England & Wales, Global Covid-19, Welfare and equalities

Black Lives Matter: how councils can support racial justice during a global pandemic

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

In the wake of the recent tragedy of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May, it is difficult to know how to help, both as individuals and as communities, in a time of so much anger and pain. Lucy Zhu writes on how local authorities can support racial justice now and going forward.

The last week of protesting in the US has sparked worldwide support for the ending of police brutality there, as well as brought to the forefront much-needed conversation about institutionalised racism against black communities everywhere. Protests have sprung up across the UK in London, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham, with council buildings used as their focal locations in Surrey and Birmingham. More protests are planned nationwide in the coming weeks.

It is heartening to see councils showing solidarity in a variety of ways, from lighting up council buildings in purple on 2 June, to supporting the movement on social media as they have done in Dublin, Glasgow and elsewhere.

UK police leaders have come together to release a statement saying they, “stand alongside all those across the globe who are appalled and horrified by the way George Floyd lost his life” but that “there are still restrictions in place to prevent its spread [of Covid-19], which include not gathering outside in groups of more than six people”. Though ambiguous, the statement made after the protests in Liverpool by Merseyside Police makes the general stance taken by those on the ground more clear and seems to be generally echoed: “We recognise the right of people to demonstrate peacefully and express their views but would continue to remind people they should adhere to social distancing guidelines at all times.”

Additionally, some local authorities, such as West Midlands Combined Authority, have actively supported peoples’ right to protest peacefully but encourage social distancing. Given the thousands that have gathered already, it is clear that these mass gatherings cannot be avoided. It is also undeniable that the recent report released by Public Health England (and the surrounding controversy) showing that ethnic minorities are more likely to die from the virus, as well as stats by the Met Police this week showing a disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic people had been fined for breaching the lockdown in the capital, is creating rising tensions noticed by council leaders in communities and therefore increasing numbers at protests. Given this rising tension around racial inequality and the underlying problems that cause it, it seems imperative that councils and their representatives address what is happening.

Councils in areas where there are upcoming protests can disseminate information on how to protest as safely as possible, as Birmingham City Council, London Black Lives Matter and others have already done. Regarding this, there is clear evidence that, while protesting will increase the risk of spreading the virus, individuals can minimise this risk by:

  • Maintaining social distancing as much as possible
  • Wearing eye protection (even sunglasses) and masks, which does not eliminate risk but significantly helps to lower it
  • Using signs and noisemakers instead of chanting or singing, as even talking can spread the virus and yelling can spread infected droplets even further in the air
  • Carrying hand sanitiser in case they find themselves touching anyone/anything (although avoidance is best)
  • Protesting in a group of one household as people are more likely to give a group a wider berth
  • Avoiding public transport where possible, and if cycling, pushing the bike along the march to encourage distance between individuals
  • Consider self-isolating after the protest, as a 14-day isolation after high levels of contact and potentially use of public transport would dramatically decrease the risk of spreading the disease.

No councils in the UK have actively condemned protesting, whereas by contrast some of this weekend’s planned protests have been banned in Australia. However, it is important that the speaking out of the black community is supported by those in power. Failure to do so is likely to further alienate a whole segment of society and make communication, collaboration and building trust increasingly difficult. By outlining ways to make protesting safe, local authorities can express their support for the cause and also help reduce health risks in a scenario where protesting will continue, supported or not.

As Barack Obama recently shared on social media as part of his suggestions regarding what action mayors and elected officials can take right now, “Real change requires protest to highlight a problem, and politics to implement practical solutions and laws.” The full scope of what needs to be done by local authorities cannot be addressed in this blog, but it would be remiss not to signpost some of what can be done and the steps that have already been taken by local authorities to make improvements.

Local authorities must not only acknowledge wider problems nationally and internationally but address the issues on their own doorsteps. The Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, has been proactive in condemning the failures of the police in her locality and acknowledging “the gap in justice available to First Nations [indigenous] people across Australia”. In creating transparency, recognising past failures and being proactive within communities, huge differences can be made in levels of trust and communication between councils and their communities. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority is taking steps, in the aftermath of the Public Health England Report and George Floyd’s tragic murder, to address structural inequalities. They have proposed a Greater Manchester Race Equality Panel as well as committing to the publication of a quarterly Race Equality Policing Report on the use of policing powers to ensure all communities receive equal treatment. Such systemic and structurally ingrained changes are needed across the board in order to ensure long-term change can be enacted.

Various groups are collaborating with Operation Black Vote who are working to tackle the deficit of black representation in British political institutions. Sadiq Khan’s active inclusion of Lord Simon Woolley (Director, Operation Black Vote) as part of the London Recovery Board shows a real commitment to ensuring, “nobody is left behind…as we navigate the economic, health and social challenges arising from both the virus itself and from the lockdown” in the context of racial inequality. Additionally, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has recognised their under-representation of the black community in decision-making and are also working with Operation Black Vote’s Leadership Programme to improve this. It must be noted that Birmingham also launched the Operation Black Vote and Birmingham City Council Civic Leadership Programme in 2020 and the continuation of such partnerships as part of future planning is imperative in facilitating black voices being heard.

Over and above partnering with organisations that will better represent the black community, the reality of racial bias and a lack of diversity within councils themselves must be addressed. As highlighted in a 2018 report, only 3.7 per cent of senior positions in councils were filled by black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals (BAME). From the same report, despite London’s population being 40 per cent non-white only two of the capital’s 32 boroughs had BAME bosses and across the nine combined authorities, there was only 11 per cent BAME at the chief executive level. In order to address this, there needs to be an active plan within individual councils to ensure minority ethnicities and voices are represented and heard and the structural inequalities present can be properly addressed. More diverse local authorities mean a more inclusive and dynamic debate for creating policy that better responds to and represents the communities being served.

Honest self-reflection is the key to addressing these pressing issues that continue to plague us everywhere. Racism is endemic within all political systems and on a human level, we have a duty to do our best to fight it at whatever scale we can. Without first looking to fix the problems within leadership and systems of governance we occupy, there can be no hope of creating the policy and changes needed to end the discrimination many in our society have to face on a daily basis. Only by working with and including the black community in the building of new systems, trust and equality can slowly be built in consistently and permanently.

 

Related blogs and briefings:

Covid-19: Government needs to get specific about protecting BAME people

Covid-19: It’s not equal in the end

Local government and Covid-19: issues for disadvantaged groups

We’re all in the same storm, but not in the same boat: the long-lasting health equity impacts of Covid-19

 

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