This article is part of our Freedom and Justice Week series – as Global Dashboard provides a platform for a diversity of voices to explore how we respond to the wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Read all the articles in the series here.
The scenes over the last few weeks have often been intolerable. Of a man with a police officer’s knee on his neck until he ends his life. Eight minutes and forty six seconds – an excruciatingly long time to watch another human being expire.
When I first watched the video, I did not immediately know what I was watching. As it began to dawn on me, I became angrier than I have been in a long time. It was a visceral anger about the injustice, the dehumanisation, the disrespect of the officer who committed the crime – seeming to not be breaking a sweat, hands casually in his pockets – but of the three other policemen watching the scene and not intervening.
I was not the only one. All around the world, people have marched and protested George Floyd’s treatment as the Black Lives Matter movement has taken centre stage. On the one hand, we have seen aggressive police officers in America attacking and tear gassing their own people as they protest and a president who stokes the flames of their anger by his every action. On the other, we have witnessed peaceful protests where those marching have sung and danced together, and silently taken a knee for the time it took George Floyd to die.
Where I work as a psychologist for an NHS service for young people with emotional, behavioural, and mental health difficulties, the stories of past traumas from racist experiences came pouring out from both staff and young people. And as I heard their experiences, my initial anger turned into an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
“As I heard their experiences, my initial anger turned into an overwhelming feeling of helplessness”
But this sense of heaviness also began to change, as I understood the opportunity for people to speak their truth. In my personal life, I have had conversations with family about issues of race and racism that only took place because of those brutal scenes. At work, colleagues and friends have talked in ways they never have before.
These have not always been comfortable conversations but they have been necessary ones. Navigating the complexity of explaining to friends and colleagues that, with their white privilege, they become allies to the Black Lives Matter movement. Stand against racism. Take these views to spaces where few black people are represented, such as the senior management of the NHS or the police.
“What has moved me the most was the reaction of the young people I work with”
Through this time, what has moved me the most was the reaction of the young people I know and work with. Many were going to protests for the first time and speaking their truth for the first time. The rawness of the distress pierced me, but their earnest cry for change has heartened and sustained me.
Some of them created a video in which they talk about where they have come from. I am not able to share it due to our duty of confidentiality, but I want to describe the haunting impact it has had on me.
The tone was stark as they told of the brutality they had suffered at the hands of the police. How they had been full of hope as young children, believing that anything was possible. But how, as they had grown, they had watched opportunities shrink and their sense of what they could achieve grow smaller and smaller. And how, as they looked over at the wealth of the business district of Canary Wharf, this compounded their sense that no-one was willing to invest in their potential.
“Change does not happen overnight, but Dr King’s dream of equality can still be realised in the generations to come”
But then they drew and painted Black Lives Matter banners and spoke with such power about what the movement meant to them. And it was not just the voices of young black people, but of young people from all races and backgrounds. The outrage of some was rooted in a lifetime of experience and their knowledge of history. Others were learning for the first time about the legacies of slavery and its role in building the country in which we live.
All now know that the statues they walk past every day are visible links to a time when black people were enslaved. They also know that it is only in this moment – and because of their protest – that our society has finally confronted its complicated past and begun to remove the statues with the worst legacies.
We have witnessed a brutal moment, but I fear we will see more scenes of abuse. Change does not happen overnight, but Dr King’s dream of equality can still be realised in the generations to come. But for that to happen, all of us – old and young – must sustain our work against oppression long after this wave of protests is over and the attention of the media has moved on.