The horrific murder of George Floyd, a black man who died by the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin to his neck, in Minneapolis has not only shocked the American nation, but angered the world. Floyd is the latest addition to a gallery of mainly black men who have been victims of police brutality: Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland to give a few examples. Floyd’s killing has a “this time it’s different” vibe — condemnation across the political and social spectrums, and the biggest protests and rioting across the nation since 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King jr — only because the footage makes it clear and unequivocal: there is no wiggle room, no get-out clause, no slimy rationalisation to take refuge in. This was not a split-second decision made under pressure. Kneeling on a man’s neck for minutes on end, effectively putting him down like a stray dog on the street, is anything but that. You’re forced to see the murder for what it was.
Across the globe, demonstrations of solidarity and protest under the banner of ‘Black Lives Matter’ have taken place. Syrians in Idlib painted a mural dedicated to George Floyd. In Britain, there have been demonstrations in Manchester and London. Outside the gates of Downing Street, protesters chanted “I can’t breathe” and “fuck the police”.
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As is often the case in these scenarios, activists seek to make a connection between what is going on in America and how it connects to their situation here. “The prejudice that black people in America face is the same prejudice we face here,” a BLM activist, Shayne, told the BBC. “I think it really made me take a look at the police system all around the world. I have always been focusing on institutional racism in America but it really made me look in the UK. I have realised that there’s so much institutional racism in the UK police.”
On Newsnight on Monday the spoken-word artist George The Poet said: “There are disturbing parallels between the black British experience and the African-American experience.” Emily Maitlis challenged him — “but you are not putting America and Britain on the same footing … our police aren’t armed, they don’t have guns, the legacy of slavery is not the same” — and received a lot of criticism on social media from those who felt she was being tone deaf or ‘whitesplaining’ racism to a black man.
I understand and empathise with why people make this comparison: there is a trans-Atlantic Anglo-American intercourse at play. America is an intellectual and cultural powerhouse. Anti-racist and black liberation movements in Britain have long taken inspiration from black American music and black political movements in the United States, such as the Black Panthers, Black Power and certain trends in American academia, to help them form their critique of racism in Britain.
There is not so much a parallel per se, but an echo in the British and American ‘black experience’, in terms of incarceration rates, for example. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the infamous ‘sus laws’ were revived and deployed by police to harass and arrest black people for ‘loitering’ or just walking down the street, echoing the American story of police targeting black communities.
There is also a gallery of mainly black men who have died in ‘suspicious circumstances’ when coming into contact with the police. For instance, Julian Cole, mentioned by George The Poet in his Newsnight segment, was paralysed in 2013 during a scuffle with nightclub doormen and police officers. The officers lied in their statements about what happened during Julian’s arrest and his condition, which could have prevented him from going into a vegetative state. They were subsequently sacked after an inquiry, but not prosecuted. Sean Rigg, who in 2008 died outside Brixton police station during a mental health episode after being ‘restrained’ by police.
According to the charity Inquest, there have been 1,741 deaths in police custody or otherwise following contact with the police in England and Wales since 1990. If you dig deeper into the statistics, you discover that use of force is a feature in twice as many deaths among the BAME population as it is in other deaths in custody. Shockingly, not one police officer has been successfully prosecuted — let alone convicted — for deaths of this type since 1969, when the two Leeds police officers responsible for the death of David Oluwale — the first black man to die in police custody in the UK — were found guilty of assault but found not guilty of manslaughter on the direction of the judge, despite unlawful killing verdicts in coroner’s inquests. This echoes the United States in creating a culture of impunity among the police who feel they can do anything and get away with it, knowing that the legal system will give them refuge.
Part of the problem with the discussion is that to suggest that racism in Britain is not the same as racism in America can be perceived as downplaying, or even denying, the racism that exists in Britain. “It’s an insult to tell black British people that this is an American experience and they shouldn’t draw comparisons,” said the historian David Olusoga. But while there may be parallels between the black experience in Britain and America, there are also huge differences. Race and racism manifests themselves in different ways in Britain and in America because they are different societies with different histories. That’s not to minimise British racism or ‘pat Britain on the back’, to use a common cliché in this argument.
Unlike America, Britain does not have a history of slavery and de jure segregation within its borders, although the British empire was throughout the 18th century a leading power in the slave trade, which thanks to the asiento system meant it also supplied slaves to the French and Spanish colonial territories in the Caribbean and the Americas. Britain long had a hypocritical conceit in regards to the ‘peculiar institution’; technically it wasn’t permissible on its ‘green and pleasant land’, because no formal statute codifying modern slavery within Britain was ever passed, since apparently “England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in”.
So slavery, and all the abuse, racism and exploitation that comes with it, was permissible ‘over there’ in the colonies, but not allowed in the sceptred isle itself.
There have been attempts to enforce unofficial segregation against black migrants through institutionalised forms of racism in housing, employment, most graphically manifested in the ubiquitous ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs outside of pubs and clubs, until the 1968 Race Relations Act that forbid it. However, Britain doesn’t have the legacy of segregation and redlining America has.
There aren’t neighbourhoods in Britain that are wholly black, where people grow up and may not encounter a white person or anyone of a different ‘race’ at all. In America there is a distinct ‘black bourgeoisie’, with its own networks to provide opportunities. You encounter neighbourhoods that have the trappings of stereotypical middle-class life, but are entirely black such as in Harlem, New Orleans, Atlanta and parts of Los Angeles. There is no equivalent in Britain. While there are individual blacks who are among the general middle class, there is no distinct ‘black bourgeoisie’.
Moreover, all police officers in America have a gun. While a gun is not necessary for police brutality to take place, guns do make it much easier and the results more often fatal.
There is a certain type of black activist who often makes the equation between the British and American experiences. They are prone to soliloquys about the ‘fact of their blackness’; how their ‘blackness’ is a burden. They speak in the language of ‘trauma’ (so much so that trauma is evacuated of any meaning and trivialised), and draw on the idioms of identitarianism from the rump of American academia. Imposing the racial language and grammar of the United States on to Britain, a society that is different historically, socially and ethnically, is a form of intellectual imperialism, and obscures how we should analyse racism in Britain, and how it can be combated.
I don’t wish to downplay the situation and claim there isn’t a problem with racism and violence. There is; but I want to be mindful of the black American situation. Black people in Britain haven’t been victims of pornographic forms of racist violence such as public lynching. The police in Britain don’t shoot 12-year-old children at point-blank range, was the case with Tamir Rice.
To make a like-for-like equation between Britain and America is untrue, potentially inflammatory and crassly propagandistic. Racism and police brutality absolutely exist and are serious problems. But they must be addressed on their own terms.