A Historical Moment

by Knolly Moses

The BBC’s insulting interview with a West Indian elder spread virally on the Internet this week. With colonial high-handedness, a rude and inept news presenter suggested Darcus Howe was a rioter. Fiona Armstrong’s vacuous attempt at painting the respected writer and broadcaster as a criminal was as disingenuous as it was disrespectful, and cost the venerable news organization much of its credibility.

Howe’s keen insights into what United Kingdom realities drove youth into the streets, risking arrests and police beatings, was perhaps the most useful content that day in BBC’s poor coverage of its own backyard. But so intent were they, and David Cameron, on shaping perception of the unrest that they tried to discount Howe’s efforts to unearth the root causes.  Armstrong never even established Howe’s credentials as a revered community organizer close to the heartbeat of black Britons, and she referred to him twice as “Marcus Dowe.”

He pointed out that politicians and journalists had missed all obvious signals youth were sending and that the fires in London were the UK’s summer version of the Arab Spring.

Howe said 50 years of living London’s many moods and moments left him unsurprised at what unfolded. From conversations with his son and grandson he said he realized something serious was coming and that neither political leaders nor police had been aware.

“But if you looked at young blacks and young whites with a discerning eye and a careful hearing,” Howe shared, “ they have been telling us and we would not listen that what is happening in this country to them is wrong. Is morally wrong!”

The BBC interviewer cut him off, asking if he condoned the unrest. “Of course not,” said Howe. But he expressed concern that a police officer had blown Mark Duggan’s head off with a Glock pistol a few yards away from where he lived.

Evidently peeved that he wasn’t following her script, Armstrong brusquely cut him off again, insisting that no one knew what happened to Mr. Duggan and that the country would have to wait for the police report. Howe responded: “I understand that Mr. Duggan is dead. You don’t have to wait for an inquiry.”

With the interview derailing, Armstrong led the conversation back to his grandson though earlier she had cut that thread of Howe’s thinking. He complained that police stop and search young blacks for no reason. He said his grandson is a decent lad but “began to think he was coming of age when a police slapped him up against a wall and searched him and he thought he now had a gold star.”

When Howe related that the boy had lost count of how many times the police had searched him, Armstrong glibly adds:  “That may well have happened but that is not an excuse to go out rioting and to cause the sort of damage that we have been seeing in the last few days.” Howe responds: “Not it may well have happened. It happened!”

He then compares what is happening in Clapham and Liverpool to what is happening in Syria. “That is the nature of the historical moment,” Howe intones.

The next moment is already historic. It comes as a stealth question, unmasking the BBC and the Conservatives who are still clueless about why UK youth anger is so fertile. “You are not a stranger to riots yourself, I understand, are you?” she asks with British politeness. “You have taken part in them yourself.”

“I have never taken part in a single riot,” Howe informs her with quiet restraint. “I have been on demonstrations that ended up in a conflict. Have some respect for an old West Indian Negro and stop accusing me of being a rioter. Because you want for me to get abusive. You just sound idiotic. Have some respect. I have grandchildren.”

Clearly embarrassed, Armstrong thanks Howe and quickly gets him off the air. The apology came later, of course, when they realized West Indians are adept with the same technology the BBC admires in the hands of Iranians, Tunisians, Egyptians and Syrians, though it seemed alarmed at its creative use by British youth this week.

The technology also took Darcus Howe around the world in a flash. Already more than four million views on the Internet, the episode is now giving this civil, racial and human rights activist an audience the BBC couldn’t secure itself.