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As we condemn racist violence abroad, we must also commit to eradicating racial prejudice in our own backyard

A Black Lives Matter rally in Trafalgar Square earlier this week

4 min read

The killing of George Floyd has transformed into a truly global moment. But his death is not a unique or isolated event. We must acknowledge that what’s happening across the pond is a lot closer to home than many would like to admit – and work together to build a society in which black people can finally breathe

“I can’t breathe.”

Such is the depth of racial tension in the United States that George Floyd’s dying words were themselves a long-standing hashtag against police brutality. Protestors first quoted the phrase in 2014, when footage showed Eric Garner pleading for air as an NYPD officer choked him to death.  Continuing into their second week with no signs of dissipating, the protests we are witnessing today are some of the largest, fieriest and most prolonged demonstrations the country has experienced in decades.

Part of the reason for this lies in the White House. Donald Trump has taken an active decision to inflame tensions, declaring war on so-called violent thugs and warning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In pandering to elements of the electorate that are undoubtedly white supremacist, it’s likely this period of unrest will continue right through to November, where voters will have the opportunity to protest at the ballot box.

As we watch from afar, it’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back, making ourselves feel better by pretending things aren’t as bad as they are over there. As a nation, we’re often good at condemning incidents of racist state violence abroad. We’re less good at reconciling ourselves with institutional racism in our own backyard.

As somebody who has been aggressively patted down by the police myself, I know that this collective amnesia denies the reality of so many people’s daily lives. It’s been more than 20 years since the MacPherson report found evidence of “institutional racism” in the police’s handling of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, you are still nine times more likely to be stopped and searched if you are black than if you are white.

When I was asked to conduct a review into the treatment of ethnic minority people in our criminal justice system by David Cameron in 2016, there was a consensus that something needed to change. But with black, Asian and ethnic minority people still making up 51% of the youth justice system, despite, making up just 14% of the general population, it’s clear we have a very long way to go. Since 1990, there have been 183 BAME deaths in police custody. And during the lockdown, black people are twice as likely to be fined by the Met for breaching government guidelines.

The combination of a viral injustice and international lockdown measures has transformed the death of George Floyd into a truly global moment. When people are sitting at home watching the news and scrolling through social media, it’s easy for black lives to hit a fashionable nerve. However, we’ve had these moments before. In fact, one of the reasons why George Floyd was killed was precisely because, in these moments, solidarity thinned once the hashtags disappeared.

Ultimately, it’s much easier to let go of your solidarity with communities if it feels like they are being oppressed somewhere far away. That’s why solidarity is stronger when it comes from a place of proximity; we all need to acknowledge the fact that what’s happening across the pond is a lot closer to home than many would like to admit.

The death of George Floyd is not a unique or isolated event, either in time or space. Acknowledging this will encourage people to take an interest in racial injustice when it’s not in the news cycle.  

We have to find a way to sustain the impetus for systemic change, without relying on the same black voices to keep the momentum going. And we have to find a way to convert a trending spectacle into a radically reformed criminal justice system, which faces up to its undeniable racial prejudice.

The next time the hashtags against police brutality disappear, it can’t be due to mental exhaustion. It must be due to the fact that we’ve eradicated police brutality altogether and built a society in which black people can finally breathe.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham and shadow justice secretary

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