“…ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. James Baldwin (1972)
The online Cambridge Dictionary records that the word ‘ignorant’ signifies not having enough knowledge, understanding, or information about something – and the online Collins English Dictionary adds the nuance that when we describe someone as ignorant, we mean that they do not know things which they should know.
I think I may therefore confidently echo James Baldwin in suggesting that ‘ignorance, allied with power’ may be understood to be embodied in the priapic figure of our present Premier when, politicking around the Home Counties with Priti Patel recently (as is his chilling wont), he prescribed membership of “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society” (Guardian 2021) for those convicted of ‘anti-social behaviour’ (no trace of irony there!).
In case this spot of racist dog-whistling was too shrill for human ears to detect, he also lit the gas on half a century of fraught community policing when, with his very next breath, he proclaimed that ‘stop and search’, that key instrument of racially-targeted State oppression in modern Britain, was “a kind and a loving thing to do”.
It’s always problematic engaging on any level with the proliferating populist poseurs that (over-)populate the public sphere in post-modernity. Best in some ways to let it all wash over us, pour ne pas encourager les autres. But I want to try to think and write in a clear-eyed way about ‘race’ and racism and I think that these prime ministerial pronouncements illuminate the mindset of a whole class. As it happens to be the ruling caste in this country, it’s worth paying attention. And because it is about ‘race’, silence from the likes of me very quickly tips over into collusion or endorsement.
In that press conference, chattel slavery in the American South of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – as particularly extended through to the present day by the American penal system (in which more African Americans are incarcerated, than there were slaves in the United States in 1850 (Resler, 2019)) – is an historical phenomenon that is being referenced, but its true nature, its continuation by other means, and the identity and mindset of its perpetrators is being actively ignored.
Our protagonist, therefore, is being ignorant in the most violent possible way. He is indeed a candidate, as Baldwin warned, to be “the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. Furthermore, as Baldwin had previously observed, “whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves” (Baldwin  2017, pp. 43-44).
Because this particular paragon of our ruling ‘elite’ is such an admirer of Winston Churchill – that Colossus of Empire (in its (British) late period) and committed ideological adherent and proponent of racist imperialism, who in 1902 insisted that the “Aryan stock is bound to triumph” and in 1955 proposed “Keep England White” as the Conservative Party’s electoral slogan (and so who undoubtedly would have nodded his head at that ‘chain gang’ dog whistle) – it is with the figure of Churchill that we may as well begin.
In Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (1998), reference is made (pp. 641-642) to an episode when Churchill was Home Secretary, in which he and his Parliamentary Private Secretary Edward Marsh “spent an entire afternoon beating each other’s buttocks with a plaited birch”. There had been debate whether official adoption of this newly designed implement amounted to cruelty and so Churchill and Marsh had ‘done their duty’ by testing its efficacy. They are supposed, in Barker’s retelling of the tale, to have drawn the conclusion that “they’d had worse beatings at school” (Churchill’s experiences of being caned at Harrow are well-documented; the incident with Marsh is mentioned in Hassall (1959); Churchill’s Parliamentary Private Secretary during World War Two, Brendan Bracken, set up his own secret summer school in the 1950s so that he could contrive to have himself regularly caned, in role as a 16 year old schoolboy who suffered from premature ageing).
Now, it is not my purpose here to practice ‘wild psycho-analysis’ at a distance, or to pry into private lives, even if some such details have come into the public domain; nor to be prurient or judgmental about sexual or sexualised practices in what were sexually repressive times. We might at most very gently and cautiously infer, at the human and individual level, that these are the survival strategies of tormented souls. Moreover, I too am a survivor of single-sex boarding schools: to declare an interest, and not to put myself above the fray. I too must atone for my own guilt by association with the racist ravages of Empire.
No: the context and rationale for having anything at all to say about the personal lives of such historical figures lies in their power and privilege in the public sphere and the relations of domination which they considered themselves entitled to pursue. What I want very simply to notice for now are two particular phenomena: the first of which is the pervasive quality and characteristic of cruelty – elevated almost to the status of a virtue, as in ‘it’s cruel to be kind’; ‘it will make a man of you’; and other more or less insidious bromides and banalities of that ilk.
(‘I went through it, and it didn’t do me any harm’ is another one of these sayings, and it reminds me that at the boarding school in which I was deposited, I was a member of the first intake after the practice of being required to act as personal servant to the older pupils had been abolished. This was certainly a matter of personal relief to me; and it also meant that I bore witness to the disappointment of those who arrived in the four years before me, who had the practice passed on down to them, but couldn’t ‘make it alright’ by passing it further on down the line (and therefore had to find other less structured ways and means to assert dominance).)
The second phenomenon I want to foreground is the practice and exercise of restraint.
I have in mind to make full use of the double meaning of this word. It was essential in these disciplinary institutions that one took one’s beating (from housemasters or from older ‘fellow’-pupils) with a ‘stiff upper lip’: one did not ‘blub’; cruelty was something to be bitten back and doubled down on. This is not self-restraint in the sense of that conventional social virtue associated with the Aristotelian ‘Golden Mean’. This is systematic ‘control and restraint’, deployed ruthlessly against the creative spontaneity of the self, in order to suppress any upsurge of human emotion and cut it off at the source.
The Duke of Wellington famously claimed, on behalf of his officer classes, that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. His rank and file (those who survived) might have begged to differ. But we could perhaps argue that the great prizes of Victorian Empire – the power and reach of British dominion between the moment of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état in Paris in December 1851 and Gavrilo Princip’s two well-aimed pistol shots in Sarajevo in June 1914 – were won behind closed doors, in places and spaces dedicated to ritual humiliation. Generation upon cold, repressed, brutalized generation were sent away by their parents to be restrained in disciplinary institutions where they learned to exercise (self-)restraint when cruelties were administered to self or other; thus were they ‘trained for Empire’ and then sent out from these schools, and these shores, to rule over their fellow human beings, for whom they had no fellow feeling (were perhaps not capable of entertaining such fellow feeling).
The ideology of Free Trade presented them with an overriding mission to profiteer and to plunder; the ideology of racism allowed them to consider that their subjects were not human beings at all; and the ideology of Christianity (as opposed to the teachings of Jesus) provided the figleaf of the ‘civilising’ project, to still any lingering qualms.
This was the Rule of Britannia.
Toni Morrison wrote about chain gangs and restraint in Beloved (1997): her furious, anguished, transcendental account of the trauma and the ghosts of slavery. A ‘chain gang’ (so ignorantly referenced in that prime ministerial photo opportunity), in the world of Beloved (pp. 125-130), means forty-six Black men caged in boxes like kennels or coffins (except that both dogs and the dead are housed in greater decency and comfort); the boxes lined up in a ditch dug five feet deep, five feet wide. Woken each morning to gunshots; uncaged and forced to pass a thousand foot of chain onward to each other through their ankle irons; forced to submit to sexual abuse from the guards before being marched to their long day’s sledgehammer toil in the quarry; sleeping, if sleep be found, in mud and floodwater, waiting for the bite of the cottonmouth.
This compass of cruelty beyond measure or comprehension is not literally what is being proposed today as Conservative policy; but it is what is being referenced. In case you doubt me, one notorious and flatly despicable scribe writing in The Sun (I won’t give him the recognition of an actual reference) in the immediate aftermath of that dog whistle suggested that these new ‘chain gangs’ in their new yellow jackets should be made to sing ‘Negro spirituals’: so that passers-by would be sure they were ‘wrong ‘uns’, as they scrubbed graffiti off of walls or picked up litter off of grass verges.
To be very explicit: this extreme of cruelty and intensity of white supremacist ideology is being referenced because our ruling ‘elite’ have a notion that there are enough nodding Churchills among us who find the references congruent with their innermost feelings. They calculate that it is worth being referenced. They’re not just chatting around the dinner table as the port is passed (in such conversations, subliminal referencing and sly dog whistling aren’t felt to be needed and more open language is used). They’re speaking to us this way because experience tells them that there’s votes and funding in it for them.
Have these pontificators and provocateurs read Beloved? The question is irrelevant. They are ignorant, because they elect not to integrate the knowledge, the awareness, and the shame that is present and inherent in the history.
If any of them have read that book, they will also have encountered what Morrison writes about the ‘bit’ or ‘iron-bit’ or ‘face iron’. In her story, the character Paul D., who has escaped that Georgia chain gang described above, is reluctantly disclosing to Sethe, his host (whom he knew from ‘Sweet Home’, an earlier and relatively less troubled period of captivity) some of what he has endured. Sethe asks him why he didn’t say anything at a particular juncture in the story and Paul D. tells her that he had the ‘bit’ on him – and therefore he was physically unable to speak:
“he wants me to ask him about what it was like for him, about how offended the tongue is, held down by iron, how the need to spit is so deep you cry for it. She already knew about it, had seen it time after time in the place before Sweet Home. Men, boys, little girls, women. The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back.” (1997, p. 84)
This practice is also briefly depicted in episode three of the recent television adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (2017). However, Irina Popescu (2017) explains that contemporary research into slavery, restraint and torture has uncovered very little information on the iron bit. She hypothesizes that “this suggests that its physical representation and implementation remains locked away in the realm of the unimaginable”. She continues:
“Some human bits covered the entire mouth, neck, and nose, leaving the eyes unfettered so the slave could continue to see and thus proceed with his or her work. In this sense, the bit initially prevented speech by covering the mouth. After the bit was removed, the mouth was so dehydrated that the victims found themselves too hoarse to form words. (ibid.)”
James Baldwin once wrote: “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language” ( 2017, p. 62); and I must at once concede that at this point I don’t know what to write. I don’t know whether I can, or should, write anything at all. It may well be that my complicity disqualifies me, white middle-class male of a certain age that I am. I do know for certain that I can add nothing to what Toni Morrison has written. Here is unspeakability; unthinkability; unimaginability.
And yet: I perceive that it demands to be known. No – let me not hide behind the passive voice. Let me say rather that ‘it’ (the unspeakability, the unthinkability, the unimaginability of restraining human beings in chattel slavery) demands of me that I know it: that I not practice ignorance in the face of it; that I not stifle or suppress it, nor leave it lying in the shadows of consciousness, a ‘subjugated knowledge’ (Foucault 1976). I also think this is what Paul Gilroy is getting at when he writes of ‘imaginative proximity to terror’ (although that would be Baldwin’s or Morrison’s, not mine to claim) and says that “though they were unspeakable, these terrors were not inexpressible” (Gilroy 1993, p. 73).
Restraint. Control. Mild, measured, moderate-sounding words. A clinical tone, when coupled together – ‘control and restraint’ – the ‘and’ forging a collocation, a connection, like a link of chain. Makes eminent, self-evident sense, on the face of it, no?
But now let’s review some more recent history. Here are the deaths of six Black men; five of these deaths taking place in the UK, the sixth in the USA. There isn’t space here to do justice either to their lives or to the manner of their deaths; however, what links them, apart from the social constructs of ‘race’ and gender, is the fact that all six of them died of asphyxiation and/or cardiac arrest as a result of being restrained by agents of State. Three of these men at least – the first and the last two – found breath, during the restraint, sufficient to be able to say, to those agents of State, “I can’t breathe”.
David Bennett died during a nursing restraint on 30 October 1998 at the Norvic Clinic, a Medium Secure Unit in Norwich in which he had been for many years, off and on, a patient. Bennett wrote a letter to the Head of Nursing Services in 1993, on a previous admission, observing that “there are over half a dozen black boys in this clinic. I don’t know if you have realized that there are no Africans on your staff at the moment. We feel there should be at least two black persons in the medical or social work staff. For the obvious reasons of security and contentment for all concerned please do your best to remedy this appalling situation” (Independent Inquiry 2003, p. 9). On the evening of his fatal restraint following a violent disturbance on the ward, Bennett was heard saying to the nursing team “Get off me, get off me, I can’t breathe. Get off my throat” (Independent Inquiry 2003, p. 21).
In January 1999, Roger Sylvester died under police restraint in Haringay, London. The report of the inquest (Guardian 2003) relates that Sylvester:
“stopped breathing at the emergency psychiatric unit at St Anne’s hospital, Haringey, when six police officers held him down on the floor for about 20 minutes, St Pancras coroner’s court heard. He fell into a coma and died later at the Whittington hospital, north London. The court had heard that dangerous and unreasonable force was used and Mr Sylvester was handcuffed and sometimes restrained on his stomach.”
On 21 August 2008, Sean Rigg died of cardiac arrest and partial positional asphyxia under police restraint in Brixton, London. The Wikipedia summary of the circumstances of his death record that Rigg was chased by four police officers and
“was handcuffed and restrained in a prone, face down position as officers leant on him for eight minutes. Arrested for assaulting a police officer, public disorder and theft of a passport—which was actually his own—he was then placed face-down with his legs bent behind him in the caged rear section of a police van and transported to Brixton police station. During the journey “his mental and physical health deteriorated” and he was “extremely unwell and not fully conscious” when eventually taken out of the van. This followed a delay of ten minutes during which he was left handcuffed in a ‘rear stack’ position, unattended and unmonitored while the van sat outside the station in the car parking area.”
On 4 November 2013, Leon Briggs died under police restraint in Luton. According to a news report of the inquest (BBC 2021b):
The way police officers moved a restrained man who later died was “potentially dangerous” and against “strict guidance”, an inquest heard. Leon Briggs, 39, was restrained under the Mental Health Act on a street in Luton, handcuffed and placed in leg restraints on 4 November 2013. He was lifted face-down to a van and taken to Luton police station. He later became unconscious and died. An officer told the inquest carrying Mr Briggs face-down was “not ideal”.
The jury found that “there was a gross failure to provide Leon with basic medical attention and that there was a direct causal connection between this conduct and his death. They recorded a conclusion that his death was ‘contributed to by neglect’.”
We should pause here in the sequence to note that, in January 2017, the Angiolini Review report (commissioned by Theresa May) found that:
“57. There is evidence of disproportionate deaths of BAME people in restraint related deaths. Any death involving a BAME victim who died following the use of force has the capacity to provoke community disquiet leading to a lack of public confidence and trust in the justice system. This can be exacerbated if people are not seen to be held to account, or if the misconduct process is opaque (Angiolini 2017, p. 15).”
Now we come to the fifth of these deaths: consider this BBC News report on the death of Kevin Clarke under police restraint in Lewisham, London in March 2018 (BBC 2021a):
“Mr Clarke had been lying on the ground and attempted to get to his knees before being restrained …. He was handcuffed and legs restraints were applied. Police body-worn video footage reveals Mr Clarke repeatedly told officers “I can’t breathe”, before being made to walk to an ambulance, still bound at the knees while barely conscious … .”
The final death in this sequence is perhaps the most well-known. On 25 May 2020, in Minneapolis, George Floyd was killed under police restraint. Here is the Wikipedia summary of witness accounts and video recordings taken at the scene:
“Floyd can be heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”, “Please”, and “Mama”; Lane then asked for an ambulance for Floyd, “for one bleeding from the mouth”. Floyd repeated at least 16 times that he could not breathe. At one point a witness said: “You got him down. Let him breathe.” After Floyd said, “I’m about to die”, Chauvin told him to “relax”. An officer asked Floyd, “What do you want?”; Floyd answered, “Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe.”
James Baldwin (to which very great writer, we can never return too often) once wrote that “when a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed” ( 2017, p. 51). Derek Chauvin is now serving a 22.5 year sentence for second-degree murder. However, in the UK, it is a fact that:
“despite more than 1,700 deaths in police custody and following police contact since 1990 there has never been a successful prosecution of any police officer for murder or manslaughter (Coles 2021).”
192 of these deaths were of people racialized as BAME and this number (14%) reflects the overall population ratios in the UK as of 2011. However, BAME deaths in police custody involving restraint, use of force and mental health issues are in each category more than twice as likely compared to other deaths in custody. Coles, who is the Director of INQUEST, has also argued that “the disproportionality in the use of force against Black people adds to the irrefutable evidence of structural racism embedded in policing practices”.
“61. Behind today’s systemic racism, racial violence, dehumanization and exclusion, however, lies the lack of a formal acknowledgement of the responsibilities of States, institutions, religious groups, universities, business enterprises and individuals that engaged in or profited from, and that continue to profit from, the legacy of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism”
and calls on States Parties to the UNCHR to take action thus:
“68. Listening to the voices of people of African descent, the need for a global transformative agenda for racial justice and equality is clear. The four-point agenda in the annex sets out the key changes that are needed, which have also been elaborated in the present report under the subheadings on the way forward. Comprehensively implemented, the agenda would:
(a) Reverse the cultures of denial, dismantle systemic racism and accelerate the pace of action;
(b) End impunity for human rights violations by law enforcement officials and close trust deficits;
(c) Ensure that the voices of people of African descent and those who stand up against racism are heard and that their concerns are acted upon;
(d) Confront legacies, including through accountability and redress.”
Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur (United Nations 2017) has commanded States Parties to the UNCRPD (United Nations 2006) to desist from all coercive practices in psychiatry and this would include ‘control and restraint’. The importance and urgency of the challenge to the status quo upheld by the racist State, and to the range of practices by which that status quo is maintained, cannot be overstated.
I am conscious of not having said anything new here as such and I hope this piece reaches a readership who may instantly recognize just how far behind the curve I have been – and, likely enough, still am. But I want to say that I’m taking notice and that taking notice is, I believe and trust, a creative antidote to practicing ignorance. Those great lambasters of restraint of trade and mealy-mouthed objectors to restraint of press freedoms that have been governing this country since the days of Empire are pursuing the active continuation of the practices of restraining entailed in slavery and the toxic ooze of it seeps out through every membrane of the body politic. And I wonder what happens to a ruling class, to use that term, when in order to keep power it has to (officially) renounce the practice that brought it such unimaginable riches and yet corrupted it so completely? What happens when institutional approval and statutory sanction for the handing down and passing on of misery and cruelty is withheld? Perhaps practices of cruelty on such a scale must somehow persevere and find outlets for expression, because such drives can never be sublimated.
Racist dog whistles are not ‘merely’ racist dog whistles. They tell us that nothing – nothing whatsoever – has changed in the mindset. And this brings us back to the beginning of this blog, and the need to take our leave of the present monarch’s present First Minister (and let’s take every opportunity to remind ourselves that it was the Royal Family in this country (albeit in those days not the Windsors themselves, but the Stuarts) that formalized the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the seventeenth century (hence the mind-boggling wealth now at the Windsors’ disposal)).
What, then, are we to make of the figure of the man whose remark apparently in passing set us off on such a journey? Perhaps the figure of Churchill may provide further illumination, if not the kind of light that anyone would much want shone…
For if associations to Churchill’s cane inexorably took us back to the ‘iron bit’, then associations to Churchill’s cigar lead inevitably to another pale, scruffy-blond-haired, ‘Aryan’, self-promoting, ‘Establishment’ (of the ‘in it yet not of it’ type), self-consciously ‘eccentric’, bonhomous, clowning, hob-nobbing, celebrity serial abuser; hiding in plain view, in the very apple of the public eye, on first-name terms with the world at large; impervious to questioning, immune to criticism; the full horror of his depradations and the full extent of the cover-up around him only emerging even partially into view after he had passed beyond reach of the law of this country, or indeed of any other earthly judgement….
Racial abuse. Let’s renounce it in ourselves. Let’s call it out in others, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly, privileged, supremacist head. Let’s be going along with it not one second longer.
Angiolini, E. (2017) Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/655401/Report_of_Angiolini_Review_ISBN_Accessible.pdf
Baldwin, J. ( 2017) The Fire Next Time. London: Penguin.
Baldwin, J. (1972) No Name in the Street. London: Vintage.
Barker, P. (1998) The Regeneration Trilogy. London: Penguin.
BBC (2021a) ‘Kevin Clarke: Met Police apologises over restraint death’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-55694916
BBC (2021b) ‘Leon Briggs: Police and ambulance ‘failures’ in restraint death’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-56339607
Coles, D. (2021) ‘Deaths in detention: Why aren’t we learning lessons from UK deaths in police custody?’ https://lacuna.org.uk/black-lives-matter/deaths-in-detention-why-arent-we-learning-lessons-from-uk-deaths-in-police-custody/
Foucault, M. (1976) ‘Two lectures’. Translated by A. Fontana and P. Pasquino. In Gordon, C. (ed.) (1980) Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, pp. 78-108.
Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.
Guardian (2003) ‘Detained man unlawfully killed by police’. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/oct/03/ukcrime.prisonsandprobation
Guardian (2021) ‘Johnson proposes hi-vis chain gangs as part of crime plan’. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jul/27/johnson-proposes-hi-vis-chain-gangs-as-part-of-crime-plan
Hassall, C. (1959) Edward Marsh, Patron of the Arts: A Biography. London: Longmans.
Independent Inquiry into the Death of David Bennett (2003). http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Society/documents/2004/02/12/Bennett.pdf
Morrison, T. (1997) Beloved. London: Vintage.
Popescu, I. (2017) ‘Biting iron, forever smiling: the iron-bit, the wounded mouth, and un-silencing in Toni Morrison’s Beloved’. In A. Lobodziec and B.N. Fondo (eds) The Timeless Toni Morrison: The Past and The Present in Toni Morrison’s Fiction. A Tribute to Toni Morrison on Occasion of Her 85th Birthday. Oxford: Peter Lang. https://www.academia.edu/34936113/Biting_Iron_Forever_Smiling_the_Iron_Bit_the_Wounded_Mouth_and_Un_Silencing_in_Toni_Morrison_s_Beloved
Resler, M. (2019) ‘Systems of trauma: Racial trauma’. Issue brief. http://www.fact.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Racial-Trauma-Issue-Brief.pdf
United Nations (2006) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html
United Nations (2017) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health. UN General Assembly – A/HRC/35/21. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/076/04/PDF/G1707604.pdf?OpenElement
United Nations (2021) Promotion and protection of the human rights and
fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African
descent against excessive use of force and other human rights
violations by law enforcement officers. A/HRC/47/53.
Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. https://undocs.org/A/HRC/47/53
Whitehead, C. (2017) Underground Railroad. London: Fleet.