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Black Lives Matter – The struggle against racism, for equality & real social & economic change. By Rokhsana Fiaz.

“As we watched the moving scenes of the final public memorial for George Floyd we know that the unprecedented global movement for racial justice that his death unleashed will live on in this struggle for equality, for real social & economic change.”

Rokhsana Fiaz, Mayor of Newham.

By Rokhsana Fiaz, Mayor of Newham

We watched in pain and outrage, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of US police in Minneapolis. This unspeakable horror, which sparked large-scale civil protest across America, is symptomatic of decades of racism and police brutality and is the latest in a long line of racist killings and atrocities.

The phenomenal outpouring of protest has seen a further evolution of the Black lives Matter movement that emerged six years ago after another fatal shooting of a young black man by police, 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson. Today, this new mobilisation has a strong expression here in Britain, led predominantly by young Black, Asian and other ethnic minority people. While we often speak of events that inspire us, it has been truly incredible to see this wave of solidarity. Importantly, this solidarity with the struggle in the US is demanding change and an end to racism, in all its forms, at home. 

Those of us who have campaigned over decades are acutely aware that these are not new issues. Tragically, many deaths in custody have forced bereaved families to fight for justice, without official recognition or the spotlight of publicity, through inquiries and inquests. In over thirty years as an anti-racist campaigner, I have worked to support many campaigns, including for Stephen Lawrence, and more recently I supported the Justice for Edson Family campaign as a Newham councillor prior to becoming the Mayor of Newham. Edson da Costa, was a young black man who died after being restrained by police in Custom House. Like so many cases, the inquests into these deaths in custody ultimately cleared the arresting officers of responsibility, never receiving official support or fair treatment. This long history of injustice, some 21 years after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry published its recommendations on tackling institutional racism, is the backdrop to the emergence of this new movement, which has served notice that things have to change fundamentally.

What is also positive in this new movement is how the deeper roots of racism, in the history and legacy of slavery and colonialism, have been brought to the fore. The tearing down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol has come to symbolise this shift in consciousness. After years of campaigning, the spontaneous refusal to accept its presence in the city has become a symbol of this irrefutable demand for change.  As in Bristol, the stain of the slave trade unacceptably appears on many of our streets, memorials and buildings. This must of course change and we must also shine a light on this shameful history of empire, beginning with greater education and understanding through teaching in schools. 

The appetite for change was evident to a large extent among the young people in Newham, who I recently joined for zoom call, where we talked about George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and our local action to tackle racism and inequality. I was struck by how issues of racism impacted upon their lives. And whilst we have been proud to light up our Town Hall purple as a sign of solidarity, there is an urgent imperative for our action has to go far beyond symbolic statements. This includes listening to the voices and experiences of young people to take forward the fight for equality together.

The approach to tackling race equality and racial justice, and a belief that the needs of young people must be central, is at the heart of my approach in Newham. Addressing fundamental inequality, and that means race inequality, is crucial for a borough like ours — the most diverse in the country with some 73 per cent from ethnic minorities. Like many areas with large black and Asian communities, we are blighted by some of the highest levels of embedded poverty, deprivation and inequality anywhere in the country, and a lack of decent and social rent housing, health inequalities and a concentration of people in low wage, insecure work. That is why our Community Wealth Building approach shapes all that we do. In the teeth of chronic Tory underfunding, our strategy is to harness all means at our disposal to build an inclusive economy, including building social rent council homes, and many other measures that can begin to address inequality, and the race inequalities endemic within that which affect our communities so profoundly.

The impact of the unprecedented health emergency of the Covid-19 crisis has also revealed the extent of race inequality in Britain. Whilst Black and Asian people already endure unacceptable health inequalities, shorter life expectancies and poorer qualities of life, the pandemic has truly shown how this is a life and death issue. The evidence of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities is a national scandal and in Newham, where we have had among the highest rates of death from Covid-19, we are acutely aware of the need for serious action.

Predictably, the response from government has been weak and ineffective. The initial report published by Public Health England report on the issue was not only censored to suit the government’s narrative, but failed to offer any substantive action. Finally the second report on Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority communities, with recommendations, has now been published two weeks later. The several recommendations didn’t reveal anything that hasn’t already been known or called for before.  Let’s see what happens next, but I am clear about this: we must push for these recommendations to be fully implemented, and locally, I’ll be making sure that we advance this as a priority.

Over the weekend we saw the ugly side of racism in London, when hundreds of far-right extremists took to the streets of capital to ‘counter-protest’ against #BlackLivesMatter under the guise of ‘defending statues’. The government’s response to the scenes of violence and attacks has been the launch of yet another ‘Commission’ to look at race disparities and ‘wider inequalities’ in the country. Its establishment will be supported by the head of policy at Downing Street who in the past has questioned whether institutional racism really exists. That doesn’t augur well for building trust and confidence amongst Britain’s Black communities.  

Like many, weary of the governments repetitive and naval-gazing on the pivotal issue of racial justice in Britain, what’s the point of yet another commission? There have been plenty on race inequality in wealth, health, education, social mobility, employment, life chances, housing, and in the criminal justice system. With hundreds of recommendations. But all we get from the government is another announcement of another Commission to look at the issues, set up by someone who doesn’t understand. It appears that this is another distracting tactic to avoid addressing the fundamental issues of race inequality and racism in this country.

This stands in stark contrast to the unseemly haste with which we are being urged to return to places of work, school and ‘regular life’ after what was a very late start to the lockdown with confused messaging. That the UK is a country among those with the very highest death tolls worldwide is the product of this shockingly inept handling of the crisis, which must be brought to account, and within that, we need an independent public inquiry into ethnic minority Covid deaths as a matter of urgency.

The right to a healthy life is a fundamental human right and the economic impact of the pandemic, and the government’s response, threatens to deepen inequality with black and ethnic minority communities bearing the brunt in economic and health terms. This injustice is also central to our fight for against racism, alongside the urgent need for rapid action to end intuitional racism and for justice for the victims of racist violence.

As we watched the moving scenes last week of the final public memorial for George Floyd in his hometown of Houston we know that the unprecedented global movement for racial justice that his death unleashed will live on in this struggle for equality, for real social and economic change.

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