Simon Woolley, founder and direction of Operation Black Vote, explains why he is supporting Black Lives Matter as the chaos in Charlotte continues
America, physically and metaphorically, is burning again and I must begin by making clear that no reasonable person can condone any violence, much less the level of violence we’ve seen in South Carolina this week.
Yet, at the same time, any rational person must also understand the source of this violence, and appreciate the gravity of the problem which underpins it.
A black man, Keith Lamont Scott, was shot dead on the streets of Charlotte in a manner which has become all-too-predictable for the black community. Many black people see these killings as nothing more than executions by the state.
At the heart of this very serious problem is the way a significant section of America’s law enforcement officers, and in a wider context America’s institutions, view black people. Of course not every police officer has a pejorative view of the black community, but we have to ask why so many black people, particularly black men, are being shot dead by police.
One of those victims, Tamir Rice, was just 12 years old when he was gunned down, playing with a toy gun in the park. When the police saw him, they didn’t see a child. They saw an animal who could potentially harm them.
There are myriad anecdotes to illustrate the spread and scale of this prejudice. In Tulsa, for example, an officer relayed to a colleague during an investigation: “he must be a bad dude. He must be on something”. What was his reasoning other than the guy was big and back?
That big, black, innocent, unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher, was not helped by US public servants when his car broke down on the highway. Rather he was shot dead by a police officer. When you engage in a mindset that’s stereotypical, fearful and distrustful of a person for no good reason but the colour of their skin, terrible accidents and or executions can occur.
These injustices are unfolding on live TV, right in front of our eyes; it’s not as if we’re talking about a new, hitherto undiscovered problem. And the evidence is everywhere.
Just this week a judge in Pennsylvania, Mark Ciavarella, was jailed for selling kids, many of them black, to private jails. The judge was paid a million dollars by a juvenile detention centre to fill it up, and black youths were a prime target.
Further down the state food chain, we’re still seeing police not following due process, shooting (or handcuffing) first and asking questions never. Last week I was in Washington DC last week and heard President Obama talk about the injustice of mass black incarceration. And yet, even with the most powerful human being on the planet aware of the problem, it continues.
The violence erupted after the death of Keith Scott (Getty)
But If you think this is a general problem with American society, a gung-ho trigger-happy lunacy that punishes black people disproportionately, think again. Last year a Guardian study revealed young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police.
As I said, I abhor and reject violent, illegal protest. But I wholeheartedly support legal protests against the endemic racism which killed Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Tamir Rice and many others. I would sooner people protest, and our society wakes up to this shocking injustices and inequalities, than people sit back and do nothing.
And yes, when I say our society, I mean it. This affects Britain as well as the US. The levels of violence are not comparable, and we have made huge strides, but there is an all-too-common mindset which leads police officers to view black people in a negative way. David Cameron launched an anti-discrimination drive just eight months ago and Theresa May has said police stop-and-search powers are used unfairly towards young, black men.
When I was a commissioner with responsibility for race, with Equality and Human Rights Commission I was charged with looking at stop-and-search numbers, and I found that a third were illegal, which meant that racial profiling was endemic. Just this week a policeman endangered the wellbeing of Leon Fontana, as he violently smashed his windscreen, forcing him to leave the car.
During my visit to Washington I met with Black Lives Matter leaders and we spoke about shared experiences and the support we’d give each other. My response over the last couple of days has been to show solidarity and tell them they have the support of Operation Black Vote in this period of great pain and worry. I don’t always agree with their actions, but I very much support their right to protest, and put the agenda front and centre in both the US and the UK.
Some have argued that by supporting protests, such as staged by Black Lives Matter, we are somehow driving a wedge between White and Black America Yet the reality is that America is already deeply divided; the legacy of Sarah Palin, and the vitriol of Donald Trump, have seen to that. The demand by Blacks Lives Matters is simply that black people’s lives should be no less valuable than white people’s lives.
The real goal is to highlight uncomfortable truths and find ways to both heal our societies and offer hope that things can change. If we allow talent to be locked out, generations to be demonised and needless murders to occur with impunity, we allow the soul and trust of a nation to be burned.
I’m convinced on both sides of the Atlantic we’re bigger and better than that.
Operation Black Vote is a British organisation set up to address the black democratic deficit. You can follow the group on Twitter @OpBlackVote or visit their website here.