On the 25th May, the world witnessed the death of an African-American man by the name of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The police were only notified for a fake $20 note, yet this somehow led to a 46-year-old man’s death by a police officer kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. At the time of his death, nobody expected the response it got but George Floyd’s death grasped the attention of millions worldwide. Institutionalised racism and incidents like this have been seen many times before, but what was so different about this particular case?
The following days and weeks have seen mass protests, a great sense of catharsis on social media and engagement with initiatives such as Black lives Matter (BLM) and older organisations such as Operation Black Vote (OBV).
BLM protests in all 50 states of America, here in the UK and across the whole world—violent or peaceful—have demonstrated that there is a crucial need for change. In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s podcast from 2018, Things can only get better, she speaks of racism being “systemic” and OBV’s director Simon Woolley, who features in the same episode, explains that “nothing changes unless we act”. However, we live in a democracy. A democracy where ‘acting’ happens (usually) once every five years in electing a representative to be our mouthpiece, our voice, our hope for change. It’s said that at the ballot box, everybody is equal.
So why are we still fighting for change?
At recent general elections, ethnicity has perhaps never been politically concerning for the government. Why not? Because most ethnic minority voters haven’t traditionally voted for the winning party. Since the 2017 general election, Labour have had a strong hold over minority ethnic voters and with the way the current Government is addressing the concerns of the BLM movement, it doesn’t look like that will change any time soon. In the UK, according to the 2011 Census, there are around eight million people who identify as being part of the BAME community. Eight million people that have to be recognised if we want any chance of calling ourselves a working democracy and improving the current ‘democratic deficit’.
At the 2019 General election, 64% of BAME voters voted for the Labour party. Although Labour didn’t win, the Official Opposition still remain to represent their constituents. But the country still has a governing party who were the architects of the ‘hostile environment’ policy, the response to the tragedy of Grenfell and the Brexit campaign that was built upon discrimination. The same things thousands are now protesting.
The response here in the UK was seen to be in direct anger of the actions of police officers on the other side of the Atlantic — at first. Yet social media allowed us to see groups of protesters marching to Downing Street, angry at the Government. It allowed us to watch the statue of an enslaver being torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour. It allowed us to see the vexation of our own society towards those who have claimed to “deliver a parliament that works for the people”.
The past few weeks have shown how our government is out of sync and unable to relate to many people they claimed to give a voice to back in December. Priti Patel described the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol as “utterly disgraceful” and the Prime Minister also explained that there is a “democratic process (of removing the statue) that should have been followed”. These short statements by those at the top of our political system have opened up a new door to criticism which revealed the ‘democratic process’ had already been tried and ignored.
After the statue was dismounted, many had one simple question. Why was the statue of an enslaver still there? The truth is the statue caused ample controversy and the people of Bristol had already tried to get it removed. A petition had over 11,000 signatures calling for the removal. In 2018, the MP for Bristol West, Thangam Debbonaire, expressed her concern and said they “should not be honouring people who benefitted from slavery”. Understandably, the apparent lack of understanding from our ‘representatives’ created a deep feeling of anger towards the Government from the protesters.
Following on from this, many of the BLM demonstrations have seemed to be peaceful, unified and full of solidarity. Harry Souter, who attended a BLM protest on 6th June in Manchester said, “it was entirely peaceful, protesters chanted and waved banners […] generally the atmosphere was positive, with anger in parts, but with an overriding sense of progress”.
On the other hand, the media have overwhelmingly shown the few protests that have resulted in violence. I’ve heard protesters described as ‘extremists’ and ‘thugs’ across many social media platforms and it has widened the gap between the elitist few running the country and the everyday citizens calling for change.
Calling for change means that more questions are being asked and more difficult conversations are being had. My friends and family are more engaged than ever. Arguments that are always avoided because of the stigma behind ‘getting into politics’ are being discussed. But the emergence of more a progressive debate, which could lead to real reform, is bittersweet — perhaps it’s too little too late.
At the previous elections, there was a boom in 16-24-year olds voting. There could be many factors behind this, but the biggest influence in my eyes was the use of social media by the Labour party. On the final day of registering to vote, 600,000 names were added to the electoral roll. It’s likely that many of the 600,000 people who registered on the final day, did so as a result of the way Labour campaigned. This was record breaking.
The ‘Youthquake’ that we saw in 2017 could mean we a similar effect from recent events. The amount of people engaging in the BLM movement and using their platforms to promote this is astonishing and the promise to consistently use their voices in the future means this issue cannot be ignored — not even by government ministers who are known for their dodging of difficult questions. As a result of this, social media has played a very active role in educating us on issues that sometimes the mainstream media fails to cover.
Most importantly, Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are being heard. It’s becoming abundantly clear that the changes we want to see are near impossible under the establishment that imposed those rules and beliefs upon us. Therefore, our vote is powerful.
Part of OBV’s mission statement is the belief that without a strong political voice for BAME communities “the ideal of equality of opportunity […] will remain an ideal” when it needs to become a reality.
OBV have been recognised as the first initiative to focus exclusively on the black democratic deficit in the UK through political education, participation and representation. Therefore, the BLM movement combined with the values of OBV and BAME communities around the country have the potential to create real change and progress for our country, our communities and most of all our politics. It is becoming more important than ever to contact our local MPs and to raise questions with those at the top. If we put pressure on our local representatives, they can challenge the government through Prime Minister’s questions, urgent questions and select committees. Social media and the evolving education within it could mean that holding those at the upper end of politics to account is easier than ever.
Despite systemic racism being a matter of right and wrong and not party politics, the far-right protests that have emerged fighting against the BLM movement indicate how some people will aim to distract the movement against the very ideals it seeks to achieve. These protests, rightly or wrongly, are becoming closely connected with the Government’s response no matter how much some politicians seem to oppose it.
Going forward, it’ll take time to see if this’ll affect how we view the decisions our MPs take in ensuring they don’t lose sight of the real problems in society. How we best utilise our right to vote the next time we come into contact with the ballot box, whether in 2024 or before, will be the biggest act of demonstration that any of us can do.
Racial injustices and discrimination are seen day in and day out which means it’s extremely important that we register to vote and use our voices to change the system which is fearfully flawed. We only create change when we force those at the top to listen to us. Whether you like or loathe politics, it’s a system that isn’t going anywhere. For that reason, we have to make that system as revolutionary as we can. This requires constant participation and engagement by using our power to vote to establish real change in the future.
The aim is to see the same alleged equality we hold at the ballot box translated visibly into society.