Hackney Town Hall

Hackney’s Labour councillors last night voted to state “unequivocally” that Black Lives Matter, in a move hailed by leading community figures as “an important moment in history”.

Brought forward by the Town Hall’s No Place for Hate champion Cllr Sade Etti and Stoke Newington councillor Susan Fajana-Thomas, the council is now committed to an explicitly anti-racist policy platform on areas including education, policing, and inequality.

The motion saw dissent, both from community educator Toyin Agbetu of pan-African human rights organisation Ligali, who sought “a more detailed account of the cause and legacy of systematic racism”, and from Hackney Conservative councillor Harvey Odze, who attempted to amend the text by removing the word ‘Black’ for the council to state that Lives Matter.

Speaking as she proposed the motion, Cllr Etti spoke of her desire for “every child to be proud of the Hackney in which we live in, to walk on streets of Hackney with confidence and boldness”.

The No Place for Hate champion said: “This is a moment in history to stand together to eliminate discrimination of all kinds. As a nation we cannot reach our best and full potential if everyone in our nation is not prospering, if Black people and people of colour are not given the room and chance to shine as brightly as they can.

“We spend more time striving and surviving than thriving. I, personally, am tired of merely surviving. We are tired of clutching on to every story of Black success we come across, because despite everything, they still seem so few.

“I personally have done and am doing the best I can for my children, but if we do not fight for a better society, they will never get to live a life of complete contentment and fulfilment that their counterparts enjoy. That would be to the UK’s eternal shame.”

Cllr Susan Fajana-Thomas, who seconded the motion, added: “The Black Lives Matter movement is about human rights. It’s about respect, protection and fulilment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

“It’s about us as people of African descent being able to live a life of joy without having to worry what is going to happen to me at work because I am a Black woman, to worry about my loud voice not being taken for aggression, to worry about our children underachieving in schools because of racial discrimination, to worry about our young men walking into a shop and being mistaken for a shoplifter, and to worry if our children will have the same opportunities as other children.”

Labour councillors welcomed and endorsed this motion, with Dalston councillor Soraya Adejare speaking out of her “sadness” that the increasing prevalence or racism against Black communities in the UK had to be brought to the fore by the killing of George Floyd in the US.

Black people are almost 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched and 40 times more likely under Section 60 powers, with the use of handcuffs by the police increasing by 158 per cent in Hackney over the last three years.

The council will now lobby the government to implement any outstanding recommendations from the 2017 Lammy Review into the treatment of and outcomes for Black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system, the 2017 Dame Angiolini Report into deaths and serious incidents in police custody, the 2018 Lessons Learned review following the Windrush scandal, the 2017 McGregor-Smith Review on race in the workplace, and the 1999 Macpherson report highlighting systemic racism in the police.

The Town Hall will also be looking to address structural racism within its own organisation through a focus on improved diversity at the top and its continued programme of inclusive leadership training, as well as publishing a report on its antiracist work, and provide guidance to Hackney schools on teaching antiracist curriculums both on Britain’s role in upholding systemic racism and Hackney’s own diverse local history.

Community educator Agbetu has called the motion a “lost opportunity”, having proposed an amended motion building on similar texts presented at Islington and Lambeth councils, which included passages noting Britain’s role in, benefit from, and the legacy of chattel, colonial and neo-colonial forms of African enslavement.

The amended text would have also committed the Town Hall to lobby the government for a commission to study the impact and legacy of the United Kingdom’s Transatlantic Trafficking and Colonisation of African people on UK social, political and economic life and an All-Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Truth and Reparatory Justice, as well as to develop an anti-racist manifesto in collaboration with communities most affected by systemic racism.

Agbetu said: “The motion I proposed made reference to Hackney Council for the Voluntary Sector who first initiated the call for Hackney to formally become an anti-racist borough.

“It took absolutely nothing away from [the councillors’] desire to secure commitment to a meaningful series of reforms, instead it sought to support pre-existing, Pan London, Pan European and United Nation approaches that do not mask the historic source of the systematic injustice faced by people of African heritage.

“The motions [voted upon at Islington and Lambeth councils] have included a more detailed account of the cause and legacy of systematic racism including references to the enslavement and colonisation of African people. In seeking reparations they have also proposed directions to address these problems.”

Conservative councillors failed in an attempt to delete the word ‘Black’ from the motion, with Springfield councillor Odze explaining in his amendment what prevented his group of councillors from voting in favour of the motion.

Cllr Odze said: “I applaud this motion’s sentiment, and would very much like to vote in favour of it. However, as it stands I cannot.

“In the same way that the swastika will forever be associated with Adolf Hitler, may his name and memory be erased, and the German national socialist movement, rather than being associated with a good-luck symbol of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, so too will the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ will always be associated with an organisation that has refused to remove a vicious, bigoted slur against Israel. 

“The platform labelled Israel an ‘apartheid state’ and called for the total academic, cultural and economic boycott of the country, a demand made for no other state. I’ve deliberately not used the phrase All Lives Matter, because this in itself, however well-meaning it is, has come to have pejorative connotations.” 

The Conservatives at Hackney Town Hall also called for the motion to recognise the impact on the Jewish community in Hackney of the 2019 Jersey shooting and the killing of Rabbi Josef Neumann at a Synagogue in Monsey New York last year, and to note the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the Jewish community in England and Wales. 

The amended motion added that the council should “support the police in their justified and lawful prevention and solving of crime and encourage their efforts to eliminate all forms of racism in their ranks and promote community cohesion”. 

In response to the Springfield councillor’s attempts to alter the motion, equalities chief Cllr Carole Williams said: “The council has done a huge amount already to recognise antisemitism and Islamophobia. We have stood up for the Jewish community here and overseas, and I think it is fundamentally wrong for the opposition to go against the spirit of this motion and erase Black people from it.” 

Earlier in the debate, Cllr Odze had voiced his opposition to the renaming of Cassland Road Gardens as part of a review into public space in the borough following the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, saying of Sir John Cass for whom the road is named: “There is nobody in this world who is perfect. Yes, [Cass] was involved in the slave trade. Many others have been involved in many things and we laud them for what they did that is good.” 

Following the debate, the hub for the voluntary sector in Hackney, Hackney CVS, hailed the passing of the motion as “a victory for everyone”, with CEO Jake Ferguson speaking of his joy at the progress the meeting’s business represented. 

Ferguson said: “As a father, watching the proceedings with my two teenage children, it was so empowering to tell them that an important moment in history was unfolding before them. 

“Yes, they too were shocked that two councillors sought to dilute the motion with one of them earlier trying to defend a slave owner’s honour, but we could see clearly that the overwhelming position of the council was one of unity and solidarity in the face of the global oppression of Afrikan and Caribbean heritage peoples.

“I was able to tell them how important the spirit and detail of the motion was and how proud it made me feel as a Black man to know that in Hackney, politically, the council has got your back.”

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