Following the police killing of George Floyd, all eyes are back on the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. There's a scramble to read the "right" books by Black writers and thinkers, watch the "right" documentaries and shows, consume the "right" information, follow the "right" social media accounts. Folks are supporting more tangibly, too, by donating to various grassroots campaigning groups and funds – including the UK Black Lives Matter fund and the Resourcing Racial Justice Fund – and setting up initiatives like One Case At A Time (OCAAT), founded by young Black lawyers. Other folks are providing vital options for mental health care at a time of great trauma for the global Black community.
Others have emerged from their homes after months in lockdown to take to the streets in masks and gloves to demand justice. Some are creating reading lists, sewing masks, offering their skills in kind, finally reflecting on their privilege and having challenging conversations with their loved ones and friends. Although it feels to me like there is something about this particular moment in history that is a profound catalyst for change, it's fair to tread cautiously and be sceptical about how long the solidarity, interest and commitments – particularly from white people – will last.
In 2016 I wrote about my film on deaths in police custody in the UK, which I started filming in 2015, immediately after Sheku Bayoh died after being restrained by Scottish police. The documentary is called 1500 & Counting, referring to the number of deaths in police custody or following police contact in England and Wales since 1990. As we always knew it would, the name quickly went out of date. There have now been 1,741 of those deaths – and unlike in the USA, not a single police officer was convicted in connection to those deaths in that period of time.
After writing about the film, I was harassed and trolled, mainly by angry white men gaslighting and threatening me, incensed that we would dare to document heinous acts by police officers. At that point, the film hadn't even been finished!
It's easy to brush off such instances as mere fringe occurrences, but part of our work towards becoming actively anti-racist is to recognise the resistance within ourselves and others to openly criticise institutions such as the police. We are taught that they are here to "protect" us – but clearly only some of us.
Black people are rarely given the benefit of the doubt; guilty until proven innocent. How many times in the past have we seen yet another name of a Black person killed by a police officer, only to then hear the cutting response from someone saying, "Well they must have done something to deserve it"? Even in death, we are on trial.
I am deeply disturbed it has taken folks watching the murder of someone – in broad daylight – to finally be moved. I am deeply rattled that you needed to see a white officer with his knee literally on the neck of a Black man to finally "get it".
As repugnant as the murder of George Floyd is, he was not the first and – if society does not change fundamentally, at its core – he will not be the last. Neither will Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Aiyana Stanley Jones, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland – the list goes on. I am exhausted by the constant stream of new hashtags of names we must now speak of in the past tense.
The misplaced belief that the UK is somehow less morally bankrupt than the USA is laughable on a good day, and maddening on the worst. Christopher Alder, Sheku Bayoh, Sarah Reed and Mzee Mohammed are just some of the names of Black victims of police violence and institutional racism in this country. And in the context of Covid-19, let us never forget Belly Mujinga and the injustice of her death after being spat at while on duty at Victoria station.
Indifference, minimisation and veiled forms of racism are the foundations for systematic discrimination, which leads to calls for violence and, in turn, actual acts of violence.
It seems now that the whole world is watching and, for once, even listening, ready to take action. I've had my moments of asking, "Where were you before?" and, "Why now?", but I've committed myself to giving people the benefit of the doubt this time. I believe that the responsibility of ending racist systems falls squarely on the shoulders of white people, as for too long racism has been left to Black people and people of colour to solve.
I welcome anybody committed to doing more to grow from being passive allies to active accomplices. Those who understand that the real test of who they are is not what they do in this moment and for the days and weeks to come, but over the long-term, the months and years and decades to come. Echoing the sentiments of journalist Nesrine Malik, "The moments in between are the only ones that really matter." Thirty-six years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the USA and 55 years since the 1965 Race Relations Act in the UK, we are still saying Black Lives Matter.
Justice and transformation, not just hollow calls for "change", are well overdue.