Activists from the Black Lives Matter campaign hold a rally in Windrush square in Brixton before marching towards central London to demand justice for George Floyd (Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty images)
Artillery Row

Britain’s George Floyd protesters exude the stench of humbug

The London demonstrators want to feel good without having to behave well

The combination of menace and humbug is a deeply unpleasant one. It was prominently to be seen in London and elsewhere Britain in the demonstrations that followed the killing by the police of Minneapolis of George Floyd.

I need hardly add my voice to the chorus of condemnation of the brutality of the policeman called Chauvin and his three accessories. It is difficult to conceive of any possible mitigating circumstance for their behaviour. It is perfectly reasonable for people, especially in Minneapolis, to call for an independent inquiry not only into the event itself, but its antecedents.

However, the British demonstrations had a strong flavour of humbug about them, that is to say the desire of the participants to make themselves look and feel good without having to go to the trouble of behaving well. 

Let us just take the question of proportion. To people of other countries, the numbers of people killed by the police in the United States seems astonishing, 1004 in 2019 (3 in Britain in the same year, about 1.5 per cent of the American figure adjusted to population). Of those 1004, about 23 per cent were black. This is rather more than their proportion of the population (13 per cent). On the other hand, blacks also committed (in 2018) 53 per cent of homicides and 60 per cent of robberies, the majority of their victim being themselves black, so that it is hardly surprising that the police shot proportionately more blacks than whites.

There were 28 shootings by police of unarmed citizens (by which is meant citizens not actually wielding a weapon at the time of their demise) in 2019, 19 of whites and 9 of blacks. All the other police killings were of armed people. A black man in America has roughly 700 times the chance of being murdered by a fellow black man than does an unarmed black man have of being murdered by a policeman (and many police are themselves black, of course). A policeman in America is more than 18 times more likely to be killed by a black man than is a black man to be killed by a policeman. 

Needless to say, none of this detracts from the horror or culpability of the killing of George Floyd as an event or episode, but it should have given the demonstrators pause before venting their pseudo-virtue in public. Not that it ever would, because nothing would.

The menace of their humbug lay in this: that if you did not participate in their outrage, you were in some sense responsible for what happened. The Formula 1 racing driver, Lewis Hamilton, condemned his fellow drivers for remaining silent on the killing of George Floyd, which suggested that his driving skills are greater than his thinking skills; and one of the demonstrators in London held aloft a placard saying ‘White silence is complience (sic)’ – by which was meant complicity. By this token, the demonstrator’s silence on the Chinese occupation of Tibet, or on the war in the eastern Congo, was complicity with horrors far greater in extent than the death of George Floyd. But silence is not even approval, let alone complicity, and to imply that everyone must express equal outrage about what one is outraged about oneself is self-righteousness carried to the level of megalomania. 

‘No justice, no peace’ said another placard, as if to justify anticipated looting and burning, perhaps even killing. And the gesture of the fist in the air is hardly that of pacifists anxious for social peace. 

The pleasures of righteous indignation are among the greatest enemies of clear thought; and the streets of London recently were alive with the sound of humbug.

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