From anti-racist protester to accidental hero
Can a chance photo change society? Patrick Hutchinson became a public figure this summer after he rescued a man at a Black Lives Matter march. Now, he is using his fame to fight inequality.
On a sunny June day in central London, a protest was spiralling out of control. It was just two weeks after the murder of George Floyd across the Atlantic, and tensions were at a boiling point.
As Black Lives Matter demonstrators marched alongside the banks of the River Thames, one counter-protester found himself surrounded. He was on the ground, and he was injured. To bystanders, one thing was obvious: his life was in danger.
Then, something incredible happened. From the crowd emerged a tall black man, wearing a black hat and black gloves.
He plucked the man from the street, lifted him over his shoulder with apparent ease and carried him away.
“You did a good thing there,” said a police officer as he handed them the unconscious man.
It was a chance encounter that may soon have been forgotten.
But the next day, Patrick Hutchinson’s photo appeared on the front page of nearly every UK newspaper. Overnight, the 50-year-old personal trainer was catapulted from obscurity to national fame.
Hutchinson was born in south London to Jamaican parents, but it was his mother who raised him. Racism was part of his everyday life. Inequality was constant. “You have to be 10 times better to have the same opportunity”, his mother would remind him.
Then, when he was 20, his son was born. “Supercharged” by the experience of growing up without a father, he found a job in IT in the city.
But despite his success, the racism continued. When he bought a new car, he was stopped by the police twice in one day. On the third occasion, he lost his temper. In response, the policeman ordered his colleagues to stop Hutchinson’s car 30 times over the following week.
Even so, it was not Hutchinson’s idea to go to the protest in June. Eventually a friend, expecting trouble, persuaded him to help keep the peace.
The man he rescued, Bryn Male, later insisted he was not a racist. “I would love to shake that man’s hand who saved my life”, Male told reporters, but he never reached out to Hutchinson.
Still, others rushed to thank him. He received a letter from the city’s mayor and has spoken to everyone from Al Sharpton to Prince Harry. His actions even inspired an orchestra to create new music based on his heroism.
But not everyone thinks he should be a symbol of the movement. In September, a mural of Hutchinson in south London was vandalised, the words “we don’t want racists in Lewisham, we run them out” painted over it.
“It wasn’t just about saving a life, it was about saving a narrative - and stopping it being derailed with something as negative as someone dying,” Hutchinson tells his critics.
Now, he wants to use his new-found fame to help others. He has written a book, Everyone versus Racism: A Letter to My Children, with the help of a young poet and set up a charity to fight racial inequality in Britain.
A grandfather of four, he wants to focus on education, and find mentors for the black children who are disproportionately excluded from mainstream schools.
So, can a chance photo change society?
Yes, say some. The photograph, which spread all around the world, has huge symbolic power. As UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief spokesperson said: “Patrick Hutchinson’s instincts in that moment represent the best of us.” He has become a symbol of strength, grace and individual goodness in a deeply divided society. And now he is using his fame to make practical changes with his new charity.
No, say others. Inspiring as it is, one photograph cannot change the world. Individual acts of compassion alone cannot put a stop to racism. In almost every country around the world, it is governments that make real changes, by passing laws and enacting policies, not individuals. It is the power that we give to elected rulers that matters the most.
- Do we have a duty to help anyone in need, regardless of who they are?
- Why did the photo of Patrick Hutchinson become so iconic?
- Draw a picture of Patrick Hutchinson rescuing a counter-protester at the Black Lives Matter march.
- Use this link to look at some of the news images that defined the year 2019. Find three images that you think will come to define 2020, either in your country or worldwide. Present the pictures to your class and explain why you have chosen each image.
Some People Say...
“The ordinary man is involved in action, the hero acts. An immense difference.”Henry Miller (1891 - 1980), American writer and artist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that photographs play a huge part in how a news story is told. In September 1957, a photographer in Arkansas, USA, captured an image of black teenager Elizabeth Eckford being harassed by white students at her school, four years after segregation was outlawed in America. Some residents had accused the national press of over-inflating claims of racism, but the photograph provided irrefutable proof that the problem was real.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate surrounds the ethics of photojournalism, particularly for photographers who work with extremely vulnerable people. In 2011, prize-winning Italian photographer Alessio Mamo took a series of photos in which poor children in India posed next to a table covered with fake food. Mamo said the photographs taught a Western audience “in a provocative way, about the waste of food”. But critics said he had violated photographic ethics and robbed the children of their dignity.
- George Floyd
- An African-American man who was killed in the US city of Minneapolis in May this year, when a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
- As well as the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, there were also protestors from far-right groups such as the English Defence League.
- The city refers to an area in central London where all of the large financial organisations, such as the Bank of England, have offices.
- Bryn Male
- The former British Transport Police officer insisted that he was a “passionate Brit”, not a racist.
- Al Sharpton
- Reverend Al Sharpton is an American civil rights activist, Baptist minister and politician. In 2004, he ran unsuccessfully to be the Democratic nominee for the US presidency.
- The musical piece was commissioned by the Southbank Centre, the London arts centre where Hutchinson rescued Male, and performed by the Chineke! orchestra, Europe’s first majority Asian, black and ethnically diverse orchestra.
- The charity, United to Change and Inspire, will focus on education but also policy change. “We hope to be the glue in between communities and decision makers”, said Hutchinson.