why #blacklivesmatter is the most important cause to come out of our social media driven world
The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown might've focused attention on racism in the US, but we shouldn't ignore the problems we face here too.
In 2013, when it was announced that George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the killing of Trayvon Martin, three women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — launched a campaign. What began life as the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter quickly evolved into a call and response that reverberated around the globe. At the time of writing, almost 700 demonstrations have been held in its name. Over time it has become clear that this movement is not just dedicated to mortality rates and birthrights, but the seemingly infinite ways in which institutional prejudice is exercised over black people, and not just in the US, but in the UK too. We rightly gasp in horror when a group of Chelsea fans abuse passengers on the Paris Metro, but racism in the UK runs a lot deeper than that.
The main problem is noticing it in the chicken wire fortress of bureaucracy that surrounds the UK establishment. The battle won't be won until those inside speak out about the glaring absence of black people in the media, in seats of learning, in the fashion industry and beyond. I am not black, and magazines and newspapers would do better than to only contact their black contributors when looking for commentary on race-related news stories. Most journalists are capable of discussing issues outside of their own identity politics. Likewise, anyone interested in equality and defending civil rights is able to voice their support for this campaign. Without the combined effort of different voices, the discourse against racism can also look a lot like quota filling, in which the existing powers "grant space" to a marginalized "other".
When diversity is the universal condition, it is these Jurassic attitudes that pose the greatest threat.
As Patrisse Cullors (co-founder of Black Lives Matter) found when she visited the UK earlier this year, social security stands to be destabilized not by so-called minorities, but by a hypocrisy perpetuated by the stubborn inheritors of a power system presided over by old-boy networks and prejudiced elders. "I was in the UK in January meeting with victims of state violence and their families," Cullors explains, "I was genuinely surprised at just how racist the UK police are, given how little we hear about it in the US. Especially when Britain places itself as the humanitarian example. The majority of the UK police are unarmed, but that doesn't stop them from being able to kill a disproportionate amount of black people."
While the UK's police services might fare better than those Stateside in terms of fatality rates, their quota-based attitudes towards diversity have come under a slew of criticism too. We only need to consider the legacy of the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which drew the world's attention to the institutionalized racism of the Metropolitan Police, to understand why that might be. The report is credited with bringing Lawrence's killers to justice and has been used as a template for police forces nationwide ever since. It did, undoubtedly, bring about a marked improvement in the way society is policed, but 16 years on it is starting to look more than a little tired in its aim to deliver compensatory justice to those it perceives to be vulnerable. As many academics and policy makers have been keen to point out, in this context, diversity is seen only as an issue affecting minorities. Not to mention the fact that in this reading, "diversity" becomes one and the same with "race", when in actual terms, it relates to a plethora of identities, including gender, age and health.
If the Macpherson report was flawed, it was still a vast improvement on the Scarman report of 1981 into the cause of the Brixton Riots, which painted the black community as a disadvantaged other, predisposed to airing their grievances in public. The Scarman report generously conceded to the fact that economic inequality, among other things, might have had a role to play in the events that took place in south London that spring, while falling short of attributing that inequality to a wider culture of racism.
Nevertheless, while the Macpherson report was an improvement on that earlier prognosis, it had the inadvertent effect of emphasizing the difference between minority groups in relation to the white establishment. This exceptionalism created a haven for those old, racist attitudes and allowed for potential abuse, or at least misuse, in practice. In 2012, a study published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that black people in the UK were still 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched by a police officer than their white counterparts — a figure that has steadily grown since it admittedly dipped in 1999, immediately after the publication of the Macpherson report.
In this system of law enforcement that monitors one community more than another (even, as it claims, with the ostensible purpose of promoting peace, fairness and equality — make of that what you will), it is easy to see why the police would struggle in their attempts to win hearts and minds. After all, who can respect a state-funded organisation that still has very particular ideas about who is in charge and who is left outside in the dark?
Worse still, now that many security functions are being outsourced to private security firms such as G4S — whose actions exist outside of the albeit limited attempts to minimize discrimination that we have seen within the police force — we've reached a point of zero transparency, where institutionalized racism can exist unchecked and protected by the fact that its workers are not agents of the state.
"We actually took our campaign to the headquarters of G4S in Sussex," says Cullors. "We blocked the road outside for about 30 minutes, along with Palestinian campaigners, because of course they're managing the checkpoints around Gaza and the West Bank too."
In the UK the organisation is best known for the death of Jimmy Mubenga, the 46-year-old Angolan deportee who was killed when three G4S guards — Colin Kaler, Terrence Hughes and Stuart Tribelnig — restrained him during his deportation. All three were acquitted in one of the gravest cases of injustice in 2014.
"Killing is obviously the most grievous act — and state violence and lynching of black people are what started this campaign and what it continues to fight against — but there is violence happening on all levels of life, whether it's lack of access to healthy food or lack of access to free public education. These are all acts of state violence. They keep a particular group of people at a sub-human level," says Cullors.
In 2013, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that Oxford University was twice as likely to admit a white person as a person of any other ethnicity. Having studied there for three years I would venture to say that the discrimination is even bigger than was reported, and I observed that there were fewer black students than students of any other ethnic minority. I remember only three black students being present and active in college life, two of whom — being male, drinkers and sportsmen — seemed to be fair game for the kind of colonial-era repartee you'd expect to hear on a night round Cecil Rhodes' gaff, rather than a student union bar in the late 00s.
Likewise the fashion industry was shown to be woefully underrepresenting black people in a recent article for the New York Times. In response to the article, Kanye West was quick to stress the importance of judging designers on their work alone — and I'd agree with him — but the fact remains that there continues to be more white designers in the industry. The article highlighted some of the possible reasons for this, most of which can be applied to other industries and fields, not least of all the media and politics.
Does all of this matter when compared with the tragic events that took place in Florida and Missouri in the past few years? In so far as law enforcement in the US and in the UK still considers black lives on different terms to white lives, then yes. In so far as certain industries appear to be almost off limits to black people, then yes. In so far as diversity is just a fact that only outdated establishments choose to ignore, then yes. And in so far as this very ignorance is the original act of violence from which all other unrest ensues, then undoubtedly.
"The reason our campaign was so successful in the US is because we didn't appeal to elected individuals, but we stood out in the street and we shut shit down and we made them listen to us." explains Cullors. "Journalists need to continue putting these stories out there. You have to change attitudes. Policies can shift all day long, but the most important thing is changing the culture. Which is what we saw in the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. When you shut a freeway down you get a lot of angry drivers. You also get a lot of people looking at that freeway, listening to traffic bulletins on the radio and on TV and asking themselves, why are these people risking their lives in this way?"
It's time for us all to begin questioning the mechanisms of a society that still favors white people. Time for us to start getting up in people's faces. Not only do ethnic minorities in the UK have to live with knowing that 84 percent of all hate crimes committed between 2013 and 2014 were racially motivated, but the onus is placed on them to achieve successful "diversity". At a time when the EDL are still not categorized as terrorists (even though their behaviour fulfils an aggregated definition of that troublesome word more so than most state-recognised "terrorists") we have to ask ourselves, who is setting the terms? Who is controlling the language? And what prejudices are affecting their judgments?
At a time when we are outsourcing so much of our security efforts to private firms, who continue to get away with human rights abuses without the individuals involved ever being called to account, we have to use whatever medium we can to voice our disgust. We are all involved in this effort to destroy a situation that is inherently unfair, in which every non-white citizen in the UK is called into account when social order and diversity breaks down, yet when it succeeds, it is accredited to the top-down, quota-based directives dreamt up by Westminster think tanks.
The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has come to represent many causes, now it is time for it to also represent this: the collective struggle of everyone who acknowledges that diversity is de facto and that the only dangerous minority are those who disagree.
Text Nathalie Olah
Photography Otto Yamamoto