Last summer, a 46-year-old man named George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police, outraging the world. A year on, Kingsley Sheteh Newuh, an organiser at Black Lives Matter UK, reflects on how much has really changed.
One year ago, George Floyd’s murder necessitated seismic global protests – and what many consider to be a resurgence of the Black liberation movement. Across the world, protestors took to the streets, clamouring for better conditions for Black people on a scale not seen since the 1960s.
Protesters believed that the nine-minute video of officer Derek Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck served evidence that we needed sweeping change to transform Black lives. But one year on, it feels as if the jury is still out – considering that little has materially changed for Black people, in the US and worldwide. Many anti-racists are now left wondering if the response to Floyd's murder was truly a watershed moment for Black liberation, or if it simply represents another fleeting moment of recognition in our tumultuous history of racist oppression.
No one can forget the chilling footage, and the seemingly calm, cold-blooded demeanour with which a police officer could kill a Black person. Floyd was not the first Black person to say the words "I can't breathe" in their final moments, or to die on the streets of America in front of a camera lens. But this time, it felt different, perhaps because it happened at the heart of a pandemic during which Black people were made vulnerable by endemic health and social inequalities. Understandably, the outrage the footage generated was infectious.
It came as little surprise therefore, that in April this year, a guilty verdict was rightfully handed down to Chauvin. As cries that justice had been served resounded across our global media, I was perhaps one of the many Black people who wondered what justice for Black lives actually meant. Only a few minutes before the verdict on the murder of Floyd, another 15-year-old Black girl had been shot dead by the police in Ohio.
In reality, the battle for Black liberation is far from over. In the UK, Office for National Statistics (ONS) records show that the number of Black victims of murder and manslaughter have been steadily increasing in recent years, with the highest numbers recorded in the 12 months leading to March 2020. In this period, 15% of all homicide victims were Black, despite only accounting for only 3% of the general population. And yet we are rarely seen as victims by the state – being nine times more likely to be stopped and searched.
It is without a doubt that the protests of last summer brought debates on racism to the forefront of British public discourse. But, so far, it has not gone much further than lip service. Families and victims of police brutality in the UK are still far from getting justice. Black people in the UK are still four times more likely to die from Covid-19.
Similar trends are seen across housing, education, immigration and criminal justice. So it beggars belief as to how a recent 264-page UK government report arrived at the conclusion that the system was not deliberately rigged against minorities. The report boldly asserts that “too many people in the progressive and anti-racism movements seem reluctant to acknowledge their own past achievements”, but one is apt to question whether "achievements" within a racist system can truly grant us liberation.
When it comes to the impact of protest, the past year has actually seen more done to suppress Black people's cries for change than to listen to them. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which was supported by 359 Conservative MPs, with opposition parties unanimously voting against, is by a mile, the most cogent confirmation of how far the UK has regressed over the last year. During the summer protests, Black people demanded that the police be scaled back, with funding instead channelled to community and social empowerment projects – but the Bill entirely ignores this, proposing the expansion of police powers (including stop and search). Its proposed restrictions on protest can also be seen as a direct attempt to take away a fundamental right that Black people have historically used to express their discontent with Britain's rigged institutions.
From immigration and asylum to local policing, it is clear that the struggle must go on. And as the oxygen is drained from our right to protest, it is only befitting that on the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, we continue to unanimously cry out: we can’t breathe.
Image by Francesco Mariani via Flickr