Tear it all up and start again, as every night gives a new twist and the morning brings another reality. Thus this letter too may arrive as if receiving the papers on board ship and reading three-month-old news.
A notebook behind my desk opens to a page, ‘Nobody Talks to the Cleaners.’ A friend returning from her hospital stay remarked how she always made a point of saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ to the lady who came to clean the ward. When cleaning and other auxiliary hospital needs were contracted out – separated from the National Health Service – little fissures had a place to enter a smooth team of personnel. This essay was still waiting to be written, when Clive Myrie beat me to it and I am grateful.
Born to Jamaican parents Clive is a Lancashire lad. He graduated from The University of Sussex with a Law Degree at the age of twenty. But he chose to enter a BBC graduate program, thus beginning his journalist career. Traveling to over 80 countries, covering far too many war zones, he is now a regular news reporter for the BBC.
I always like to see Clive. Each news reporter has a different persona and how we respond to them may affect how we take in the news they are sharing. Even in his prime John Simmons was always too ‘old school’ for me. Jamaican born Sir Trevor McDonald barely hid his bite and made many folks sit up a bit straighter. Beloved, comfortable Welsh Huw Edwards has an aura of stability that sometimes also carries just the tiniest edge. And the women, well bless Emily Maitlis and her clarity last week. Though she was curbed she was not arrested. But I see compassion in Clive Myrie’s eyes. Scrolling through photographs I am held by one where he is standing with a guard at Guantanamo Bay prison with his fingers on his mouth. What was he thinking? What could he say?
Last week Myrie produced a special assignment closer to home. With permissions from patients, their families, and the staff, Myrie and his team spent a week in the Royal London Hospital of Whitechapel, recording the care, successes and sorrows of the hospital’s Covid virus wards. He sought out and talked with those beyond the front-line student nurses, religious leaders of all faiths, owners of funeral homes and morgues filled to overflowing with the dead of Asian and African communities hit the hardest by the virus, and the cleaners. “We clean to reduce the infection. If I don’t come the infection is going to spread more.”
In his report Myrie said ‘So many of the nurses and doctors and consultants as well as cleaners, the helping hands guiding us through this storm, are Black, Asian and Minority ethnic. Somewhere deep down, my heart skipped a little entering the Royal London’s Corona Wards. Because studies suggest that those from these communities are being affected by the virus disproportionately and almost twice as likely to die from the infection than those who are white.’
Meanwhile up the road in number 10 Downing Street ‘The Dominic Cummings incident’ is being fast swept under the not-so-magic carpet as the bitter pill of betrayal still lies un-swallowed in the mouths of many in this country. The goal of keeping the death rate at under 20,000 is long lost and the number of UK deaths will reach over 40,000 by the end of this week.
In America too those effected by the Corona Virus are disproportionally African-American and working class. Like England, security guards and workers on public transport are at the highest risk for severe infection and death.
The news from the United States brings tears of frustration, anger and deep sadness. For now – again – the senseless death – at police hands of George Floyd. I’m remembering Rodney King, I’m remembering and not calling to mind those who have been killed in the same way before and since that time. Watching the US police forces I think back to when the old ‘cop cars’ were replaced by military SUV’s returning from Iraq. Weapons came with them, bigger and more powerful guns, man-toys. Esquire writer Charles Pierce reminds us “that since 9-11, the federal government has equipped local police with $4.3 billion in military gear and prepared them for an all-out war on terrorists.” And some useful combat techniques. Jim Cessford, who has spent 47 years in law enforcement, says ‘knee to neck’ is not a tactic. “Neck restraints are totally unacceptable and they’re not an approved policy by police.” But on Twitter, the Palestinian Solidarity working group wrote: “US cops train in Israel with Israeli troops on duty in Palestine. The police violence happening in Minneapolis is straight out of the IDF playbook.”
There is anger, tears and despair aplenty among the images across the all the news media formats. There are scenes of peaceful protesters, rioters, more looters, now that the American unemployment rate is 14.7%, alongside groups cleaning up and feeding their communities. New York police wearing ‘I can breathe’ face masks, countered by other New York Police and politicians and even National Guards kneeling with, and reaching out to, protesters. Thus is the divide of the United States of America made visible to the world.
Last weekend in capital cities throughout Europe groups gathered in peaceful protest of this ‘fresh’ killing. In London, marchers gathered in Trafalgar Square and the US fortress Embassy in Wandsworth. Though Social Distancing was out the window, most of the young marchers wore masks. There were only 23 arrests and the London coppers, without a mask between them, clutching only their water bottles in the heat, walked calmly side by side, with the marchers. George the Poet came to Newsnight and spoke in a gentlemanly manner trying to explain to Emily Maitlis the chilling similarities of black men and women killed by Police tactics in the UK and the U.S.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated, The King Assassination Riots, known as The Holy Week Uprising took place in 125 cities across America. America is again bubbling like a cauldron brewed and spread from the swamps of its underbelly. If the ‘Me too Movement’ which Maitlis referred to, was able to bring down Harvey Wienstien is it too much to ask that ‘Black Lives Matter’ maybe the Trump card America needs today.
So I return, retreat maybe, to James Baldwin, watching again his 1965 debate with William Buckley at Cambridge University.
“Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?”
One could now add, “Among others.”
At night I reach for Baldwin’s ‘Collected Essays’, seeking clarity but not comfort.
In the background Nina Simone is banging on the piano and singing
Mississippi Goddamn – over and over again.
This has been a Letter from A. Broad.
Written and read for you by Muriel Murch.