The Burner #245: Two Pandemics
Ash Sarkar goes to the Black Lives Matter protest in London, and talks to the protestors on the new front line of antiracist struggle in the UK.
- Published 4 June 2020
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Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m Ash Sarkar and it is Thursday June 4, 2020. We are still in lockdown.
Here’s a little something different for you this morning.
Protester 1: My only crime is my colour, and no jollof for racists. [Laughter] Stop killing us, please.
Protester 2: I’m no threat.
Protester 3: No justice, no peace.
Ash Sarkar: And why are you here today?
Protesters: Because black lives matter!
Protester 2: Black justice, man. We’ve been through this for too long.
Yesterday, for the second time in under a week, thousands of protestors gathered in central London. Others mustered in Belfast, Rotterdam, Tottenham (that’s a joke there, by the way). The evening before, 20,000 people defied a police order to protest in Paris.
And still, America burns, with protests against police brutality in all 50 states. And what started as a love letter to a devastated community in the wake George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013 is now a rallying cry across the world after the police murder of George Floyd.
Black Lives Matter, and they are mattering everywhere.
Protesters chant: Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.
[London railway sounds in the background]
But as I got on the tube for the first time in months, I had a gnawing sense of reservation. It wasn’t any doubt about the legitimacy of the cause, or the value of showing solidarity with the black diaspora in America, but the now familiar dread accompanying any foray into public space during the Covid-19 crisis. And I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the protestors felt it too.
Black and Asian Minority Ethnic people are up to twice as likely to die from coronavirus in the UK as our white counterparts. More than 90% of the doctors who’ve died from the virus come from BAME backgrounds. And from Emanuel Gomes to Belly Mujinga, people of colour – and yes, black people – have lost their lives after having to go into work at the height of the crisis, while others from more comfortable socioeconomic classes were able to stay at home. Bus drivers, security guards, cleaners – all those jobs in which people of colour are overrepresented and underpaid – have been the most dangerous ones to occupy during this pandemic.
Over a third of Black African and Bangladeshi households live in overcrowded accommodation. And despite the best intentions of protest organisers who wielded signs imploring people to keep 2 metres apart, social distancing was something of a myth. As I watched first a trickle – and then a river, and then a tide – of young people make their way towards Hyde Park, I thought about the homes they’d be going back to – and what they could be taking with them.
Protesters chant: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Protester: Racism is a pandemic. I believe racism is a pandemic and we’ve been lied to. How is everyone out here? How is everyone on the Westminster Bridge the other day clapping for the NHS workers if it’s really a pandemic? There’s killings going on and it’s not right. We need justice for our people. There’s a lot of lies going on and we’re not being told the full story, so… I’m concerned for this. We’re not concerned about the coronavirus at this point.
Protester 2: There’s 2 pandemics going on. Racism and [inaudible]
Protester 3: Especially growing up in London, there’s a very high likelihood that if my brother is walking down the street by himself – well, not at the moment because of this pandemic – that he gets stabbed, stopped and searched just for being black, just for wearing a Nike hoodie, just for anything that might represent this stereotypes that police have of young black boys. Whereas, if I was walking down the road or if I was lighter-skinned walking down the road, no one would stop me, no one would business me. If I was a young white boy walking down the road, no one would say anything. But as long as it’s a young black boy walking around, no matter what area, the stop and search powers are invoked with no reason. And I fear that one day it’s going to lead to a point…. We’re taught to respect the police and to always work with them but when you are being so discriminates against and you’re feeling attacked, it’s easy to lash out and it’s that fear that, if my brother was to lash out, what would happen to him? Whereas if someone who’s white would lash out, they would be treated a lot kinder.
Protester 4: First of all, there’s so many people that died. They’re not necessarily my sister, my brother or my uncle, whatever, but they could be next. So, what? Am I going to be next? You know what I’m saying? It doesn’t matter if you’re not in the US, or wherever, everything that’s happened there has happened here as well, we’re constantly getting racial profiling and it’s not good. That’s all my saying.
Amongst the protestors, there was simply a greater sense of urgency regarding the social epidemic of racism than, you know, the biological one. But there was also a simmering distrust of what was being said about coronavirus through establishment outlets – but whether that was a scepticism of lockdown, or a reflection of the government’s inadequacies in containing the crisis, I didn’t get to hear. While I mulled it over, the family of Belly Mujinga – the railway worker who died of coronavirus after being spat at by a man claiming to be infected – made their way through the throngs to where speakers were gathered.
Elsewhere, the atmosphere had been suffused by a kind of giddiness – people just elated to be in human company en masse again, I guess.
But here? This was centuries’ old grief, alive and pulsing through a megaphone. John Boyega – anguished and raw – addressed the crowds:
John Boyega [speaking through a megaphone, over a loud crowd]: You need to understand how painful it is to be reminded every day that your race means nothing. And that isn’t the case anymore. That is not the case anymore. We’re going to try today, we are a physical representation of our support for George Floyd. We are a physical representation of our support for Sandra Bland. We are a physical representation of our support for Trayvon Martin. We are a physical representation of our support for Stephen Lawrence. For Mark Duggan. It’s very, very important that we keep control this morning and we make this as peaceful as possible. We make this as peaceful and organised as possible. Because you know what guys? They want us to mess up. They want us to be disorganised. Not today. Not today.
And men, we need to take care of our black women. We need to take care of them. They are our hearts. They are our future. We cannot demonise our own. We are the pillars of the family. Imagine this, a nation that is set up with individual families that are thriving, that are health, that communicate, that raise their children in love, have a better rate of becoming better human beings and that’s what we need to create. Black men, it starts with you. [Inaudible] how it’s done, man. We can be [inaudible] no more. We are to be better. You lot understand? I’m speaking to you from my heart.
Protester: I’m here because my colour matters to me and what they done to the gentlemen in America, I thought it was sad. That’s why I’m here. Just to make myself feel better.
Ash Sarkar: How does it feel when you first saw the news about George Floyd?
Protester 2: I dropped a tear. And I also thought that I have 3 grandchildren and I’m here as well to make the way clearer for my grandchildren. Like slavery days, they done it for my mum, for my dad, and for my grandmother and for myself. And now I have to pass it on, make things better for my grandchildren.
Protester 3: Because I’m tired of the racism that’s been going on for years, for the 1960s when black people started to come. Enough is enough. We’re tired. It has got to stop.
Ash Sarkar: And so how do you feel about seeing so many young people here?
Protester 3: Fabulous. I’m so glad there’s a lot of black, white, young, old… We’re all together. I’m really proud.
Protester 4: There’s structural racism. It’s a structural type of thing. It’s institutionalised so… It’s starts for the top, the judiciary system, schools, learning… So, it’s all the same over here.
Protester 5: We don’t have the same privileges that white people… You know, white people get jobs [inaudible]. There’s a certain standard that you have to be to have a job. It’s not equal.
Ash Sarkar: Do you feel perhaps in some way Britain is less honest about its racism?
Protester 5: Yeah. We don’t even know there’s even
Protester 4: We learn that in school.
Ash Sarkar: Kings, queens and all the world wars.
Protester 4: Even in Egypt, they’re not even black. They were a separate… That’s something else.
Protester 5: I don’t think there’s a focus on Black History as much… They like to believe.
Eventually, chivvied along by organisers handing out bottles of water, the protest began to heave out of the park to make their way to Parliament Square. Police arranged themselves in one line, and then another, harrumphed off in one direction, and then came slouching back. It was, at least at first, a hands-off affair for the Met. It wasn’t the usual activist networks either. There was hardly a crusty hiking boot in sight – girls came with their eyelashes on, highlighter done, and Tik Tok game on point. Maybe everyone says this when they’re long past keeping up with the latest flurry of social media platforms, but it genuinely felt like a defining moment for the next generation. It kind of makes me hope us old fogies at Novara Media can retire to our podcasts and slippers.
Protester: So, in this side I have “White silence equals compliance” because I felt like, as a white person, it’s so important to come out here and protest and show solidarity and educate yourselves. And on the other side I’ve got “The UK is not innocent” although first and foremost I’m here to show solidarity with those marching for George Floyd. This has been happening for too long and there’s still police brutality and there’s still institutional and systemic racism in the UK that we can’t just blame America, it’s happening here too.
Protester 2: I’m here to make a change. This thing has been going on for too long, to too many of our people, not only here but in Africa, in the Caribbean, in America. We’re tired of it. Because when one of us is hurt, it hurts all of us. We’re one people. So, we’re here to make a change this is the best time because of social media around and everything around. It’s the best time to make a change and try and impact the future generations, continue what the past generations have been working on for so many years.
For me racism here is just as bad as the States. It’s just the only thing, the difference, is they have guns. They have more confidence with that. If they’d tried that over here, it’s not going to be as easy. I think race relations are not as good as they can be. I think the only real place where it’s decent it’s certain places in London but, being from Kent and knowing people from other areas in the country, I know race relations are quite bad. Uneducated, they only do what they’re told and they’re not well educated about the impact that the Black race does have in the country and how we’ve been oppressed for so many years. I feel like the government is going to have to do something about it because all I know we’re not going to stop protesting. We’re going to continue protesting and keep fighting so there’s a chance.
Protester 3: That’s not a chip on my shoulder, that’s your foot on my neck – Malcom X.
Protester 4: It may not seem like it’s prevalent in the UK but it is and I worry every night for my brother, whether it be police brutality, whether it be racism to be stopped and search that could lead to other problems. I fear for my brother. I fear for my young black kids. And then we have justice and [inaudible] autistic man that was chased by the police and that result in his death. Mark Duggan, killed by a police. Cynthia Jarret, also killed by police, she was a poet. [Inaudible] chased by the police and had this injury due to the harassment of the police that was happening. Belly Mujinga a railway worker who was unjustly represented in our justice system. We have Stephen Lawrence, as you all know, killed by white supremacists and then wasn’t given justice. So, I think that is so blatant and in people’s faces. If you’re silent and you’re not… People think that if they’re not saying anything that they’re not picking a side but they are. If you’re not saying anything, you are joining, you’re giving consent, you are allowing this to happen.
The march, perhaps about 10,000 strong at this point – but I’m notoriously crap at estimating crowd sizes – had reduced London’s roads to gridlock. Traffic piled up, which is usually the point disgruntled motorists start getting aggy with protestors, but this time something unusual happened.
Buses, lorries, vans, Ubers – all united in a symphony of supportive tooting. For some of the youngers on the march, it became like that game you’d play on a school trip of waving at passing cars and judging drivers sweet or sour based on whether they’d wave back – except this time it was the driver of a double-decker. They’d beep, and the crowd would erupt in whoops and applause – then move onto the next one. I spoke to one guy who was hammering the horn and hanging out of the driver’s side window and got to chat to him for a minute.
Driver: It’s a very good protest. They need to send the message to everyone in the world, that we live in the bloody 21st century. It doesn’t matter what colour or what religion you are, we’re all humans. That’s very good, that’s power to the young people. Bloody Trump!
In Parliament Square, the protest was joined by Labour MPs. Someone spotted chief medical officer Chris Whitty weaving between government buildings, and up went the chant of “Sack Dominic Cummings, you wanker.”
The crowd implored Downing Street police officers to take a knee with them. Two acquiesced, before getting told off by a senior officer and standing back up again. In unclear circumstances, a couple of scuffles broke out, and the nation’s right-wing commentariat rejoiced at having an excuse to dismiss the protest in its entirety. Outside New Scotland Yard, the amassed crowd dropped to one knee and chanted “I can’t breathe” while officers mounted on horseback closed in slowly.
Protester: Dude, being a black woman is an exhausting thing over and over again. But more importantly, I’m more here for Belly Mujinga. As a black woman, we so often fight for black men – and like, yeah, we love you guys – but we often get drowned out in the noise. So, I’m standing with every black woman that’s ever been brutalised by the police. I’m a black woman. I come from like a lower-class family. In my law school there were like 6 of us. That is traumatic in itself – like going to Edinburgh University and like how anti-Black they are in everything that they do. And it’s like, being here, being a black woman, it’s like a moment to excel and scream because we are exhausted.
Normally, this is the bit of the podcast where I’d wrap up the theme and draw all my points together. But it doesn’t feel right. It’s not really my place. Because while I can talk about the experience of not being white and – definitely – being Muslim in this country, it’s not the same as actually being black. And, if I’m honest, I still don’t know whether it’s the right thing to protest in huge crowds while black and Asian people disproportionately die of coronavirus. But I know that it can’t be right to simply ignore the anger and the pain that black people in this country feel because of the social epidemic of racist discrimination. You can’t store up your solidarity to spend it another day. Those 8 minutes and 46 seconds in Minneapolis have ignited the black diaspora across the global north. It’s happening, and the choice is to engage seriously with that fact, or not.
So, it shouldn’t be me trying to sum this up. I’ll let someone else take up that space.
Protester: We have our own injustice happening here in the UK with institutional racism, with young people, especially from minority backgrounds, being avoided [of] a lot of opportunities. So, essentially, we’re here to protest the injustice that’s occurring throughout the world and also to highlight the issues here in the UK to do with minorities. Things like stop and search, thing like interactions with the police, these things need to change. We had the Lammy report, which was published a couple of years ago that highlighted the discrepancy within the criminal justice system and actually recommended a number of changes which need to take place. And to this day we’ve seen the Tory government haven’t done anything about that. So they haven’t taken the report into consideration at all and they’ve totally dismissed it, so that’s a prime example of the institutional racism which occurs in this country.
In today’s front pages, The Guardian leads with “Thousands of primary schools snub government’s call to restart classes.”
The Times headline is “Scientists hit out at plans for quarantine.”
Meanwhile – because there’s no plot twist 2020 thinks its too good for – The Mirror, The Mail, The Telegraph and The Express all splash the breakthrough in identifying a suspect in the Madeleine Mcann case.
The FT warns “Prospects of no-Deal Brexit fuels fears of Covid-19 drugs shortage”, and The Metrosimply says “50,000”, referring there of course, to Britain’s Covid death-toll.
Today the Commons will hear an Urgent Question on disparities in risks and outcomes related to the Covid-19 outbreak, which after Public Health England’s report into BAME deaths is certainly one to watch.
After Alok Sharma became the latest minister to go into self-isolation just one day after the return of IRL voting, perhaps parliamentarians may wish to be recognised as an at risk group.
If you’re looking for a way to improve your chicken or, I dunno, tofu game, make a glaze by frying garlic and ginger in a saucepan with a bit of Chinese 5 spice and star anise if you have it handy, adding about 120 ml of soy sauce, a few generous tablespoons of hoi sin sauce, a dollop of sriracha, juice of a fresh lime, some brown sugar and a bit of honey? Slather it over absolutely anything you’d cook in an oven, taking care not to burn the sugar content, and you’re laughing mate.
I’m outta here for now, but we’ll be back with The Burner tomorrow.
You can get in touch with me on Twitter, @ayocaesar, and as ever, you can keep your questions, tips and shade coming by tweeting us @novaramedia and using the hashtag The Burner.
I’ll be on the airwaves again next week, but until then stay safe, stay home, wash your hands, don’t be a prick. I’ve been Ash Sarkar, this is The Burner.
This broadcast is brought to you by Novara Media, go to novaramedia.com/support.