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25 November 2020

Patrick Hutchinson: “The death of George Floyd is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen”

In June, a photograph of Hutchinson carrying a white counter-protester to safety became a defining image of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, he discusses racism at home and abroad, and his manifesto for change. 

By Jason Cowley

On Saturday 13 June, a Black Lives Matter march in central London was met with aggressive counter-protests by football lads, self-styled defenders of the nation’s heritage who claimed to be protecting statues of the imperial dead against a woke insurgency. Tommy Robinson, the former frontman of the ultra-nationalist English Defence League (EDL), had released a video urging his followers to show up to the march. Patrick Hutchinson, a personal trainer and martial arts enthusiast, happened to see the video and was alarmed by it. “When Tommy Robinson invited those guys down, he wanted to create destruction and blame Black Lives Matter for it,” he told me one recent afternoon when we spoke via Zoom. 

Together with a small band of like-minded friends, Hutchinson, who is 50, “headed out to the protest”, because he wanted to protect younger BLM activists should violence occur. That afternoon something remarkable happened to Hutchinson that would change his life in ways he’s still struggling to understand. During clashes outside Waterloo station, he noticed one of the counter-protesters had become detached from the rest and angry people were closing in on him. Hutchinson feared the man might be seriously injured or even killed, and so forced his way through – there were, he thinks, as many as 300 people now gathered around. Employing a fireman’s carry, he scooped up the fallen man, who had been drinking, and carried him to safety among nearby police officers.

Hutchinson has the physique of a champion athlete and he was wearing a black face mask, black beanie hat and black T-shirt. A photograph of him carrying the white, bloodied belligerent to safety was taken by Dylan Martinez, a professional photographer, and it travelled; it has since become one of the defining images of the BLM movement and the pandemic year.

Later that evening, Hutchinson’s phone started ringing and it’s scarcely stopped since. He’s been featured in a special “Heroes” edition of GQ magazine, for which Prince Harry asked to speak to him, and now he’s published a thoughtful book, co-written with a young poet called Sophia Thakur, Everyone Versus Racism. Structured as an open letter to his children and grandchildren – Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is an obvious influence – the book reflects on the effect of Hutchinson’s actions that afternoon and on his desire to reach out across difference. “What has shocked me the most is how one transformative image can have the power to break and recast a narrative,” he writes. 

[see also: We can’t breathe]

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Hutchinson wept when he saw the video of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “There have been so many police killings of black men in America, and each one is as harrowing as the next,” he told me. “But for me, the George Floyd murder – it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was like: ‘Enough is enough’. It was the nonchalance of that police officer, just looking in the camera, no expression. It’s like he was saying: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And he was killing the guy, with his knee on his neck. The guy was crying out for his mum and the officer just didn’t care. And the officers around him were just standing there doing crowd control. They were all complicit. It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some terrible things on the internet.”

The man saved by Hutchinson, Bryn Male, has the name of a Martin Amis character and turned out to be a retired police officer. Male, an ardent Millwall supporter, is five years older than Hutchinson and, in the words of one of his friends, is a “patriotic Brit, England through and through”. Note the conflation of Britain and England, as if each were interchangeable. Britain is England, and England is Britain. And Bryn Male is a patriot, “England through and through”.

Hutchinson has not spoken to or met Male since that June afternoon. He pities rather than despises him and others like him. “He’s my age, right? Time to hang up the thug boots! He’s 50-plus, still getting drunk and trying to get into a tear-up. You’d think he’d be trying to chill with the grandchildren.” More seriously, Hutchinson added: “When it came out he was a former policeman – that was a mic-drop moment. We’ve been trying to tell you for many a year that the police are institutionally racist and you won’t believe us. Well, here you are. You’ve got a Millwall supporter, with the EDL, supposedly protecting statues, hurling racist abuse – and he’s an ex-copper. What more do you need to believe us that there’s an issue with some serving police officers?”

Patrick Hutchinson grew up without a father in Battersea, London – he recalls gangs of Headhunters, hardcore Chelsea hooligans, marching through his estate – and was raised by his inspirational mother Maureen. From a young age, having watched Bruce Lee films and read magazines on martial arts, he took up taekwondo and later Thai boxing. Martial arts taught him discipline and humility, and gave him confidence. He did not seek confrontation on the streets because he fought in structured, disciplined environments inside gyms.

His book is an intimate letter to his family and a manifesto for change. He challenges what he calls the “micro-aggression” of “embedded racism” – an unbalanced school curriculum, unconscious bias, subtle discrimination in the workplace – and celebrates education and shows how participation in sports can create good character. He’s hopeful that from this era of fragmentation, we can achieve a greater sense of community and fairness. As he wrote on Instagram in June, “It’s not black vs white. It’s everyone vs the racists.” The best of England. 

“Everyone Versus Racism” is published by HarperCollins

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump