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A Chance to Learn: our response to the SDC Monitoring Officer's verdict on Debbie Young

A Chance to Learn: our response to the SDC Monitoring Officer's verdict on Debbie Young

By Jamie O’Dell

The following is an opinion piece in response to an ongoing situation: all views are honestly-held.

On the 22ndof June, Stroud District Council’s Monitoring Officer, Patrick Arran, delivered his response to the slew of recent complaints regarding the Twitter activity of the Conservative District Councilor for Chalford, Debbie Young. Young had tweeted racial tropes such as ‘All Lives Matter’, in response to our own coverage of local Black Lives Matter protests, and retweeted Katie Hopkins’s white nationalist conspiracy theories. Arran concluded that he ‘does not intend to carry out an investigation or do anything further as these tweets ‘cannot be construed to be racist’.

This decision has elicited a strong response locally to say the least. The Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat alliance running the council issued a statement expressing their ‘disappointment’ at the judgement, which showed a ‘very limited understanding’ of structural and institutional racism as well as the lived experiences of direct and indirect racism. 

This sentiment was echoed by the Stroud Against Racism group, who are appealing the council’s decision. In their own statement they asserted that the statement was ‘ignorant’ and that ‘there has been a total failure by the council to understand racism locally and nationally and, therefore, how this affects Stroud BAME residents’.

Given how systemic and complex racism is, we cannot expect everyone, including ourselves, to be consistently and accurately anti-racist and we must pursue as many learning opportunities as possible. 

Therefore, rather than focusing on the particulars of the legal debates and justifications – discussions around which are taking place elsewhere – we decided to address the actual racism at play here in two parts in order for this to be a learning opportunity for all those involved and observing. 

In part 1 Young’s tweets and the racial tropes within them are unpacked. In part 2 the issues of the denial and enabling of this racism within the monitoring officers response are examined. 

To do this, we are following Ibram Kendi’s historically grounded definition of racism. Here there are two types of racism; segregationist and assimilationist racism, and anti-racism. Critically, there is no ‘non-racist’ zone. Therefore, you cannot avoid the racist structures of society by claiming not to see colour. You are either operating within them, or actively working against them as an anti-racist. 

Part 1 – The assessment of the tweets

On June 4th Young twice asserted that ‘All Lives Matter’ in a response to our video of a demonstrators speech in Stroud and underneath Council leader Doina Cornell’s retweet of our coverage. ‘All Lives Matter’ is an  incredibly reactionary and problematic trope we have unpacked previously (in sum, no one is saying all lives don’t matter, but all lives can’t matter until black lives matter and thus ‘All Lives Matter’ is an nonsensical attempt to marginalise the lived experiences and concerns of black people and their concerns).

To start with, Young claims that ‘her own tweet was in response to the fact that people were congregating in Stroud to protest despite the legal requirements around social distancing’, an assessment which the monitoring officer explicitly concurs with on page 8. 

Whilst Young’s legitimate concern over social distancing was in her response to our tweet, the inaccuracy comes in centralising this critique as the key point. Rather, in her direct response to our tweet, ‘All Lives Matter and I for one have never taken race into account’ was her leading statement; concerns over social distancing came after. Moreover, In her response to Doina Cornell’s retweet she simply stated ‘Doina, all lives matter’. No mention of concern over social distancing. 

The conclusion is then reached, on page 8, that a ‘literal interpretation’ of Young’s tweet ‘cannot be considered racist’ as there was ‘nothing pejorative in her comment or anything which was mocking or contained disapproving elements based on race’. By taking a ‘literal’ interpretation here, the context of systemic racism we set out above is removed and Young’s defense of being colour blind actively facilitated. Despite the concept of colour blindness being a fallacy

Young’s comment that ‘All Lives Matter’ is therefore ‘not capable of being construed as racist or intended to diminish the Black Lives Matter movement’. This is the point at which it becomes substantially more obvious that the statement is constructed upon an inherently flawed and/or incorrect definition of what racism is and how it is operationalised.

Regarding her retweet of Hopkins’ statement relating to the violent clashes between police and anti-racist protestors, Young was retweeting ‘out of her sense of indignation at the violence against the police and resulting property damage’.

This tweet however was explicitly referring to the supposed ethnic minority status of ‘white brits’ in London, a trope firmly rooted in the ‘white replacement theory’. This has motivated terrorist acts such as Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage in Oslo and Utøya, Norway, or the attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

Different types of racism are spectrums of actions, where the repetition of violent tropes exists alongside violence enacted because of these tropes. Silence in the face of this and the more active silencing of those highlighting this, as we see in this statement, is also on this spectrum and is critical in upholding it. There is a reason many in the Black Lives Matter movement repeat the phrase ‘your silence is violence’. 

As such, it does not take much to realise that this retweet, from a person who has ‘never taken race into account’, is explicitly racialised and thus racist. Many people found ways to condemn the violence seen that day, on both sides, without managing to endorse such violent tropes and as she follows 2,605 people we struggle to imagine Young was lacking alternative options. 

Despite this, at the bottom of page 8 of the written response the conclusion is reached that “whether one agrees with the proposition contained in the tweet or not, it was a statement of the author’s opinion and does not contain any pejorative element based on race.” 

Again, we recognise that racism as we have set out is an incredibly complex issue to get to grips with given that it is structured into the foundations of modern global capitalism. Indeed, the statement acknowledges that  the ‘issue is complex’. But this particular instance is very straightforward and the failure to conduct the most basic research into the particulars of the retweet and provide an educated basis for response maintains a dangerous precedent concerning what is and is not considered racist in official settings like our local council. 

Part 2 – The monitoring officer’s response  

Within his response there are further issues regarding how the monitoring officer appears to have approached this issue, which we will outline below. 

It is stated on page 4 that Young accepted that her actions in re-tweeting those views was ‘unwise given the current climate’. The simple question here being, in what ‘climate’ would one be able to judge Young’s promotion of white replacement theory to not be ‘unwise’? 

It is also asserted, on page 9, that it is a ‘matter of opinion’ whether retweeting a statement constitutes support for and/or endorsement of a message that depends upon the context of each case but ‘this would be going too far’.

This is despite Young retweeting these with no attached comment indicating her disagreement with or non-support of the tweets concerned and later stating that she retweeted Hopkins ‘out of her sense of indignation at the violence against the police and resulting property damage’. Indicating that she did, in fact, endorse the message of the tweet.

On page 10 it is alleged that ‘The tweets were not directed at the complainants and it appears to me that most, if not all of the complainants, went looking for tweets on Councillor Young’s Twitter account as a result of her commenting on the Amplify Stroud Twitter feed… in effect; they chose to read the tweet and retweets’. 

This statement is firstly at odds with how Twitter works and how these tweets came to light. Young  is an elected councilor operating a Twitter account with 3,140 followers, including Stroud’s MP Siobhan Baillie, named ‘CllrYoung’ with personal description that she is the ‘Tory Councillor for Chalford’. These identifying features being the reason we engaged with Young in contrast to the other negative responses we received and why we are surprised by the assessment that these were a ‘personal political response using a Twitter feed for her own use’. 

This also asserts that those making complaints, many of whom are people of colour themselves, ‘went looking’ for the tweets and thus ‘went looking’ for offense. This is, again, utterly ignorant of what racism is and a frankly dangerous precedent to set. 

Racism is not simply being rude to a person’s face based on the colour of their skin. It is a systemic power hierarchy deeply rooted into our society which is defended, sustained and furthered by the tropes that Young is deploying in her tweets. 

The statement goes on to conclude that the tweets in question did not, on first impression (“prima facie”) represent a significant break of the councillors code of conduct in regards to not engaging in activity which brings a councillor’s office or authority into disrepute. 

This is despite Young’s actions as an elected official causing significant offense to people of colour and appearing in several national and local news outlets. Directly bringing the council into disrepute as well as undermining the statements and commitments the council has made regarding the need for anti-racist action. 

In summary, my view is this response is significantly lacking, both in its inability to understand what even the most blatant instances of racism are and in its enabling of Young’s very weak excuses, leaving the incredibly serious racial tropes behind them not just unchallenged but defended and entrenched. 

It does, however, give us all a learning opportunity as to some of the ways racism manifests and is sustained in our daily lives. A learning opportunity we must take if we are to make progress towards an anti-racist society.