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Forgetting the Lessons of History

February 18, 2021

On the night of November 9 and into the early hours of November 10, 1938, a wave of violence swept across Germany, Austria (annexed by Germany) and the Sudetenland (Czechoslovakia, also annexed). The event came to be known as Kristallnacht, or ‘Night of Broken Glass’, as a result of the remains of shattered windows lying in the streets from shops, homes and synagogues owned by German Jews. Some 30,000 Jewish males were rounded up and taken away to what later became known as concentration camps. This was the first time officials from Germany’s government, the National Socialist German Workers' Party, had made massive arrests of people specifically because of their ethnicity, without any further or real cause for arrest.

In German, the name of the party by the way is National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. Because of the way the word ‘National’ is pronounced, the term ‘Nazi’ fell into popular use to describe the government at the time, led of course by Adolf Hitler.

Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the State’s Main Security Office, subsequently recommended that Jews should wear identifying badges following Kristallnacht. Shortly after the invasion of Poland in September 1939, local German authorities began introducing mandatory wearing of badges. By the end of 1939, all Jews in the newly-acquired Polish territories were required to wear these badges. Upon invading the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Germans again applied this requirement to newly-conquered territory. Throughout the rest of 1941 and 1942, Germany, its satellite states and western occupied territories adopted regulations stipulating that Jews wear identifying badges. Only in Denmark, where King Christian X is said to have threatened to wear the badge himself if it were imposed on his country’s Jewish population, were the Germans unable to impose such a regulation.

The then German government’s policy of forcing Jews to wear identifying badges was but one of many psychological tactics aimed at isolating and dehumanising the Jews of Europe, directly marking them as being ‘different’ to everyone else. It allowed for their easier separation from the rest of society and ultimately led to the murder of six million people simply because of their faith. The exact design of the badge varied from region to region but essentially it was the same throughout – a yellow Star of David, in the centre of which was inscribed the German word ‘Jude’ or in English, Jew.

Left - SS guards force Jewish men, arrested during Kristallnacht, to march through the town of Baden-Baden.

Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz

History is often easily forgotten, or indeed, overlooked, and one inevitable result is that the lessons from the past are not learned by those living in the present. History itself proves this and has done many times. If it were otherwise, then the United Kingdom would not, as it is currently, be tearing itself apart over the use of a badge to distinguish most people from those exempt from wearing a face covering due to a medical condition.

In my open letter to Prime Minster Boris Johnson (July 24, 2020) I wrote:

‘Will you withdraw with immediate effect, the instruction to the people to wear masks when in shops and stores. The face is our primary means of communication, even though we might not speak. A smile in passing is often appreciated, as it has been during the past (and difficult) four months. Had such a view been taken last March, there may well have been some justification for it. But to do so now, and for people to be ordered to ‘muzzle up’, rather goes against the grain.

The element of compulsion is a dehumanising act.

This instruction also contains many loopholes regarding exemptions; again there is a strong element of human nature to this but there will be those who will abuse those exemptions. This (as well as the instruction itself) will lead to discord where there need be none. It will lead to much disharmony between those who wish to wear a covering, and those who do not.

There is also the question of whether or not a simple face covering will be effective. There has already been much debate between people over how to make their own – frankly Prime Minister, the idea that an old sock or strips taken from t-shirts or similar will actively stop infection is somewhat questionable.’

Whilst I make no claim to being able to see into the future, a little thought would have enabled most people to see that the mask law would lead to inevitable conflict. This was (and is) especially notable given the somewhat muted, indeed almost invisible to begin with, signage regarding those who find it difficult or impossible to cover their faces.

For a time, and following numerous incidents around the country, there was an increase in emphasis in exempting on medical grounds, some people from using a face covering. However, with the imposition of the third lockdown, and the UK government becoming more insistent on face coverings, almost all major retail outlets re-emphasised the law compelling shoppers to cover their nose and mouth or no entry would be permitted. Nevertheless, the caveat regarding medical exemptions remained.

What does the law actually say? It is really not hard to understand; put simply, you must cover your nose and mouth when in a shop or any other public place where social distancing is not possible. Specific medical exemptions to this are not defined but merely say that if one has any condition that makes wearing a face covering difficult, you do not have to.

Crucially, the law does NOT empower anybody to challenge this, nor does it empower anybody (including the police) to demand to see proof of your exemption. This has not changed since lockdown three began, nor at any time since the mask law was introduced - and it is law by the way; not, as some think, mere guidance.

So why therefore, has there been a number of incidents involving major food retailers and their security staff, as well as their directly employed staff, in not only challenging people without face coverings but also insisting that they leave the store and calling the police when, with an exemption, shoppers refuse to do so?

There have been a number of videos posted on social media illustrating these conflicts with one, just over these past few days, quickly becoming notorious. In this, two staff members of Morrisons (they actually appear to be security staff rather than the store’s own) apparently demand that a shopper, who says he has a medical exemption from using a face covering, apply a yellow sticker to his clothes to ‘show others he is exempt.’

Predictably this video has led to scores of outraged comments, comments which do seem justified, even though the female staff member made offers to have the shopping delivered (the shopper refused). Whether or not the shopper really was entitled to claim an exemption is of course another matter but that is neither here nor there. What matters is that two staff members – regardless of whom they were employed by – were using a perceived power over others to force a member of the public to wear a yellow sign that differentiated them from the rest.

As a journalist, I emailed Morrisons to ask what their policy is. My email asked:

‘I assume you are aware of a video now circulating on social media that appears to show members of your staff asking a customer - who says he has a medical exemption - not wearing a face covering to place upon his clothing a yellow sticker to show other customers that he was exempt.

Can you please confirm if the wearing of a yellow sticker is company policy?

If it is, will it apply to customers who are not using a lanyard and card exemption or

to all and any customers whether they have a lanyard or not?

Again, if this is now company policy, are you aware of the historical connotations regarding yellow stickers or badges on clothing?

Can you please comment on the Law regarding those with a medical exemption to face coverings, which does not require those with a medical exemption to carry a form of identification saying so,

nor does it require such a person to prove it,

either to your staff or security personnel (or the police)?

If the use of a yellow sticker is not company policy, why (and where) did this incident occur?

Have you made your store personnel fully aware of the law regarding face covering exemptions nationwide?

We have not yet commented on this incident on KJM Today but will do so within the next few days - we would be eager to hear your side of the story however.

With thanks

Kevan James

KJM Today’

Morrisons were commendably quick to reply:

‘Thanks for getting in touch, we're investigating the video at the moment.

We can confirm that this is very much an isolated incident and not Morrisons Policy.

We're sorry the customer has had this experience, as our store marshals are well trained and understanding of those who are medically exempt.

We're following government guidelines to keep our colleagues and customers safe.

Those who are offered a face covering and decline to wear one won’t be allowed to shop at Morrisons, unless they are medically exempt.

We're also part of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard scheme, so any customers with a hidden disability who would like a lanyard can get these in store too.

But customers aren't obliged to do so.

This is so that colleagues and customers inside the store are aware that the customer is medically exempt.’

Image - Ian Rainey

Clearly therefore, the ‘store marshals’ were acting beyond their powers and should not have challenged the shopper, never mind the frankly shocking insistence on his placing a yellow sticker on his person. Yet this kind of incident seems to be on the increase. Why?

One curiosity is that most of these incidents do not seem to be happening in the south of England (no doubt readers can enlighten me if there have been any) so is it just a northern thing? And what is it about hi-viz vests and the assumption of power, however limited that power may in reality be?

The law is clear enough so obviously the message isn’t getting through. What is also clear is that a number of store marshals, security staff and others, with all the gear on, looking and behaving like toytown police officers, are assuming things without knowing the facts. And therein lies the real danger. Unless a clear, concise, easily understood message comes from the government, from store management and higher up the chain, the UK is sleepwalking into very dangerous areas.

People will wilfully break the rules, we know that. But we also know that, as far as compulsory face coverings are concerned, they ARE dehumanising; they DO rip away our basic ability to communicate effectively. And yes, they MAY help, at least up to a point but only up to a point, in assisting with reducing the possibility of breathing in contagion from others. And we know yet again (if we care to think) that over-using a mask or any other covering of the nose and mouth, will lead to adverse medical conditions where none existed before. And we know further that sticking a mask into our pocket when we leave the house, pulling it out with our bare hands, putting it on, then taking it off and repeating this several times is going to result in germs of all kinds collecting around our mouths - or at least we should know. And we know once more that some people will genuinely find it unbearable, and can even suffer both physically and mentally, from being forced to cover their faces.

The answer is simple; if you see somebody in a shop without their face covered, assume they have a medical exemption. What the reason for that exemption may be is nobody’s business but is between the individual concerned and their doctor (assuming they can ever get to see them). What we cannot do (as some on social media have suggested and one store security staff member also said to me) is say to people who genuinely are exempt they must stay at home and never step beyond their doors. For many people with real exemptions, going out and doing their shopping and doing normal things like everybody else, is part and parcel of what helps them cope.

For if we do otherwise, what else could possibly come? We are already seeing people forcibly frogmarched into places of detention, albeit quite well-appointed, when they arrive in the UK from certain other countries (and being equally forced to pay a large sum of money for doing so). We have already seen ourselves forcibly imprisoned in our own homes and yet seen some commentary suggesting that homes could be taken away from us.

In the name of ‘keeping us safe’, where does this go? Have we irretrievably forgotten the lessons of history – or not been taught them to begin with? Or are we too far down a slippery slope to claw our way back up again?

© Kevan James 2021

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