By Philip Perdue
When a fight broke out last Saturday near London’s Royal Festival Hall, a 55-year-old white man named Bryn Male had to be carried out of the melee by a Black Lives Matter supporter who had seen enough. Reuters’ Dylan Martinez was there to make this photograph, which shows Patrick Hutchinson taking matters into his own hands, putting Male on his shoulder and walking him through the crowd to a safer location.
British tabloids ran the photo on their front pages. They also ran it calling Hutchinson a “hero.”
But coming from one of Rupert Murdoch’s papers, the photo is being used to prop up an exhausted narrative about racial unity. That message undercuts the moral outrage fueling many BLM supporters, including those who are pushing public attention not toward expressions of racial unity, but toward stark and systemic differences in the way black and white people are treated by police.
The main problem with featuring Hutchinson’s move on the tabloid stand is that by centering physical strength and a strong male lead, the photo detracts attention from the bigger picture in which black people are still being cut off from social, political, and economic power.
We have seen this kind of symbolic inversion before in photos that contrast black power and white frailty. Such imagery has a way of playing into white supremacist thinking because it reinforces a deeply ironic narrative in which black people, with help from the state, now have unchecked social power and it’s the white people who are hapless victims. On its face, that’s one story being told by this photograph.
The other story, though, is that in spite of all the cuts and bruises, white Male is once again benefiting from a social structure designed to pick him up and support him at every turn. His body appears prone to further attack, but in reality, it is being protected by the police and by the people he came to combat.
In fact, if you take away the celebratory mood around this photograph, what we have instead is a visual testament to the way black people have since the advent of European slave trading been weighed down with a white man burden.
If that seems too uncomfortable, then notice that by his own account, Hutchinson did what he did because he wanted to protect BLM and defend those who would be blamed, and potentially imprisoned if Male got beat up too badly or even killed. Regardless of how the tabloids set it up, the photo is not about a transcendent moment of colorblind heroism. It is instead about the keen political sensibility that understands when survival means pulling a white man out of harm’s way.
Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters. Caption: Protester Patrick Hutchinson carries an injured counter-protester to safety, near the Waterloo station during a Black Lives Matter protest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, in London, Britain, June 13, 2020.