Yes, Black lives matter. But so do other people’s journeys

Image of a protest at a roundabout outside Heathrow Airport, in the background of which is a sign saying "Welcome to Heathrow". There is a banner saying "Black Lives Matter" and in the foreground is the stationary traffic held up by the protest, including cars, a tipper truck and two buses.Last week I was working at a site just north of Heathrow airport, the quickest route to which is down the Heathrow spur and off at the bottom. On Friday morning I was returning from a delivery run to Neasden and turned off the M4 at junction 4, to find a queue of stationary traffic in the spur road. After a couple of changes of the lights I was able to get back on the M4 and got to my workplace via the Colnbrook junction instead. By the time I left the site for my next run, the traffic had built up back to the Hayes exit and into secondary roads around the airport (like Sipson Road, which runs alongside the spur). It transpired that the road was closed because a group of “Black Lives Matter” protesters had blocked the bottom of the spur by lying down on the road and unfurling a banner reading “This is a crisis”. Although police opened one lane, the blockage of that road remained in place for several hours and traffic was still being diverted via Hayes in the late morning.

Although I wasn’t seriously inconvenienced, that was really a matter of luck that I didn’t arrive at junction 4 20 minutes or so earlier (and that delay was because I was late for work). The people who were stuck in that queue were there for hours and some of them, I don’t doubt, missed their flights or were late for work. I looked at my Twitter feed during a spare moment and there were a lot of BLM sympathisers claiming that they did not care about those people’s discomfort, that protest necessarily causes inconvenience, and that if black lives matter less to you than your holiday then they clearly don’t mean much to you at all (as if objecting to the action of a group trading as “Black Lives Matter” means you think black lives don’t matter), making the protest all the more justified, with a few quotes from Martin Luther King thrown in. These included people I know as well as some well-known journalists and writers such as Ava Vidal, Bridget Minamore and Samantha Asumadu of Media Diversified, which published this; there is another justification for it here and I’m sure many other places.

These arguments show ignorance. They assumed that all the people they held up were middle-class white people off on business or their holidays. Some of them were on their way to work. One or two of them might have been late once too many times, perhaps because they had too many childcare issues to make it into work on time consistently. Not all of those who missed their flights could have just jumped on another flight later; that depends on the conditions attached to their tickets, but those who could were probably the wealthier travellers. Some of them who had to come back another day might have missed their last chance to see a dying relative abroad. Some of those caught up in the jams might have missed visiting hours to see a relative in a hospital away from home. Some of the travellers were probably disabled and had assistance booked which might not have been present on any later flight, and some of those probably needed to get to a toilet before the flight they expected to get on. (The same was probably true of some of the children.) A friend told me that her disabled daughter had in the past been hospitalised as a result of being caught up in protest-related delays, and was rounded on when she pointed this out in regard to last Friday’s protest. Not all the travellers were white and not all of them were British citizens.

A few years ago I remember reading a story about a Muslim couple who were on their way to Dubai via Manchester airport. They were held for several hours for a security interview, and were eventually released as there was no grounds to hold them other than their religion and, no doubt, their dress, but they missed their flight — and were not able to reschedule, meaning they missed their holiday all because of a malicious and prejudiced decision by border staff, and did not get a refund. This is what would have happened to at least some of the people held up by the protest on Friday, all because a bunch of people they did not know decided to involve them in something they had nothing to do with, without warning and without their consent.

BLM boasted that they were going to “shut down” London and other major cities on Friday. They did not “shut down” Heathrow. The M4 spur road is the main access to the tunnel leading to terminals 2 and 3 (you can also access it from the A4 or the perimeter roads); terminals 4 and 5 and the cargo terminal, as well as airport maintenance, car rentals etc., are accessed from the M25, A30 and/or the perimeter roads. They did not even block the route leading from the nearby Harmondsworth immigration removal centre to the tunnels. They just held up a bunch of innocent travellers or people who were going to drop off or pick up relatives or friends from the airport.

The BLM sympathisers on Twitter also accused their critics of using the “tone argument”, i.e. that causing inconvenience harms your cause and that you might be a bit more effective if you were a bit “nicer” and less strident — another argument that dates back to the US civil rights movement and is commonly thrown at anyone who takes exception to foul language or other unpleasant behaviour by activists online. But it’s not about the effectiveness of your movement. It’s about the fact that you took an action that could have caused huge losses to people who did not have money to throw down the drain, and who might have saved for the whole year or more, or whose children had been expecting a holiday and who now had to be entertained otherwise, or expecting to see relatives they rarely saw since their family split up, or something. You just had no right to do that. It’s not the same as being stuck in a jam caused by a well-organised protest where, for example, buses are curtailed or diverted temporarily and people are forewarned. People knew there would be a demonstration in east London; nobody knew about this until it happened. The right to protest for everyone is put at risk if people cause vastly disproportionate disruption with a frivolous protest.

And some of the responses from their supporters boiled down to “boo hoo”. Well, if I was stuck in that jam and missed my flight, I might have said the same if the police had arrived mob-handed an, bundled these idiots into vans and drove them away in under a minute, which they could easily have done. The fact that they allowed this drama to go on for hours shows that they are more disciplined and less brutal than they are often thought to be, and certainly much less so than the American police whose actions prompted the real Black Lives Matter movement — not the me-too British version.

To get around the obvious fact that the police killing situation is not quite the same here as in the USA, where the wave of police and vigilante killings of mostly innocent Black men, women, young people and children that prompted the protests that became Black Lives Matter started after the most recent contested police killing in the UK in 2011, sympathisers point to a slew of other racial issues such as the treatment of refugees and the failure of doctors to diagnose skin cancer in Black people (which Ava Vidal tweeted about). I know of many people with chronic or life-threatening conditions, some of whom were misdiagnosed with either trivial or psychological conditions and denied proper treatment or their liberty for months or years on the basis. Most weren’t Black. Most were women and girls. Medical prejudice and misdiagnosis is not principally a race issue.

I support BLM in the USA. The British version seems to be an attempt to dominate the discussion on racial justice (note that they chose Whitechapel, a Bengali area, as the focus for their London protests). They justify themselves with a mixture of historical injustices and modern issues which do not solely affect Black people, including the treatment of refugees and unjust immigration laws. These things do not justify causing serious disruption to travellers in the name of “Black lives matter”, even if you use “Black” to mean any non-white person (which I suspect the African-Americans who coined the term didn’t). In case they haven’t noticed, the British (or rather, English) public voted six weeks ago to leave the EU, jeopardising the right of hundreds of thousands of (mostly White) EU citizens, and particularly those from eastern Europe, to live in this country. Nobody is threatening the same to Black people who are British citizens.

Of all the groups of people who are getting it in the neck right now, Black people per se are quite far down on the list below Muslims, disabled people and other presumed benefit claimants, and immigrants (and anyone who looks or dresses like them), all of whom are routinely the focus of hostile press coverage. There was simply no justification for this action and the people responsible should be held fully accountable for any losses incurred as a result.

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