Police brutality is not just a US problem
A Black man is killed by police as he tells them: ‘I can’t breathe’. The video of officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, as he pleaded to be released, sparked mass uprisings across the US.
Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and the painfully slow response of the state to taking any steps towards legal action against his killers, was the final trigger. It came after the killing of Ahmed Aubrey, a black man shot while out for a run. It wasn't until a video of what happened went viral months later that anyone was charged with his murder.
This came after emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor was shot dead by police in her own home in March. In May, a video filmed by black birdwatcher Chris Cooper also went viral. In it, a white woman calls the cops on him after he asked her to put her dog on a lead in Central Park, New York, accusing him of ‘threatening my life’. Cooper lived to tell the tale, but black people have been killed by police for less.
Racialized events in the US, with its guns – and now it’s white supremacist president – have again provoked worldwide protest as people insist simply, but apparently controversially, that black lives matter.
For some, this is all a much-needed reminder that yes, racism does still exist in 2020. For Black people it’s a reminder that whether we’re out jogging, birdwatching, or just at home, our existence is apparently a threat. This is something which has resonated across the world.
The UK is not innocent
Discussions around what has been happening in the US has again led to Black people in the UK having to explain that, yes, state racism and anti-black violence is a thing here. In fact, Britain kind of invented it.
In recent weeks we’ve seen the deeply disturbing video of police in Manchester tasering a Black man in front of his child at a petrol station. Meanwhile, the UK government sells equipment such as tear gas and ‘crowd control ammunition’ to the US, which is used by military and the police.
We are in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately taking black and brown lives in Britain, the US and elsewhere – thanks to systemic racism. Racist spit attacks against ethnic minorities have become another thing to be wary of when leaving the house.
Last week, British Transport Police said no further action would be taken about one such attack on a railway ticket office worker, Belly Mujinga, who died from Covid-19 after being spat at whilst working by a man who said he had the virus. They concluded the attack and her death weren’t connected. It was only after activists pressured authorities, that the Crown Prosecution Service agreed to review evidence in relation to her death.
The use of force is more than two times as likely to be a factor in deaths of Black and Asian people in custody. The families of those who die can expect there to be little to no legal recourse towards those responsible. They can expect their loved ones to experience posthumous trial by media – right down to photographs being cropped to try and make them look more threatening. If they try to fight for justice, they can expect to be spied on by police.
‘All I could think about was Sean, because that’s exactly what they did to him,’ said Marcia Rigg in an interview with ELLE magazine after George Floyd was killed. Marcia has campaigned tirelessly for justice for her brother Sean Rigg who died in Brixton, South London after being restrained by police officers, face down, in 2008.
‘I can’t breathe’. These were also the last words of David Dungay Jr, a Dunghutti man held down by six corrections officers in Australia in 2015. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned against ‘importing the things that are happening overseas to Australia,’ in response to protests there, saying that ‘we don’t need to draw equivalence here.’
Morrison forgetting that importing white supremacist state violence is a pretty important part of Australia’s relatively recent history. Try telling the family of Dungay that there is ‘no need’ to draw equivalence, along with the families of the over 430 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died in custody there since 1991.
‘I can’t breathe’. The same words came from Adama Traoré, a black man who died in police custody in Paris in 2016 as his sister Assa reminded reporters at a massive protest against police brutality in the French capital this week.
What has been noticeable in this current outpouring of anger is the extent to which condemnation of events in the US has been taken up in some of the most unlikely places. Seeing ministers of a racist UK Conservative government like Matt Hancock uttering the phrase ‘black lives matter’ to the press, and London’s Metropolitan police calling for ‘justice and accountability’ for George Floyd on social media is peak white hand wringing. Seeing this from institutions that have the unacknowledged blood of black and brown people on their hands is insulting.
There has also been an outpouring of genuine solidarity and willingness to be part of the change, but when thinking about this we need to remember that these issues have never gone away. As the inspirational Fannie Lou Hamer said in 1964: ‘For three hundred years, we've given them time. And I've been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change.’ Black people carry with them hundreds of years of being tired.
So how can we move forward from here? It’s for all of us to learn, organize and remember that the struggle for black liberation is far from over – whether it be across an ocean, or in our own neighbourhoods.
If you’re not Black and want to know more about ‘being a good ally’, you could start with this handy guide, and then, any popular internet search engine is your friend.
As white people, it’s safer to assume that your Black friend or family member has experienced some kind of racism, even if you didn’t see it happen. So before you embark on a conversation with them about it, remember that, and check out some of the statistics.
And when the media becomes an endless stream of black death and trauma, keep all this in mind. Don’t become preoccupied with guilt and apologies. Think about how you can use your white privilege – not to gain some ally gold stars for going on a protest or increasing ‘diversity', but to actually change the balance of power.
And while class privilege isn’t going to stop any black person experiencing racism or racist violence, class is a major factor in how structural racism is experienced on a day-to-day basis, and those of us with good incomes or more capital must remember that. Working class black communities all over the world face daily harassment from the police while also experiencing worse health outcomes, trauma and poor housing.
The reason that any of us are able to walk through so many doors today is because of the risks taken by those who came before us. It’s up to us to bring more people through. But doing so, we must resist tone policing, colourism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and all the other things that threaten the safety of people in our communities, as well as our ability to unite and fight.
That fight is not a choice for black people, but whether we have hope for what comes of it is. As James Baldwin said: ‘I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive.’
We need to rest, we need to love and – when we have the energy – we need to keep up the fight.
Every time we find ourselves back here I go back to a song called ‘At The Seams’ by Kimya Dawson to remind me: ‘We’ll keep planting flowers and we’ll fight until the day that we don't have to pick them all to put them all on graves.’
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