On May 25 2020, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, pressed his knee on the neck of George Floyd, an African American father, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. In the UK, two months before George Floyd was killed, Belly Mujinga, a black mother, was spat on by a member of public who claimed to have Covid-19. Belly Mujinga and George Floyd lived and died 4,000 miles apart. The memory of both are in our hearts and minds as we participate in the largest Black Lives Matter protest movement in our lifetime.
In the background of these tragedies is the disproportionate impact coronavirus is having on the BAME community. Both here and in America, black people are dying at a much higher rate from Covid-19. These statistics are the symptom of a bigger disease that has been killing black people globally for much longer: systemic and institutional racism.
In the UK we have plenty of our own ‘George Floyds’. In 2008, Sean Rigg, a 40-year-old musician, died in handcuffs after being denied medical attention in a prison cell in Brixton police station. In 2017, Rashan Charles died after swallowing a package containing paracetamol and caffeine whilst being restrained by the Metropolitan Police’s territorial support group. In 2016, Sarah Reed took her own life in a prison cell in Hollaway prison after being denied mental health care following a case of police brutality in 2012. Sarah Reed’s case is strikingly similar to Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American who committed suicide in a jail cell in Texas following racist abuse in 2015.
Sarah Reed is one of the 1,741 people that have died under police custody or following police contact in the UK.
Whilst George Floyd’s killers are now facing prosecution, in the past 15 years in the UK, every prosecution over death of a black person in custody has resulted in the exoneration of the police officers involved. This failure to prosecute is yet another blow to the black community. We are denied accountability. We are denied protection and safety. We are denied justice from the law and the state.
Considering the UK’s history, it was troubling to read a recent statement from UK police leaders that implies that George Floyd’s death is a problem in the US and not at home:
“We stand alongside all those across the globe who are appalled and horrified by the way George Floyd lost his life. Justice and accountability should follow… Policing is complex and challenging and sometimes we fall short. When we do, we are not afraid to shine a light on injustices or to be held to account.”
In light of the trauma the black community have faced in the UK, this statement rings hollow and can be viewed as a cynical attempt to divert attention away from the issues on our own doorstep.
Thousands of people in London, Birmingham, Manchester and across the UK have and will protest in solidarity with the US. But the UK black community has its own struggle; one that links us deeper still to our peers and communities abroad.
The Black Lives Matter protests tap into what black academic Paul Gilroy calls the ‘black Atlantic’, that is, the collective consciousness that unifies the cultures of black diaspora across the world; united by a common experience of slavery, colonialism and racial injustice.
The only hope – as the last week has shown – is that from this pain and trauma comes solidarity, love, unity, and power. It is only then that accountability and justice may one day come.