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Thursday, 25 June 2020

Patrick Hutchinson rescues a man from a beating

    Patrick Hutchinson by Dylan Martinez (Reuters) 

Perhaps the defining image (the fall of the Colston statue was the defining event) of BLM in the UK is this one by Dylan Martinez of Patrick Hutchinson and his friends rescuing 'statue defender' Bryn Male from a severe beating.It's a picture that stands in almost polar opposition to the still existing racist images of black males on display in the foreign office and in civil service medals. 

The basic story is that on Saturday 13th June, there was a 'statue-defending' demonstration to counter the Black Lives Matter demonstrations taking place the same day. No statues were defended and the statue defenders which included Britain First and the Football Lads Alliance were the absolute standard bearers of English masculinity that you might expect if you've been watching too many football violence videos on youtube. My favourite football violence video is still the one from Luton v Millwall many years ago, and if you're interested in historic football violence, you can learn more about Millwall if you search for Millwall documentary.

Which brings us to Martinez's picture and the guy being carried, Bryn Male (who coincidentally is a Millwall fan and former policeman). He says he came to London on his own ("I wasn't with any of the boys from Millwall... I don't have a racist bone in my body"), says he spent the day talking to policemen in Trafalgar Square and says he was attacked without provocation (though there are witnesses who heard  somebody shouting "Fuck Black lives matter"). 

And so there were confrontations, assaults (and you can see a sequence of images here), attempts to calm the situation, and then the rescue that resulted in the image above. The image show49-year-old  Patrick Hutchinson and his friends  ( Pierre Noah, 47, Jamaine Facey, 43, Chris Otokito, 37, and Lee Russell, also 37) carrying Male away from the confrontation.  

The first thing you see are Hutchinson's eyes, dead centre frame staring out to the left. There's an intentness in his gaze, a determination to get the job that he is doing done. And it is a job, because you can sense an irritation and fatigue in there, perhaps at the circus around him (of which nothing good will come in the long term), but maybe at the fact that he has to rescue this guy who has been in the wrong place at the wrong time, possibly saying the wrong things at the wrong time (and this story has a ways to run I think). 

Then you see his arms, his size, his physical presence, a presence that is reinforced by the mask, the hat, the black t-shirt. He looks like security because he is security - he came to the march to defend BLM demonstrators against the violence of the counter demonstrators.

The strength and purpose of Hutchinson's arms are in contrast to those of Male. He is completely impotent in this image. Hutchinson is the adult, Male is the child who has put himself in a situation he needed to be extricated from.  One arm ends in a clutched in a fist that is dwarfed by the arms of Hutchinson. The other reaches to his head to feel for the tender spots where he has been slapped, or punched or burnt as a friend of Hutchinson, with what looks like a wehrmacht helmet, sunglasses, and underwear showing, holds his hands out to protect Male from random blows that demonstrators were still trying to get in as he was taken to safety. 

Male is a human too, he bleeds, he bruises, he hurts. The real pain is in his eyes though. He has surrendered himself to the occasion, to the rescuing figure of Hutchinson. If Hutchinson is St George (and St George was never a white man), then Male is the maiden being rescued. But there's no romance in this rescue, it is one that is a duty, a responsibility, part of the burden of being a breathing, thinking adult The masculinity of Britain First, of 16 pints of lager football supporting All Lives Matter Ing-er-land it's only banter Two World Wars and One World Cup  is completely compromised in this image. You can almost see these thoughts running through Male's head as he is carried to safety.There's a fair few thing being compromised. And perhaps Male is thinking about that. That might be the real message of this image. But then again perhaps not. Images don't change the world and nor often do life-defining events. Things will probably carry on as normal for everybody, but probably worse. 

Shawn's image of his friend on the empty Colston plinth was a table turning image for me, one where a smile has power and strength and a historical depth. In the same way, Martinez's image brings with it multiple redefining nuances of blackness, whiteness, masculinity and humanity. It also turns the tables of traditional images that are prevalent of black men as children ( see this image of a mural that greets visitors to the UK foreign office, or this image of the medal that is the second highest honour in the British civil service)

Mural by Sigismund Goetze

Africa shown bottom right in this mural of the British Empire by Sigismund Goetze 

St George killing a black satan in this UK Civil Service Medal

I remember reading somebody saying that it was the event that was extraordinary, not the photo. And of course it's the event that is extraordinary. It's always the event that's extraordinary. It's the image that brings out the events, the voices, and the nuances that those voices bring. Without Martinez's image I would never have read about how Hutchinson and 5 friends were involved in martial arts and had come to defend BLM demonstrators from violence. I would never have learnt that even though it appears they were rescuing a counter-demonstrator from being killed, the thing that was at the forefront of their minds was still the protection of their community from different forms of violence, and that is where the depth of the image lies, in bringing us to different perspectives and ways of thinking and being.

“My thing was not really saving that man,” said Russell. “It was more saving one of these black kids that was attacking that guy – their life could be gone, as well as the gentleman’s. A wasted life in prison because of those moments of madness.”

They know little about the man they rescued, but they hope his good fortune will provide a lesson to others. “Maybe it will change the views of racists,” said Russell. “I hope it shows that whatever they think of us, we’re cool, we’re good – we just saved your life.”

For Otokito, though, every bit as important is the message that he hopes the image sends to the black community.“As a brother, son, nephew, friend, I wanted to set an example, that it’s our responsibility to take ownership,” he said. “And hopefully it sends a different narrative to how the image of a black man is usually painted.

“Normally, it’s the picture of George Floyd with a knee on his neck. This is a completely different image – the tables are turned: a black man picking up a white man to put him on his shoulders to take him to safety in the midst of a situation that he’s created for himself. Hopefully, it sends a message that we are capable of being great.”

Monday, 8 June 2020

Shawn-Naphtali Sober's Beautiful Portrait of Bristol

The statue of slave trader, Edward Colston, was pulled down yesterday. It's been standing in the centre of Bristol for decades, a monument to a man whose business resulted in abduction, torture, rape, sexual abuse, and death for tens of thousands of people. You could have Fred and Rosemary West up there and it would be less offensive, and equally 'educational'.

Anyway, the statue was ripped down and thrown into the harbour, an act which has multiple historical resonances in itself. 

The image that I really loved came later in the day, once most of the crowds had gone. It's a picture by Dr Shawn-Naphtali Sobers (one of the few black academics working in photography in the UK), and it shows his friend Rob, jumping up on the plinth and taking the knee. This is one of four frames that Shawn made before Rob jumped off. 

What I love about it so much is the celebratory nature of the image. It combines the present, the past, but overcomes them both in a face that is filled with joyous delight. A lot is written about agency in images, and that is what this picture is all about; an unmediated moment where an unfettered emotion says more about what  the removal of the statue means than words ever could. 

In this picture, Rob takes Colin Kaepernick's knee and ties it directly into a local and global history of slavery, a history in which Colston was directly involved. 

This is what journalist Mike Gardner wrote about Colston.

"Between 1672 and 1689, Colston's company transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the Americas. To maximise profit, his ships divided their hulls into cramped holds, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. They were stripped and chained in leg irons – the women and children were caged separately and were frequently victims of sexual abuse. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery, smallpox and scurvy meant mortality rates for the eight-week crossing were as high as 20 per cent. Slaves who died or refused to eat were thrown overboard.

A third perished within three years of arriving in the New World after a short life of unimaginable horror, flogged and chained and starved until they could take no more, farming the fields of cotton, sugar, tobacco and molasses."

There were negotiations for some of this information to be included on the statue, but it was blocked and vetoed at multiple levels. Elements in Bristol in particular, and the UK as a whole (and the world as an even bigger whole) is not very good at remembering. It doesn't want to remember the past and it doesn't want to remember the present. (One thing worth remembering is that the statue was only built with great difficulty. There was no outpouring of love to build it, but rather a clutch of tight-fisted apathy)

The problem is the information is out there, the slave trade was commercial and was documented and there are tens of thousands of  people living in the city of Bristol who are absolutely direct direct descendants of that slave trade. And they do remember the past, they have it shoved into their faces every day, in statues, in street names, in the paintings that adorn univeristy walls, in the architecture and economic fabric of the city. 

You can go to sites like Slave Voyages and see where ships embarked from, where they sailed to, what their 'cargo' was, and how many people died. The ancestors of Rob and Shawn were on one of these ships. It's not an abstract matter that has been put to rest a) because it's not abstract, and b) because it has never really been addressed.

These are basic informational graphs, they don't really show the physical, emotional, or social reality of what that slave trade meant. That's what education would do, that's what a proper museum of slavery would do. But we don't have that in Bristol. 

We don't  even have a statue to the people who were kidnapped, enslaved, murdered on those crossings. I think Shawn's image of Rob, cast in bronze and towering 18 feet high above the city would be a great start to redefining who we celebrate and what we celebrate. 

Instead we have statistics and tables detailing how many slaves were trafficked. Brazil and the British Caribbean had by far the highest numbers. That's significant...

the number of slaves disembarked according to destination and century, 1500-1900

...and we have informational devices which are also enlightening, The flip side of all of this information is the mass of personal, social, and economic histories waiting to be told, that are being told, but not finding voice. And once you're aware of those histories, you become more aware of the world around you, and you become aware of your own ignorance. Which is dangerous of course to many people.

Education, and enlightenment is everything. And sometimes pulling down a second rate statue of a second rate man is part of that enlightenment. Thank you Shawn and Rob for the picture. It brightened up my life and is, for me, the most important picture to come out of Bristol for as long as I can remember.