Nihal Arthanayake – extract from Afternoon Edition

by | Jun 15, 2020

This is an extract from the Afternoon Edition on BBC 5Live, hosted by Nihal Arthanayake. It provides background for Making Allies and Burning Bridges – Nihal’s contribution to Global Dashboard’s Freedom and Justice Week.

“Yesterday, I took the day off because it was my birthday.

For the first time in a long time, I woke up this morning and didn’t really want to come in and do this today. And that was because, I woke with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. And it wasn’t the kind of sadness that you feel because your football team lost or your kids annoy you. It was a sadness that felt so deeply embedded in my head….

I woke up and thought about this world we’re currently living in and it seems such a toxic place. A place so riven by hate and by complacency because complacency allows the hate to fester. And I really couldn’t quite cope with it for the first time in a long time.

And one of the things I thought about was that when I was 20 – and I turned 49 yesterday – Rodney King was savagely beaten by police officers at the Los Angeles Police Department. And it was captured on grainy video. It was only because it was captured that it ended up with these police officers going to trial. They were acquitted and there were riots across America, but specifically in Los Angeles.

And I thought to myself, and I have been for some days now, “what has changed?” That we can see in May 2020 an African American man having a police officer place his foot, kneel on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and see the life ebb out of [him]. Over an accusation of a counterfeit $20 bill.

And what do we tell our children? I’m in a relatively privileged position. My kids are Asian, they’re less likely to be the victims of the kind of discrimination that black people [face]. What do I tell my children? But what does a black parent tell his children or her children about this world that we’re living in, in the US or here. And we can’t pat ourselves on the back and say we are immune to this kind of engrained prejudice.

So I am still feeling sad and that’s why today, rather than revelling in how depressing this is, I want to understand how we change it. Someone once said to me something that really resonated: human beings build the structures that oppress people, therefore human beings can dismantle them.

We can dismantle them. We can change the world. We can [refuse to] accept that this has to be. “It will always be this way. Racism has always been around.” Thirty years ago, men could slap women on the backside as they walked past and pinch them and think it was banter. And thankfully you can’t do that now. I grew up in an era when skinheads would shout the P-word at me. You’d see National Front and Blacks Go Home, or P-word Go Home. My parents came to this country where it said No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs. And you can’t do that anymore.

[Sound of Nihal crying]

It’s sad. It makes me sad. I don’t want to be sad anymore.

I want you to tell me how we change. How we stop this. I am sick of it. You must be sick of it too. And if you’re not sick of it, then I suggest that perhaps you are part of the problem.

We can all make a difference. We can say to our friends, “That’s not acceptable.” We can say to our relatives, “You can’t say that. It’s not acceptable to have that attitude, to tweet All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter but black people are disproportionately suffering at the hands of a justice system in this country and in America. If you can’t recognise that, there is a problem.”

I am sure some people will complain I am editorialising. But this affects us. It affects all of us. If you’re white, it affects you too because this hate, this division, this oppression, undermines the very fabric of our society. And if we allow it to continue, if we allow it to keep going it will lead to ultimately to the kind of societies that we have seen in history…

I really thought I’d be able to hold it together today. I really hoped I could. But it feels just so damn personal. And I feel just as much about anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia.  And I am not Jewish. I am not gay. I am not Muslim.

No good will come from it. Following the hate mongers on Twitter. Subscribing to their views. No good comes from it. Holocausts come from it. Genocides come from it.”

We Are All George: Photo: Socialist Appeal, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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