The outrage here in Southwark about the murder of George Floyd is an important moment. It is a moment for hearing the anger and determining to make change, writes Harriet Harman…
It is about solidarity with black people in the US who face oppression and police violence, but it is also about the anger over the situation here in the UK too, of the everyday hostility and discrimination faced by black people and black men and boys in particular, of structural and systemic inequality, and of the sense that being a black male makes you more likely to be picked on by the police.
I remember after the summer riots in 2011 talking to a young black student who was with his father who had come to one of my advice surgeries about his housing problem. As they left, I asked, as the issue of police/black community relations was top of my mind, how he would describe the relations between police and young black men? He paused, clearly not wanting to give me an answer he thought I might not want to hear. And then he said ‘hatred’. That was from a hard-working, law abiding student. That this was still the case years after the MacPherson report into the Met Police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder and institutionalised racism in the Met Police, showed that the fundamental problems highlighted in that report had yet to be addressed. I challenged our local police on this. But the same is still being said now, and you are still nine times more likely to be stopped and searched if you are black than if you are white.
It is hard to see how this can change until we have equal numbers of black officers at all levels of the Met, including right at the top. And we are still a long way off that. We need positive action to embark on that change now and that is permitted in the Equality Act.
Justified anger needs recognition and demands action. I strongly back the plans led by the black Southwark councillors to establish a #BlackLivesMatter initiative. It’s important to chronicle the experience of what it means to be a young black man in Southwark in 2020. Those everyday experiences of racism need to be recognised as fact not swept under the carpet. And there needs to be concrete change to stop it.
COVID has reminded us of the irreplaceable role that BAME people play in our health and caring services, in our retail and council services. #BlackLivesMatter reminds us that is the case despite inequality and discrimination. After the COVID crisis there must be no return to ‘normal’. We need to embark on systematic change. The only proof that has happened will be when we see the statistics change to show that you are no more likely to be low paid and in poor housing if you are black. That is so far from the case now. We must recognise the legitimate anger and press forward for a fairer, more equal society.