As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Six Candles and a Bridge (November 2021)

Last week I spoke to you about the joys of curling up with a good book, or indeed your own imagination, in the darkness of winter evenings. I wish to move on from those ideas to the less comfortable side of November gloom and I’m going to begin with a line from a song that I’m not even going to pretend is poetry. From the pen of Axl Rose and the apostrophised genius of Guns N’ Roses, we have “When I look into your eyes, I can see a love restrained, but darlin’ when I hold you don’t you know I feel the same? Nothin’ lasts forever and we both know hearts can change and it’s hard to hold a candle in the cold November rain.”

I’m not terribly interested in Mr Rose’s romantic life, but I do want to pick up on the ideas that nothing lasts for ever, that hearts can change, and that it can be hard to hold onto light and warmth in the cold and damp of November.

Two news stories have left me despairing over the last week. The first was the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin. It might seem strange that I should be in despair because an 18 year old in America hasn’t been sent to jail – if anything you might expect me to be in favour of not imprisoning teenagers, but this story is darker and messier than that. In August last year a man called Jacob Blake was shot in the town of Kenosha whilst resisting arrest on a charge of sexual assault – a charge that was later dropped, although he was eventually sentenced to two years on probation for disorderly conduct. He wasn’t killed but was very badly injured and is still effectively paralysed from the waist down. This shooting came into an atmosphere that was already very tense following the murder of George Floyd three months earlier and another incident in which white police officers violently injured a black suspect set off a week of civil unrest, protests and riots. Kyle Rittenhouse decided to join a group of militia/vigilantes/concerned citizens (the language used betrays the views of the reporter – as, of course, does mine this morning: in such a situation scholars have to be both critical, listening for hidden meaning and assumptions, and scrupulous, being aware of our own biases and being careful not to change the facts to fit our views. I’ve done my best.) Rittenhouse got hold of a gun, too big and powerful for him, and stood in the darkness, hearing the shouts of protesters, watching angry people march by. A group of protesters came to chase him away, into the night; he heard a gun fired nearby and saw another man, Joseph Rosenbaum, coming towards him. In what he claimed was self-defence, Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum four times, killing him. He then ran off, chased by a group of around 12 people. He tripped over and was hit with a skateboard by one of the group, Anthony Huber. Rittenhouse fired his gun once more, hitting Huber in the chest and killing him. Finally, a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, approached him whilst pointing a handgun at him. Rittenhouse fired again, hitting Grosskreutz in the arm, severing most of his bicep.

That was last summer, but last week the trial took place and Rittenhouse was found not-guilty: the court accepted his claim of self-defence. This has divided opinion between those who believe that a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state (that is the wording of the second amendment to the American constitution) and those who see a white man walking free after a double murder. My despair comes from the feeling that if you have angry scared people and those angry scared people have guns then someone is going to get shot and that the only sensible response is to get guns out of ordinary people’s hands before they get angry and scared. This is not an unusual view in the UK, or in the densely populated, well policed parts of the US, but in the wide open spaces where it can take police an hour to respond to an emergency call this seems less sensible and the idea that a householder should be able to defend their family has more resonance. Like so many disagreements, this has gone beyond logic and scrupulous reasoning and has become tribal: two sides unable to listen, never mind agree. We all know hearts can change but it’s really hard to hold a candle in this downpour.

Perhaps we don’t need a candle – perhaps a bridge would be better, less rain-affected for one.

Here’s John Agard:
Bridge-builder I am
between the holy and the damned
between the bitter and the sweet
between chaff and the wheat
Bridge-builder I am
between the storm and the calm
between the nightmare and the sleeper
between the cradle and the reaper
Bridge-builder I am between the serpent and the wand
between the hunter and the hare between the curse and the prayer
Bridge-builder I am
between the beast and the human
for who can stop the dance
of eternal balance?

One side sees themselves as holy and the other as damned, the other sees themselves as human and the first group as the beast. How can you build a bridge between two sides that see no fault in themselves and no good in their opponents?

I talked about rain-affected candles which leads me to my second story – closer to home than America – and linked because it is normally cricket matches that are rain affected. At the centre of this story is Azeem Rafiq, a young kid from Pakistan, living in Barnsley, with a dream to represent England. In 2018 he made a series of allegations of racist incidents that had taken place whilst he was playing for Yorkshire. An independent inquiry was launched two years later and was given to Yorkshire Cricket Club in August this year. The report upheld seven out of Rafiq’s 43 complaints, dismissed one ethnic slur as “banter”; the club decided not to publish it in full nor to take action against any of its employees. Rather than civil unrest and riots, this led to questions before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee. The outcome of this appearance has been the acceptance that Rafiq and other British Asians had suffered racism at Yorkshire Cricket Club and that this has amounted to a culture of institutional racism – a view that the delay and redaction of the inquiry and the failure to take action have done little to dispel.

Instead, doubt has been thrown by the appearance from ten years ago of anti-semitic messages that Rafiq sent to a friend. Some commentators (this is the point when you get your blue sharpie out and write “citation needed – who are these commentators”) have said that this suggests that Rafiq was part of a culture of banter that would, to an outsider, seem racist and that he should not be complaining of others mistreating him when he has behaved as badly himself. Rafiq’s response to this has been to apologise, immediately and unreservedly. He has also accepted that he had forgotten about those messages, that he hadn’t thought much of them, and that if he found them unremarkable then it was understandable that his fellow players might have found the comments he faced equally normalised.

This, I think, makes Rafiq a bridge builder and brings me hope rather than despair. None of us are holy, nobody else deserves to be damned, we can all join the dance between the beast and the human, the bridge building of eternal balance. I call on you this November to stand in the metaphorical rain with a candle (when it comes to real rain I recommend an umbrella) – six candles, in fact, six resolutions to making yourselves bridge-builders.

1) Don’t let yourself believe that anyone on your “side” is perfect – scrupulous thinking means accepting that we all do things that hurt others.
2) Don’t let yourself believe that anyone on the “other side” is all bad – almost invariably the situation looks different depending on which side of the skate-board you are alone and in the dark.
3) Don’t listen to gossip – each telling of a story involves the choice of words and the selection of sides. If it matters then find out from the people who were there – if it doesn’t matter then don’t get involved.
4) Say sorry. I’m sorry that I hurt you; I’m sorry that I was mean, or thoughtless, or cruel.
5) Do something. Tony Evers, the governor of Wisconsin has said "No verdict will be able to bring back the lives of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, or heal Gaige Grosskreutz's injuries, just as no verdict can heal the wounds or trauma experienced by Jacob Blake and his family. No ruling today changes our reality in Wisconsin that we have work to do toward equity, accountability, and justice that communities across our state are demanding and deserve." We all have work to do.
6) Accept apologies. We both know hearts can change. If somebody has said they are sorry then reach out to them in the darkness, through the rain and start to build bridges between the hare and the hunter, the nightmare and the sleeper.

I started with despair – but I want to end in hope – hope that we can make the world better – hope of bridge building – hope that the rain will end – hope that we can be lights this November – hope that equity, accountability and justice can be real in our community – hope that will be an umbrella as well as a candle and keep us out of the rain. The last words go to Axl Rose:

"So never mind the darkness, we still can find a way, ‘cause nothin’ lasts forever, even cold November rain."