Samuel Williams is the Conservative candidate for the Bristol Mayoralty.
My grandfather was a gentle man who dissented from his Brethren roots to join the establishment of the Anglican Church, and work as a vicar and prison chaplain for over six decades. He had a quiet and pragmatic faith, yet held the powerful conviction that all are equal, that injustice ought to be faced head on and that it was the duty of us all to stand alongside the hurting and marginalised.
In 1968, he hosted a service of remembrance, with the Mayor of Gloucester, to honour the life and grieve the death of Martin Luther King, who had been murdered four days earlier. A young white priest from the Cotswolds stood in solidarity with the suffering of African Americans at a time when socially legitimised racism was the norm and, even within his own institution, segregation was often the unspoken expectation.
Amidst prejudice, he grieved the loss of one of the great social reformers of modern history, knowing that such a loss held implications beyond a man, a city, a movement or ethnicity – for all humanity, because to stand in indifference to injustice was to legitimise hate, fear and violence within our societies.
It was only weeks later that same year, whilst riots and fire spread across the United States in response to the death King, that Parliament passed the revised Race Relations Bill – addressed in Birmingham by Enoch Powell. During his now infamous “rivers of blood” speech, he decried the bill and lamented the in-flow of Commonwealth citizens, predominantly from the Caribbean’s Windrush generation.
Yet under this banner of tension, hurt and prejudice within our own country my grandfather, along with thousands of others, stood in solidarity because they knew that, in the words of King, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And therefore when you stand against injustice, irrespective of where it is perpetrated, you are safeguarding justice, equality of opportunity and liberty in the lives and communities of those near and far.
I know that the Black Lives Matter movement is uncomfortable to many of us, because it can feel like a pointing finger of accusation, or can outdated stand against an injustice fought by a previous generation; and to continue the discussion is only to labour upon an issue that has been dealt with.
However, the data shows that the issue is not dealt with, and Black Lives Matter is not a pointing finger of accusation but, rather, an outstretched hand, beckoning us all into conversation and greater understanding.
It is an invitation for unity. ‘Taking the knee’, and thereby acknowledging another’s pain, is neither an admission of guilt nor a delegitimisation of our own pain and struggle but instead is an expression of extraordinary human evolution – that is, the ability to empathise and show compassion to others, even if it comes at a cost to ourselves.
It is to this compassionate conservatism that I am committed. A conservatism that is imbedded within the reality of the lives and communities we serve. A conservatism that builds upon the foundations of our history with progressive business-minded yet socially-hearted policy and practice. A conservatism that is not afraid to hear the cries of the hurting, because we recognise that society as a whole is strengthened when we each are willing to embrace the ambitious interdependence of authentic community.
The past weeks have been painful for many, as we have seen the murder of Ahmaud Arbury, the deep violence against Christian Cooper and then within a matter of days the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police.
As demonstrations continue to spread across the USA, the United Kingdom and are planned for Bristol, where I am standing for Mayor next year, I wholeheartedly stand in unity with those suffering at the hands of racial injustice. I honour the lives of those who have been killed because of hate – and I call for reform to the institutions that harbour systematic prejudice.
However, given the current climate of the global Covid-19 pandemic and the fears of a second spike, coupled with reports showing greater susceptibility and severity of the virus to those of Black and Asian heritage, I am significantly concerned that these demonstrations, which cannot uphold social distancing guidelines, will have a catastrophic impact on our collective fight against the virus.
Whilst the fact that this is known and yet thousands are willing to demonstrate, risking health, might reaffirm the strength of feeling associated with these demonstrations, I feel compelled to urge socially distanced solidarity.
Whilst it is right that we act now, these demonstrations must be more than a mere moment: hey must be a catalyst for sustained social reform both here and in the United States. Make your voice heard by writing to your councillor, Mayor, MP and the Prime Minister; use digital platforms and safe forms of gathering.
Our democracy is formed on the notion of representation, and therefore the importance of all our voices being heard cannot be underestimated. Whether you agree with me or not that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, your voice matters; all I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal of our democracy.