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From a moment to a movement

Never has the description by Franz Fanon of black people as the wretched of the earth felt so real – the time for resistance is now, says ROGER McKENZIE

I HAVE always been told to be patient and things will improve for black people. 

In fact I was also told this tall tale during my younger days when I was called coloured. 

I stopped being coloured when I decided to identify as black because I realised that things were not improving and often the people telling me to be patient were systematically and knowingly discriminating against me or at least benefiting from the racism that I was experiencing. 

I decided that my liberation was in my own hands and that actually black people have been remarkably and probably far too patient in our response to racism of all kinds. A political and organising response was required.

The uprisings that we see across the globe after the savage lynchings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and others too numerous to mention in this space, must be seen as part of a wider rebellion against racism. 

Many of these murders occurred at the same time as Covid-19 is disproportionately killing black people. 

A report from Public Health England this week confirmed this was the case in the UK and that there was a strong link to poverty. However, no recommendations were made. There lies the problem.

It is satisfying to be told by any official document that we are right. To see no suggestion of remedy, however, shows a callous disregard for the safety of black people when many of us are being instructed to go back into unsafe workplaces on crowded public transport systems that could amount to a death sentence for us. 

Too many of us have seen friends and family die because of this total indifference that shows black lives do not matter to this government.

Eventually, someone, somewhere, will make some policy proposals. I have more faith in the investigation being led by Doreen Lawrence than anything else I have heard. 

She knows about loss. She knows about inquiries and she know about reports and recommendations and what might happen to them. 

What we can’t allow is any response to this moment of racism to allow organisations and politicians to drop into quick-fix mode. 

It doesn’t matter whether it’s Covid-19 or the brutal attacks and murders of black people, our task must be to bring about real and long-term change.

Racism is a white problem that can only be resolved by white people changing their personal behaviour and the ingrained racism within so many of the work and public structures that they have created. 

The voice of black people cannot be ignored or even filtered during the fight against racism — it must be the leading voice. 

That’s why black self-organisation is so important and why Unison has built and encourages participation in these structures at all levels. 

That’s not to say that white people don’t have a role. They have a critical role because black people cannot do this thing alone and in the end it is solidarity between black and white that will defeat racism, not division.

That takes me back to the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the uprisings that have been taking place in the US and globally. 

While there are clearly many black people involved, people from many different communities are also taking part. 

Black people are clearly taking the brunt of police brutality and the Covid-19 virus but more and more people are recognising what is happening and speaking with the same angered voice. 

Although it seems likely that agitators from the far right are using this moment for their own ends, this is very clearly a multiracial uprising.

The actor Will Smith called it correctly when he said that racism isn’t getting worse — it’s getting filmed! 

Incidents such as these have been taking place for some considerable time and not just in the US. 

In Britain we should not forget the name of Roger Sylvester who died in police custody in 1999 after being held down by a number of officers for 20 minutes — and still no justice. 

We should not forget the names of Cynthia Jarrett and Cherry Groce who both died in 1985 after police interventions. And so many more including, of course, Stephen Lawrence who was killed 27 years ago and the institutional racism uncovered within the police and elsewhere as a result.

This moment calls for us all to make our voices heard, but unless this is allied to a serious effort to organise and to build a movement against racism and for fundamental change in society, then we will likely be back here again in the same situation talking about the same problems with more deaths having taken place.

That’s why organising is still the key. We can lament as much as we like. We can pull the sheets over our heads and hope that things will change when we peek out. 

But we are angry and we know that nothing will change unless we commit to deep, transformative organising. 

Never has the description by Franz Fanon of black people as the wretched of the earth felt so real. 

Black lives matter. This is a truth we have to tell because there are still far too many people who do not believe us. 

They either feel offended by our truth or try to divert the discussion away to something more comfortable to them. 

There is little comfortable about our lives, so I have little concern for your personal discomfort when discussing my life and the lives of other black people. 

What we know is that the catalyst for change will be the organisation of black people and the collaboration of whites. 

This urgent moment must become a vibrant movement. It is a time for organisers.

Roger McKenzie is an assistant general secretary of Unison.

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