Monday 24 April 2017

'I felt at home' - Love/Hate's John Connors on his American race odyssey

He's no stranger to discrimination, but while filming his new documentary in the US, Traveller John Connors was shocked by the deep racial divisions in American society. In Chicago, dubbed as the States' most racist city, he was seen as the 'rich whitey with the camera' but, he tells our reporter, on a Native American reserve he felt at home

John Connors: In America
John Connors: In America
Parallels: Connors says Travellers have a lot in common with Native Americans in his new documentary
John Connors: In America

Celine Naughten

As a member of the Travelling community, he is no stranger to discrimination, and as an actor he played a gun-toting bomb maker in the gritty TV crime drama Love/Hate. But even those experiences failed to prepare presenter John Connors for the shocking reality of the black-white race divide in contemporary America.

In his new TV documentary Race Matters: John Connors in America, the 27-year-old actor and social activist comes face-to-face with the violent consequences of racial divisions in Chicago, where it is not uncommon for up to 40 people in the city's African-American neighbourhoods to be victims of shootings in a single weekend.

"Here we are at the end of Obama's presidency and race relations in America are worse than ever," he says.

After the success last year of his documentary I Am Traveller, Connors went Stateside to explore issues of racism among two distinct groups, African-Americans and Native Americans.

John Connors: In America
John Connors: In America

The first episode, to be aired on RTÉ2 on Monday, shows President-elect Donald Trump calling to a clearly disillusioned African-American population on his campaign trail: "You live in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs… What have you got to lose?"

They're about to find out as Trump prepares to take office next Friday, but whether it was an anti-Hillary sentiment or a real desire for change that kept black voters at home - something Trump thanked them for on his victory - what comes across in Race Matters is a feeling that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Connors visited African-American communities in Dallas and other towns in Texas, before moving on to Chicago, Illinois, described by many as the most racist city in the States.

In Texas, where it is legal to openly carry firearms, he spoke to Lashadion Anthony and Lelani Russell, who are part of an African-American gun club that aims to educate the community in the fight for peace and accountability. They're also part of the Black Lives Matter movement, which started off as a hashtag on social media after the acquittal in 2013 of a neighbourhood watchman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. A year later, the movement gained momentum when police shot dead Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York.

"Statistics show that, in America, if you're black, you're two-and-a-half times more likely to be shot by police than if you're white," says Connors. "And in most cases, no one is charged. There's a sense that things have reached boiling point. Across the country people are organising, and making noise."

He drove around Chicago with a nightcrawler, a photo-journalist who makes it his business to be at the scene of the crime as soon as it happens.

Parallels: Connors says Travellers have a lot in common with Native Americans in his new documentary
Parallels: Connors says Travellers have a lot in common with Native Americans in his new documentary

"There are likely to be 30 to 40 people shot over the weekend in Chicago," he says, casually. "It's part of our story."

In the south side, where Michelle Obama grew up, teenagers rap about broken homes, gangs, violence, money and drugs.

"I understand that this is your life, but by rapping about it, aren't you also glamorising that world?" asks Connors.

"It's what we know," they reply.

He talked to kids with low expectations for their future, mothers running peace camps, a priest trying to lead people on a new path, and an Irish surgeon, John Barrett from Cork, who became a gunshot specialist and says racism is rampant in the city.

Connors knows what it's like to grow up with discrimination, but even for him, the mean streets of Chicago were a stark eye-opener into just how bad things can get, especially in a country where the right to bear arms is written into the constitution.

"Nothing prepared me for the scale of violence in Chicago," he says. "The big difference is we don't have guns in Ireland. Up to 30pc of kids in public schools in Chicago have witnessed a shooting. It's the normality of the violence that shocked me, that and the segregation. There are parts of the city where African-Americans have never seen a white person. Mothers won't let their kids walk further than their own block. You just stay in your box."

At one point, he looks to camera and says: "I'm a Traveller in the hood."

But he doesn't belong there.

"I felt like a well-to-do settled person might feel visiting a Traveller site. I was perceived as a rich whitey with a camera, and I had to deal with that. Some residents have no concept of life outside the hood. One asked me: 'Ireland - where's that, North California?'"

If Connors' experience in Chicago was a culture shock, his next mission was more a case of culture comfort.

For the second episode of Race Matters, to be broadcast on January 23, he visited some of the 300 Native American reservations where, he says: "I felt at home."

The visible similarities between Irish Travellers and Native Americans are clear: many members of both communities live in trailers, sit around campfires, and share a love of horses. But the parallels don't end there. Both groups also suffer higher-than-average rates of unemployment, poverty and suicide. The rate of suicide among Irish Travellers is six times higher than average; among Native Americans it's double the rest of the population. Their language is disappearing and their culture is under threat.

"My grandmother, Chrissie Ward, née Donohue, has always had great sympathy for Native Americans," says Connors.

"When I was growing up, she taught me about the similarities between our people, and inspired me to follow in her footsteps as an activist. Lots of kids in Ireland liked to play Cowboys and Indians, but as Travellers, we always wanted to be the Indians. I identified with them as a child, and do so even more now."

He visits a reservation where the government owns the land, and the Native Americans living there have no access to banks or mortgages, so cannot buy property or start a business.

"Whether it's African-Americans, Native Americans or Irish Travellers, we may have different history, culture and traditions, but the results of the systemic, institutionalised racism we've experienced is the same," says Connors.

He hopes the documentary will go some way towards changing perceptions and stereotypes, but is under no illusions about the enormity of the challenge.

"If race relations didn't improve with Obama, they're unlikely to improve now," he says. "We can make a change, but it won't come easy. Racism is a divide-and-conquer tactic that's been used for centuries to benefit certain sections of society, and it's still going on today.

"I'm on a journey to defend my people. In trying to find inspiration to do that, I often look across the pond. I wanted to look at the issues they're facing. I hope the programme shows that we're all human beings. It's about community and solidarity. We need to stand together, in this country and internationally."

Race Matters: John Connors in America is on RTÉ2 this Monday and the following Monday, January 23, at 10.30pm

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