The Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck, in front of a crowd, for nearly nine minutes. His subsequent death triggered thousands of people across the world to take part this week in Black Lives Matter protests. Most were peaceful. But there were violent clashes last weekend in London. Some demonstrators let off fireworks and threw bottles at the police in Whitehall. They daubed graffiti on a statue of Winston Churchill while chanting, “No justice, no peace”. These led to the injury of at least 49 officers.
Some ask how relevant is the death of a black man in Minneapolis to racism in the UK? A US cop may have killed George Floyd, but the UK is no stranger to police brutality. Many black people have died in suspicious circumstances after police encounters. In 1969 saw two Leeds officers we found guilty of assaulting David Oluwale (the first black man to die in custody in Britain). However, not a single officer has been prosecuted since. Let alone convicted for any death in custody.
Is it crass to suggest the experience of racial violence has been the same in Britain as in the US? This country has no history of public lynchings or formal segregation. Our police aren’t routinely armed. And to be sure, America’s problems with police brutality are in a different league to ours. But when it comes to other forms of systemic racism, we have no cause for complacency.
Black people typically comprise 3% of the population in England and Wales, but make up 12% of its prison population. This is a worse disproportionality than in the USA. The numbers are even grimmer among young inmates. 48% of under-18s in custody in England and Wales are from black or other ethnic minority backgrounds. Nor is the problem limited to criminal justice.
Ethnic minority jobseekers have to send out 60% more applications than white people to secure the equivalent number of interviews. This is accurate even with the same qualifications. Black people are more than twice as likely to be out of work as whites and British Indians. Their children are more likely to suffer persistent poverty. This undoubtedly contributes to the health inequalities exposed by the coronavirus crisis. Black and minority ethnic people account for more than a third of the Covid-19 patients admitted to intensive-care units.
Therefore, we can’t merely dismiss the aforementioned disparities as an exercise in identity politics. And while it is accurate that mass protests do not always yield change, they do highlight the proper side of history. This week’s rallies show that people in this nation are sick. We’ve had enough of systemic racial injustice, and genuine change is required.
For example, why are there still statues to slave-traders across Britain? Is it surprising that in Bristol, protesters pulled down a statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston? Then toppled it into the harbour. In Oxford, thousands gathered outside Oriel College to demand the removal of a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The landowner of London’s Docklands also removed a statue of the slave-owner Robert Milligan.
It is not surprising that anger at past and present injustices has provided an outlet. As in the US, the protests have been multiracial. There is now a widespread acknowledgement that we undervalue black lives. This is valid whether by state abuse or state neglect. We require a proper inquiry to examine systemic racism; to identify ways to bring down the barriers holding black people back. Since we haven’t got to this place by accident, we won’t get out of it by chance.