Black Lives Matter: ‘If you are not angry, you are not paying attention’

Five years after the murder of Sheku Bayoh,  Ikenna Azụbụike Ọnwụnabọnze explains the relevance of Black Lives Matter in Scotland.

A banner that reads - Black lives matter - signed, Scotland
Photo: 3 BBC

From the hilltops to the valleys of Arthur’s Seat, the stretched-out parks of Holyrood, on the roads, pavements and benches, people of different ages, skin shades and gender were everywhere. Everyone in concert with placards ranging from ‘white silence is violence’ to ‘Britain is not innocent’ and ‘Defund the police’.

Five years have gone by since the death of Sheku Bayoh. Amid the pain and suffering of his family due to the death of their father, husband, brother and son, the Police officers responsible for his death, PC Shorts and PC Paton have been allowed to retire on medical grounds, while Bayoh’s family are left still fighting for justice.

In a statement released by Lawyer Aamer Anwar and the family of Sheku Bayoh before the BLM protest Kadijartu Johnson, sister of Sheku and herself a nurse said:

‘In as much as my family would like to be part of the demonstrations taking place on Sunday for Black Lives Matter, I believe that danger of the spread of Coronavirus is still too great. 

As a staff nurse, I know the deadly impact of the virus and I would worry about social distancing on the day and the lives of my family and other lives being put at risk. Sadly, we cannot attend, nor will we encourage others to go because we believe a virtual protest would be far more effective and involve those unable to attend because of the risk.

I hope that you will join our campaign, we have fought for 5 years for justice for my dead brother Sheku and believe Black Lives Matter is as relevant in Scotland’

The family of Sheku Bayoh were told by the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the police officers.

‘I think we cannot ignore the role that race may have played’ in Sheku Bayoh’s death’ said Deborah Coles, from the charity Inquest who investigates death in custody. And the same could be said of Lord Advocate’s reason not to prosecute.

Deborah Coles told the BBC Scotland programme:

‘[T]he pattern that we’ve seen is that the state narrative is very often, when somebody dies after restraint, there is an attempt to demonise or speak ill of the person who’s died… to try and deflect attention away from the actions of the police officers [involved by] painting a picture of a dangerous man carrying a machete.’

The linking of Sheku Bayoh to a terrorist, despite being unarmed, as seen on the police report, highlights the stereotype and prejudices towards black people that police hold. They have repeatedly used words like ‘very large’, ‘massive’ and ‘biggest’ to describe an average-sized Sheku Bayoh to invoke the false idea of black people as posing a threat in society. Blacks as people whose appearance alone constitute a danger, and therefore cannot be treated with the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ let alone humanely. All of these are what has been informing the over-policing of black people in Scotland, and the UK at large.

Chair of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, Richard Haley said: 

‘Sheku Bayoh died 9 months after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, USA and just 3 weeks after Freddie Gray died in a police van in Baltimore. In the months following Sheku’s death, some of us were acutely aware of the inspirational Black Lives Matter movement in the USA. But at that time events in the USA did not seem to have a wider resonance in Scotland. This year it’s different. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has ignited a surge of activism around the world, and Scotland has been no exception. The political rulebook on how we address racism is being re-written.

‘The protests in Minneapolis resulted within five days in charges being brought against Derek Chauvin. That’s more than has been achieved in five years of legal activism over the death of Sheku Bayoh. No police office has been charged over Sheku’s death or is ever likely to be. The forthcoming public inquiry will bring a degree of closure, but it will not undo this injustice. Police sabotaged the initial investigation into Sheku’s death, and the Scottish legal system took no effective steps to set that right. There needs to be a sea-change in Scotland’s attitude to institutional racism and to police accountability. That change may be coming, but it will need a vibrant political campaign, not just a public inquiry.’

Although Sheku’s family did not join the protests many thousands did turn out observing social distancing etiquette. Cynthia Gentle, one of the organisers of Sunday’s demonstration, responding to Kadijartu Johnson said: 

‘On behalf of the African Community Edinburgh, we stand with you in the pursuit for justice for our brother, Sheku Bayoh, we […] support in every possible way for justice and for the safety of members of our community. The effects of racism are not just physical, as victims of racial abuse we would like to draw attention to its adverse effect on our mental health. Yes, we are affected by Covid-19, but in more numbers and for long we have suffered with all sorts of unhealthy coping strategies to our mental health issues. We want more than just to survive, our mental health needs as much attention as our physical needs. It takes courage for us to speak out during a [Covid-19] pandemic while trying to draw attention to the pandemic [of] racism.’

The inhuman and brutal killing of our brother George Floyd in Minnesota, US, was the catalyst of this demonstration here, in Edinburgh, and around the world reawakening the #BlackLivesMatter movement which was originally founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer.

The significance of the 2020 movement is how it has united the world against police brutality and racism. It has highlighted the importance of technology in the fight against a mountain of injustices, and police brutality around the world. Technology has stripped these immoral and wicked acts of their natural unbelievability – behaviours that people manifest against others which, as a human, you will struggle to even imagine it possible. George Floyd’s is a case in point, as were many more others. Technology has also stripped overt racism of its cloak of denial. Behaviours which, were they not captured on camera would have easily passed as ‘blowing things out of proportion’ or even, outright false. There is also the fact that the instant connectivity offered by the internet means that everyone is tuned into the same incident within a short space of time, if not in real time – a raw material, without media censorship. It is within that private space when watching such video that one examines their humanity, irrespective of political persuasion, race, or religion. This means that the feeling of indignation is pretty much felt at the same time around the world by those who saw or heard about it.

Since 1990, in England and Wales, more than 1740 people have died in police or following police contact. Recent figures show that black people are twice as likely to die than whites, according to HuffPost. The families of these victims continue to struggle for justice. 

The pervasive racism of the UK government was again exposed by the outbreak of Covid-19 in which statistics showed the disproportionate death of black people and other ethnic minorities. One must be very naïve to think of all these issues – the police killings of black folks, BAME Covid-19 disproportionate death and racism – in isolation to each other. Rather, they are a concatenation of events that only culminate to the fury we are seeing now. Studies have shown that economic inequality has an adverse effect on health. Some have linked racism to income inequality and socioeconomic disparities between whites and their black counterparts. It is also the case that black people, due to the discrimination in the labour market, are the highest underemployed group while many are highest in unskilled sectors, care, leisure and other services. Similarly, the experience of racism has been shown to have detrimental effects on health and wellbeing. Illnesses such as high blood pressure, respiratory illness, psychological distress, depression, and anxiety among others are closely linked to this. The study also highlights that people who have been frequent victims of racism are exposed to premature death. Of these illnesses linked to racism as contributing to its cause, some of the people affected may possibly never have known they had it prior to contracting coronavirus. Therefore, the notion that there is a genetic factor that pre-exposes black people to the fatalities of Covid-19 is fundamentally flawed.

An end to systemic racism, inequality, social injustices are core demands of the protest on Sunday, as are #BlackLivesMatter demonstration all over the world. I will add among these, civility. I think this is apt, given that civilisation is not defined by edifices, bright city lights or fancy cars – and neither is being civilised. It is in our everyday practices, how we relate to others. It is in socialisation, matters that are made topics at dinner tables and in gatherings of friends and colleagues, and how they are addressed. The act of being civilised is a negotiated practice of rationality in everyday life. By this I mean, that the idea of denying a person’s existence, or rights, merely by their skin colour, accents, or how they are dressed is downright irrational.

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