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Police brutality sparked mass protest in the US, but it's time for Scotland to take a look at racism closer to home

Images: PA credit

Police brutality sparked mass protest in the US, but it's time for Scotland to take a look at racism closer to home

Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old high school student, had been taking her nine-year-old cousin to a food store near their home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when she encountered George Floyd being restrained by police. She turned on her phone and began to film what happened, as Floyd was dragged to the ground.

Three officers handcuffed him and pressed him face down into the road. One of them, 44-year-old Derek Chauvin, began to push his knee down on Floyd’s neck.

“Please, please, please,” Floyd said. “I can’t breathe.”

The video lasts ten minutes. It clearly shows Floyd was unarmed, with Chauvin pressing his knee down on the 46-year-old’s neck for nine minutes. At the end, the police officers walk away. Floyd’s body was put onto a stretcher. He died hours later in hospital.

A lot of the time when we get BAME representation – it’s despite the political party, rather than because of the political party

The footage was unambiguous. The scenes, proof of naked police brutality towards a black man. They spread across the world in hours. The protests followed shortly after.

Demonstrations spread quickly across the US, where, despite Donald Trump’s relentless calls for more aggressive treatment of his own country’s citizens, protest spread to every state, in both cities and towns.

Yet police violence didn’t let up, with video after video emerging of peaceful demonstrators being beaten, tear-gassed and restrained by police and the national guard. Journalists were arrested.

Labour MSP Anas Sarwar made the decision to stay away from the Black Lives Matter protests in Scotland due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. He joined with Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, human rights lawyer Aamer Aanwar and Kadi Johnson – the sister of Sheku Bayoh who died in custody in Fife in 2015 – to call on people to join an online demonstration organised by the STUC instead. But missing the demonstrations was clearly a difficult decision.

“A policeman, the law, is kneeling on a black person’s neck, for the sole reason that he is black. How can we justify that?”

Sarwar told Holyrood: “I change between anger, loneliness and distress. Anger when you see these scenes of injustice, of course you are going to get angry. The tragic thing is when I look at those young people, they aren’t the first generation fighting against racism, and the sad reality is they won’t be the last generation fighting against racism. That’s a really hard thing to feel and say, but it is sadly true. 

“The distress comes because you want to be out there. You want to be out there raising your voice, and protesting, and showing solidarity, but we have to recognise we are in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. It just didn’t feel right to go out to protest, though my heart and my mind wanted to be there.

“The reason I say loneliness is because for people who have been speaking out and challenging racism, in all forms, whether in politics or public life or in individual institutions, there’s a frustration.”

In London, huge crowds gathered in Parliament Square and outside Downing Street. Prime Minister Boris Johnson released a video address, saying he recognised the “incontrovertible, undeniable feeling of injustice” which sparked the protests, while condemning those who ignored social distancing during a “time of national trial”.

Inevitably, questions over racism and discrimination towards BAME people in the UK followed. It is just two years since Amber Rudd was forced to resign as Home Secretary following the Windrush scandal, which saw the UK Government wrongly detain and deport people who had lived in the UK, legally, for decades. All people of colour, their own government had worked to have them removed from their own country.

In Scotland, thousands gathered in Edinburgh and Glasgow to lend their voices to the calls for justice, despite warnings to adhere to social distancing measures and stay at home. In Holyrood Park, a stone’s throw from the parliament, thousands gathered, spread out over the grass and up the side of Arthur’s Seat, holding placards with “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” to listen to speakers address a problem Scotland would prefer to ignore.

Addressing the crowd, Sir Geoff Palmer, Professor Emeritus at Heriot-Watt University, spoke of the protests as an opportunity to atone for the horrors experienced by those forced into slavery.

“Today is their hope come true,” he said. “Come true that in fact the world will recognise that, for no reason, other than having a black skin, they were enslaved for hundreds of years, beaten and killed. What is very sad is that after 300 years they are still being killed in the United States.

“A policeman, the law, is kneeling on a black person’s neck, for the sole reason that he is black. How can we justify that?”

A couple days later, in the Scottish Parliament, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf closed the Scottish Parliament debate on showing solidarity with anti-racism by quoting the last words of George Floyd.

“I can’t breathe,” he said.

And clearly racism exists in Scotland too, even if the country can be reticent in acknowledging that reality. The facts speak for themselves.

As Sarwar pointed out in his address to parliament, every chief executive of every council and every government department is white. Every director of a department. Every principal of every college or university. Every headteacher is white. Every chair of a public sector body is white. Every High Court judge is white. Every prisoner governor is white. Every editor of a news organisation.

Since the opening of the Scottish Parliament there have been 306 MSPs elected. Four have been from BAME backgrounds and none have been women of colour. There have been as many members of the Ewing family elected as people from BAME backgrounds.

Put simply, public life, in Scotland, remains overwhelmingly white.

Talat Yaqoob, chair and co-founder of feminist campaign group Women 50:50, told Holyrood: “Work needs to be done by the parliament and councils on accessibility and methods of opening up the doors of participation to everyone. Political parties need to make this a focus, not just when they are looking for candidates, but because they see equality as a cornerstone of their work. That means investing in outreach to engage more diverse members, creating better reporting mechanisms for members to report racism, sexism, ableism and any bigotry, and crucially, actually taking action on these reports to change their cultures from within.

“In our work, we regularly hear from women who experience disproportionate abuse on social media but also directly in person, for women of colour this is even worse. These experiences have to be taken seriously, and real action needs to be taken against perpetrators and to support women in public life. Whilst this disproportionate abuse exists across society, we will continue to see the under-representation of women of colour. We need wholesale change, across multiple areas of society.

We can’t kid ourselves on that there isn’t everyday racism happening right here in Scotland as well.

“But it is not simply a numbers game, it is about changing how decisions are made and how politics works, we want to see the doors of politics open to all women, but we also must see progressive policy making which is anti-racist, anti-sexist and takes seriously the realities of institutionalised inequality. If we have policy-making of this kind, then politics will feel relevant for so many more people and we will see better representation as a result.”

Sarwar too highlighted the failure by political parties and parliaments and councils to help people from BAME backgrounds enter politics.

He told Holyrood: “All of our parties have a responsibility. I am really proud that the Labour Party used mechanisms in our selection process to ensure we had 50-50 representation from the outset of the parliament. That’s fantastic. I am also proud that Labour and the SNP are the only parties that have had BAME representation. But if I’m going to be bluntly honest, a lot of the time when we get BAME representation – it’s despite the political party, rather than because of the political party. More often than not it’s because it has taken ethnic minority communities to organise, mobilise and help elect and select BAME candidates. Quite often that has been against resistance from political parties, rather than encouragement from political parties. They still need to think about that. Why is it so hard for BAME candidates to come forward?”

Sarwar added: “Solidarity is welcome. Warm words are welcome. Positive tweets and Facebook posts are welcome. People using the Black Lives Matter hashtag are welcome. But we can’t kid ourselves on that there isn’t everyday racism happening right here in Scotland as well.

“I say this to leaders of all political parties, all institutions, all organisations: thank you for your solidarity. Thank you for tweeting. But you see when Black Lives Matter is trending? It’s pretty easy to tweet. It’s pretty easy to post messages. The harder thing is reflecting on your own organisation and yourself. To say, what is it about my own institution, my own organisation, my own political party, that I need to change to make it better? Because ultimately, while we all thank you for your solidarity, we will judge you for the actions you take and the decisions you make, when it isn’t trending around the world.

“Unless our institutions, our organisations and our political parties think about why that happens, and what they are going to proactively do to address it, then we can have all the protests in the world, but fundamentally nothing is going to shift and nothing is going to change. That’s a much harder conversation.”

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