SOMETIMES WE NEED TO STARE INTO THE ABYSS

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PROLOGUE:
I shall forewarn you, some of the following text is rambling, some of it is working things out through self-supervision, some of it is catharsis. The majority of it is fairly well thought through and a small amount of it will be completely off-the-cuff, although this piece has gone through various revisions. I’m letting you know now so you can check out when you like. I don’t expect you to stay for the whole journey. Although if you do check out early – I’d love to know why and for this reason, the comments are open.

This is a long read.
 

He who fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Beyond Good and Evil (Aphorism 146) – Nietzsche



It’s taken some time to think and formulate some words and feelings about what it means to be in this strange new world following the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we wait with patience, and in some instances, bated breath regarding what possibilities may arise as a result of the loosening of restrictions around the British lockdown there is a sense of worry and trepidation following the outcome of two series of events that took place following the incident surrounding (and continuing to surround) #CummingsGate.

On the one hand, I have watched in horror as people flocked to beaches, became embroiled in traffic jams on the M3 and began to ignore their own behaviour in places such as supermarkets.
In the week after the lockdown restrictions were loosened, I was dismayed by what I saw in a regular supermarket shop, when people began leaning over me to collect some fruit in the aisle at Aldi.
This is a deep concern considering we are not free from this virus. If we start to multiply the behaviours like this over the day, exponentially, we shall be looking at the re-spreading of the virus, and in all likelihood, a second major spike.

As the arguments go back and forth now between the scientific advice and the governmental position on the virus, we need to be reminded consistently – delay on locking down earlier has led to twice as many deaths as could have been avoided during this time. The UK Govt., were aware of the issue in January 2020. They did not act until it was too late. The strategy is now abundantly clear in it’s design regarding riding out the pandemic and subsequently all those who have been affected by historically societal and institutional disadvantages have been affected by the pandemic the most.

Black and Asian minorities are disproportionately dying both in the general population and in the Healthcare sector as a result of a lack of preparedness, PPE and strategic engagement at a local level.
But I digress.

Whereas three weeks ago, we were stuck in a purgatory – waiting for the lockdown restrictions to end – now there appears to be an unconscious desire for many to get back to how it was before the pandemic. I am still trying to understand this but my preliminary observations lay around notions of capitalism and the constraints of being bound to it.

man sitting on gray rock while staring at white clouds
image from Joshua Earle (free, Unsplash)


This is of interest to me, as an agent of change. I’m not a person that likes to dwell on what was, I like to see what could be – and more importantly, I like to envision what could be possible in a world that is augmented to care of self and other. Inexorably, this is not a world of capitalism and capital constraints.

But then. The touch paper was lit. The death of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers happened. Prior to this, the high-profile murder of Breonna Taylor. Adjacent to this, the murder of Tony McDade.

In the UK, we have our own list of people who have died at the hands of the those charged with protection. Gardner, Rigg, Douglas, Sey, Sylvester, Adler, Mubarek, Bennett, Duggan. The list goes on. It inevitably begs the question – what are the police protecting? Approximately ten percent of people who have died in UK police custody since 1990 are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

person in black jacket sitting on white concrete bench
image from Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona (free, Unsplash)


Mass rage. Mass disillusionment. Mass pain. Mass grief. Mass gathering.

At time of writing, in the next two weeks, we are going to see the results of many minor infractions, some medium sized infractions, and some absolutely colossal ones.

This is in no way to blame any of the people protesting. Far from it. My admiration soars for those, who in their collective pain and anguish managed to organise (and organise rather well) with the backdrop of a major pandemic.
Conversely, I hold little sympathy for those who were on beaches. A collective demonstration of defiance borne of pain and racial inequality cannot and should not be equated to people looking to catch some summer sun after the inconvenience of being cooped up for three months.
However, I need to hold that this is a qualitative judgement of morality, and not one of empiricism.

From a personal position, it has been a strange time. On more than one occasion, I have wanted to protest and show support. I have wanted to leave the confines of the place I now live in and reconnect with the streets of London – with people I love and care about; but I was not able to go. Circumstances outside of myself led to this decision, and in my somewhat consuming annoyance and guilt of not being able to protest and not being able to add to the collective voice and presence needed to visibly demonstrate I launched into a furious tirade of tweets, re-tweets, insta-stories and discussions around the situation with professional colleagues, peers and friends. Predominantly, this comes from a place of identification with the oppressed.
 
On the date of 14/06/20, I recorded a short video which illustrated one of my own experiences of racism and the manner in which one of many racist incidents have shaped my life growing up.

This was posted up as a response to a now deleted tweet by MP Jess Phillips, who interestingly described her experience of life through two hundred and forty characters as one of mild annoyance following the viewing of hundreds of different variations of right-wing stormtroopers taking over the streets of London for a day, with little response from the police. I shall return to that in a moment, but I’ll address my own tweets first.

I can name two other incidents before the one I am about to describe, and they are my earliest formations of racial difference and othering. The first was aged eight whereby I was implicated in an incident at school and placed on detention after class but none of the other children were. The second was approximately same age, and provided some evidenced rejection of the erotic-exotic theory whereby I was laughed at by girls at school in a game of kiss-chase and singled out because I was South Asian. (To place this in context, I was one of two minority peoples in a primary school of 120 children, and the only minority boy until three years later.)

When Euro 96 happened, I experienced the highs of being part of the in-group. I was one of the lucky ones at that time blessed with an England shirt for the tournament. One of my uncles had purchased it with me as an early (early) birthday present. It was David Seaman’s iconic yellow Umbro kit, complete with the padded arms and it was a joy. The colours – the yellow, navy, turquoise and purple; the three lions crest set to the middle of the chest; the closed Nehru collar – truly, it was a wonderful shirt.
Even to this day, I look at it with love for all it reminded me of prior to the day it was ripped off my back.

Desert Island Kits Part One: Danny Nez – The Stacey West
David “Safe Hands” Seaman.


I was pre-teen (Note: I was actually eleven, not ten). Coming back home from the playing fields in muddied shorts and socks in only the way a young person playing football would be muddied, the smell of fresh cut grass and knee grazes followed me through the pathway of terraced houses into the back alley towards my home. I was approx. thirty seconds walk away from my back garden, ready to face the wrath of parents who were sick of washing clothes that I was all too quick to ruin through a kick-about.

At this point, I was approached by two older boys – young white men at that age, approximately between the ages of seventeen and nineteen. They were loud, mouthy, and abusive from the moment they saw me.

I tried to get away, but I was grabbed by them both, dragged up a side walkway, and beaten. Punched until I hit the ground, then kicked repeatedly in the chest and back. Once they stopped hitting me, they picked me up by the collar and pulled my shirt from me. Then I was punched again. I remember this punch specifically because I was winded by it.

I was hit so hard in my diaphragm I didn’t think I’d be able to take another breath. It took a lifetime until I could open up my lungs and gasp.

And so, I returned to the floor. The elder of the two decided that was enough and signalled to the other one to stop. They had my shirt. Following that, I was informed why I was attacked.

“No P**i should ever wear an England shirt. You are a fucking disgrace you curry-muncher. Can’t even wear this fucking thing now. We should burn it.”

But they didn’t. They saw some dog mess, deciding a fair thing to do would be to rub it in and leave me and the shirt there.
I was on the ground for around ten minutes. I didn’t move. I was bleeding a lot; I had bruising on my face and I was sobbing.

When I could get up, I did. I took my shirt, looked at it for any damage, and went home. I explained what I could remember to my parents and then that was it. I didn’t get a good look at them and to be honest, I’m glad I’ll never have to know what they look like. Just the faceless masses of two young adults.

The shirt gets washed, the grazes get tended to until they mend.

I never wore that shirt, or any England shirt again. The psychological damage was done. It’s a deep scar. Interestingly, I can walk around the area with no fear. I don’t feel any additional post-traumatic stress. For what reason, I am unsure. It’s not due to emotional numbing, there are plenty of emotions about this incident.

As the years have gone on, I have wondered what it meant for my parents knowing that they did not protect me because they couldn’t. They couldn’t stop it happening, it is an inevitability that someone who can visibly be othered will face racism one day. You’ll only ever be a cockroach to some. That this incident was so horrific is something else entirely.


That was my first incident of overt racism. It was not the last. Fast forward past some minor incidents and racial profiling at nightclubs to 2007.

I have on occasion disclosed the situation where I was stop and searched coming out of my own flat when I was living off campus during my undergraduate studies. This was a very strange incident because by the age of twenty-six (having gone to university later in life) I had become this brash and sardonic character.

In brief, I was on my way to an afternoon lecture from the comfort of my flat opposite Whitelands campus, (Holybourne Ave.) University of Roehampton when I was stop and searched by two White male officers on grounds that they had reason to believe I was a local drug dealer (some of you will be screaming about transference right now, and you should, rightly – it’s all there).

Stop and Search Bust Card Side 1 (03/07/2020)
Stop and Search Bust Card Side 2 (03/07/2020)


They went through my bag only to find a textbook, notepad and pens. I was not offered a receipt, I was not offered names, badge numbers or the station they came from. I was, however, told to “Fuck off.” Twice. Now, admittedly, this was partially due to the aforementioned brashness and sarcasm on my part. And yet, although this situation was not as bad as it could have been; I was handled roughly and was purposefully made to feel intimidated, at least in attempt. I was, by this age, no longer easily frightened due to various other life instances I do not have the time nor inclination to discuss.

Here is where I can offer some insight through partial interpretation.

Unidentified White men in positions of power like to attempt to exert dominance over me because of the colour of my skin and my ethnic origin. I am situationally left to feel powerless physically and psychically; and subsequently am left psychologically altered by the effects of these incidents.


In the present, I look for potential signs of this abuse of power through my interactions with people. If I can pre-empt it, I will cut this off and examine it. If I do not see it, and am subject to the subsequent pain, I will attack it.

What I now look for as a partial resolution to this sense of threat is a manner in which to mitigate against these power dynamics. I learn, I read, I know my rights, I know how to fight.

In resolution, I look to fellow Black and Asian people for love, support and solidarity and more importantly guidance. There is no coincidence my literary, sociological and psychological idols are strong willed people I can identify with.

James Baldwin


Historically, people like Baldwin, Fanon, Ture, and Ambedkar.

Presently, people like Hirsch, Andrews, Daley, Dalal, Eddo-Lodge, Kinouani, Davids, Davis, Sivanandan and McKenzie-Mvinga.

In turn I offer the same support, guidance and care where I can as a resolution to such psychological pain. It never seems enough when you are facing the same battles that have been fought before you were even born. Partially, that reads as a failure to have made any significant progress, possibly due to the wrong strategies, but evermoreso it reads as facing an insurmountable task.

Keep it moving to 2020.

Earlier, I mentioned my observation of the police and their inaction when faced with the people in front of them over the weekend. It was demonstrably the lack of even-handedness that hurt the most.

On the weekend preceding this weekend’s violent eruptions, at the UK protest in solidarity with the family of George Floyd, there was video footage of mounted police breaking lines and antagonising visibly Black bodies.

Throughout the day, there were repeated calls from organisers to march in solidarity, to follow the rules, to make a nuisance, but not to fall into the trap of active engagement with the authorities. Largely, the day went peacefully (from the organised time at midday until approximately 17.30).

Following an incident where a mounted officer came off a horse as they rode into a traffic light and lost control due to being knocked out, the horse trampled on a woman who was minutes away from the front line. The police response to her subsequent complaint was one of her being in the wrong for being at the protest at all.

This weekend, we saw drunk, abusive and antagonistic White men erupt in a volcano of impotent rage. Looking for any excuse and finding one in the toppling of the statue of slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, they descended into London. Whereas a decade ago it would have been no more than three hundred, this was a descent of thousands on the capital.

And yet, those charged with being the authority in this situation failed to act.

Like school teachers who side with White students in the panopticon of the school institution, a visceral playing out of picking preferences based on skin colour was there to be viewed by anyone that wished to observe it.

There are countless incidents recorded of how Black children (and disproportionately, girls) are chided in school for their hair styles and are over-policed because of it.

The inability to control a situation when it warranted use of appropriate force, against the provoking and excessive use of force where it was not needed.

We can move up and down from how these issues are interpersonal, to institutional, to systemic.
The same mechanisms play out at multiple levels. It’s tired, it’s old and it demonstrably works to antagonise people.
As we have had time to stop during this pandemic, more and more people are able to think about their humanity because they have time for reflection. Possibly, that’s as a result of facing existential threat.

Let’s just say I am well versed and alert to abuses of power by people in instances where they try to use personal, circumstantial and institutional leverage in order to attempt to intimidate and dominate the “Fucking P**i.”

Ambalavaner Sivanandan (Institute of Race Relations)


Eddo-Lodge (2017) and Mills (1997) talk about “white denial” and the “epistemology of ignorance,” respectively, with white British people displaying the cognitive dissonance involved in denial of the historical effects of empire on people from the former commonwealth nations.

Friere (1968/2005) explores the concept of dehumanisation from a relational perspective in so far as it is the beginnings of an exploration of how dehumanizing “the other,” also dehumanizes the self. Perhaps there is an opportunity to gain a critical mass in the hearts and minds of enough white British people to have this as a serious conversation and reckoning.

We all have an opportunity to look into the mirror. This is how I class platitudes on race relations and racial awareness. It’s a brief glimpse. Sometimes though, when we have the time to really examine what we see, it’s not a reflection; We get the opportunity to stare into the abyss. We get to see the monster.

Perhaps COVID-19 is what we need to begin moving past the denial of what has occured in Britain, and that’s when we will begin to see the shoots that indicate change.

Otherwise all that’s left is obliteration.

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