Anger is finding its voice now: the Windrush scandal over the treatment of Commonwealth immigrants to the United Kingdom, the Grenfell Tower fire, which disproportionately killed people from ethnic communities, and the high number of victims black and Asian women from Covid-19 are seen by protesters as part of a pattern of injustice.
For Boris Johnson, the sudden eruption of protests featuring Britons of all ethnicities – especially young people – has launched a new challenge on uncomfortable political ground.
Over the weekend, tens of thousands of people – mostly young and from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds – took to the streets of the UK to protest.
While the protests were mostly peaceful, explosions of violence took place on Saturday and Sunday evenings in London which, according to the Metropolitan Police Federation, left 62 injured.
The conservatives, in power for a decade, have a record to defend and it is contested not only by young urban voters – not the natural allies of Mr. Johnson’s party – but by a wide range of society.
Initially, the Prime Minister’s most powerful response was his denunciation of attacks on police during largely peaceful protests, while he also condemned the “criminal act” which saw Bristol protesters throw a statue of the merchant of Edward Colston 17th century slaves in the port of the city in the west of England. .
“These protests have been overthrown by assault – and they betray the cause they claim to serve. Those responsible will be held accountable, ”he tweeted Sunday evening.
Diane Abbott of Labor, a former shadow secretary of state, said Johnson’s comments were “Trumpian nuances.” She said, “He absolutely does not understand that people are very attached to these issues. ”
But on Monday evening, the Prime Minister released a video message, saying that the murder of George Floyd had “aroused anger and a feeling of widespread and unquestionable, undeniable injustice.” This, he said, was in too many cases “based on a cold reality”.
He said the country has made huge strides in the fight against racism, but added, “We also have to honestly recognize that there is still a lot to do – to remove prejudice and create opportunity, and the government that I lead is committed to this effort. . ”
Earlier, Interior Minister Priti Patel promised that “thugs and criminals” attending the protests would be punished, but refuted Labor Party statements that she did not understand the anger felt by the workers. people – especially young people – about racism.
Patel told MPs that when she was a child, she was “often called Paki in the schoolyard”, that she had been the victim of racial violence in the streets and that she was advised to leave her name behind. family in favor of that of her husband to advance his career.
Allies of Mr. Johnson, who has been accused of making racist comments in his past career as a columnist, say it is ludicrous to suggest that he does not take racism seriously; he served two terms as mayor of London, the most diverse city in Britain.
His Chancellor and Minister of the Interior are both of Asian descent – although there are no black members of his cabinet. Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Equality, said last week that Britain was “one of the best countries in the world to be a black man.”
But statistics confirm the frustrations of those living on the streets, confirming that black Britons are paid less than their white counterparts, are much less likely to hold high-level positions, are more likely to be arrested and have poorer life satisfaction scores.
Some of the causes that motivated people during the marches are those that played relatively little in mainstream media.
Last Wednesday in Hyde Park, central London, a large contingent at one of the first demonstrations in the United Kingdom called for justice for Belly Mujinga, a ticket agent at Victoria Station who died in Covid-19 after a man deliberately coughed against her saying he had the disease.
Protesters are angry that UK transport police have ended their investigation into his death after it was proven that the main suspect never had Covid-19.
Hervé Kibassa of London, someone at a protest in London last Wednesday, said it was the first time he had attended a Black Lives Matter event, but the cause was too important to stay away .
“The way the system is set up and the rules are different,” he said, comparing the UK to the US. “Systemic racism still exists in the UK.”
Sajid Javid, a former conservative interior minister, wrote in the Sunday Times that “ethnic minorities in Britain are still victims of racial injustice and substantial disparities” and the government needed to do more to resolve the problem.
Javid said Interior Ministry has yet to implement the necessary “root and branch” cultural change after the Windrush scandal, which revealed a deliberate “hostile environment” policy for immigrants .
While the protests of the past few days have revealed a strong desire for change in the UK, many demands will require years or decades of political reform and effort rather than quick fixes.
In the meantime, the risk for mainstream politics is that the unrest on the fringes of the protests will create the pretext for a coarser, more familiar form of debate in cultural wars on the other side of the Atlantic.
“A new form of Taliban is born in the UK today,” tweeted Brexit leader Nigel Farage after witnessing the overthrow of the Colston statue in Bristol. “Unless we get moral leadership quickly, our cities are not worth living.”
Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer was among those who tried to moderate the debate, telling listeners to LBC – the spoken radio station to which Mr. Farage regularly contributes – that it was “completely wrong” to demolish the statue. “It shouldn’t have been done that way,” he said.
Colston statue overturns debate over other controversial landmarks
The overthrow of the statue of Edward Colston in Magpie Park in central Bristol on Sunday is sure to spark heated debate over other monuments to other controversial figures in the UK.
The failure of Oriel College in Oxford to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a central figure in British colonialism in Africa, was one of the complaints in an open letter sent by students from the University of Oxford to complain this weekend about the institution’s file. on racism.
Femi Nylander, organizer of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, said: “We reaffirm our requests to Oxford, that they themselves should withdraw this as a matter of principle and urgency. ”
The dismantling of the Colston statue in Bristol ends part of more than two decades of controversy over how the city of West England should view a once respected man as its greatest philanthropist.
Born in 1636, he was administrator, from 1680 to 1692, of the Royal African Company, holder of the monopoly of the English government on the “triangular trade” by which the European ships took slaves from Africa towards the Americas and brought back to Europe of the such goods in the form of sugar produced by forced labor.
Colston’s reputation in the city, however, was built on centuries thanks to charitable donations he made with part of the fortune he earned from his slave trade and other commercial activities. Among the institutions that still bear his name are the Colston School, which he helped found in 1710, Colston Hall, the city’s main concert hall, and Colston Avenue, one of the main streets.
However, growing recognition since the 1990s that many cities on the west coast of the United Kingdom have benefited from the slave trade has resulted in a reassessment of Colston’s legacy.
After Sunday’s events, it seems unlikely that the statue will be rebuilt on its pedestal, although Marvin Rees, the mayor of Bristol, who is of British and Jamaican descent, said that it was possible that the monument could be in a museum.
“I can’t and I won’t pretend that the statue of a slave trader in a city where I was born and raised was not an affront to me and people like me,” said said Mr. Rees on Monday.
Robert Wright in London