By Diane Abbott
George Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man who died when arrested by four Minneapolis policemen, of whom at least one knelt on his neck. His tragic death has triggered a wave of protests across America, from the West Coast to the East. Not only were there protests in Minneapolis itself, but people took to the streets in New York, Portland, Kentucky, Washington, California and many communities beyond.
As the mayor of Minneapolis himself said in the aftermath: “Being a Black man in America should not be a death sentence.” This is what millions of Americans think. And tens of thousands have taken to the streets to make the point.
But British observers shouldn’t console themselves with the thought that this could not happen here. Many of the issues that have made the situation in the United States so combustible exist right here in the British Isles.
Black people in Britain have long suffered disproportionately at the hands of the state. One of the main triggers of the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985 was the death of Cynthia Jarret who died due to heart failure during a police search of her home. Black people suffer disproportionately from the police use of force.
In recent times, the use of tasers has been controversial, because the police seem to use them more frequently on black people. We are more likely to be sent to prison and disproportionately represented in the prison population.
Research by Inquest reveals that since 1990 there have been 1,741 deaths following contact with the police. Disproportionate numbers of those have been BAME (Black and minority ethnic). And the Runnymede Trust revealed that between 1995-2015 not a single police officer has been prosecuted for the death of a BAME person in custody.
It seems likely that feelings in the black community in America have been inflamed by the huge numbers of black people who have died from coronavirus and the fact that their leader Donald Trump seems less than sensitive to the concerns of Black America. But in Britain equally the death toll among the BAME community from coronavirus has been frightening.
Of the first twenty-three NHS doctors to die from coronavirus, twenty-two were BAME. And Boris Johnson, like his supporter and ally Trump, has a history of casual racism. Among other incidents, when he was a Telegraph columnist, Johnson referred to Black people as “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles”. And more recently he talked about Muslim women looking like letter boxes and bank robbers.
One of the tragic things about the death of George Floyd, apparently at the hands of the police, is that these are far from new issues in America.
Nearly thirty years ago, Los Angeles in California erupted in riots, because of the savage beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police, which was captured on film. In 2012, the death of the young black boy Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman led to the birth of the #blacklivesmatter movement. And the following year Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York also died at the hands of police officers. And their deaths triggered further widespread protest. Sadly, some of the last words by Eric Garner was that he could not breathe. And these were almost exactly among the last words of George Floyd.
The death of Floyd must leave many members of the black community in America thinking, how much has changed about police attitudes towards Black men? Apparently Black lives continue not to matter, at least for some individual police officers.
With demonstrations all over the country, the role of the American president would normally be to promise to listen and call for calm. But, far from calling for peace, Donald Trump was tweeting today about demonstrators outside the White House: “Big crowd, professionally organised, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs and the most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been badly hurt, at least.”
Reflecting on past American presidents Democrat and Republican, even Richard Nixon would not have publicly played to anti-Black sentiment in the way that Trump is doing. This is one of the things that makes the current situation in America so dangerous.
But there is nothing for the comfort of the British political class in the American disturbances. In a post-Covid world, we see disproportionate death rates among minorities, even more disproportionate unemployment for minorities imminent and right-wing leaders in both Britain and America. Society is potentially a tinderbox.
Post-Covid conditions may be new, but tensions between the Black community and the police in Britain go back to the 1980s and the Brixton riots. We can only hope British politicians learn the right lessons from the current American situation. And it is not about sending inflammatory tweets.
(The author Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney north. This article was first published in Huffpost.)