Black lives matter. We are currently hearing these words all across the world from all walks of life, but why now? George Floyd was murdered in cold blood by officer Derek Chauvin on the 25th of May 2020 for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. The officer had his knee on Mr Floyds neck for several minutes, all while he could be heard shouting ‘I can’t breathe’; a scenario with which we are far too familiar. When hearing of the news of what happened in the USA my heart dropped – not with sadness or shock, but with rage and anger for what had happened to Mr Floyd, happened as a result of the colour of his skin. The systemic issue in the policing system of the USA which has been in action for centuries has made no progress from the day it was founded. The officers responsible for the murder were not arrested until the world protested for four days and even then the officer was only initially charged with 3rd degree murder. In light of the shocking decision protests escalated and the passion of the protesters came through more and more until the charges were increased to 2nd degree murder and the other officers charged with aiding and abetting the murder following intervention by the state’s Attorney General.
Being a person of colour in the European or North American nations, with their often Eurocentric political culture, has always been an uphill battle. The pressure that makes you have to work 10 times harder than your peers, that leads many parents to try to choose a name for their child that sounds more ‘English’ so that it’s easier for them to get a job, the need for them to tell you how to react when a police officer speaks to you and finally understanding that they have to remind you how, because of the colour of your skin, you will be treated differently. This is the life of a person of colour in the 21st century and many of the same issues people faced 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago are still sadly present today. It hurts me every time I think about what it means to be discriminated against based in your race, on how you speak and on the environment you’ve grown up in. We constantly get told off and insulted for being who we are. It was only about two weeks ago in which I was last stopped by the police and just under two weeks for when I was last racially abused. I am the only councillor who has been stopped (three times) by the police throughout this council term. I can never get over the feeling of being publicly humiliated by strangers who are essentially accusing you of committing a crime in front of your friends and family.
My first experience of being stopped by the police came very early on into my council career yet I can still remember rather vividly what happened. They pulled over close to my car, obstructing the passenger from properly opening the door, then rushed over to my side and asked me to turn off an engine that was already off. I froze and my voice was breaking, simply out of fear as I initially thought that it may have been some people from a rival area who had come to attack my friends. I was left feeling like that for sometime as it took the officers a while to introduce themselves as police. They then told everyone to leave the car and began to search my friends as well as take pictures of their ID. Why? It was quite simple: due to the colour of our skin, the area we lived in and the accent we spoke with the officers thought we could have been selling drugs. There was simply no other explanation for the small receipt I had dropped out of my window. The handshake I gave to my friend was simply perceived as a threat to them and an opportunity for some ‘estate kids’ to pass over the drugs they were hiding in a 2006 VW Polo. This is what supposedly rushed through the mind of the officers. In my innocence I thought that my position as a Councillor would help: I was wrong. Instead I was mocked. They found nothing and eventually went on their way: no warrant card ids were shown, no names were given, body worn video was not turned on and a written record wasn’t even offered to us, despite this being the procedure police are supposed to follow. It seemed like we simply weren’t worth it. The way I felt regarding that stop and search of my friends and I hasn’t left me, even today, instead it motivates me to fight for what’s right. What I went through was the first of many and I know there are many more to come in my future but unfortunate these events are common place for people like me all over the country and there are instance where events have turned out to be much worse-fatal.
Just over a week ago I was called a ‘P*** C***’ over the phone by someone who did not know me but judged me by my voice. This is standard and commonplace for so many people like me. I’m thankful that I live in a community that is diverse and where people do appreciate each other’s differences. I just felt the need to write this short piece to express, ever so slightly, how I felt about everything that’s going on. But with every opinion piece it is worth trying to set out what can be done to help change things.
In a nation that has a long colonial history and and somewhat of a blurred view of its past actions, there’s a lot that can be done. Now, don’t get me wrong, things will never be perfect, but they can certainly improve. For far too long people of colour, and black people especially, have had to unjustly suffer at the hands of the racists who are trying to justify their hatred. Three things that I feel could be done:
Firstly the government needs to realise that not only do BAME people need to be at the top of decision making bodies, they can’t be just ‘bunched’ up as one group. Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, gave a prime example of what the government is doing wrong. When asked specifically if there were any black members of the cabinet, he went on to name two Asian members as if they were some homogenous group of people. It was, put simply, an absolute disgrace. The narrative surrounding people of colour needs to change and that needs to start at the top.
Secondly, despite 21 years having passed since the Macpherson report that identified institutional racism in the police, there is still an awful lot of work to do to repair trust with BAME communities and tackle systemic problems. Less than 14% of Metropolitan police officers come from BAME communities while policing a city that is more than 40% BAME; while across England and Wales black people are almost four times as likely as white people to be subject to the use of force during arrests as a proportion of the population. Many communities, particularly amongst young people, often still see the police as a group of people who for years have unfairly ‘bullied’ people of colour, simply for looking how they look. The assumptions and stereotypes a number of officers still seem to have and act on need to be thrown out if the police is are to gain the trust in many BAME communities. All officers must show they are sincere in their actions, their tone needs to change when speaking to us, they need to understand that their role doesn’t make them better people as we are the community they are seeking to serve.
Finally, what can our council do? A lot of what the council does depends on the actions of the government and the police force, but one thing they can do is have their priorities set straight. They have to properly try to reduce inequality in Westminster. They can’t be content with having some of the poorest areas in their country, they mustn’t accept kicking out people who have lived in the borough for generations by gentrifying the areas they have grown up in without providing a space for their families and they must do more to support the ambitions that the young people living in the borough have. For too long they’ve been too content to downplay the issues challenging people who need the most help. This needs to change and we need our communities to be at the forefront of that change. We need to allow those who have suffered the most to finally take charge of their futures. We need to be the facilitators of change as well as the ones doing it and only then will we be able to see a difference in the lives of future generation of people of colour in Westminster and across the UK.