Black Lives Matter protests force Britain to take a look in the mirror

Last weekend thousands took to the streets of Britain to protest the killing of George Floyd and voice their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Critics have suggested that Brits joining arms with the American struggle is unfounded and merely stokes tensions that don’t exist in the UK. However, these protests have larger ambitions than simply to avenge the victim of one injustice. Many feel it is time Britain came to terms with it’s own dark history, both old and new.

Across the Atlantic, Floyd’s death has precipitated the burning of American cities and illuminated once again the archaic nature of American institutions. Meanwhile in the UK, there has been an establishment effort to distance ourselves from facing similar hostility. Government minister Kemi Badenoch sought to throw cold water on the issue, saying in the Commons: ‘This is one of the best countries in the world to be a black person.’

These comments follow hard on the heels of the news that black men and women are twice as likely as their white counterparts to die from coronavirus. Someone who falls under such a statistic is Belly Mujinga, who was spat at while on duty as a railway ticket officer, and later lost her life to Covid-19. The police have faced backlash for the premature closure of Ms. Mujinga’s case, but thanks to a vociferous campaign, this is to be reviewed by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The close proximity of Ms. Mujinga’s case to that of missing (now presumed murdered) Madeleine McCann has drawn stark contrast. While both cases are tragic in their own right, there is a notable chasm in effort and attention, paid by the police and media alike, to one over the other. McCann’s case has received police funding since she went missing thirteen years ago, while Mujinga’s was closed barely two months after her death.

Of course, this is not the first time the police have been accused of racial apathy. It is a little over twenty years since the Metropolitan Police were found to be ‘institutionally racist’ following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Since then it is often suggested, as in Kemi Badenoch’s comments, that Britain has taken heed and is now a ‘post-racial’ society.

The numbers, however, tell a different story. Black people are nine times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched for drugs, despite using illegal substances at a lower rate. Black people are also far more likely to be victims of the use of force by the police. Around 12% of all instances of police force can be attributed to incidents involving Black people, despite their only constituting around 3% of the population of England and Wales.

The police, however, are just one institution – albeit a particularly powerful one – that seems to have a blinkered view of Britain’s racial history.

The current demonstrations have catalysed already substantial support for education reform in British schools. Proprietors of such ideas attest that schoolchildren are purposefully made unaware of the realities of colonialism and empire. A petition regarding this issue, directed toward the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson, has 180,000 signatures at the time of writing.

Education reform is not without its brick-and-mortar relevance. In fact, following the Windrush scandal, an independent review recommended, among other things, that Home Office staff be educated on the country’s colonial past.

Such a past is one worthy of comparison with the United States, given that America was born from the thirteen British colonies. In many ways, American history is British history. BBC journalist Emily Maitlis, however, had this to say on the current protests: ‘Our police don’t have guns, [Britain’s] legacy of slavery is not the same … it’s not the same is it?’

While Maitlis was likely playing devil’s advocate, she was appeasing those who seek to whitewash history and paint the British empire without foibles and as an evergreen ‘good-guy’. Such language fails to consider that like America, Britain acquired it’s riches through resource extraction and large-scale exploitation. Until we have come to terms with this reality, cases such as Windrush – aided and abetted by top-down ‘hostile environment’ policies – are doomed to be repeated.

Those at Black Lives Matter protests in London, Manchester and Bristol have stood in solidarity with those facing oppression in places as far and foreign as Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington DC. This, however, is not the first time Britain and America have occupied common ground with regard to racial injustice.

The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 – where a state-owned bus company was held to account for racist hiring policy – marked a certain synchronicity with the struggles taking place in the U.S. That same year, American civil rights leaders began to make headway too; most notably the march on Washington, and an iconic Martin Luther King speech that scarcely needs mentioning.  It is a shame that the leader of the Bus Boycott, Paul Stephenson, is yet to be celebrated in the UK as King and Malcolm X are in the States.

The parallels in history and progress between the two nations are evident. Therefore to turn a blind eye could be considered a break with tradition – one of standing together against systemic racism, in spirit if not geography. Just as in ’63, the Black Lives Matter protests seek broadly to unravel our privileged conceptions of race and power.

Aside from solidarity with George Floyd, the British public should be aware that it has many ingrained racial injustices on its own doorstep. Moving forward, the momentum of the Black Lives Matter protests can and should be used incisively to uncover them. A diversion in efforts toward the governments new discriminatory immigration bill might be a good place to start. 

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