In the second in our series on Black Lives Matter following the killing of George Floyd in the US, Clayton Goodwin considers the implications of the current wave of demonstrations against racism in the US for the Black community in the UK.
Racism 3 – Coronavirus 0 – as one commentator stated while reports of the protests, and repercussions, following the demise of George Floyd swept even news of the worst pandemic in living history from prime place in the international media for three consecutive days.
Whether the police slaying of Black people is particularly endemic in the US or reactions have been provoked by Donald Trump to play to the law-and-order lobby in an election year, there can be no doubt that racism remains a virus in the body politic. Yet amid the wave of sympathy here (in the UK) for the protesters across the Atlantic, there have been questions as to whether a similar situation exists in the United Kingdom. Do British Black Lives Matter?
Two factors make the American situation more explosive: the political situation – we do not have an election – and the more general use of fire-arms. It is also difficult to be specific about one sector of our society when the government has shown across the board that Few Lives Matter.
The elderly, residents of care-homes, schoolchildren, workers in low-skilled industry, the “vulnerable”, care and hospital workers – even the more aged politicians – have had reason to doubt the current administration has their well-being at heart.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson can hardly inspire confidence after accepting the excuses of his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, for breaking lockdown regulations. Cummings attained notoriety after he defied the rules by driving 264 miles to his elderly parents’ home and later driving a further 30 miles to visit a tourist site “ to test his eyesight” before driving back to London. In doing so, he had travelled from a part of the country with high infection, already showing signs of the virus himself, thereby putting the community at risk.
It is not necessary to cite the long list of cases in which British police have shot, or otherwise ill-treated, Black citizens over the years to have qualms about the future.
It has been reported by reputable sources, including Channel 4 television, that Black employees of the National Health Service (NHS) have been subjected to disproportionate “stop and search” police procedures at the very time that the nation applauds and claps their service and sacrifice.
Similarly, the Metropolitan Police have fined twice as many Africans and Asians for infringements of the lockdown regulations. Obviously, their vision must be that much superior as they have no need for “eye-tests”!
And through structural racism or environmental circumstances of economic and social deprivation – both causes are irretrievably interlinked – the pestilence has lain more heavily on the Black community in terms of the rate of infection and fatalities.
All the while Brexit, which re-kindled the embers of latent racism, has haunted the country as the ghost of Banquo haunted Macbeth’s feast. Priti Patel, Home Secretary and herself the child of immigrants, has pursued a harsh immigration policy towards those people whose services the country needs most.
“Defend our borders”, the cry of the Brexiteers, should have been directed with greater energy in stopping the virus than against arrivals intending to help our people. Whereas many of the public are prepared to forgive politicians as being incompetent rather than malevolent in allowing the death rate to exceed anywhere else other than the US, few are willing to extend that consideration to Patel. She may not have coined the phrase “hostile environment” for immigrants but it has become associated with her actions.
An evil that must be rooted out of society
I do not share the optimism of those commentators who contend that a “better world” of justice and equal opportunity will come out of the current crisis. Dream on! It flies in the face of history. The worst anti-semitic pogroms before the 20th century coincided with the Black Death which engulfed Europe in the Middle Ages.
The juxtaposition of the slaughter of the First World War and the Spanish Flu epidemic provided nursery conditions for some of modern history’s worst dictators – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and their imitators – as well as the race riots, hardly reported here, which beset the United Kingdom, particularly in Cardiff and Liverpool, in 1919.
In times of crisis governments, especially those which are floundering and foundering, need somebody (“the outsider”) to blame. Nor is it reasonable, as they reflect the composition of society, to expect racism to be expunged from the police until it is rooted out of society itself.
The other evening I watched two interesting items on television. One was an appeal by the UK TV channels of support for their Black colleagues in all aspects of their industry. The other was former politician and more latterly TV travelogue presenter Michael Portillo commenting on how British imperialism, especially that of the capitalists, set the groundwork for apartheid in South Africa. This was the same Michael Portillo who was one of the more right-wing members of Margaret Thatcher’s pronounced right-wing and capitalist cabinet.
Many citizens of the United Kingdom can denounce the racism overseas – and be sincere in doing so – without realising that their own society has become disconnected, especially in the agencies of governance. Yet watch the appeals to patriotism, morality, law and order, and suppression of criminality, and mark the meaning behind the words.
Only one effective way to protest
Even the most emotional and best-publicised protests are in themselves self-defeating and often cause a counter-reaction – as I found out during my spell as secretary of ULAND (University of London Association for Nuclear Disarmament) at the time of the massed crowds over the “Cuba missile crisis” in 1962 – but it is all that is left when other avenues are closed.
There is only one way to protest effectively – and that is at the ballot-box. That is where change can – and must be made. The Americans have a chance of righting some of the wrongs later this year, but we in the UK have missed our chance repeatedly in every election and referendum over the last four years and we shall reap a bitter harvest in health and justice.
I have seen Boris Johnson in the flesh only once. For some two hours or more I stood behind him (so close that it would not be permissible under present social-distancing) in the annexe to Sir William Macpherson’s 1998 inquiry into the murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence. He was a mere journalist at the time, and his career, and his country, have continued to go downhill since then.
Clayton Goodwin writes the popular ‘Letter from London’ column for New African magazine
Read the reaction of our Editor-at-Large Baffour Ankomah to the events in America: Black Lives Matter: Speak up Africa, speak up!