On hot weekends when I was child we’d go to the paddling pool in Burnley’s Thompson Park. We’d drive over from our house in Accrington and leave the car near Burnley College, where my father taught photography. On the way home I’d beg for a detour past Turf Moor, the home of Burnley Football Club.
Burnley is overlooked by the distinctive curve of Pendle Hill, the site of the 1612 Pendle witch trials, when ten people were hanged as scapegoats for the various woes of their neighbours. More than a century later, during and after the Industrial Revolution, Burnley boomed as one of the world’s leading producers of cotton cloth. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the textile industry struggled, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers were invited to come and work in the mills. They were given the least desirable shifts, often working nights. By the 1980s the industry had collapsed, the mills were closed, and the town has since been left to slide into poverty, its Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities some of the most deprived in the country.
Burnley is now one of the most racially segregated towns in the UK. Nineteen years ago, on 23 June 2001, during a bout of unseasonably hot weather, a weekend of violent riots broke out. It has long been a stronghold of the British National Party, and in the 1990s, when my father (a person of colour) worked there, was also home to a large contingent of the BNP’s violent paramilitary wing, Combat 18. Much of the BNP’s support base has since shifted towards Ukip and the Brexit Party, which is not so much defanging as dormancy.
Earlier this week, Burnley FC lost 5-0 to Manchester City in an away game at the Etihad Stadium. Before kick-off, both teams took the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, as has become customary since the playing season resumed after lockdown. During the match, a small plane crossed the sky over the empty stands, dragging along a banner bearing the slogan ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’. It was funded and organised by 60 Burnley football fans, their ringleader a man who has been pictured with his arm slung around the shoulders of the English Defence League founder, Tommy Robinson. He has since been fired from his job, and Burnley FC have condemned the stunt, as have many locals.
A police investigation found that no crime was committed, but the moral wrong should be obvious to anyone whose powers of reasoning stretch further than playing opposites. Black Lives Matter means Black lives ought to matter. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police in the US, and the deaths in custody of Sarah Reed and Sean Rigg in the UK, among countless others, are a reminder that the statement is one of hope: we must fight under this banner until Black lives do matter. Accordingly, ‘all lives matter’ is either false, if it’s supposed to be a descriptive statement, since the lives of very many marginalised groups more or less don’t matter; or is trivially true if it’s intended as a normative statement, because, yes, most of us would prefer for all lives to matter. It has become the talisman of the self-identified ‘colour-blind’, who resent being reminded of the failures of a society that they mostly find to be fair. It always reminds me of the letter Martin Luther King wrote from Birmingham Jail in 1963:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’
And then there’s ‘white lives matter,’ which makes the ‘all lives matter’ choir look almost as harmless as they think they are. There are two ways to take it. You can be charitable (read: naive or complicit) and take it as a mere misunderstanding; when we said ‘Black lives matter,’ they thought we meant only Black lives matter, and they’re just pointing out that other lives matter too. Yet if that’s what they intended, they’d have gone for ‘all lives matter.’ Instead, we should take it as it’s clearly meant: not merely as an effort to distract from or trivialise Black Lives Matter, but an attempt to contradict it.
In response to the incident, Priyamvada Gopal tweeted: ‘White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives.’ In other words, the lives of white people matter not because they are white, but because, for want of a better term, all lives matter. If white people’s lives were to matter because they are white, then we’d be contending that whiteness is what makes lives matter, which amounts to a strong form of white supremacy. Gopal has since received torrents of racist abuse, including death threats and attempts to ‘dox’ her (publish her whereabouts in order to enable offline attacks). The language used by her detractors is enough to dishearten anyone who dared to believe that we are in a moment of cultural change, and gives the lie to claims that the football fans’ stunt was anything other than a highly audible dog-whistle for white supremacists.
So here it is: the backlash. We should have seen it coming. In times of change, those who have a stake in the old ways will find their witches. And little surprise that the hate has landed where it so often does, on the shoulders of a woman of colour.