Nor can you decide that such rights only apply to some and not others (Home Office take note regarding refugees and asylum seekers). But the more I think about human rights the more I question how rights can work on an individual level without impacting on others’ rights.
A good example is the protests over the last year or so, particularly during ‘lockdown’. I ought to hasten to add before someone protests vociferously, that this blog is not about the validity of the subject matter being protested about. The blog is simply about how the exercise of rights that we hold so dear, can and do impact on other’s rights.
The government and its agents have a duty to ensure that human rights are facilitated as best as possible. Whilst there are some caveats, this duty extends to taking positive steps to ensure that we have a right to protest, a right to associate with whom we like, a right to express what we want to express and I would suggest above all else a right to life. I have prioritised the right to life but, in the arguments about the rights to protest, few if any question the impact that such protests have on that one fundamental right.
And I can hear the arguments now, what the people are protesting about is far bigger, too important not to be allowed to protest. The argument can even be extended to the fact that the protests are about the right to life, a valid argument. So, it is ironic that protesting about the right to life impacts on others’ right to life. If you don’t agree then please tell me what the purpose of ‘lockdown’ was if it wasn’t at least in part to save lives. The problem with protests, peaceful or not is that they do not suddenly happen in one place, people are not just beamed in. Would be protesters have to get to the venue thereby creating multiple opportunities for the spread of Covid. But even when we are not in ‘lockdown’, many protests have a detrimental impact on the rights of other members of the public through the disruption caused. In exercising fundamental rights, we trample on the rights of others. Whilst we may agree with the sentiments of the protests, it is and should not always be the case. Protests are not always about what we hold or ought to hold dear, in fact sometimes the opposite.#
I cannot say I am in favour of the new proposals to regulate protests, but I do understand the rationale, at least in part. I also understand the concern and the possible impact on our freedoms. But I find it somewhat bemusing that so many are quick to criticise and yet so few offer solutions. One day, when I am particularly annoyed about something and decide to join a protest, I wonder whether I will think about other people and the rights I am depriving them of?
In his day, they called Martin Luther King a thug. They said that he was disturbing the peace. They accused him of sedition, and jailed him on any charge they could find. The got him on any perceivable and inconceivable traffic violation. Mostly, the only charges they could find were loitering or disobeying a police order – do what I say, niggra! They convicted him to a 4-month sentence for a sit-in. They fined him and anyone in the movement for anything. You can’t imagine the trial/fiasco around his arrest for leading a bus boycott.
Sending his kids to school, peacefully.
Attending a comrade’s trial, peacefully. Loitering, peacefully. Sitting-in, peacefully. Driving, peacefully. Marching, peacefully. Preaching in the pulpit about the Prince of Peace, peacefully. Harassed, taunted, goaded, surveilled, bullied, bashed, arrested, convicted, abused by the police and their brethren among politicos – violently. Dear reader, please don’t find me pedantic by pointing out that this all sounds like 2020.
Here’s Dr. King’s full arrest record. He never once incited riots, yet they called him a thug. He never once missed an opportunity to call for calm, yet they said he was a looter. They made him a repeat offender, notoriously flaunting the law. Who was notoriously flaunting the law? The same sorts of folks who flaunted the law on January 6, 2021!
MLK grew up in the tradition of Black Liberation Theology, radically different from the individualist salvation and racism preached in white churches. King began to address this in a letter to white clergy, he wrote from a jail cell in bloody Birmingham. The pen is indeed mightier than the…cowardice of mobs and bombs.
Follow the drinking gourd
Dr. King understood that resistance is in our blood as strongly as the will to survive. Even with all of the stories I’ve heard from my elders, I still can’t imagine what it was like, even for my grandparents growing up picking cotton deep in the Jim Crow south. Yet, they resisted. And while I am sure that they feared white people their whole lives, they refused to study hate on them. Growing up, my grandparents had few choices in how they dealt with their white masters. Yet, they resisted hate. The roots of non-violence runs deep in our culture.
The roots of non-violent protest runs deep in American culture, but particularly so in terms of righting the legacy of our nation’s original sin: Slavery. In 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in the white section of a street car in New Orleans. Four years later, the US Supreme Court upheld states’ right to segregate by race. This solidified Jim Crow at the highest court, and gave way to a host of racial segregation laws, policies and everyday practices that means virtually every aspect of life was unequal. This is the world into which Dr. King was born.
Culminating nearly a century after the Civil War the Civil Rights Movement worked to address the legacy of Slavery. It took that long, so dear reader, please do imagine a century of Jim Crow. Emancipation, then that.
Dr. King, Bayard Rustin and plenty, plenty others in their crew were repeatedly jailed and dismissed as agitators. Now, how many poor people sit in jail because in the New Jim Crow, they can’t afford the fines and fees, that means you pay for your own bondage. This is where your taxes go. Violence won’t solve this problem, but they won’t listen when you take a knee. They call you an agitator.
We chose the BALLOT they chose the BULLET
Dr. King used all his power to negotiate reconciliation, peacefully, yet he was gunned down and murdered, violently. Now, they advocate for their right to bear arms, knowing they’ve always been spurred to arm themselves in order to squash us (and not their own masters). They traded in whips and chains for guns and jails upon Emancipation. Now, their descendants are so twisted and confused about it that they claim not to know that’s also our blood shed and the Rebel flag, not just theirs. They still don’t get it. They are threatened by inclusion, perhaps fearing their own mediocracy, so they’d rather build a wall. In 2021, they were finally able to wave the Confederate Battle Flag in the halls of the US Capitol.
Their people fought and died for the independent right to bond and enslave us, yet now they speak of Dr. King like he’s some poster child for kneeling and praying for forgiveness in response to any atrocity they commit (even that kid who staged a massacre in a Black church was taken into custody, peacefully). Now, the same people call Dr. King a national hero in the same breath used to denounce those peacefully protesting for equity and justice today. For them, Black Lives do not Matter.
Nahida is a BA (Hons) Criminology graduate of 2017, who recently returned from travelling.
Ask anyone that has known me for a long time, they would tell you that I have wanted to go to America since I was a little girl. But, at the back of my mind, as a woman of colour, and as a Muslim, I feared how I would be treated there. Racial discrimination and persecution is not a contemporary problem facing the States. It is one that is rooted in the country’s history.
I had a preconceived idea, that I would be treated unfairly, but to be fair, there was no situation where I felt completely unsafe. Maybe that was because I travelled with a large group of white individuals. I had travelled the Southern states, including Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia and saw certain elements that made me uncomfortable; but in no way did I face the harsh reality that is the treatment of people of colour in the States.
Los Angeles was my first destination. It was my first time on a plane without my family, so I was already anxious and nervous, but on top of that I was “randomly selected” for extra security checks. Although these checks are supposedly random and indiscriminate, it was no surprise to me that I was chosen. I was a Muslim after all; and Muslim’s are stereotyped as terrorists. I remember my travel companion, who was white, and did not have to undergo these checks, watch as I was taken to the side, as several other white travellers were able to continue without the checks. She told me she saw a clear divide and so could I.
In Lafayette, Louisiana, I walked passed a man in a sandwich café, who fully gawked at me like I had three heads. As I had walked to the café, I noticed several cars with Donald Trump stickers, which had already made me feel quite nervous because several of his supporters are notorious for their racist views.
Beale Street in Downtown Memphis is significant in the history of the blues, so it is a major tourist attraction for those who visit. It comes alive at night; but it was an experience that I realised how society has brainwashed us into subliminal racism. The group of people I was travelling with were all white and they had felt uncomfortable and feared for their safety the entire time we were on Beale Street. The street was occupied by people of colour, which was not surprising considering Memphis’ history with African-Americans and the civil rights movement. That night, the group decided to leave early for the first time during the whole trip. I asked, “Do you think it’s our subconscious racist views, which explains why we feel so unsafe?” It was a resounding yes. As a woman of colour, I was not angry at them, because I knew they were not racist, but a fraction of their mind held society’s view on people of colour; the view that people of colour are criminals, and, or should be feared. That viewpoint was clearly exhibited by the heavy police presence throughout the street. It was the most heavily policed street I had seen the entire time I was in the States. Even Las Vegas’ strip didn’t seem to have that many police officers patrolling.
It was on the outskirts of Tennessee, where I came across an individual whose ignorance truly blindsided me. We had pulled up at a gas station, and the man approached my friends. I was inside the station at this point. The man was preaching the bible and looking for new followers for his Church. He stumbled upon the group and looked fairly displeased with the way they were dressed in shorts and skirts. He struck a conversation with them and asked generic questions like “Where are you from?” etcetera. When he found out the group were from England, he asked if in England, they spoke English. At this point, the group concluded that he wasn’t particularly educated. I joined the group outside, post this conversation, and the man took one look at me and turned to my friend who was next to him, and shouted “Is she from India?” The way he yelled seemed like an attempt to guage if I could understand him or not. Not only was that rude, but also very ignorant, because he made a narrow-minded assumption that a person of my skin colour, could not speak English, and were all from India.
I was completely taken aback, but also, I found the situation kind of funny. I have never met someone so uneducated in my entire life. In England, I have been quite privileged to have never faced any verbal or physical form of racial discrimination; so, to meet this man was quite interesting. This incident took place in an area populated by white individuals. I was probably one of the very few, or perhaps the first Asian woman he had ever met in his life; so, I couldn’t make myself despise him. He was not educated, and to me, education is the key to eliminating racism.
Also, the man looked be in his sixties, so his views were probably set, so anything that any one of us could have said in that moment, would never have been able to erase the years of discriminatory views he had. The bigotry of the elder generation is a difficult fight because during their younger days, such views were the norm; so, changing such an outlook would take a momentous feat. It is the younger generation, that are the future. To reduce and eradicate racism, the younger generation need to be educated better. They need to be educated to love, and not hate and fear people that have a different skin colour to them.