A Liberal Democrat councillor who repeatedly used a racial slur during a council meeting has been suspended from the party’s Cheltenham group
Cheltenham Borough Councillor Dennis Parsons (Pittville) said the offensive word four times during Monday’s meeting to describe how his family’s black cat when he was a child was called “n*****”, as he highlighted how British attitudes towards race have changed since the end of the Second World War.
A day later Mr Parsons issued an apology which said he was “very sorry for articulating the n-word” during the meeting, adding he is “hugely embarrassed by his actions”.
The leader of Cheltenham Liberal Democrats Steve Jordan has confirmed Mr Parsons’ membership of the local group has been suspended following a vote last night (June 16).
Before Mr Parsons’ suspension, senior figures within the local group had called for him to resign and separate formal complaints were lodged to the authority, the local and national party headquarters.
Meanwhile, an online petition calling on Mr Parsons to resign from Cheltenham Borough Council as a councillor has received more than 140 signatures in less than 24 hours.
The comments were made during a motion debate to review the authority’s policies and organisational structure to challenge racial bias in the wake of George Floyd’s death last month, which was unanimously voted through.
Thousands of people attended a peaceful protest in the town’s Pittville Park last week in response to the death of George Floyd, 46, who died after a white officer held him down by pressing a knee into his neck in Minneapolis on May 25.
What happened during the meeting?
Cheltenham Borough Council says it is working to make the video of the full council meeting available to the public, and will mute the racial slur Mr Parsons made.
During the meeting, Mr Parsons said: “I was born immediately after the Second World War. My father came home a year later because he was serving in the Navy.
“We had a cat. A black cat. A black cat called n**. And my mum would come out to the front gate when she couldn’t find the cat and she’d shout ‘n***** n***** n*****.
“But now obviously you can’t do that and that’s partly as a result of legislation. But it’s partly because the culture has changed but ever so slowly. We’ve changed cultures before.”
Cheltenham Borough Councillor Karl Hobley (LD, St Pauls) said: “As I look at my screen as I would if we were in the council chamber, I see a sea of faces that look almost identical to mine, albeit agenda split and an age difference. But beyond that there’s basically no difference whatsoever.
“We will never get to a stage where I can have a more diverse image in front of me, if no matter how well-meant or how important those words we use to illustrate our point, if we use incredibly offensive racial slurs even in a debate like this.
“I am staggered that councillor Parsons chose to speak those words. It is not acceptable. To use that language, refer to it as the N-word or refer to it simply as a word we should not say. We cannot sit here or stand in the council chamber and use words like that.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Max Wilkinson (Oakley) called on Mr Parsons to use an opportunity to apologise for his comments.
Mr Wilkinson said: “I appreciate the sting that is felt when they hear those words. I know councillor Parsons as a friend and politically, I know he wouldn’t have meant offence for what he said.
“But I think we really need to recognise just how truly offensive it was to a significant portion of the population of Cheltenham.
“I think it would be incumbent of him to clarify that he meant no offence. I think he should be offered the chance to apologise.”
Mr Parsons replied: “Obviously I was making a point that in some ways goes back to the issue of monuments and other things that cause offence now, but weren’t part of the culture at the time they were erected.
“I prefer the German way of recognising history rather than the idea that we somehow photoshop it out. I quoted something that was perfectly acceptable in 1945.
“My parents weren’t racist, they were just ordinary working people who had gone through a war in which my father played an active and dangerous part.
“It was just the way it was. I am obviously sorry if I offended people’s sensitivities, but I don’t think that it’s inappropriate that in certain
circumstances, to use words that are unacceptable now but were acceptable historically.”
Mr Parsons’ apology on June 16
Mr Parsons said: “I very much regret and am so very sorry for articulating the ‘n’ word in Monday’s meeting of Cheltenham Borough Council. I totally get how offensive this would have been to the BAME population and, indeed, to the wider Cheltenham public.
“I am hugely embarrassed by my actions.
“My parents were not racist. I am not racist. I was referencing events in 1950 and using the name of the family cat to illustrate how different the culture was then compared to today.
“Unfortunately, in doing so, I articulated the ‘n’ word – which was unacceptable. The response has been a hard lesson for me to take. But it is a lesson learned.”
‘The standards committee will treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves’
Mr Wilkinson, chairman of the standards committee, said: “The Black Lives Matter movement has touched the hearts and minds of so many of us and I’m pleased the council adopted a strong motion backing the campaign and calling for action locally.
“But it is clear that there is a lot of work to be done and this was evidenced during the debate at council when councillor Dennis Parsons used an offensive racial slur during the debate.
“Complaints about a councillor’s conduct are reviewed by the council’s monitoring officer and standards committee. I have therefore immediately referred the matter to the council’s monitoring officer and have called for a standards committee meeting to convene as soon as possible.“
“The committee will treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves.”
Mr Wilkinson said today (June 17) that the authority’s chief executive Gareth Edmundson confirmed all borough councillors will receive training on
The online petition can be found here
By Leigh Boobyer, local democracy reporting partnership