We are enormously pleased to feature this guest blog by Steph Green, which speaks to the dilemmas and contradictions posed for youth and community workers by the historic surge of Black people’s struggle for equality and justice.
The only thing recently to overshadow Covid 19 in the news at the moment is the surge of activism under the banner of Black Lives Matters since the killing of George Floyd by police officers, on May 25 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. The brutal actions of these officers of the Minnesota police force have re-ignited reactions to the many other deaths of Black people at the hands of police and other authorities across the globe. Black Lives Matter protests have sprung up around the world. Over the weekend (June 6th & 7th) there has been a big Black Lives Matter demonstration in London and many others around the UK. Notably, activists in Bristol have pulled down a statue of slaver Edward Colston, and dumped it into the sea. There are renewed calls to address a more honest version of British history in schools – to tell the truth about the UK’s legacy of white supremacy and imperialism.
The images of George Floyd’s killing are distressing. As he lay handcuffed, face down, with one officer deliberately kneeling on his neck and the other officers restraining him and preventing onlookers from intervening, he said ‘I can’t breathe’. (Spocchia, G. 2020). The phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ has since become a symbol of the many forms of institutional oppression that Black people suffer. It captures the metaphorical suffocation of Black people by systemic and everyday racism. It resonates with the asphyxiation of tens of thousands of people in the UK dying of Covid 19. NHS figures show a disproportionate number of Black and minority ethnic people have died from Covid 19 in the UK (Siddique, H. 2020). The same systemic life-long violence and discrimination experienced by Black people living in a racist world creates the conditions that make Black people much more likely than white people to die of the Covid19 virus. These links are very important. We are dealing with a political system and dominant culture stacked in favour of the white, culturally Christian and wealthy. This disadvantages certain groups in terms of housing, education, income and health. Black people are more likely to die of Covid 19 because they are more likely to live in densely populated housing and neighbourhoods, and to work as essential workers (often in precarious employment) who are more exposed to the virus and have little or no protective equipment (care workers, health workers, bus drivers, etc.).
In the UK there are a disproportionate number of Black deaths as a result of contact with police, or in immigration detention centres (Athwal, H. Bourne, J. Webber, F. 2015). This is likely to be because of systemic issues which put Black people at higher risk of being criminalised and incarcerated. It is not simply a case of a few police officers being ‘bad apples’. The state and the capitalist system it supports certainly does not act as though all lives matter, when it comes to the lives of refugees and other migrants, looking for a chance to survive by whatever means they can.
The Grenfell fire in 2017 is another example of systemic violence against a mainly Black and minority ethnic population. At least 72 people died and many more were injured and traumatised by the disaster. The underlying systemic disadvantage that Black and minority ethnic people experienced resulted in their deaths. The legacy of imperialism, capitalism and austerity that created the conditions for Grenfell (Bulley, Edkins, El-Elany, 2019) is the same legacy behind all of these examples, which literally and metaphorically suffocate Black and ethnic minority people in the UK. By contrast, spontaneous community activism has responded to the situation positively in all three examples. Community-based and often Black-led groups have emerged to provide the necessary support and to fight the injustices.
In some parts of the USA some protests have become violent and involved looting. There, the police have used tear gas and rubber bullets against Black Lives Matter protesters. Gary Younge (2020) argues that this must be seen in the context of the everyday systemic violence against Black people and poor people under capitalism. He argues that violent protest has been a necessary part of political change historically. That certainly leaves youth and community workers with a challenge. How do we work in the context of ‘revolutionary’ violence? Would we even recognise it as revolutionary at the time? Are we too well schooled in keeping the peace?
Amongst the many distressing images and videos on social media since Floyd’s death, the story that has most touched me is that of Sandra Bland. Initially, I couldn’t work out why, of all of the brutal and ugly scenes of violence by the authorities towards Black people, did this one touch me the most? It left me feeling haunted and fearful for days.
Sandra Bland died in custody in Texas USA in July 2015. Her death, three days after her arrest, was ruled as a suicide by hanging (Montgomery, D. 2019). A video about Sandra Bland’s death, from Double Down News (2020) opens with her talking as a Black Lives Matters activist – a bright and energetic young women who wanted to change the world. It shows scenes from her arrest and it makes terrifying viewing. Sandra Bland was 28 and had been active posting videos about police mistreatment of Black people. She was part of the Black Lives Matters movement. She looks and sounds like someone I might’ve encouraged to become a youth and community worker!
Realising this has explained my deep sense of fear after seeing the video as I work out how to respond to Black Lives Matter as a youth and community worker. Gary Younge may be right in his analysis that the violence is inevitable and even necessary to bring about change, but I care about the lives and safety of the people I work with. I also know that street battles do not play to my (or their) strengths, however much I want change.
As I try to take all of this in, I have been asking myself, what youth and community work can do to engage in all of this. We are informal educators, skilled in open critical dialogue, and there are plenty of ways into discussions with young people and adults about Black Lives Matters. It is out in the open, all over social media and available for us to talk about. There will no doubt be interesting discussions about ‘all lives matter’, about systemic violence against poor white communities and so on, as well as discussions about everyday racism and the damage it does. There may also be room for more nuanced musings e.g. the Americanised symbolism in some of the resistive gestures. What does ‘taking the knee’ mean here in the UK? What system does it imply allegiance to? We need to look for opportunities for making connections with the issues and experiences of the young people we work with and importantly, not close things down with dogmatic responses when we feel strongly about something (hard to do when we are passionate).
Who we are matters in these discussions, but Black and white youth workers all have a responsibility to pick up on the opportunities for this anti-oppressive dialogue with the young people that we have relationships with. That can be done in on-line forums, detached, or wherever else we are working. The challenge is always about working out how to open up a space / culture for dialogue – the space where people can feel safe to think and feel while they explore new ways of looking at things. The restrictions of the Covid 19 lockdown don’t help, but I know that some youth and community workers are already doing this work. The rapidly developing actions emerging from Black Lives Matter give us plenty of opportunities to spark off interesting discussions with young people. One radical idea from some US states is to disband their police forces and replace them with specific public services which are equipped to deal with people and incidents in a more appropriate way. That seems to me, like a perfect discussion to have with young people in a youth work space! In all of this we need to make sure we have a good grasp of the issues – we need to do our homework and be well prepared.
Is there a role for us in supporting young people and other community members to be involved in the protests and movement? In the past I have supported young people to be involved in movements, marches and protests as a youth and community worker. The preparation wasn’t that different from any other trip or residential. Discussing the potential dangers with the group of young people and planning ahead together made things safer (we now call it a risk assessment and have a form for it). I remember some incidents where that planning had to be put into action. The first one, in the 1980s, on a London Gay Pride March – in the days when the police did not wear rainbow symbols or join in supportively – and when there were no mobile phones. After the march, the young people and I saw a lone gay man attacked by a group of policemen outside a pub. We had agreed that if any violence started we would leave the area, together, quickly, and that’s what we did. My first responsibility was to the young people. I still feel the guilt today for leaving him unsupported. Sometimes there is no right answer.
More recently (2010) young people organised a protest in the Prime Minister’s constituency, against the Coalition Government cuts to Youth Work. One young organiser from the group was interviewed at school by police, a few days beforehand, without a parent present. He was forcibly told that he would be responsible if anyone got hurt during the protest. They specifically told him that the PM had armed guards, suggesting that someone could be shot. He was petrified. The protest went ahead as planned and youth and community worker trade unionists worked in the background to make sure that everyone stayed safe. The young organiser joined in after things had started and when he felt satisfied that there would not be any ‘trouble’. His youth workers played a big part in enabling him to get over the experience, but it haunted him for a long time.
Many of us are used to working with Black and white young people who experience police intimidation and violence regularly. We respond by creating spaces for those young people to discuss their experiences and to make sense of why it happens –recognising the systemic oppression which creates this violence, and at least, thinking about survival tactics. These youth and community work spaces can be both cathartic and political. That is the nature of our work.
I think it is possible for youth and community work to support Black and white young people to understand and engage with Black Lives Matters if they want to. In my experience, when young people get involved in community activism and movements they enjoy it, feel empowered, and learn a lot about the world. It is heartening to see images of Black and white people – many of them young – protesting together (and socially distanced). I hope that rather than shy away, for fear of there being some violence, we work with and in support of Black Lives Matter. We can work out how to do it, together, in solidarity.
Note: I have used the terms ‘Black’ and ‘black and minority ethnic’ interchangeably throughout this piece. I understand Black to be an inclusive term for people who experience colour-based racism in this post-imperial context. Sometimes Black is used to only refer to the African diaspora, but that is not how I have used it here. Recently the terms ‘people of colour’ and ‘Black and Brown’ have emerged in discussions about ‘race’ and racism. It is not for me (I am white) to define these terms, so I have stuck with the terminology of the groups and reports etc. that I am referring to.
Steph Green [IDYW Steering Group] June 9, 2020
Athwal, H. Bourne, J. Webber, F. (2015) Dying for Justice, Institute of Race Relations, London UK
Bulley, D. Edkins, J. El-Enany, N. (Eds) (2019) After Grenfell, violence, resistance, response, London: Pluto Press
Double Down News (2020) ‘Don’t Talk to me about ‘All Lives Matter’, Sandra Bland’, https://www.doubledown.news/watch/2020/1/june/black-lives-matter-george-floyd-sandra-bland (last accessed on 06/06/2020)
Montgomery, D. (2019) ‘Sandra Bland, It Turns Out, Filmed Traffic Stop Confrontation Herself’, New York Times May 7, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/07/us/sandra-bland-video-brian-encinia.html (last accessed on 06/06/2020)
Siddique, H., 2020, ‘British BAME Covid 19 death rate ‘more than twice that of whites’, Guardian, 1 May, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/01/british-bame-covid-19-death-rate-more-than-twice-that-of-whites (last accessed on 06/06/2020)
Spocchia, G. (2020) ‘George Floyd: Police release bodycam footage of arrest’, Independent, 28 May, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/george-floyd-police-bodycam-footage-arrest-dead-video-a9536376.html (last accessed on 06/06/2020)
Younge, G. (2020) ‘Black Lives Matter and the Question of Violence’, Double down news, 5th June, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGFwxcjAbnM (last accessed 06/06/2020)