NOTICE: This is about ‘privilege’; it is not a comprehensive discussion by any means and I apologise to readers who may think this presentation somewhat simplistic. It is, of necessity, something of a limited 101 in reference to a current news story.
Trigger Warning: discussions of racism and violence
Details are sketchy but rests on a report produced by PC Amechi Onwugbonu, the 6th officer involved who is black and whose evidence was pivotal in bringing the case to court. I quote from a BBC article
‘PC Mark Jones, 42, was accused of subjecting the youths to a physical and verbal attack while on patrol in a police van in west London in June 2007... He allegedly accused a Kuwaiti youth of "robbing people while British soldiers are getting killed in Iraq"... the officer swore at one teenager, Omar Mohidin, who was aged 16 at the time, before kicking him... Mr Onwugbonu accused Mr Jones of walking over another youth, Ahmed Hegazy, when he lay handcuffed on the floor of the vehicle... a third teenager, Basil Khan, was brought onto the van before he was sworn at, punched, kneed and slapped in the face.’
Notice that all of this is being brought almost entirely upon evidence provided by the only black man with any power in the situation, with no mention of the testimony of the youths. The officers were found innocent of all charges.
This leads us neatly to our second court case in which the 5 white officers (accused of either physical or verbal assault or in covering up those assaults) are involved. The men are bringing a suit to an employment tribunal alleging that they have been ‘unfairly treated’ by the MET during the course of this case and its development. Bill Wilsonone of the other officers involved, but now retired ) argued that "If it had been a white officer making that allegation, then the matter would have been dealt with in-house there and then. That would have been the end of it... they have gone in completely the opposite direction to the point where it is actually the white officers getting discriminated against”
“It’s political correctness gone mad”
There is a third court case in this story. Brought by the teenagers themselves against the white officers they accuse of physically and verbally assaulting them. Their evidence alone was not enough to bring these events to a criminal trial; they were assisted in that by the powerful evidence provided by PC Onwugbonu. They are proceeding with a civil suit themselves all the same and it is ongoing.
Here I want to step back from our story and talk about the idea of privilege and the role it plays in producing our lives. Privilege is the idea that some people have advantages that others do not, in the same way that some people have disadvantages that others do not and that these advantages and disadvantages are built into the structure of our society in ways that are not always easy to see. It’s the difference between having money and being overdrawn in your bank account – for some people even reaching zero is difficult; others never even drop that far down.
The problem is that those who spend their lives comfortably above zero, surrounded by other people who are comfortably above zero, start to believe that everyone is above zero, just like them. They forget that other people have problems that they don’t even know exist let alone understand what it is like to live with. They cannot even imagine that other people might be overdrawn, below zero, let alone what it is like to struggle on a daily basis to try and make ends meet.
Sindeloke illustrates this idea with a story about a lizard and a St Bernard dog sharing a home; the dog doesn’t even know what cold is as it is protected by its warm coat. When the cold-blooded lizard tries to explain that she is cold the dog thinks the lizard is just making it up, or trying to get her own way all the time; because the discomfort is utterly foreign to him he brushes it off rather than trying to understand the lizard’s point of view.
To examine our story.
- The white officers claim that their case should never have reached court in the first place, that it is only because a black officer made the allegations that they were tried.
- They argue that had it been another white officer involved then the situation could have been resolved ‘in house’.
- They reason, therefore, that they have been treated unfairly, in being brought to a court case for reasons they cannot understand.
Accusation, trial, verdict, issue closed. This is the normal way of things, you might think. But here is where Mr Wilson’s statement becomes important.
He did not expect this to make it as far as a trial, because such things are not normal for him. He is used to living somewhere far above zero where accusations by black and other people of colour do not trouble him and where his abusive and aggressive behaviour remains unchallenged. With the changes to the force following the Macpherson Inquiry (1999) and its discussions of institutional racism following the murder of Stephen Lawrence he is brought just a tiny bit lower. Changes which he decries as a terrible imposition because they affect him in ways he is not used to. Being closer to zero is uncomfortable for those who are not used to it and this situation is intolerable for him. Despite the material fact that many others must do what they can with far less than he.
Privilege makes us blind to the ways in which others struggle. It makes us unable to comprehend that what we take to be the normal way of life is, in fact, only normal for us and that other people do not experience the world in the same ways as we do. In situations like this one, when that ‘normality’ is challenged we can sometimes not understand why our lives must change in order to develop a fairer world, we can sometimes be resentful and even lash out at those we see as forcing those changes.
We must resist those urges and listen to the voices of those who are disadvantaged in our society, in doing so we will have to give up some of our advantages.
It is not ‘political correctness gone mad’ it is equality and it’s still got a long way to go.