You’d have to have a heart of stone not to get emotional while watching Archie Williams’ performance of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me on America’s Got Talent recently.
The rendition itself was one thing, but the meaning he gave to the song and the word free was one I had never heard before, and one that brought me to tears.
Because Archie was released only a year ago after spending 37 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. A black man imprisoned for someone else’s crime.
It reminded me of being 13 again and watching In The Name of The Father with my mother in the cinema and being bowled over by the sheer unfairness of it all. The lives of Gerry Conlon, his father and many others ruined because a powerful white man needed to save his job and reputation and so found himself 11 innocent scapegoats.
Hoping something like that would never happen to me.
I didn’t understand it fully at the time, but now I know it probably won’t. Because the colour of my skin, my gender and the place in which I live mean the odds are in my favour.
But that’s not the case for everyone.
Anyone who has seen myself and Seamie O’Dowd play in the last few years has probably heard me tell a story about the night Trump got elected, and the sadness that washed over me when I realised he was going to win. It resulted in a song that Seamie sang on the album we released together called And The Children Play.
Because I don’t believe you can wipe out bigotry or racism. Some people have long-held views on these matters that have been passed down for generations and are a strong part of their identity. It’s unrealistic to think that these people can all-of-a-sudden be made not to feel in a certain way.
But what is possible is to make it unacceptable to air or indeed act on these racist views. To have appropriate punishments and accountability for people who act in a bigoted manner.
And on that night 3 and a half years ago I felt I knew enough about Trump to be scared that actions such as those of Derek Chauvin and his accomplices would slowly but surely become more permissible, less socially unacceptable, resulting in an increase in potential tragedy, grief and pain for people just like me but crucially not like me across America. For people like Gerry Conlon and now George Floyd, people who are in someway different to the people who make the rules.
The case of Archie Williams shows that these horrific injustices aren’t limited to the Trump era. They have happened under the reign of every American President as far as I can remember. But at least previously you had the impression that whoever was in charge cared somewhat for his country and for the safety of its people. It’s hard to have that opinion now, which makes it all the more scary.
And so The United States of America is now collapsing before our eyes. And in the words of another Elton John song, it’s a sad, sad situation.
And in reality there’s not much that we in Ireland can do, except symbolic gestures such as blacking out our social media feeds for a day and expressing solidarity.
But what we can do as ever is to look closer to home, to think about those in our own communities who are vulnerable or in minorities, and vow to treat them with the love and compassion they deserve.