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Making sense of the senseless

June 2, 2020

It didn’t take the gift of prophecy to work out that sooner or later the protests in forty cities in the United States would reach London and other parts of the UK. But I was surprised that they came only an hour or two after I posted this on Sunday:

And what if we followed the example of our cousins in the United States, and took to the streets in an orgy of rioting over a perceived act of institutional racism? It’s happened before, most recently in 2011, and it could happen again, especially given the pent-up energy that’s built up during lockdown.

No rioting fortunately, or at least not yet and hopefully not at all. I learned about these protests through one of my staple sources of news: the BBC website. It was a fairly sloppy piece of reporting that provided little information about protests in Cardiff and Manchester other than that they’d happened. It also mentioned in the same piece that there had been a protest in Peckham the day before. No context other than that the protests were an echo of what was happening in the US. No word about who had organised it. Just a few photos and the fact that five people had been arrested and a member of the clergy had expressed concern over breaches of the lockdown rules.

Not that one would expect a detailed analysis so soon after what, judging by the lowly position of the story on the BBC website, seemed to be small beer compared to what’s happening in America.

There are several reasons why I’m interested in this little (so far) outbreak in the UK, and in the far larger events in the US. Do we ever stop to think about how we learn about them? About what information reaches us? And when people do take to the streets, to what extent, how, and with whom, do they communicate?

I’m also interested in who, if anyone, is behind the protests. Especially so when I access a subset of reporting from the US suggesting that there are shadowy organisations involved. Gun-toting Trump supporters (of course). People dressed all in black whom the media, and (of course) Donald Trump identify as Antifa. In most cases, there’s little effort to explain who Antifa are other than that Donald Trump (of course) is labelling them as a terrorist organisation. And then, seemingly stuck in the middle, are those who identify with the Black Lives Matter movement (or is it a movement?), many of whom, as evidenced by video clips, were doing their best to get in the way of people trying to burn and loot.

If that scenario seems complex, it’s actually far too simple. For every video of people standing in front of stores to protect them from looting, there’s one of a policeman kicking a protester, and another of a policeman doing his best to defuse the situation by talking to the protesters, and another of someone chipping away at paving stones to use as ammunition (apparently) and being carted over to the police, not by the MAGA crowd but by protesters.

Confusing? To add to the mix, reporters are being arrested by the police, and one police department has declared an area of their city out of bounds to reporters. So what does this mean? A concerted effort to damp down the coverage and thereby calm things down, or a desire to cover up acts of illegal violence by law enforcement officials? Tiananmen Square, as one tweet suggested? In America???

Then there’s the President inserting himself into the story. First allegedly hiding in a bunker, then yesterday having the police clear a path to a nearby fire-damaged church where, in front of boarded-up windows he declared himself to the the law and order president and announced that he was sending the regular army against the protesters. Howls of outrage from his opponents, and a senator relishing the prospect of the 82nd Airborne Division getting to grips with a rag-tag bunch of anarchists.

So where do we go for reliable, dispassionate reporting that will help us understand what the hell’s going on? What organisation is out there that has no political agenda and is interested only in reporting enough aspects of the same story that might enable us to arrive at our own version of the truth? Who still believes in a style of reporting that used to be called balanced?

In the UK, that might be the BBC, but what if the BBC is assailed on all sides for partiality and is therefore too intimidated to go out on a limb? And what if the lockdown and budget cuts have hollowed out the organisation so that it no longer has the bandwidth to analyse, as opposed merely to report the surface phenomena of events that you and I might consider important?

And in case we in the United Kingdom watch the events across the Atlantic with horror tempered by a sense that such things are unlikely to happen here, we should remind ourselves of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the claims that “institutional racism” marred the subsequent police investigation. And we should remember that that the 2011 riots started after Mark Duggan, a black man, was shot dead by police in London.

In the US, most TV networks and major newspapers seem to have abandoned any pretence of impartiality. This enables Trump to label every outlet that doesn’t see things his way as fake news.

And if we rely on the social media for our news, how on earth do we ensure that we escape our reality bubbles by going for the widest possible spectrum of opinion and reporting without being totally consumed by the effort?

And how do we tell the difference between information and disinformation, between real people and bots from Russia, Iran and China? Between organically-grown conspiracy theories and those deliberately implanted? Between real conspiracies and imaginary ones?

Who do we trust? Who’s trying to manipulate us, and how can we tell?

If you’re not paralysed by uncertainty at this stage, you then have to ask yourself what view to take, if any. Do you care about being manipulated? And are you prepared to take some action, donate to an organisation, fire off an intemperate tweet or take to the streets on the basis of what you see, which in turn is what you allow yourself to be presented with?

That could depend on whether you have a grievance that can be stoked and amplified. In other words, your reaction is based on an emotion – anger, grief, resentment – that’s waiting to be aroused. On the other hand you could be cold and calculated, waiting for an opportunity to advance an agenda. In other words, you could be one of the manipulators.

Nothing new in any of this. It’s human nature to jump to conclusions when presented with a reality you see as mapping on to your own. Only when the whole event has played itself out is it usually possible to come to any dispassionate conclusions about who were the main actors responsible for organising the chaos, if indeed there were any actors at all. If there are clearly identifiable actors, you then ask yourself what was their agenda.

Were they local, or did they come from somewhere else? If the Trumpian gun enthusiasts were involved, were they funded by some right-wing pressure group, or did they come of their own accord? And why didn’t they use their weapons instead of posing with them? It shouldn’t be impossible to determine from their social media activities whether there was some motivating entity.

The same same questions should be asked about Antifa. Is it an organisation or a bunch of random anarchists who find common cause in certain situations? Did Donald Trump call them a terrorist organisation because he had intelligence about their agenda and intentions, or was he merely making political capital out of the riots by stirring up paranoia? If the former, why doesn’t he share his evidence?

As for Black Lives Matter, can they be called an organisation? Perhaps a movement is a better way to describe them. Of all the groups said to be involved, they seem to be by far the most transparent. There are websites, identifiable organisers and recognised communications channels. According to the prime movers, they believe in non-violent protest. So that being the case, would it be fair to say that any acts of violence carried out under their banners are the work of provocateurs or opportunists?

And what of the police, whose actions have been at the centre of incidents such as the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis that sparked off the protests in the first place? Is one police force or another institutionally racist? Is there a common thread of racism, perhaps with some organisation encouraging and enabling it, that runs across different cities and states? Or are there just a few “bad apples”? Has Donald Trump, with his divisive rhetoric, encouraged racist elements within the forces of law and order? Or are we just witnessing the latest manifestation of an age-old problem?

These are the kind of questions we need to ask if we’re to get anything close to a nuanced understanding of the events in the United States and, possibly, those to come in the UK.

Will we ever get answers? As ever, probably not from a single source. We’ll have to work our way through multiple stories and opinions. Some of them will be way beyond the attention spans of most of us. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for people to write books on the subject. It may be weeks, months or perhaps even years before we get the whole picture, by which time the world will have moved on, and the traumas of 2020 will be viewed as history.

The same can be said of the concurrent event that has dominated the year – the pandemic.

Making sense of the world around us has never seemed harder.

From → Politics, Social, UK, USA

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    What better an organisation “without organisation” to vilify, than so-called Antifa? If there’s no membership list or card to carry, then anyone Trump takes a disliking to is automatically a member. Orwellian or what?

    It’s almost a relief to know that the “bullet” that audibly whizzed past the boom mic of Deutsche-Welle-Stefan’s colleague, was “only” a pepper-spray round. “They’re shooting at the press”, I thought. And they were. (I vividly remember b/w footage of a Chilean cameraman being shot dead while filming his executioner.)

    Which stadium is going to swallow the candidates for “Disappeared”?

    When is one of Pinochet’s descendants going to become a “special advisor to POTUS”.

    When is this lunatic candidate for the “Dystopian Party” going to hear “YOU’RE FIRED!”?

    • All good questions to add to the ones I raised. Reminds me of Bahrain in 2011. My apartment balcony was a couple of miles from the Pearl Roundabout. Only this is a hundred Pearl Roundabouts.

  2. Andrew Robinson permalink

    P.S. Even the Yellow Jackets have a vested interest.

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