Yet again, we’ve seen another black man killed by the US police force. In the unforgettable video which is no doubt forever imprinted on our minds, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneels on the neck of an unmoving George Floyd for nine minutes, protected by three fellow officers, while George Floyd calls out “I can’t breathe.” It is nigh-on impossible to watch the video without feeling you’ve watched the murder of an innocent man.
Since then, America has lit up – in many cases literally – with protests all across the country. Starting with Minneapolis, the scene of the crime, protests and riots have spread across America, from Richmond VA, the old capital of the Confederacy, to New York City and the White House. It’s impossible to avoid or unsee the videos of police squads shooting at, beating up and arresting anyone they see fit, whether they’re journalists with press passes, peaceful protestors or pedestrians. Meanwhile, the President of the United States, from the safety of his bunker, his Twitter account and a Big Mac, has urged protestors outside the White House to be met with “vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons”, tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, and attempted to call a “MAGA night” outside the White House (we all know what this is code for). Who knew that a tanking global economy and a pandemic would lose out to racism?
As residents of the UK, we might ask ourselves, what has this got to do with us? We might empathise with the pain of black people in the US, but maybe it’s their problem, not ours. I’d instead argue this has everything to do with people not just in the UK but across the globe.
As a starting point, expression of shared humanity, pain and motivation beyond man-made borders goes a long way to justify and bolster protests and social struggles in another country: case in point the US protests against Coca-Cola’s economic support of South Africa’s system of apartheid (then valued at an estimated US$300 million in assets and sales). Protests spread across 1980s America, particularly in universities, in the form of a boycott against Coca-Cola’s goods, with Compton University (CA) even establishing a ‘Coke-Free Campus.” After nationwide pressure, Coca-Cola donated US$10 million to a fund to support improvements of housing and education for black South Africans and sold its 30% share in bottling firm ABI. Though Coca-Cola’s original morality can certainly be questioned – would they really have divested without such public pressure? – it’s widely believed to have set off a trend of corporate divestment, a factor in breaking down the apartheid system.
It’s undeniable that the UK has had its fair share of racism in the form of police misconduct, cultural racism and systemic injustice. In 2008, for example, black musician Sean Rigg died in police custody of cardiac arrest after “unnecessary” and “unsuitable” restraint while lying face down in Brixton prison; the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that police had acted “reasonably and proportionately”, a claim later directly contradicted by Southwark Coroner’s Court, which said the police had used “unsuitable and unnecessary force” on Rigg, and that their failings “more than minimally” contributed to his death. Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, racism has not been sidelined: just one month ago, railway ticket office worker Belly Mujinga, a black mother of an 11-year old, was targeted and spat on by a man saying he had Covid-19 – she later died of the virus, her death widely believed to have been caused by this incident.
Although the US is notorious for its unequal and oppressive treatment of its black citizens and stands apart from not just the UK but most of the Western world in such fashion, this struggle and pain can be felt by us in the UK, as our class and racial structures stem from the same place – the enduring legacy of imperialism, colonialism and slavery, and an abject failure to rehabilitate our common past. As an avowed republican (its in truest sense, not the political American), I could make the case for how our failure to abolish the monarchy, a system which has objectively been the driving force behind colonialism, imperialism and slavery, has resulted in our acceptance, mainstreaming and glorification of the system and, by extension, its acts. Instead, I’d draw attention to the UK’s avoidance of education of true British history: one which proudly and rightfully so wears its badges of inventing the world’s first steam-driven plough engine, revolutionising the agricultural industry; of building the first digital computer and the World Wide Web; and of discovering DNA’s double helix structure. Yet, at the same time, are we taught that the British ran concentration camps in early-1900’s South Africa? Or that the British partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in the displacement of between 10 – 12 million people, the deaths of an estimated 2 million and planted the seeds of the current conflict in Kashmir? I suppose the righteous British Empire ‘civilised’ India with roads and railways, though. Our perception of the past shapes our present and future, and when our past is forgotten or sanitised, we normalise and modernise such attitudes and behaviours – and in this way are the UK and the US no different.
To express solidarity is to share pain, to share frustration and to share hope, and acknowledging historical privilege is an important first step towards remedy. While we must not fall into the tempting trap of co-opting a movement, as a culture of one-upmanship so often invites, we must add our voices to the cause, to let not just the US’ system of manufactured racial inequality know that enough is enough, but also our own existing power structures that have for hundreds of years abused and profited from the suffering and holding back of black people. Without justice, there can be no peace. Black Lives Matter.