Building A Society Where All Can Breathe

01 07 20

Taken from issue 42 of HOPE not hate magazine

It could have been me. For so many, the image of a Black man being shot dead is truly shocking. The cold truth is that these images stopped shocking me a long time ago.

I know I speak for thousands in Black communities across the country when I say that these relentless images aren’t as shocking as they are traumatic. Witnessing yet another Black man suffocating to death forces us to relive our own experiences of racial profiling and structural discrimination.

As the Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes, George Floyd didn’t just cry out that he couldn’t breathe. He also cried out for his dead mother. I’ve spoken before about the time I was aggressively patted down by a police officer as a boy in Tottenham. I was so petrified that I wet myself. In that moment of vulnerability, humiliation and intimidation, I too longed for my mother. Fortunately, I didn’t suffer the same horrific fate as George Floyd.

In the US, much of Europe and the white settler countries of Australia, New Zealand and Canada where racial injustice is the norm, Black men who escape death live in a permanent state of anxiety and mistrust. It’s inspiring, then, to see those who are forced to live in fear show immense courage by taking to the streets. So many people who have been pushed into the shadows are shedding blinding light on racism, not just in the US but here in our own backyard as well.

Let’s be clear: protestors are not simply standing up to individual racists. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement does not merely exist to stand up to violent thugs and organisations like Britain First, the English Defence League or the KKK. Rather, they are standing up to a political, economic and social system of domination.

Ninety-seven percent of Britain’s elite is controlled by white people. Just 36 out of 1,000 of the UK’s top political, judicial, financial, cultural and security roles are held by ethnic minorities. Black unemployment sits at nine percent, compared to a four percent national average. There is also a 13% attainment gap between Black and white students at university. The very idea of the social contract is supposed to bind us together for the benefit and peace of all. But when rights and resources are allocated along racial lines, communities of colour rightly question the way this social contract was designed in the first place.

Contrary to what the government is trying to tell us, the placards being raised do not mention Basil Fawlty. Protestors are not marching toward the Winston Churchill statue as their finish line. Rather, they are trying to tell the government just how tired they are that Black people are still nine times more likely to be stopped and searched. They are fed up that Black, Asian and ethnic minority people still make up 51% of the youth justice system, despite making up just 14% of the general population. They are angry that the Metropolitan Police are twice as likely to fine Black people over lockdown breaches during the coronavirus outbreak – a pandemic from which they are also twice as likely to perish.

What’s inspiring about this moment of resistance, though, is that it’s not just Black people who are angry. It’s white people too. They’re angry that pervasive racism exists. They’re angry that governments keep promising things will change and they rarely do. It’s overwhelming to see so many young people take a stand, show solidarity with their brothers and sisters and fight for their future. If there is anything that gives me hope that history is being made right now, it’s the fact that so many young people are determined to be on the right side of it.

However, we can’t celebrate acts of solidarity without an earnest commitment to transform righteous anger into systemic change. The demonstrations we’re witnessing across the globe are unlike anything I can remember in recent years. I just hope that the same, if not more, people take an interest in racial injustice when it’s not in the news cycle. Real change happens when it’s less fashionable and less comfortable to demand. We have to find a way to convert a trending spectacle into a radically reformed criminal justice system. We have to find a way to build a society in which everyone – Black and white – can finally breathe.

David Lammy MP is the Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice | @DavidLammy

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