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Truth and reconciliation: When will the UK address its racist and violent legacy?

Picture credit: @sebbarros

By Sara Chitseko:

Over the weekend, hundreds of far-right white nationalists took to the streets of central London, in response to Black Lives Matter protests. Media coverage of this racist counter-insurgency has been reprehensible. The focus of this critical time has shifted from interrogating the ways in which police violate, brutalise and kill Black people without being held accountable; to a question of whether a statue of a problematic former Prime Minister is under threat. These issues are not comparable.

The government has refused to meaningfully engage with the systemic issues at hand. In a column in the Daily Telegraph, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson used a couple of lines to "condemn the violence of far-right thugs" and devoted the rest of the column to concerns over the fate of the statue. This is shameful, but not surprising. After all, It is the elite who benefit most from institutionalised racism and oppression.

There is a collective feeling that we are finally at a turning point for real change to happen. But in order to make that change a reality, we must be clear in our demands.

Firstly, it is vital that we do not lose sight of why so many took to the streets in the first place. Policing is an inherently racist and violent institution which inflicts unfathomable harm on Black communities every day. We must ensure that our demands for societal change starts where our outrage began: policing and the obsolete criminal "justice" system.

Secondly, we must contextualise our demands using an abolitionist framework. This means campaigning to defund the police until they no longer exist while promoting investment in our communities. It means reimagining how we deal with social issues from the ground up, including rethinking our models for accountability and justice. It means harnessing approaches which centre healing and care, rather than punishment and retribution. And it means building apparatus for community support and anti-racist education.

So, how do we get there? The UK has never confronted it's violent and racist legacy. This country was built off extracting resources, enslaving people and pillaging huge swathes of the world’s population. A YouGov poll evidenced that 59% of people believe that the British Empire was something to be proud of and that 49% believe that countries were better off as a result of being colonised. These beliefs are not only false, but dangerous. They perpetuate cycles of violence, marginalisation and discrimination for the Black and minoritised communities that live here.

Those who do acknowledge the UK’s violent legacy, often believe that it is something of the past; that racism that exists in our society today, is covert and perpetuated by a small few. This is not how history works. We are not and never have been on a linear route of progression. Instead violence and racism is interwoven in the foundations of British society. We see it manifest in the criminal “justice” system, where Black people are disproportionately represented at every level; in education, where a Black Caribbean boy with special educational needs (SEND) is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than a white British girl without SEND and, where Black and minoritised people have been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus - we are four times more likely to die if we contract the disease. These experiences cannot be understood in isolation. They are directly connected to the UK’s violent and racist legacy.

In order to build a society where Black people do not have to take to the streets in the midst of a pandemic to demand that our lives are protected; there must be collective action taken by those who benefit of white supremacy to engage in a truth and reconciliation process. This process must address racism, but within that, also address how racism is intrinsically linked to capitalism and how this impacts our communities material outcomes and experience navigating the world. There must be action taken to build solidarity between oppressed groups. After all, as Angela Davis reminds us in the title of her highly influential book - "Freedom is a constant struggle."

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