Monday, 20 July 2009

Last night i punched a man in the street.

Last night i punched a man in the street.

True -

La Haine, my most watched film. Hard to say my favourite, but its one of those that plays with my intestines and gets my muscles twitching to write or direct and most of all puts a rocket up the arse of my passion for acting.

Long story short - its a film of 3 young suburban Parisian friends the day after a riot has taken place and their journey throughout the day. One is a Black Gym owner (whose gym was burnt down the night before) One is a skinhead Jew (who stole a policeman gun in the confusion of the riot the night before) and one is Arabic (Who Wrestles with the two sometime opposing friends and is eternally happy and seemingly carefree).

There is infinitely more this film deals with, but to me what has always stuck is the way it deals with 3 men and their relationships with each other, their differing cultures never an issue and the obvious tooth and nail nature in which they will defend each other.

Yesterday, in retrospect, reminded me of this film and its themes - and opened my eyes at shocking speed to the experience of ethnic minorities in London.

I met up with two friends of mine. One of which i see on a regular basis, the other I had not seen for about a year, when we had worked together. Both are passionate, interesting, successful and wholly nice blokes. Both are of Asian descent (to clarify, i write Asian as I'm not exactly sure at the time of writing, but i know one is Persian/Indian, and the other, I'm about 80% sure is of Indian descent).

We had arranged to meet at the Shoreditch festival ( to see a dance act called Twilight Players (far too brief, they were excellent). After a jug of Pimms or two we were ready to eat and made our way over to The Hoxton Bar and Grill and had some excellent ribs/steak/burger over some very deep chat.

Now 3 men sitting and talking quite honestly about themselves is something quite rare to me. I think white suburban London isn't a place that lends itself to emotional revelation, such is where i grew up and still live. I think a heady mixture of Nostalgia and food got us in the mood to talk about the deeper things in life.

The 3 of us first encountered each other in very turbulent times. A tragic event occurred through completely unprovoked violence which left us, at the time, shell-shocked and angry at first and ultimately contemplative and questioning. 1 year on even more so and this manifested itself on saturday in the discussion of self doubt and worth, an oh so common theme amongst actors at the best of times - and we found ourselves opening up in a way which was refreshing and became quite bonding.

For example, and forgive my vagueness, one of us talked about how they feel they are being judged a lot of the time, and especially amongst successful people can find themselves becoming uncharacteristically withdrawn and isolated. It occurred to me that i feel the same, but actually that self doubt drives me to reach out for more and strive to be better at what i do. (wanky, yes, but tis true).

While waiting outside while one of our trio were taking a piss, the conversation turned, as it happens, ominously, to the racial prejudice these two young men had experienced from time to time. Recently, i explained, i was traveling with an Indian friend of mine. The trip involved stopovers, and therefore quite a bit of security checks at airports. I saw first hand the gulf between me as a young white man (i was stopped once for a metallic buckle on the belt i was wearing) and my friend who seemed to be frisked, questioned, looked at fearfully and also inexplicably told to either put his phone away or turn it off at passport control - all the while i was standing next to him happily texting away as were nearly everyone else after a 10 hour flight.

Re-joined by our now relieved third member we mosied on over to a bar that we knew had some old school arcade machines and the conversation continued.

Now before I move on I think it relevant to mention something. Now we know that the other two fellows are asian, specifically from the Asian-subcontinent. Further to this both wear beards. Yes its true. Neither do this for religious reasons. One has a short, neat beard he wears because, frankly it looks good. The other has a wild bush of face fuzz which at first glance gives him the appearance of a wild man, a caveman, a fucking feral beast-boy.

This bearded modern caveman is not defined by his hair, as much as he not defined by the colour of his skin or the clothes he wears. But when i see him the first thing that comes to my mind is a prehistoric wandering man looking for food to gather and bring back to his tribe! BUT, Having the privilege of friendship with this person i know him to be deeply intelligent, superbly talented, eternally interesting and also bloody funny as well. His beard didn't tell me that. His random clothes choices didn't tell me that. His skin didn't tell me that. My opinion of him was formed through interaction. Through chats, jokes, drinks and food. Through his anecdotes, his search for love, his imitation of american stand-ups, the stillness he creates on stage that i can only envy at, his ease of conversation with anyone he meets his constant happy nature and the genuine intrigue he seems to have on life.

I like to think that all my opinions of people are founded on such a solid base. I'd like to think that, i aspire to that. But i know that as a human my brain is not evolved to work like that. Its tribal, it sticks to what it knows and feels safe in the known. It forms opinions instantly, anything unknown or foreign - it fears. Its safe where it is, and rejects what it doesn't know.

Human intellect and Intelligence dictates otherwise however. We know there is nothing to fear really. That a different culture is something to be respected and learnt from. Logic tells us that the instant opinion we feel upon meeting someone is founded on absolute bollocks all.

But even though i know that i still can't help thinking of a prehistoric creature whenever i see my friend with the big beard.

So i can almost (almost) understand what happened to our 3 heroes when sitting outside a bar in one of the most multicultural and liberal areas of one of the most intergrated and tolerable cities in the world.

I can almost understand that when another trio of men walked down the same street we were sitting on and they saw our bearded friend sitting and laughing and enjoying the early saturday evening air that they instantly formed an opinion.

What i can't really understand is that one of these men decided it was his job to approach our bearded hero, put his finger in said beard and shout at the top of his lungs "CAR BOMBER!".

Well, racial stereotypes sure have com a long way from the whispers of "Paki" you used to hear tentatively in school in the outskirts of London, but nevertheless it was quite obvious this was an instant opinion formed by this man and just as quickly acted upon.

What happened next was, as these things often are, a bit of a blur. I in an instant felt confused and angry. I very quickly felt quite offended and reacted appropriately. I think my reaction was something along the lines of standing up from my chair and shouting "what the fuck did you say?" I know, not exactly tactful or witty. My bearded friend had also reacted along the same lines.

Later on in the evening we would discuss what happened next. My friend had felt it was the last straw, and he was tired of having to be meek and mild, and had dealt with these situations with words previously. But its quite hard to deal with words when you have 3 40 something men snarling and threatening you in the middle of an east London street.

A lot of hand bags ensued. General shouts of "fuck off" and "just walk away you prick" but strangely enough that only seemed to inflame the situation. Funny that.

Now although i feel completely justified in what i did next, i really am not proud.

A punch was thrown. NOT by me. A drunken mistimed anti-queensberry rules punch was thrown by one of the bigoted racist trio. In an instant i found my self reacting and throwing one myself. Being evidently more sober i hit the guy.

And that was it. Any argument i had before that for peaceful protest was gone. Any anti-violent ethos was shattered. i had reacted physically to my friend being verbally, racially and physically attacked by punching someone in the face. And you know what it felt good. I have to be honest there is no two-ways about it. It felt good to hit the snarling bigot in the face. I really wish there was a way to avoid it, and trust me i tried. But in that instant the pre-historic caveman emerged in me. Hit or be hit.

I wish we could all have sat down and reasonably sorted out our differences and aimed to better understand why we all felt the way we did. Wasn't going to happen though.

Anyway - this was written with all the passion and speed of the event itself, so i hope it makes sense and i hope you can form an opinion of it through consideration. cheers!



  1. Eloquently put! I'm sure the bigot got what he deserved, though sadly the bigot will still be a bigot. Sad that there are people like that but glad to say the world is much less predudicial than it used to be. Hopefully that trend will continue and the world can be a better place. Great blog James.

  2. im sure your not proud, but, had it not been you, im sure, for this fella, it was only a matter of time before someone else give him a crack!!!....not condoning violence, but sometimes its the only way to get through to an idiot!!!!
    hope he didnt press charges....hows your knuckles?
    zoe x

  3. As I tweeted. Absolutely brilliant piece. I admire your candour. It most definitely benefits from the passion and speed it was written.

  4. BGE also says:
    Did bloggin about the event change the way you now feel about the whole event?

  5. Such a shame that you reacted in this way. And in such way I think you were wrong. You reacted in a way that only the people throwing the insults know how to interact, in short, lowering yourself to their level. And as you stated your taunts of abuse trying to get them to walk away were poor judgements. A better solution would of been to call the police if you felt so strongly, after all doesn’t your physical violence only allow them to thrive regardless of whether they threw the first punch, surely a criminal reprimand or case brought against him or them would of been more scaring than a simple scab on the face. I dread to think if one of them pulled a knife, living in East London (Chingford) myself hear of this all the time, I mean the story of Ex-Eastender Brooke Kinsella's brother is testament to this statement. Or if your blow was fatal as I recall a few years back a man in London was simply punched but on hitting the pavement, died. Is this type of violence really worth it in retaliation to verbal abuse, government intervention would have been more rewarding to me personally.

  6. I can understand how you felt & also how your friend felt as I've been in both positions (that of the minority being subjected to the indignity & that of the friend of someone being subjected to same). Neither is pleasant.

    Even though you understand, intellectually, that violence doesn't solve anything, sometimes it is difficult to turn the other cheek. You just want to see the bigot get taken down a peg (hard). Being a female I've never thrown a punch, but I have been tempted!

    In the heat of the moment, anyone's peaceful ideals can fall by the wayside. Having been subjected to episodes like this all my life, I've gotten to the point where, even though, yes, it angers me when I'm the target of such idiocy, I've learned to laugh at it to a degree. After all, these bigots, especially the powerless knuckleheads ARE laughable in their ignorance. It is the organized bigotry of people in power that is more scary - and needs to be fought.

  7. I understand, no, I totally get the need to defend your friend and your reaction to hit back. But do you think, if your conversations with your friends earlier had not been about the prejudices they face, and these thoughts not been at the forefront of your mind, that you still would have reacted in the same way? Do you think that "pre-historic caveman" within you, would have burst out so emphatically, if the earlier conversations and been more light hearted and trivial?

    Yours must be a situation many people have found themselves in, I imagine often caught off guard, and a decision to defend or attack, physically or verbally entered their heads. Of course, you reacted to the first punch being thrown, though I wonder how many times the victimised group would have remained defensive and attempted to move themselves or their assailants on.

    Were you lashing out at the hooligan in front of you? Or at the levels of injustice you and your friends had revealed they face in their every day lives?

    An interesting story and thanks for sharing it. Take care.

  8. I understand how passionate you are about this. I also think that MuteBanana made some good points. Would you have reacted this way so quickly, if you and your friends weren't having the conversation that you were? It's easy to say what should have been done, not having been there, but I think that you probably should have tried to back away very quickly and call the police....just my opinion of course. Not to make light of it (well maybe slightly, hope you don't mind), but was this guy right to pull a punch? (yes different situation, but still, is violence the answer?) Thanks for posting and sorry you had to go through this (and your friends). Glad you're o.k.

  9. An interesting thought: 'I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.' ~James A. Baldwin

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