Over the last few days there has been a polarising of opinion on social media regarding the #blacklivesmatter protests. The lack of social distancing, violence and vandalism seen in the UK and abroad has provoked people to dismiss protestors as unthinking sheep, to condemn the protests as disrespectful to frontline COVID-19 workers and, at the extremes, to issue ‘keyboard warrior’ death threats against all those who take part in the protests – whether they do so peaceful or not.
For some the criminal actions of a small minority of protestors are the excuse they need to mentally disengage from the reasons why the thousands of other people are protesting. This is perilous. However much you abhor, regret or feel outraged by the pictures on the news of Whitehall monuments graffiti-ed it is important to look behind those images to understand why people are so moved to take to the streets, despite social distancing, and why the #blacklivesmatter movement has gained global traction now.
When the history books are written the answer will be a complex mix of factors, not least of which will be recent UK scandals, such as Grenfell Tower and the Windrush generation deportations. What is certain is that #blacklivesmatter is bigger than one man, George Floyd. For his family and friends it will remain very much about him, for others the manner of his death has become a symbol of how black lives are still seen as less than white lives.
In the UK the government’s paper into why BAME people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 has not yet delivered an answer and is a long way from delivering a set of actions to address the inevitable findings that BAME people are some of the lowest paid workers in the UK, fulfilling frontline roles, living in substandard, overcrowded, unsecure accommodation, with poor underlying health. This week at a Downing Street briefing Alok Sharma MP was asked why the ‘community engagement’ section of the report had been removed and when it would be included. He dodged the question.
I attended the protest in People’s Park and was two metres away from a black family that had two health care workers in it. I don’t know their personal motivations for being there, but I do know that Britain’s health service could not function without them and thousands like them and that we owe it to them to ensure that BAME voices are part of the COVID-19 investigation – not as a tick box ‘community engagement’ exercise, but genuinely leading the investigation. It is critical that people from BAME backgrounds are part of any group making decisions involving BAME lives, but all too often they (and other minority groups) are an after-thought, if their inclusion happens at all. This lack of inclusion goes to the heart of the #blacklivesmatter protests.
If we don’t place a value on diversity in our society and organisations we will continue to fall short. The question of civic statues highlights this issue perfectly. One person’s worthy philanthropist is another person’s slave trader. Without diversity within the group taking decisions about who should be honoured you end up with statues that reflect a narrow view of history and tend to look just like the group making the decision of who to honour.
At the protest in People’s Park, which was socially distanced, well-organised, done with the permission and co-operation of the authorities, and respectful to Jersey’s BAME community, the speakers were thoughtful and thought-provoking. One speaker threw down a challenge to Jersey’s leaders to sit down with them and talk about what it means to be a black person in Jersey. I hope that this challenge will be accepted and the opportunity it affords made the most of.
The opportunity to connect with someone other than your immediate circle is rare and vital for our growth as individuals. Unless we take these opportunities to talk and listen we won’t find out that we share a common humanity, and without that connection we will forever be locked into an ever-descending spiral to the bottom on social media.
Black lives matter, but to understand why #blacklivesmatter we must stop the ‘white noise’ on social media and really listen to the experience of life in Britain for people from BAME backgrounds. Only then do we stand a chance of making the changes necessary to address the inequalities that the BAME community and other minorities experience daily and that compels people onto the streets to protest.
by Vic Tanner Davy