It has become as familiar as school shootings—news from across the Atlantic of a Black person pulled over by police, sometimes by white vigilantes, and swiftly killed, no questions asked, few answers given.
As protests unfold, extending into occasional violence, outrage is expressed in the global media until the news cycle inevitably moves on. Until the next such event. Of course, it is the case that more such incidents are now filmed where they once remained undocumented, making it harder to turn our faces away. So it was with the horrifying nine minutes that led to the seeming daylight murder of George Floyd as he begged to be allowed to breathe.
Shortly before this clip went viral, so had another one of a white woman in New York’s Central Park calling the police to falsely report an “African-American man” threatening her.
“A failure to engage honestly with history is, unfortunately, something that Britain shares with the United States.”
Here in Britain, it is customary to treat these occurrences as horrifying but bizarre features of life in the United States of America, along with a president who posts incendiary tweets. It’s just not the kind of thing we associate with Keep Calm and Carry On Britain. As Black Lives Matter protests took place yesterday in Manchester and London’s Trafalgar Square, some didn’t understand why these should take place in Britain, while others insisted: ”It’s showing there are people in the UK who care passionately about the situation in the US.”
One Asian DJ now tweeting his anguish at the “terrible events in America”, had asked, after riots broke out in Britain in 2011 pursuant to Mark Duggan’s death in police custody: “Is it time for the army to be called in?”
It is not at all unusual in Britain, particularly in relatively progressive, white milieus, to believe that there is something uniquely malign about racism in the United States, that, for instance, it “obviously has a much deeper and darker history of black discrimination compared to the UK”.
“Britain too has signally failed to engage with the history of its empire and the racism, both deep and extensive.”
Now, it is true that the long history of anti-Black racism in the United States, which allows us to draw tragically straight lines from tree lynchings to the countless horrific moments when men like Eric Garner and George Floyd were killed by state agents, is a specific one. America is a country that was founded on the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans. It has not only failed to undertake a serious reckoning with the lethal afterlife of these events but continues to keep the metaphorical boot on Black lives, incarcerating and executing Black men disproportionately, while large swathes of the African-American community live in a state of continued economic and social disenfranchisement. In the riots we now witness, the justifiable anger of a racialized underclass is writ large. This is a community who, along with Indigenous Americans, are owed massive historical reparations and structural change. Instead, they have a president who routinely downplays white supremacist violence.
“State violence and civic racism are endemic in contemporary Britain too.”
A failure to engage honestly with history is, unfortunately, something that Britain shares with the United States. Yes, the politics of race in Britain has a different back story to that in America but it is no less lethal and corrosive. Britain too has signally failed to engage with the history of its empire and the racism, both deep and extensive, which it propagated and which continues to shape British society and race relations today.
Britain has no less bloodied a record when it comes to race than the USA: its own colonial centuries were shaped by enslavement and indenture, which contributed to the wealth and infrastructure of this country, the huge impoverishment of Asian and African colonies which plagues them to this day, and the dispossession of indigenous people from communal lands, as well as ferocious racial hierarchies that manifested themselves both within and outside of Britain.
When met with resistance, as British colonialism inevitably was, there was violent policing and punitive action as well as massacres, extra-judicial executions, hard labour, and internment camps. Indeed, it was in the crucible of empire and resistance to it that some of Britain’s harshest policing, surveillance, and disciplining techniques were finessed. The blood from Britain’s imperial misdeeds, as historian John Newsinger’s important book puts it, has never dried.
And that is why both state violence and civic racism are endemic in contemporary Britain too. Britain has its own shameful list of Black and Minority Ethnic people who have died in police custody. Mark Duggan, Rashan Charles, Sean Rigg, Sarah Reed, Faruk Ali and Anthony Grainger are but a few of the more recent names on that very long list.
Who can forget Jimmy Mubenga’s pleading for his breath too as G4S security guards put him on a deportation flight? Remember Jean Charles de Menezes being gunned down in broad daylight? Grenfell and the Windrush deportation scandals alone are recent instances of huge state discrimination against Britain’s non-white and immigrant communities. In recent months, Black and Minority Ethnic people have been disproportionately stopped and searched during the lockdown, as well as fined more often than others who broke the rules.
Following Floyd’s death, the National Black Police Association UK has issued a robust statement which draws attention to similar “simmering” racial tensions here, and notes baldly that Black Britons are “grappling with the harsh reality that decades of structural and institutional racism has made us fodder not only to the disproportionate use of force in policing but also to Covid-19.” Racism, it notes, is itself the public health crisis today. In order to change this, however, at the very moment that we express horror at events in the United States, Britain must turn the lens of historical reckoning and racial honesty upon itself.
Priyamvada Gopal teaches at the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge and her latest book is Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso, 2019), now out in paperback.