Ian Ellis: We all should think deeply about our own attitudes to race

The death on May 25 of George Floyd in Minneapolis as a police officer pressed his knee against his neck gave rise to a wave of demonstrations that descended into violence in places.
Demonstrators outside Downing Street in London on June 9, as the funeral of George Floyd takes place in the US. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA WireDemonstrators outside Downing Street in London on June 9, as the funeral of George Floyd takes place in the US. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Demonstrators outside Downing Street in London on June 9, as the funeral of George Floyd takes place in the US. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

The protests were against police officers’ use of force, their attitudes to black people and a lack of accountability for their actions.

The demonstrations took place, of course, at the same time as the country was addressing the coronavirus emergency, as the whole world still is.

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Despite the sense of a crisis within a crisis that developed, it was good to hear Microsoft Corporation co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates telling the BBC that, despite being “very imperfect”, the United States is still “amazing in a lot of ways” not least when it comes to medical research into vaccines and despite “current challenges”.

Canon Ian M Ellis, who is a former editor of The Church of Ireland GazetteCanon Ian M Ellis, who is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette
Canon Ian M Ellis, who is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

President Trump’s appearance for a photo-opportunity outside St John’s episcopal church, not far from the White House, holding a Bible, led to much revulsion, including comments by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s new moderator, Dr David Bruce, that Mr Trump had “crossed the line” by using religious symbols.

The president’s actions were inappropriate, provocative and most regrettable.

Moreover, the US Episcopal Church’s News Service indicated that leaders of the denomination, with which the Church of Ireland is in communion, had condemned the reported use of tear gas and rubber bullets to clear clergy and protesters from the area around St John’s so that President Trump could use it as he did.

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Mr Trump “used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes. This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said.

The Bishop of Washington, Rt Rev Mariann Budde, told ‘The Washington Post’ she had been “outraged”, adding that everything Mr Trump “has said and done is to inflame violence. We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us”.

Perhaps one of the most striking responses to the George Floyd killing and President Trump’s actions came with the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, pausing speechless for over twenty seconds before answering a reporter’s related question.

He then said: “We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States. It is a time to pull people together but it is a time to listen. It is a time to learn what injustices continue despite progress over years and decades.”

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Yet he went on to call on Canadians to accept that there is a parallel problem in their country, stating: “It is a time for us as Canadians to recognise that we too have our challenges, that black Canadians and racialised Canadians face discrimination as a lived reality every single day.”

Indeed, racism is a global scourge and a real human indignity.

Claire Stam, a writer for the ‘Euractiv’ website which focuses on EU policy and politics, recently recalled the first anniversary of the murder of the former president of Germany’s Kassel district, Walter Lübcke.

Mr Lübcke had been responsible for the accommodation of refugees and had been threatened because he stood for democratic values and a humane refugee policy, Claire Stam wrote, adding bluntly: “On 2 June 2019, he was found dead, shot in the head.”

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She went on to point out that over the past year “two racist-motivated murderous attacks” followed in the German cities of Hanau and Halle and that this month Senegalese-born German MP Karamba Diabyhad been sent a tweet telling him he is “not welcome” in Germany.

Closer to home, Northern Ireland does not have a good reputation either as far as race relations go.

Statista, the data providing company, has analysed the number of racially motivated hate crimes in Northern Ireland during the period 2004-2018, reporting a low point of less than 700 offences in 2011/2012, but indicating that “a drastic growth of race crime was recorded in the following years”, rising to a new peak in 2014/15 with 1,336 racist incidents.

Belfast has been called the race-hate capital of Europe, which is nothing less than a disgraceful epithet for Northern Ireland’s capital.

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However, the public expressions of protest at George Floyd’s killing that have taken place in Belfast, while rendering social distancing difficult to say the least, have highlighted a different attitude.

At the same time, Chief Constable Simon Byrne and the Public Health Agency’s head of health protection, Dr Gerry Waldron, both rightly issued important warnings.

The chief constable tweeted that while he condemned the murder of George Floyd, “public protests at this time will endanger lives”, adding: “We must support #BlackLivesMatter but also stop the spread of Covid-19.”

Dr Waldron said: “We’ve got to bear in mind that the virus hasn’t got any conscience and ... doesn’t recognise good causes.”

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The death of George Floyd in such tragic and disturbing circumstances must surely cause every person, here and around the world, to think deeply about their own attitudes.

• Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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