“I can’t breathe”. The last words uttered by George Floyd before he was killed by a Minneapolis police officer with a knee on his throat are truly chilling.
As footage of the brutal attack went viral, towns and cities across the United States exploded in fury, followed soon after by similar protests in countries around the globe. All under the banner of Black Lives Matter.
George Floyd’s death speaks to a particular problem of racism, police brutality and injustice endured by the black community in the US, but racism and the injustice it feeds are to be found the world over. As both protest and debate rage, the challenge has been laid down about what each of us individually and collectively are prepared to do to bring about change.
Of course, the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic is not an ideal moment for the sort of mass gatherings we have witnessed. Government advice and appeals for people to find other ways of protesting have largely fallen on deaf ears, with who knows what effect on the spread of infection. Interestingly, however, police in the UK appeared to take the view that trying to prevent protests posed a greater potential risk to public safety.
In the US, the question of how to respond to the protests has been far more incendiary, thanks in no small part to President Trump. At a time when the nation is crying out for its President to heal divisions and pour oil on troubled waters, Mr Trump has opted instead to add paraffin to the flames. His threat to unleash the military on protestors was a low point, prompting his former Defence Secretary, James Mattis to write: “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.”
Even so, the deep-rooted racism that characterises too much of policing and the wider criminal justice system in the US pre-dates Donald Trump’s arrival in office. Despite some honourable exceptions and progress in certain areas, fundamentally the experience of black Americans, particularly men, of policing and the justice system remains overwhelmingly negative. Whether it's serious or even lethal assaults by police officers or high levels of imprisonment often for relatively minor offences, the African American community is routinely ill-served, unfairly treated and directly targeted. In a sense, this reflects the wider economic and social disadvantage holding back the lives and life chances of too many within America’s black community.
Lest we’re tempted to claim the moral high ground, though, we would do well to reflect on the situation here in the UK. Two decades on from the MacPherson Report that followed the murder of black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, 26% of instances of police using firearms are against black people, despite making up only 3.3% of the population. 51% of young men in custody in the UK are from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, despite representing only 14% of the population.
Scotland’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf reflected this week that in 99% of his meetings, he is “the only person of colour in the room” while also noting that every High Court judge, law officer, prison governor and police chief in Scotland is white. Such a lack of diversity within our justice system is not healthy or sustainable.
Recent events have also reignited debate about our role in the slave trade, and the wealth it generated. While there are better ways of deciding which statues stand where than to demolish or deface them, it’s not enough simply to argue that attitudes were different back then so leave well alone. History is written by those who came out on top, but their account is seldom objective and needs constantly to be challenged.
Finally, even the current pandemic has a racial dimension, with mortality rates higher amongst the black population. Whether this reflects the type of jobs or shift patterns worked by many in the BAME communities, we need the UK and Scottish governments to help establish the facts. When the argument is that black lives matter, that is the least we should expect.