It has been nearly 3 weeks since the brutal murder of George Floyd rightly garnered outrage across America and most of the world. The 46 year old black man died in Minneapolis, Minnesota after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for close to nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed, lying face down and repeatedly saying “I Can’t Breath”. For many people this is yet another episode in the long history of police brutality against black people, representing centuries of oppression and racism.
I had been reluctant to write about this horrible event for a number of reasons: firstly, I didn’t want to come across as another privileged white man projecting my thoughts and opinions on an incident so soon after it happened, this was a time for black people to express their pain and despair. Secondly, to my own shame, I have only a schoolboy knowledge of America’s racial history and even less so of America’s broader social, cultural and economic history, so I did not feel best placed to offer my 2 pence. Thirdly, the video was so harrowing that I felt completely unable to write about it.
But I have to speak about it. Silence is compliance.
In America I believe the message has been clear: enough is enough, for too long the black community has suffered at the hands of the police. What had started as an angry outcry of justice for George Floyd in Minnesota spread to all 50 states and sparked multi-ethnic protests across much of Western Europe.
It has been clear that America has been teetering on the brink for some time: a disastrous handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, monumental unemployment figures and deep rooted social, economic and racial divide has culminated in people taking to the streets to voice their hardship.
The protests have been emotionally charged but aside from a minority they have remained largely peaceful. Ironically, and rather worryingly, police brutality has featured heavily in the American protests despite them being against, er, police brutality – the use of pepper spray, rubber bullets and aggressive kettling tactics has been prevalent even on peaceful protesters.
From what I have seen America’s fight for racial equality has little hope in progressing until major police reform is enacted. A highly militarised force with comparatively short training programmes to Western Europe is a recipe for trouble – In California, New Mexico and New York it takes longer to become a barber than it does to become a policeman.
Predictably the rioting and looting has overshadowed the protests and has been used to tarnish all protesters as “thugs”. Similarly, in Bristol a statue of the prolific slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and rolled into the canal during a Black Lives Matter protest, something which was labelled “utterly disgraceful” by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary.
Which begs the question, why are people more outraged by rioting and vandalism than they are about systematic racism and the glorification of brutal slave traders?
Refocusing the debate is crucial in these instances: don’t be outraged by acts of looting, however wrong it may be, but ask yourself what has led to the looting in the first place; don’t be disgusted by the removal of statues, but ask yourself what their legacy represents.
I’m in no way excusing these actions but there’s no doubting their effectiveness: in America Derek Chauvin’s murder charge has now been changed from 3rd to 2nd degree; in England statues of slave traders have started coming down and in Belgium so too are statues of the genocidal King Leopold II.
In the UK many have asked why the protests have even ended up on this side of the Atlantic, exclaiming that “it isn’t as bad over here” or that “Britain isn’t racist”. Indeed, racism does manifest itself in two very distinctive ways in America and the UK: in the former it was expressed overtly through lynching, mass KKK rallies and the Jim Crow Laws; in the latter it is arguably less overt but remains woven into the fabric of society as a by-product of the British Empire and its imperialism, a reality reflected in the disparities faced by many Black people in the judicial and educational systems, for example.
The fundamental issue here, at least in a UK context, is the failure to properly teach British history, warts and all.
Take Britain’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade as an example. I don’t remember learning anything about our involvement in slavery despite the fact that major cities like Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, to name a few, are all in part built on the wealth acquired by prolific slave traders – to this day their streets and buildings are scarred by the names of these men. In fact, there is a common misconception that Britain was the great leader of the abolitionist movement because William Wilberforce headed a parliamentary campaign which culminated in the Slave Trade Act of 1807. In truth, only some years earlier, the then Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger had ensured Britain was heavily involved in suppressing the Haitian slave revolt as he feared that it would inspire further revolts across the Caribbean colonies – a project that cost the Treasury millions of pounds and close to a hundred thousand deaths.
For a history which is so inexplicably linked to its colonial and imperial past there is shockingly little mention of it in the school curriculum. Rather than learning Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, more could be done to explain the reason for Britain’s multi-ethnic and multi-faith composition, starting with its direct rule of India and the so called ‘Windrush Generation’. In my view this would help eradicate the engrained, unconscious bias’s faced my many black and minority ethnic groups on a daily basis.
The failure to properly teach the past has resulted in the white washing of our history which begins in school and is pervasive right through academia, popular culture, politics and society more broadly. We are told that it was the plucky Brit who beat the Nazis in World War II and if it wasn’t for Churchill we would all be speaking German! – er, I think the Soviets and the British Indian Army might beg to differ. Churchill is himself a complex historical figure who perfectly encapsulates the issue at hand: for some he is the great war hero who is a figure head for British identity; for others he is a problematic figure who perpetuated racist ideas and committed war crimes.
Clearly, history is rarely straightforward and simplistic patriotic narratives not only distort our perceptions of the past but have a lasting impact on how many now see the world around them. This isn’t about erasing or re-writing history, its about coming to terms with our past in order to better reflect the realities of today.
To me, America and the UK appear to be opposite sides of the same coin, both fighting the same battle through their own distinctive contexts. To be quite frank, both countries are living in the remnants of a system which was built on ideas of white supremacy and racism. I don’t profess to have any of the answers, but if we are to make any meaningful progress regarding racism and prejudice then we have to be active in dismantling that system.