Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter! Of course, all lives do matter but they don’t all matter until black lives matter. If you don’t agree with that statement, you will not like the contents of this post and I would kindly ask you to look elsewhere.

This has taken a lot of thought even before the protests weekend before last. I was conflicted over it having been critical of others for not adhering to lockdown restrictions such as the Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings which I wrote a post on and also criticised people for flocking to the beaches on the South Coast the other weekend. Consequently, I was initially anxious about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and the reasons so many were protesting at this time would make me look like a hypocrite. However, I hate racism.

I absolutely hate it! I can’t stand why people think they are superior and can discriminate against people purely based on the colour of their skin. You can’t help if you’re born white, black or Asian anymore than you can help being born male or female.

The death of George Floyd sparked the wave of Black Lives Matter protests. [Image from The BBC].

The Black Lives Matter movement has gathered pace after the death of George Floyd while being arrested by Police in Minneapolis on 25th May The arresting officer, Derek Chauvin was recorded kneeling on his neck for an excruciating 8 minutes 46 seconds as he pleaded ‘I can’t breathe’. He remained kneeling as paramedics arrived and arguably would not have been charged with the murder if it had not been recorded and broadcast around the world. What was it all over? A suspected counterfeit $20 bill. I am aware his criminal record was not clean but regardless of the fact, did he really deserve to die for that $20 bill?

It isn’t just about George Floyd either. What about Breonna Taylor? She was murdered by police when they entered her flat under a no-arrest warrant on March 13th. She was shot 8 times and was killed on the scenes as the police were looked for drugs. No drugs were found at the flat. They are just two names in a long list of black people murdered by police. Even with these protests, another name has been added; Rayshard Brookes who was shot and killed by Atlanta Police. The issue is not whether they have committed crimes or not, it is the excessive force.

A socially distanced Black Lives Matter protest in Edinburgh. [Image from The Edinburgh Reporter]

My home city, Newcastle saw peaceful demonstrations [Pictured in the feature image at the top; Image is from The Evening Chronicle]. So too did other cities. My only concern about the protests is that social distancing was not followed by all but I am reliably informed that all in attendance were told to self-isolate for 14 days as a precaution to prevent any spread from the event. Edinburgh did it well; protesting and maintaining social distancing. London was not so peaceful and the pictures were not pretty even though some of the ones used in the printed media are misleading. It has escalated further and even in Newcastle, the pictures from the ‘counter-protestors’ were shameful and embarrassing with chants of ‘you’re not English anymore’. To be honest, if that defines what it is to be English then I want off.

I must stress I am not condoning any violence at all but this feels like a crunch point. Change is afoot.

In response to the demonstrations, the Prime Minister insisted that he did not believe the UK to be a racist country. At times it is hard to believe him really when this is the same individual who wrote of black people with ‘watermelon smiles’. He wrote it. The question is whether those are genuinely his views (worst case) or that he wrote them with the view of sparking peoples prejudices. I don’t know which is worst but makes it all the more shocking he is Prime Minister givings us morals on racism.

Does that mean I believe the UK is a racist country? I believe there are a lot of good people, in fact, the majority in this country who are not racist. That is the country I want to see reflected, not what we saw this weekend by the so-called ‘counter-protestors’. I do believe they are a minority but they were out in force. Well, I have to hope they are was that would be my faith in the people of this country down the pan. It is disgusting.

Even without that, in a country that is becoming more and more unequal, there is institutionalised racism and inequality. For example, if Brexit goes pear-shaped, who will feel the brunt of it most? Not the people who peddled it or the financial elites. They go hand in hand in terms of job prospects and life chances.

The UK has improved from the 1980s for example when monkey chants were the norm on football terraces. However, there has also been a rise in that in recent years which I fear has now truly manifested itself this past weekend. Even without that surge, of which Brexit did contribute to, if something has improved, does that mean something is perfect? There is always room for change and improvements.

The institutionalised racism I see comes from the top. This is the country that deported so many of its foreign-born citizens as part of the ‘hostile environment’ peddled by former Home Secretary Theresa May which constituted the Windrush scandal or allowed itself to become consumed by Brexit which saw immigration and freedom of movement at its core. Incidents of racists abuse soared in the weeks following that vote in 2016. The 83 cases of wrongly deported citizens during the Windrush Scandal have yet to see compensation too.

Labour MP; Diane Abbott receives an absurd amount of abuse. [Image from Indy100.com]

Take a look at Westminister, how many black MPs are there? In a chamber of usually 650 MPs, 65 are black or BAME compared to 14% of the wider UK population. MPs receive a lot of abuse, particularly female MPs but the worst effected is Diane Abbott who was elected as Britain’s first female back MP in 1987. The MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington became a laughing stock and the subject of so many memes after a miss calculation during an interview; something a male counterpart can brush aside. You will know the interview, it contributed to Nick Ferrari being awarded Journalist of the Year in 2017. Yes, she made mistakes and criticism can be made fairly for them but the amount of abuse she receives is absurd. She is not stupid. You don’t go to Cambridge University if you’re stupid. In that 2017 election campaign, she received almost half of all abuse targeted at female MPs and ten times more than any other MP.

Arguments have been made for it only being an American problem, why should it be here? Well, the US and the UK are intricately linked. Boris Johnson called them our biggest ally in parliament. That is nothing new and it goes well before the present; Tony Blair getting into bed with George W Bush to go to war in Iraq and Margaret Thatcher’s close relationship with Ronald Reagan in the 80s. It’s called the Special relationship. The US and the America’s as a continent have been interlinked with Europe even before the superpower got involved in WW1 and WW2. It goes back almost 500 years to when the European explorers discovered the continent and set in motion the colonial expansion that would give us the Age of Empires with Spain and Portugal exerting influence in South America, the French having a lasting impact and Canada and the English had most of what would become the US. There is an interlinked history and often there are overlapping experiences in the present.

It is not a uniquely US phenomena. (As for their president, I have a few choice words on him which I will explore another time).

It isn’t and the manner of George Floyd’s death, police methods have been brought into question. we see frequently videos of police taking arguably excessive action. Before I continue, I want to stress that I believe the police, on the whole, do a good job; they do best they can to protect us especially when there is a terrorist incident but that does not mean they are perfect. Minneapolis Council are set to put it to voters over whether the police should become a public safety organisation. I’m not sure how that will work but it will be interesting to see but for now, I insist the police need reform.

The Report into Stephan Lawrence’s murder in 1993 highlighted ‘racial inequalities’ in the UK Police force. [Image from The Guardian].

Racial inequalities have been an area of concern for police for some time. It has been over two decades since the McPhearson report declared that ‘racial inequalities’ had led to the killers of teenager Stephan Lawrence in 1993 not being caught. The report defined it as ‘the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin‘. A part of that was a ‘smear campaign’ against his friends and family.

The report called on for police forces to be more reflective of the communities they serve; none in England and Wales have met that target. With 14% of the population being non-white, that proportion in the police force is 6.6%; still under the proportion in 1999; 7%. The use of stop and search which the government have been keen to see more of in the battle against knife crime is controversial. Black people are more than 8 times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites while even during lockdown; blacks have been twice as likely to be fined by police.

I have been reading Owen Jones’s book; The Establishment and How They Get Away with it recently and the following examples come from his book. It was published in 2015 but it still relevant.

That reform should be that they are not involved in the policing of their actions. The Police are monitored through the Independent Police Complaints Commission but when its current chair is a former police officer; it would seem its independence into doubt. If anything, this body should have a balanced composition between ex-officers who understand the pressures they face and lawyers. Efforts have been made toward that I think with the introduction of elected police and crime commissioners but these need to be independent and not tied to political parties.

Sean Rigg needlessly died in Brixton Police station in 2008 due to police conduct and dismissing his lack of consciousness. [Image from Sky News].

An example of this should be the case is the death of Ian Tomlinson. He was assaulted by a met police officer in an unprovoked attack having left his newspaper vendor to go home during G20 protests in 2009. Additionally, the death of Sean Rigg. Sean Rigg suffered from paranoid schizophrenia when he was arrested in August 2008 and taken to Brixton Police station where he later died. The IPCC ruled that the officers involved had acted reasonably and proportionately but independent reviews destroyed their original conclusion. Clearly, the IPCC needs independent members. Police actions that day led to his death, such as kneeling on him for 8 minutes during his arrest. He was arrested for assaulting a police officer and public disorder and possession of a fake passport which was his own.

I have gone well off-topic here but the key difference between police in the US and the UK is the second amendment.

The use of guns. Guns have been a major issue in America through countless atrocities and school shootings but they won’t ban them. Consequently, in statistics available from Statista, in not even the first full six months of 2020 have seen 429 fatal police shootings. That alone is more 100% more than the number recorded in England and Wales for the 15 years between 2004 and 2019; 40. In terms of wider deaths in Police custody, the numbers are not great either. In the US, a startling 1,944 members of the BAME community have died in police custody, that number is 33 in the UK. In our jails too, the racial inequality is stark. In the US jails, a black individual is five times more likely to be incarcerated than a white person; in the UK that Black, Asian and ethnic minorities make up a quarter of the prison population despite them making up 14% of the wider population as a whole.

It is these continuing injustices despite the success of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in gaining rights that the Black Lives Movement has gathered pace. It is in this context that George Floyd’s death has sparked. It is like a long bubbling stew in a pot. If left simmering away it eventually pops. This is where we are at and I feel it has been coming for a while. Injustices against black people in the justice system have been the subject of a couple of films this year with Just Mercy recounting the real story of Walter McMillan and Queen and Slim a fictional story of the killing of a racist police officer in self-defence. Both were powerful films to watch and I would recommend them.

The statue of Edward Colston was toppled and dumped into the river. [Image from New York Times].

Attention has also fallen on vandalism. A protestor was pictured and filmed trying to burn the Union Jack on the Cenotaph (damn that pesky EU fire retardant red tape). Churchill’s memorial was vandalised which I do not condone. There is certainly a discussion to be had about Churchill particularly around his role in the Bengal Famine (1943) but his role in defeating the Nazis in Europe is unquestionable. In Bristol, a statue of Edward Colston was pulled down. Edward Colston had been a slave trader in the 17th Century and heavily involved in the slave trade. His company was involved in the transportation of thousands of Africans to the America’s. An estimated 19,000 died on the voyages with their remains being thrown overboard. Perhaps ironic then that his statue ended up in the docks after years of attempts to rectify the situation through the council had failed

Being brutally honest, I had never heard of Edward Colston until his statue fell. At first, I thought if I was from Bristol I would have known who he was; just like say someone who isn’t from Newcastle may not know who Earl Grey was. He was a Prime Minister but I assume you get my point in it being about local history. Then it dawned on me, I have two History degrees and someone influential enough to be commemorated with a statue I did not know about. It’s been suggested to me that you can’t know everything. True, but my example here shows that you can go through the entire education system in this country and not learn much about its colonial past.

Channel 4’s Khrishna Guru-Murphy tweeted about this when he saw his 13-year-old sons School Curriculum.

This made me think too about my schooling. It was only when I went to University did I realise how limited our School had been; we studied Nazi Germany and the Rusian Revolution and Stalin’s Russia at both GCSE and A-Level. Our teachers at the time thought teaching it at both levels would ensure better results by being more familiar with it; which I think a lot of schools did. They changed the GCSE syllabus to cover American History after we finished our course in 2009. We had Crime and Punishment through the ages at GCSE and the path of the Great Reform Act to the 1918 Representation of the People’s Act for A-Level coursework. When we covered Britain’s wars; we were taught on three; Crimean War; The Second Boer War and WW1. All three had calamitous errors which Britain recovered from to win and also glossed over of the fact it wasn’t the Nazi’s who first used Concentration Camps; the deaths just weren’t intentional.

The only mention of the Irish Famine or even the slave trade did not come in the History classroom. No, it came in the English classroom. Who remembers that AQA Anthology? Through the poems of Seamus Heaney carefully selected by the exam board and the Limbo by Kamai Brathwaite did we even cover the topic of the experiences of the slave trade.

Another fact I was not aware of until the past week or so was surrounding the abolition of slavery. We all know William Wilberforce was the spearheaded abolition and no James Cleverly he was not a Tory. The hidden fact was the slave owners were bailed out, you know like we bailed out the banks in 2008 and Richard Branson has recently been begging for one. The slavers were bailed out for $20m; 40% of that government’s budget and which is worth around £20b in today’s money. It was paid for through a loan and the Uk only finished paying off the debts to pay the slavers in 2015; a fact the Treasury tweeted about and swiftly deleted in 2018. So for almost 200 years, taxes were being paid to cover the costs lost by the slave owners. The liberated slaves…they received nothing.

Boris Johnson tweeted that the taking down of statues would ‘impoverish the education of generations to come’. [Image from CNBC].

The Prime Minister made comments this weekend about history and statues as he launched a defence of Churchill. In a series of Tweets, he made the claim, ‘We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot defend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come’. I respectfully disagree.

As I’ve shown, the only education that has been impoverished is our own and nowhere do I feel I’ve heard anyone call to censor it but let’s keep it to statues for now. There are several instances of statues being brought down that symbolise important historical moments. For example, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussain in 2003 was considered a hugely symbolic moment for the collapse of his reign in Iraq. Just like the toppling of statues to Vladimir Lenin marked the end of the Soviet era. These moments are all symbolic of history itself. They do not erase said history.

The toppling of Colston’s statue could be an equally symbolic moment, especially for a country that shamefully destroyed some of the record to its colonial crimes. It has already led to a broader discussion about who we choose to commemorate with statues. The statue of another slaver; Robert Mulligan was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands and Poole council boarded up, instead of removing the statue to Robert Baden-Powell; founder of the Boys Scouts. His crime being having Nazi sympathies.

The Statue to Belgian King Leopald IIhas also been targeted due to his horrific colonial crimes. [Image from The Independent].

It is not just in the UK grappling with its colonial past. With the history of Europe and America being interconnected, it is happening elsewhere too. In Belgium, they removed statues to King Leopold II who in his reign (1865-1909) oversaw Belgium’s colonial expansion in Congo and anywhere between 1-15 million deaths are attributed to it. His reign was also responsible for regular punishments such as amputations for the most menial of things, amongst the brutal exploitation of Congo.

The main thing so far is we are discussing these things now which is the first step.

History is constantly being written and rewritten. As new evidence comes to light (usually we wait 30 years for government files become available in the National Archives), it’s reliability and credibility is always questioned. Academics; history professors and doctors are often pressured by Universities they teach at as part of their employment contract to produce so many articles and books within a set period. By placing these statues in places such as museums, an accurate setting where information can be displayed to show what these individuals did that was great and not so great. That would not amount as the Prime Minister to a lie or censoring of our history. Far from it, I believe it would be a broadening and an enrichment of our history for which education will be key.

I want to now return to the present and the context of the coronavirus pandemic. I truly understand the genuine concerns many will have had when they see these pictures of mass protests amid a pandemic. I have these worries too. I worry for the safety for not just myself but of my family too; perhaps even too much as we’ve had arguments. However, seeing so many take to the streets for a cause they passionately believe in; protesting for their human rights to not experience racism or any form of discrimination; despite the fact ONS data shows black people are four times more likely to die from coronavirus (I wonder why the government haven’t published that report containing safeguarding measures) highlights just how important it is that they’d be risking their health to protest for their fundamental human rights. That in itself is immensely powerful.

Labour MP Dawn Butler’s article in The Metro the weekend before last, which I shared on Facebook and got into a colourful exchange makes a key point I want to close on. If there is a second spike of coronavirus cases and I hope there isn’t, it will not just be the result of the Black Lives Movement. It will be the VE Day commemorations, people going to the beach in large numbers and the shameful ‘anti-racist’ demonstrators this weekend. They would all I imagine contribute but I do fear it will be the Black Lives Movement unfairly scapegoated for it all.

The biggest culprit, however, would be the government. Yes, they have warned over two successive weekends that people should not gather for protests. However, they traded in their authority and credibility on lockdown rules when they put their full weight behind defending the undefinable actions of Dominic Cummngs. Lockdown has been a lot harder to police as a result and if anything the buck for a potential second rise of Covid-19 cases must stop with them.

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