"Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed"
Updated: Jun 4, 2020
By Sara Chitseko:
The US has entered the grip of the worst civil unrest since the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, in 1968. Those in power often denounce riots and looting and use these displays of anger and grief to derail from the reason why people feel called to protest in the first place. George Floyd was brutally murdered by the police on Monday 25th May. A white police officer pinned George to the floor by his neck. George shouted out that he couldn't breath. He called out in pain. And he called out for his mother, as he lay dying.
This is not the first, or even the most recent incident in which the police in the US have killed a Black man. Tony McDade, a Black trans man was shot to death by police just two days later on Wednesday 27th May in Florida. In the face of this brutality, Black people are expected to prove we can be peaceful, while fighting against the police that kill us and violate us with their tear gas and their pellets. We are then re-traumatised by the failure of the state to hold the police to account.
The protests in the US have rightly led to increased scrutiny of the police in the UK. There is a belief that the racism and police brutality in the US does not and could not happen here. This belief is false. There have been 1741 deaths in police custody in England and Wales since 1990. Not a single police officer has been charged in connection to these deaths. A third of victims that die in police custody are from Black or other minoritised communities, despite only accounting for 14% of the wider population. The proportion of Black and minoritised deaths where restraint and use of force are features is over two times greater than for other deaths in custody. The UK is not innocent.
Even outside of deaths in police custody, racism in the UK is not subtle, or covert. Go home vans are not covert. Windrush deportations are not covert. Yarls Wood is not covert. Medical racism is not covert. And Grenfell was not covert. When time and time again, Black people are deliberately silenced or unheard; violated and brutalised; marginalised and excluded; civil disobedience begins to feel like the only way we can be heard. It is a way of demanding that we are treated as human when the state legitimises our murder. It is us demanding that Black lives matter.
Added to our grief, is an immense pressure to think strategically about how our response to police killings can be used to create a more just society now and into the future. The task is to move from riot, to systemic change that can challenge the oppressive systems at play. The speed at which community initiatives in the US have managed to coordinate supplies and support for protestors on the ground is incredible and can be taken as inspiration for building a world that centres healing and care, rather than punishment. But, as many activists are already demanding, this must start with the mass divestment from the police.
Police brutality is traumatising, but not surprising; terrible, but not unusual. In fact, these incidents are periodically reenacted in the US and although less documented, here in the UK too. Martin Luther King Jr famously said that "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." His words resonate now as much as ever. In response to his killing in 1968, 110 American cities started rioting. After the 6th day of riots, the Civil Rights Act (1968) was passed. Black communities across the world are sharing in a communal sense of grief and anger. Disengaging with this anger will not make it disappear. The layered and communal trauma that we are experiencing will not simply disappear. It seems the time for state action to redress harm has been and gone. The state must be prepared, as communities are now taking matters into their own hands. We see it in the US now and it is likely that before long, we will see it here in the UK too.