“There is a particular form of racism against black men, especially in the criminal justice system.”
In a hectic week, trying to explain to your 10-year-old daughter what happened to George Floyd ends up as one of the more difficult things to do. There is a bewilderment and innocence that only a child’s voice can carry. ‘But what do you mean he died?’ ‘What did he do wrong?’ ‘Why did the police do that to a black man?’ That latter question propelled thousands onto the street worldwide. Despite a lifetime in the criminal justice system, I find it hard to give answers to my daughter. There really are no answers. I fear that these innocent questions will be replaced in the years to come with weary familiarity with the issue. As with any BAME parent, I fear for the day that my child suffers prejudice.
Racism still exists in society – both in the UK and the US. It is better than it was but it still exists. There is a particular form of racism against black men, especially in the criminal justice system. That has resulted in shocking statistics in the UK about stop and search, about sentencing, about prison populations. It has resulted in sickening police brutality against black men. If you disagree with any of these self-evident truths, then I am afraid that you are part of the problem. George Floyd was a modern-day lynching born of a deep-rooted perception of black people that is held in wider society but, in particular, in law enforcement.
Police brutality to black people may not be increasing. It is just being filmed so white folk can see it. It is those images and his haunting pleas for help that have pierced the consciousness of mainstream opinion, in the UK, the US and elsewhere. It has led not just to the protests but the adoption of the Black Lives Matter mantra by corporates and pictures of the rich and famous on one knee.
Don’t get me wrong, this is welcome. Solidarity across society is exactly what we want – in particular with regard to police violence. However, it is a first step. Words are easy. Sustained and effective action and campaigning is now required from all of us. Of course, that begins with holding police to account for their actions. The shameful record of UK prosecuting authorities of never having successfully prosecuted anyone for deaths from police violence is testament to the work that needs to be done in this country.
However, the protests have quickly escalated into a wider reckoning about BAME issues in society. This is a welcome fightback against the cultural wars and identity politics of the past few years, where a narrower view of Britishness has been in the ascendancy.
We are proclaiming again that we are part of this modern Britain and we will not tolerate discrimination, or indeed the celebration of racist icons. It is not acceptable to me that we have monuments that celebrate slave owners in the 21st century even if they left a few shillings for the public good (money that slave owners made off the exploitation and death of their fellow human beings), any more than it would be acceptable to have statues of Mussolini in Rome or Hitler in Berlin.
Lines have been drawn as to what sort of Britain we should be. In this toxic atmosphere, there is a risk that the criminal justice system will be a battleground. Already there are reports that ‘Violent protesters “could be jailed within 24 hours” amid fears of demonstration clashes’ (see Independent, 12 June 2020
) as magistrates are told to extend hours and fast-track cases for protests in an approach modelled on the response to the London riots.
It would be regrettable if this were to descend into a summer of disorder with heavy-handed police tactics and heavy enforcement by the courts. We require deft and delicate leadership to guide us away from the cliff edge. It is up to the government to act in a decisive and meaningful way on issues of police brutality and the wider BAME concerns – or this moment will be lost.