I wish I could say that I am surprised by the scenes we are seeing play out in America right now. I wish I could say this was an unexpected event to compound an already terrible year – that we’re only halfway through.
But I can’t.
The only surprise to me is that this explosion of anger has taken this long to happen.
Like many, I have sat and watched in shock and disgust as protestors in America have been brutally attacked by a militarised police force, encouraged by a hateful, unhinged and racist president who is unfit to have a Twitter account, let alone hold office. On his watch, America has seen the re-emergence of white supremacy, and the tendrils of fascism grow, strangling liberty. The USA has seen 100,000 people die from coronavirus, in no small part due to his negligence, and unemployment numbers are over 40 million – disproportionately affecting those on lower incomes, who happen to also be disproportionately from non-white backgrounds.
This, tragically, is nothing new. It’s also nothing new for police to kill Black people in disproportionately high numbers, and face minimal consequences.
Coronavirus has only served to exacerbate the inequality that is inherent to the system. The virus might not care about your colour or class, but the make-up of society is such that those who are on the lower rungs are being impacted the hardest, either financially or in their mortality rates.
All societies have a breaking point, and inevitably it’s when the inequality between the haves and the have nots becomes too great. America has been teetering on the edge of this precipice for years, with an increasing wealth gap and the further delegitimising of already marginalised voices. The anger at the murder of George Floyd has been felt before, but what we’re seeing taking place extends far beyond that. This isn’t anger at the death of one Black man. This is anger at a system that has never stopped to say ‘one is too many.’
The protesters are on the streets demanding change. They are fighting to ensure that they can walk through their communities, or go to the shops, or drive a car, or meet in groups, or be on their own, or knock on a door for help, or play in a playground, or get a job. They are fighting for acknowledgement of their existence, and the right to exist without fear of being killed.
We talk about the Civil Rights Movement as a historic event, one of the big successes of the 60s in working to address the balance between white and black America, and a seismic shift in society. That is both naive and inaccurate. It was neither a success nor historic – the injustice still continues to this day.
The videos we’re seeing on the news and in social media are representative of a society that has failed too many of its members. It has downplayed, ignored, excluded and violently suppressed the voices of Black people and other non-white ethnicites. The dialogue has existed only as white advocacy for Black people, centering on what white people think Black people want and experience, without ever asking.
That failure to promote true diverse dialogue has allowed the whole platform to be hijacked by white supremacists. These ignorant, spiteful, cowards are lashing out in fear at the thought of having to finally share the benefits of society with those who were exploited to build it. Rather than share a stage that is plenty big enough for all, they’d rather burn it down.
Met with such sustained vitriol, is it shocking that many view mass demonstration as their only means of redress? Ancestors stolen from their continent, forced to work as slaves, raped and hanged. Black people in living memory were segregated and told they are worth ⅗ of a white person, that they have to use separate doors, or give up a bus seat. Black people even now denied job promotions based on nothing but their name, or mocked and ridiculed based purely on their physical attributes. How do you work on peacefully changing something so inherently stacked against you?
When change doesn’t feed down from the top, it grows up from the bottom
The world, and the UK especially, might look at what is happening in America with horror and judgement, but we should see this as a warning that when change doesn’t feed down from the top, it grows up from the bottom. We should see America, who so often is considered the leader of the free world, as the leader of a world that needs to be freed.
I am fortunate to work and exist in a sector that celebrates diversity, even if it hasn’t yet done enough to elevate it. That can, on occasion, make you lose sight of the world outside of that bubble. A bubble that all too quickly pops when someone touches your hair uninvited, makes a comment about never needing to tan, or asks the question so many have had to answer: But where are you really from?
I strongly believed that Covid-19 was going to bring about a change in how society functions, and sincerely hoped that it would redefine who and what we consider essential. While these protests are not symptoms of coronavirus, they certainly don’t exist in isolation of it. Every life lost is a tragedy, but rather than work to end the disproportionate number of Black deaths at the hands of coronavirus and the systemic racism that made them vulnerable, the very institutions who should be keeping them safe are arbitrarily killing them.
We owe it to each other, and most importantly to those who have died, to do more. To be better. To listen, but then engage. To elevate and empower, not just advocate and placate. To demonstrate that “all lives matter” by starting to care about black ones.
Change is overdue.