What the horrible death of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis in May 2020 unleashed, in its immediate aftermath, was a chain of reactions across the globe under the generic banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM). There were mass demonstrations to express outrage at the manner of his killing and sympathy and solidarity with the African-American cause. They are still continuing, off and on, and in some countries have morphed into their own local variations, such as the fight for caste equality in India. Here in Britain the BLM has been embraced with unstinted vigour by people characterised as BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic), boosted by the moral support of great many others in the wider society.
That is hardly surprising, because what happened to George Floyd instantly resonated with black Britons` own daily experience of dealings and encounters with the police – of downright hostility, excessive force, racial profiling especially as regards stop-and-search, degrading treatment and worse. This has been going on for decades, and indeed post-Floyd there have been quite a few incidents, the latest involving a prominent black London MP, Dawn Butler, on Sunday 09 August, see https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/aug/09/labour-mp-dawn-butler-stopped-by-police-in-london, where the police account of the reason why her car was stopped did not seem credible. At any rate, even when police misconduct is exposed in an unending series of high and low profile cases they almost always get away with it. The climate was just right, then, for black Britons to put their own marker on the whole BLM movement.
In the result, black voices and faces – of students, workers, academics, writers, actors and activists, ordinary folk and professionals of every description – are making their presence felt and views known everywhere. In football, cricket, motor racing and other sports, it has become common practice for players to `take the knee`. In the same vein, Theatre Royal Stratford in East London has produced `840`, an online collection of short audio pieces by some 14 British Black and Asian writers, the title of which comes from the 8 minutes and 40 seconds it took for George Floyd to die; it is scheduled for a live performance in September.
But well before the George Floyd killing, a spirited public debate had been raging about statues and other monuments glorifying individuals and institutions that had been instrumental in the making and running of the British Empire. I wrote about it (`Bleak Times`) in AwaaZ, Issue 3/2018. Now, in the BLM moment, the Empire has assumed an even greater and more compelling significance, because of the BAME phenomenon. How so?
Actually `BAME` as an acronym is a misnomer. The `and` in the accepted definition implies that in addition to `Black [and] Asian` Britons, there is another `minority ethnic` variety in the UK demography, whereas all of them constitute the `ethnic minority` component of the population. Also, opinions differ as to whether `Black` in this context refers just to people of West Indian (Caribbean) descent or also includes Africans, and whether `Asian` means just South Asians or those from South East and East Asia as well.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the vast majority of BAME people, whether born in or outside the UK, can trace their historical connection to Britain through the Empire as the off-spring of a parent or remoter ancestor from the colonies who would have owed allegiance to the Crown either as a British subject by birth or by operation of laws relating to British nationality. The Empire however ceased to have any meaning for the indigenous Brits after decolonisation, which was more or less complete by the 1960s, and in any case it had never featured much in their school learning or imagination, though its legacy of course remained and could not be ignored or just wished away.
The Empire`s tentacles had spread far and wide, one consequence of which was the `reverse` migration of significant numbers of its former subjects `back` to the metropolis. Most BAME people are the product of that. They are as much `Empire`s children` as the descendants of Empire builders – those who had sailed across the seas to conquer, settle or rule faraway lands.
It has not been easy for native Britons to come to terms with this reality. In their psyche, deep down, the relative newcomers are interlopers and outsiders (the `other`), inferior beings who do not really `belong`- except when as individuals they are proven high achievers, valued and praised when doing good, tolerated if marginally useful but otherwise relegated to the bottom of the pecking order.
It is this that the BLM inspired black Britons are seeking to counter, by pointing to the legitimacy of their status and to their positive contribution to the nation`s wellbeing through the ages. As far as the BAME input in all this is concerned, it is undoubtedly the black Britons, as distinct from Asian and other ethnic minorities, who have taken the lead. They are vocal, articulate, insistent and impressive in creating a national consciousness of the systemic discrimination and disadvantage that they have suffered. And yes, they are making a difference, because change appears to be in the air.
To paraphrase my own words in relation to the `Me Too` movement (AwaaZ, Issue 1/2018), we are witnessing the emergence of a culture of transparency and confession, infused with retrospective guilt, all round. Prominent figures, businesses and corporations, universities and other organisations, government departments and agencies, are re-examining their consciences and coming forth with declarations of regret and apology for past wrongs and determination to put them right, though, to sound a note of caution here, the British are past masters of rhetoric steeped in their own language, and the real proof will be in the pudding!
So much for the general picture, but there are dangers lurking ahead. For a start, the George Floyd killing and all that has flowed from it in terms of the BLM response has coincided with Covid-19. All aspects of our lives are affected by it. There are local lockdowns … foreign holidays are in jeopardy … weddings and other events are on hold or have been cancelled … the opening up of schools has become a priority but may prove difficult because of strict conditions … unpredictability of where and when the axe will fall next remains and so on. The UK has officially fallen into deep recession and according to the Chancellor `hard times are here`; mass unemployment is looming; already hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost; the fallout from the downturn in business, investment and trade is ongoing … there is lots more to come.
As if that was not enough, the country is, as I write this at the height of an exceptionally hot summer, facing an immediate and pressing problem – of wave after wave of asylum-seeking migrants crossing the treacherous waters of the English Channel from France in their dodgy and overcrowded little boats. By an irony of fate, it has fallen on the British Royal Navy and Coastguard patrol to rescue them from drowning, as mandated by the law of the sea, and bring them ashore on UK soil for the increasingly overstretched local authorities to process and deal with them.
Then we have the uncertainty over the effect of Brexit which will come into effect at the end of the year. In other circumstances, all the country`s energies during the months leading to the current transition period would have been directed at making the changeover as smooth as possible. At this time however the nation`s preoccupations are focused on Covid-19, so come 31 December or near to it and suddenly the gaps in the preparations will become another source of discontent, particularly as it will also lay bare the dubious claim of `taking back control of our borders` that was the mainstay of the Brexit campaign.
In all this, it is easy to forget the true nature of Covid-19. It is after all a global pandemic. We are in the thick of it. The virus is still around. It has created an existential crisis. These summer months will soon pass into the autumn but come winter and the real impact of it will be felt in the rising numbers of infections and hospital admissions that are bound to occur. Our medical services, the NHS, will simply not be able to cope.
So against all this background, we have to remember that BLM, BAME et al are essentially minorities battling – struggling, shouting – to gain recognition of their rightful place in the mainstream. But the possibility of widespread social unrest, if things begin to fall apart in the country at large, cannot be ruled out. If that happens, the BLM related activism, currently in the top ranks of media coverage and liberal political discourse, could be eclipsed by the reactionary forces of white privilege which could turn ugly. That is not a nice thought.