‘It’s time for a change’: Hundreds attend online vigil for George Floyd

A memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photograph: Lorie Shaull

Over 400 people joined Hackney’s community leaders and politicians for an evening of poetry, music and urgent calls for change in a tribute to George Floyd last night.

Hackney MPs Diane Abbott and Meg Hillier, council leader Mayor Philip Glanville with Cllrs Anntoinette Bramble and Clayeon McKenzie, and London Assembly Member Jennette Arnold OBE, all spoke out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of Floyd after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for over eight minutes.

All present were united in the recognition that, while the global protests had been sparked by Floyd’s death in America, structural racism and police brutality towards black people is also a British and global issue.

Speakers invoked the names of Trevor Monerville, Colin Roach, Rashan Charles, Mark Duggan, Breonna Taylor and Clinton McCurbin, and pointed to the recently released Public Health England report demonstrating the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities.

Jermain Jackman, chair of the Hackney Young Futures Commission, said: “The knee on somebody’s neck is significant. It represents the lived experiences of black people globally. Throughout history, the system has had its knee on black people’s neck.

“Today, we see young black men stopped and searched more than any other, young people are being excluded from school because of the texture of their hair, black and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by coronavirus, and we see the inequalities in housing and employment. This is about deep-rooted white supremacy and institutional racism.

“I haven’t seen the video. I can’t bring myself to watch it. It reminds me of the first time I was stopped and searched in Hackney and pushed up against a shopfront in my school uniform, when the officer said to me, ‘I’m going to ask you again, because I like to give you type of people a chance’. That is the reality. This is the lived experiences of black people throughout the centuries and throughout history.”

Jackman went on to call on all those listening to “mobilise, organise and act”, hitting out at government for a lack of action following the Scarman report after the 1981 Brixton riots, the Macpherson report following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the Windrush lessons learned review.

Hackney North MP Diane Abbott said: “All my solidarity is with the protesters. The first thing to say is that violence and some police abusing their powers is not something which just happens in America. It is an issue here as well.

“There have been a series of deaths in police custody at Stoke Newington, and people have not forgotten these things. Whilst I have seen improvements in policing, and have worked well with successive borough commanders, there is a history of deaths in custody, and nobody ever being prosecuted or disciplined for it.

“The death toll from coronavirus is in people’s minds. It has affected BAME communities more than others. Everyone knows someone who has been touched by coronavirus and has died or been ill, as the level of how it has affected BAME communities is so high.

“We shouldn’t just think these are American issues. They are also British issues.”

Abbott added that she had spoken out within the Parliamentary Labour Party on the “importance of standing with protesters”, stressing that Labour must not condone vandalism, but must show understanding for the reasons people are protesting.

Labour leader Keir Starmer is reported to have caused unease on the left of the Labour party after he said it was “completely wrong” for protesters to have pulled down the statue of slave-owner Edward Colston in Bristol over the weekend, while adding that: “We can’t, in 21st-century Britain, have a slaver on a statue.”

Hackney South MP Meg Hillier called on listeners to not “hold their emotions in check”, but to use them as a “galvanising factor” to address structural inequality.

Hillier said: “Without those emotions, we won’t influence not just those in positions of power and authority now, but those in the next generation who will shape it.

“I found it very distressing seeing those images, and to explain to my young daughter, an innocent child, that this activity by the police happens in America, but can happen here too, and that this is an unfair world that we live in. The shattering of an illusion of a child is a reminder to us all that that dream that Martin Luther King had is still a long way from becoming a reality.

“All of us need to make sure that if we’re BAME we show up and get involved, and if like me we’re not, we look around every room we’re in and say, where are the black faces at the decision-making table, in our classrooms, on our school governing bodies, at the board tables of our institutions, in our parliament and in our government.”

Jennette Arnold quoted Labour MP Bernie Grant urging people to “show up and make the change”, revealing that her 10-year-old daughter had sent her the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ petition calling for justice following Floyd’s death, which she characterised as “the biggest stain on our social being”.

The London Assembly member added: “I stand with the citywide and global community who want change, because it is necessary and timely. We regret the fact that George Floyd had to die for us to have this reawakening. His life is going to be worth more than that image. I feel that. I can see that happening.

“There are not words to explain what George Floyd’s family are going through, and I want to add my deepest sympathy. The fact that the people who were involved in his killing had sworn an oath to protect and serve is unforgivable. That he was black and officers were white adds a whole new sickening dimension.

“If it were the only death in police custody of a young black man, it would have been outrageous enough. Sadly, it is only one in a series of deaths in the US and over the years here in the UK. We must question how in our liberal democracies this is still happening. This is 2020 and we are still talking about things getting better. Why aren’t they fixed?”

The event saw performances by singer/songwriter and youth community advocate Camara Fearon, Jackman, singer Devrim Çelik, and from campaigner and activist Patrick Vernon, who adapted Martin Niemöller’s First they came poem to include black people, mothers on Universal Credit, LGBT+ people, people with mental health problems and disabilities, Muslims, the Windrush generation, refugees, asylum seekers and frontline workers.

Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE also declared his solidarity with Black Lives Matter, telling the story of a Jewish man in 1933 who had been set upon and attacked by a group of fascists in Germany, only to be beaten to death by an iron bar by police when he reported it.

The rabbi added: “In 2020, when we should have learnt the lessons of the past, we are seeing the same scenes, and the same outrage that we saw in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and noughties, and nothing has changed.

“There is a structural deficit in British society regarding minority people, and especially black people. Black lives, sadly, do not matter. We have seen hundreds of our children being killed and hardly anything has been done to stop this mass murder, because they are black.

“Black lives matter. It is not just a slogan. It has to become real, it has to express itself in legislation, structural change, and a basic different Britain.”

The event was organised jointly by Cllr Sade Etti, the Town Hall’s No Place for Hate champion, and Speaker Cllr Kam Adams, both of whom demanded justice in the wake of Floyd’s death and an end to the global and national status quo on race.

Cllr Etti said: “The world is resistant to change unless black bodies are exhibited in gory detail. This video will stick in my memory and those of my children and the whole world with a long time to come.

“There is disparity, inequality, devaluation and degradation of black lives that has gone on for a very long time. It is endemic in UK socio-economic constructs and systems. The negative effect of this on black people’s mental health in our society is immense.”

Cllr Adams said: “We recognise that something has broken and we want change. The starting point for change is for us to recognise that we have the same problem of racism as the one that exists in the US.

“Everyone feels the anger and injustice at what is going on. However it is difficult to understand the emotional pain this evokes within a black person. There are those who have accused black people of being emotional or sensitive when confronted with the harsh reality of racism. Change can only come when we are comfortable with having this uncomfortable conversation.”

Etti pointed to her own experience of being asked by security guards if she and other black councillors were cleaners when attending an event at City Hall, with Adams highlighting figures showing that BAME people have been disproportionately fined for alleged lockdown breaches by police.

Etti and Adams also praised Mayor Glanville for being open and accessible to minority ethnic communities and their concerns, with the Mayor himself declaring himself a “firm ally” of the protests at the meeting, having attended and knelt at protests in Hackney and Parliament Square over the weekend.

Addressing the pain and trauma caused by George Floyd’s death in communities across the world, Glanville said: “I have sat with families in Hackney who have lost loved ones after contact with the police or through violence and other forms of crime. I don’t want to do that again. I come from a place where I’ve seen families torn apart. Those nine minutes were important because of what they’ve uncovered and started across the globe.

“I can only ever take part in this discussion as an ally, and as Mayor of Hackney, I want to be that firm ally as leader of the council, making sure we tackle injustice and racism, and remember the eight minutes and forty-six seconds where George lay dying.

“I understand, though, that I will not understand the pain that so many feel – but I do stand with you. I stood and knelt with you over the course of the weekend, both in Hackney and Parliament Square. Black lives matter. We must stand together to make sure these are not just words, but deeds put into action.”