The Link Between Covid-19 And Black Lives Matter Protests is Stronger Than Boris Wants Us to Think
“It is mystifying that the UK’s general response to George Floyd’s death has been to pat itself on the back and thank the Queen that it is not like that over here. No, the UK is in fact the fore-bearer of the same broken system.”
The killing of George Floyd by police in the state of Minnesota has reverberated into a larger movement. The recording of Floyd’s last moments by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier and shared on all social media platforms, forced the world to witness the horror of an unarmed black man’s life being taken away by a police officer, while igniting much needed conversations about racism and the role of the police in today’s society. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has suddenly found itself in the middle of an international debate.
And yet members of the Conservative government have managed to undermine the BLM movement on two separate occasions this week already, with Home Secretary Priti Patel’s speech condemning what she perceived as “hooliganism” in the UK Black Lives Matter protests, and Boris Johnson’s reminder that those harming the police will have to face the “full force of the law”.
After all, the Prime Minister’s leading the “most ethnically diverse government in the history of this country”, that should afford him some leeway when talking about racism in the UK, right?
But the issue goes deeper. In fact, as Trevor Noah pointed out on his quarantined Daily Show, many factors set the stage for George Floyd to become the figurehead for this movement.
“Seeing the cold pride in the police officer’s eyes and the cruel power dynamics at play is haunting. And for black people across the world living in marginalised communities, who have been racialised to identify themselves as part of the black monolith, we do not only see another human being, we can see ourselves under that police officer’s knee.”
With lockdown because of Covid-19 on its last breaths, the protests may at first glance appear to be a loosely historical moment. Maybe your money was always on a lockdown induced uprising, but you never imagined one would be ignited by racism.
As we were coming to terms with life in quarantine, it soon became abundantly clear that the Covid-19 pandemic did not hit all communities equally. In fact, data shows that the elderly, working class and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected. For example, black males in the UK are 4.6x more likely to die from Coronavirus than their white counterparts. These statistics are mirrored back in the US with data showing that African Americans are 2.4x more likely to succumb to the virus.
Murmurs across the globe, (even within the scientific communities), initially pointed the finger at possible genetic factors being the cause, but this was quickly proven wrong. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK also ruled out the idea that it was largely due to underlying health problems in minority groups, a claim that remains unsubstantiated.
This pandemic has brought to bare that the disproportionate death rate is a “manifestation of the structural barriers and systemic discrimination faced by people from ethnic minority backgrounds”, meaning that the intersectional issues BAME communities face (as related to housing, class and employment) are being further exacerbated by the roles traditionally occupied by these groups during the pandemic, many of whom are frontline, key workers. This is without speaking on the economic effects of Covid in these communities, or the inevitable recession that is scheduled to occur once the pandemic is over and, if the 2008 recession is anything to go by, it will also disproportionately affect people of colour.
With all this going on in the backdrop, social media users all around the world have been exposed to a multitude of videos showing the weaponization of the police against black people. Among these, Amy Cooper’s 911 call indicated a knowing awareness of her position in society in comparison to her fellow bird-watching citizen Chrstian Cooper, a black man. People at home with more time on their hands could finally see that the issue was never that these biases were subliminal or unconscious, but rather an unspoken code of privilege.
Here in the UK, we witnessed a police officer beating and kicking a 15-year-old boy, however the West Midlands Police said they have not suspended the officer but simply removed him from frontline duties, pending an investigation. Finally, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breyonna Taylor.
This takes us all the way up to George Floyd’s killing by police officers in the US. What made his death so harrowing were not only his last words calling out to his already deceased mum, but our casual exposure to it by the media. In modern society, it is not often that we see death shown before our eyes without warning. Seeing the cold pride in the police officer’s eyes and the cruel power dynamics at play is haunting. And for black people across the world living in marginalised communities, who have been racialised to identify themselves as part of the black monolith, we do not only see another human being, we can see ourselves under that police officer’s knee.
It is here that we should bring up the role of social media. The palm of the hand platforms are flooded with callously nauseating exposure, as George Floyd’s final moments were reposted over and over again without warning to detrimental effects on those already facing a lot during this period.
It was heartwarming to see the solidarity and support shown around the world by individuals and groups (eg LGBTQ, LatinX, disability groups and Asian diaspora), with the resulting #BlackOutTuesday creating a genuine conversation about race, amongst the initial barrage of George Floyd’s final moments. Social media has become a cesspit across the spectrum for well meaning debate as well as overt racism.
Those moved into action against injustice had to make the decision to risk their lives to have their voices heard in order to fight for a possible change to the status quo. I question whether the turn out here in the UK would have been so large if it hadn’t been for our own experiences with racism and lockdown. Some who have remained quiet about the swarms of people visiting the seaside and public parks during lockdown now hold strong views about protesting. Equally, people who have never expressed any concerns about the damages caused to public spaces by sporting riots loudly condemn these protests.
It is mystifying that the UK’s general response to George Floyd’s death has been to pat itself on the back and thank the Queen that it is not like that over here. No, the UK is in fact the fore-bearer of the same broken system. But we can look at its neocolonialism, museum policy on stolen cultural artefacts, austerity measures, Grenfell, Brexit and the home office’s handling of Windrush for that. It’s true we do not generally have access to guns and, as a nation, we do not like to feel the presence of the police around us in our everyday lives. However, in the past 10 years, 163 people have died in or following police custody in England and Wales, according to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). The fact that the UK exports millions of pounds worth of riot control equipment to the US., including tear gas and rubber bullets, now being fired at those protesting, only serves as a cruel irony to the already outraged. Even more so considering that studies have shown that peaceful protest is dependent on the behaviour of the police.
The Runnymede Trust concluded that “Systemic and institutional racism persists in policing despite its recognition in the Macpherson Report more than fifteen years ago. In Britain, black and minority ethnic people are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system at every level, from arrests to stop and search, to imprisonment, to deaths in custody.” It is evident that the same racial biases and systemic issues seep through on both sides of the pond. The common questions that should be asked are whether we have genuine and effective police accountability, and what the police’s relationship to the communities they are meant to be serving is. For many the police do not represent protection. The police, like the military and the army are top-down arms of the state. Lacking adequate reflective practices, so reform cannot truly happen from those on the ground unless those at the top become incentivised.
Whilst the protests could have easily been ignited by other disadvantaged groups across the world, the various factors that have negatively impacted the lives of ethnic minorities, particularly the black diaspora in the western world, have all led to the coin falling this way up. Many of these issues that are being protested do not squarely affect just black people, but are a product of larger problems within western societies. That is perhaps why it is easy to see how the conversation has widened out to include the role of the police, the justice system, media, indigenous rights, as well as systemic and institutional racism.
Time will tell whether this movement. petitions, the removal of statues and charity donations can produce greater and lasting change. But all of this leaves us questioning: why did it take such a brutal death and a pandemic to address racial discrimination in the first place? Will the UK address its own disparities? And what more would need to happen for other marginalised groups to be heard?
Picture credits: James Eades, Rachael Henning, Etienne Godiard, Thomas Allsop, Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]