Voices

Black lives still matter ... so let’s push for systemic change

Jacob Blake’s family arrive at a press conference in Wisconsin
(AFP/Getty)

This year, in the height of a global pandemic, something else unprecedented happened. After the violent police murder of black civilian George Floyd, America’s biggest protests since the civil rights era swept not only the country but the globe. As a black journalist who reports on race, it was unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime.

But, exactly three months on from the first protests, there are some things that have not changed. On Sunday, African American Jacob Blake was reportedly shot seven times by the police in his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and left paralysed. When he was shot, Blake was unarmed and was peacefully trying to de-escalate a domestic disturbance. His six children were in the car, watching.

Following the death of Floyd, and the subsequent outpouring of individual and organisational statements surrounding a commitment to tackling racism, I’ve been struck by the comparatively modest coverage I’ve seen around Blake’s shooting. There are a number of possible reasons why the police’s attack on Blake has garnered fewer headlines, particularly the fact that, miraculously, he survived. But beyond this, I worry that it’s because news outlets and the general public see the Black Lives Matter “moment” as having passed – as if the attempted murder of an unarmed black man isn’t as notable or as horrific as it was just a few months ago.

Black lives still matter as much today as they did at the height of protests in June, but it feels as if public support has dampened since then. On 4 June, many black people were critical of #BlackoutTuesday, which saw the lights go out on our Instagram feeds for one day, supposedly in support for the movement against police brutality. We saw it as a performative gesture that was rarely supplemented with any concrete action – like donations to bail funds, attendance of protests, or long-term commitment to anti-racist causes. Counterproductively, many supposed “allies” posted the square with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, clogging the feeds of protestors who were using the hashtag to stay informed about safety at the demonstrations.

Anyone on Twitter became accustomed to watching the deployment of rubber bullets, teargas, pepper rounds and public beatings against black people

Even when black people drew attention to this issue, for some, it seemed that wearing a black square on their profiles, much like an anti-racist badge of honour, took precedence. At the time, I remember feeling a visceral combination of optimism and cynicism – I was seeing people who had never spoken publicly about anti-racism before posting about police brutality, which was a good thing; simultaneously, the moment felt like it might be fleeting, and as if it was more about virtue-signalling than actually investing in anti-racist action in the long term.

In the months since it feels as if that prophecy has come true – fewer people are talking, posting and protesting about racism and state-sanctioned racial violence – even though there have been a number of notable instances since Floyd’s death. In the US, we cannot forget the barrage of police brutality seen during the protests themselves; there are too many to reel off an exhaustive list – but anyone on Twitter became accustomed to watching the deployment of rubber bullets, teargas, pepper rounds and public beatings against black people on our timelines. What was the outcome of all this violence? Where are the victims now? There were also a number of suspicious deaths over the period of a month during the protests – namely the four black people who were found dead hanging from trees in California, New York and Texas. The police claimed all of the deaths were suicides. And now, this week, Blake has been left paralysed by the police, and two have been shot dead since the national guard was deployed to protests in Kenosha.

In these kinds of conversations, provocative “devil’s advocates” always seem to argue that these are events taking place in the US – as if racism is something that happens “over there” and never here. But in the UK, even though our police don’t carry guns, black people are still disproportionately exposed to premature death at the hands of the state. On this side of the Atlantic, there is a parallel between Blake’s death and that of Julian Cole, a black student who was left brain damaged and paralysed after being forcefully restrained by police outside a Bedford nightclub in 2013. We also know that in the gravest of cases, black people are currently more than twice as likely to die in police custody than their white counterparts.

And as of June, government figures showed black people were more likely to die of coronavirus than any other ethnic group. Socioeconomic factors play some role in this – black people are more likely to live in poverty, and are more likely to have jobs as key workers, who served on the front lines when the majority of the population were in lockdown. Belly Mujinga, a black public transport worker who died of Covid-19 after being spat on, has, for many, become a symbol of the thankless risks our communities have taken to prop up the country during the pandemic.

State violence against black people has not decreased since this summer’s protests – and we must continue to protest government policies that hurt us both directly and indirectly

Then, there are the deaths resulting from the hostile environment – a set of Conservative policies that are ramping up, and continuing to make life unliveable for many people of colour seeking refuge in the UK. This year, we know that a substantial proportion of the nation’s migrants are afraid to seek healthcare during the pandemic, as a direct result of hostile environment policies. Following the Windrush scandal, it doesn’t feel that much has materially changed for the black population as a whole – just this week, asylum seeker Mercy Bagumba was found dead in her Glasgow flat next to her malnourished baby. She was living in extreme poverty after her right to work in the UK had expired. It seems clear: state violence against black people has not decreased since this summer’s protests – and we must continue to protest government policies that hurt us both directly and indirectly.

In the US, the UK, and on a global scale, black lives will always matter, even when the media spotlight on racism, police brutality, and violence against black people fades. We need to keep donating – for example to Blake’s GoFundMe, and to Kenosha bail funds for protestors. We also must continue raising awareness and protesting racist policies in whatever ways we can.

Yesterday morning, I woke up to the words of Jacob Blake’s sister Letetra Widman, as she poetically tied all the threads together across time and space.

“I’m not sad, I’m not sorry. I’m angry, and I’m tired,” she told a press conference in Kenosha. “I haven’t cried one time – I stopped crying years ago. I am numb. I have been watching police murder people that look like me for years. I’m also a black history minor, so not only have I been watching it in the 30 years that I’ve been on this planet – I’ve been watching it for years before we were even alive.”

Hearing Widman’s words, my anger is unequivocal. I’m just as angry about state violence against black people as I was three months ago, when protests first swept the globe. I am just as angry as my mother was for her generation, and as her mother was for her own. Until we see systemic change, my anger won’t dissipate. Will yours?