As we now all know, on 25 May, a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd was arrested on suspicion of paying for cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. Within 20 minutes he was dead – police officer Derek Chauvin had knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. Almost immediately, protests, often violent, spread across the US. American cities seem to be burning in righteous rage at the injustice. Since then, largely under the slogan of Black Lives Matter, spontaneous, mass demonstrations have taken place in solidarity with Floyd across the world. Internationally, Covid-19 lockdowns have been sidelined in the midst of the fury against racism, unequal treatment and police brutality. However, the picture seems complicated – alongside protests, there have been violent riots and looting. In Atlanta, the rapper Killer Mike criticised the unfocused nature of the destruction, as some of the businesses and neighbourhoods damaged were black and minority owned.
What does this all mean for those of us living outside the US? In the UK, protests have taken place in Hyde Park, Parliament Square and other areas with large numbers of mostly young people understandably appalled at racist violence wherever it happens. But are the parallels between the UK and America so obvious? For example, while US police and National Guard seem to be using tear gas, rubber bullets, truncheons and horses to control riots and peaceful protesters alike, in Britain the police don’t carry guns and are less militarised. But does that mean the scale and depth of racism is any less?
However much protagonists such as Donald Trump or so-called Antifa activists frame this issue, can we go beyond the ‘whose side are you on?’ rhetoric when discussing this from a British perspective? Is it possible to show solidarity with protests against racism and brutality as well as being critical of the way in which some of these protests are taking place? What form should solidarity take? As groups of white people publicly take the knee, is it significant that these discussions about race in 2020 are framed in terms of white privilege and identity, instead of a collective fight against racism? What are the parallels – and the differences – between the US and the UK when it comes to racism?
Patrick Vernon OBE
social commentator; founder, 100 Great Black Britons; creator, Every Generation Game: Windrush Edition
Inaya Folarin Iman
co-director, the Free Speech Union, former project manager, Index on Censorship; former Brexit Party parliamentary candidate (2019)
Dr Shahrar Ali
home affairs spokesperson and former deputy leader, Green Party; author, Why Vote Green 2015
director, Voice4Change England; former creative director, Rebop Productions; member, African Odyssey programming board, BFI
Dr Cheryl Hudson
lecturer in US political history, University of Liverpool; co-editor, Why Academic Freedom Matters (2016) and Ronald Reagan and the 1980s (2008)