A 20-year-old is not a baby!

Picture of Rashan Charles, a Black teenage boy wearing a baseball cap (most of it cropped out), a short-sleeved white T-shirt with a black 'puffer' waistcoat over it. He has a long metal chain round his neck and his arms are folded.Yesterday a young man called Rashan Charles was killed in an encounter with the police in London, and the footage has been posted on social media with the hashtag “Justice for Rash”. The footage shows him being pursued by police into the back of a shop, and then seized and held on the floor (initially by one officer who is later joined by another) for a minute or two; he is seen swallowing something or trying to, and was pronounced dead later in hospital. At the moment, we do not know why they sought to arrest him. It’s being automatically assumed that ‘Rash’ was innocent and was stopped simply because of his race; the NUS Black Students group has posted a tweet claiming he was ‘murdered’ well before all the facts about the incident have come out, which I think is rather irresponsible for an organisation of their profile. What really took me aback about this campaign, though, was seeing tweets referring to Rashan as a child, or even “just a baby”. That’s a ridiculous thing to call him.

I’m well aware that there is a tendency (observed particularly in the USA) to treat Black children as older and more mature than they really are, and to treat them as a threat, as much as an adult would be, from the first signs of puberty or even earlier. There is one story about a white school inspector asking a girl aged about 8 about what she used to do when she was a little girl, and the girl responded “I still am a little girl”. But 20-year-olds are not little girls, or boys, let alone babies. They are adults: they can drive, vote, work in a full-time paid job, serve in the armed forces, get married, have children. Both my parents were married at that age (they still are). The age of majority has been 18 in this country for more than 45 years.

‘Child’ can of course be a term of affection, even for adults, and there are plenty of songs addressing a love interest as ‘babe’ or ‘baby’. I remember being in a summer job in the late 1990s, and my work colleagues included a Muslim lady of about my age who wore hijab and long skirts and a white Welsh lady in her 70s, and when I referred to the former as a woman to the latter, she said, “she’s not a woman; she’s a child!”. But it can also be an insult, a way of belittling someone or dismissing something they are trying to tell you. When I was much younger than 20, being classed as a child meant having no rights, not being taken seriously and having to take orders off abusive people, and was a status I was eager to slough off as soon as I could, and it is one reason why I am uneasy about considering people in their mid-teens as children (in regard to matters of sex or personal responsibility, for example) now. In recent years it has become fashionable to point to the “developing brain” and to excuse teenagers’ erratic behaviour on such grounds, ignoring the particular pressures that come from the artificial, institutional school environment and from only having others of the same age and stage of development as friends (and slightly older people dominating and being the role models), as well as the lesser degree of personal responsibility young people often have now. Academic work has become easier, while fewer young people have paid jobs, either because of college or unemployment. Marriage in the early 20s is relatively rare now.

So we are not giving a 20-year-old any credit by reducing him to a child or a baby, especially when (as is the case here) he already has a child of his own. There have been attempts to link police-related deaths here to those in the USA, where the number vastly exceeds ours and has included children as young as 12 and very obviously innocent people, and some of the activism here (particularly the setting-up of a “Black Lives Matter” group and holding road-block protests at Heathrow) strikes me as “me-tooism”, wanting some of the action and the instigators wanting to make themselves leaders on the back of it. It appears that Rashan Charles died struggling while resisting arrest; why he did that may become clearer in the coming weeks, but it is a criminal offence in itself and the community need to accept that Rashan Charles likely had some responsibility for that situation. He was a grown man, clearly suspected of being in the process of committing a crime, and was treated accordingly.

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