“Britain has been living in denial of racism”
As protests against the murder of George Floyd continue around the world, we asked three members of UNISON Cymru Wales’ Black Members Group for their reaction: Kebba Manneh, a healthcare worker; Kemba Hadaway-Morgan, a social worker and Denise Thomas, a care support worker.
1. What’s your reaction to the death of George Floyd in America and the protests that have followed?
Kebba Manneh: This man was on the floor; hands behind his back; handcuffed. He was not posing any danger to the four police officers. There was no justification for the knee on his windpipe. He said he couldn’t breathe and he called out for his mother — it was obvious to the police officers he was in severe distress and desperate to breathe.
These police officers thought they could get away with brutality. Of course, there are many dedicated police officers who we respect, however the Black community; the young people and more who stood up and said to the murderers of George Floyd — you can’t hide behind the badge and get away with murder. I welcome the outrage; it is important that the protests are producing results.
Kemba Hadaway-Morgan: It was horrendous. George Floyd was murdered, and it was broadcast live on social media. This was brazen murder. The police officer didn’t even want the assistance of a paramedic. We’ve always known about police brutality and now people understand the outcry and outrage. People understand why the only way to respond is with mass protest.
Denise Thomas: It was heart-breaking watching the news, I cried with sadness and then felt anger with the injustice of it all. Another senseless killing. These protests are global and this is a turning point that people are being heard. We’ve had civil rights marches in the past; however, these protests cannot be ignored.
2. What can we learn in the UK?
KM: To start with the police brutality and the impact on Black people. The UK has its own share of Black people’s deaths in police custody. The first in a long list is Mark Duggan, whose death caused a massive riot in London. It caused mayhem because people were seen to have got away with it. We need to learn that police officers should be punished if they do wrong and no-one is above the law.
We see racist discrimination during the coronavirus: the Guardian newspaper reported Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in England are 54% more likely to be fined by police under coronavirus rules than White people. How can that be right? It is an abuse of police power. The police have discretion whether to speak to people; fine them or take them to court.
KH-Morgan: Britain has been living in denial of racism here. We had Windrush created by the government’s hostile immigration policy. We are not innocent in this country. Racism has been happening in this country in secret and in broad daylight but there wasn’t the same media coverage. Our dirt was swept under the rug so long it was accepted as the norm. We must acknowledge that the UK is a racist country and racism can never be passed off as a ‘joke’ or ‘banter’.
We need to mobilise, organise and use our power
DT: Racism is a reality; it just cannot be ignored any longer. Racism is so ingrained into our society that people have become used to it without recognising it’s there. So, they just accept it as the way of life. Every single day I know it’s there and so do my Black brothers and sisters. We’ve grown up with it and learnt to deal with it. Now our voices are being heard; people are sitting up and listening to the arguments for fairness and equality. Black lives do matter. All lives matter.
Statues of those involved in slavery, who made their fortune from the brutal, barbaric and inhuman slave trade need to be removed and replaced with something more appropriate.
3. Are you hopeful things can change?
KM: You have to be hopeful. Look what’s happened at Cardiff Council in terms of the statues of slave trader Thomas Picton. They have learned from what happened in Bristol with the removal of the Colston statue and have pledged to take down the Thomas Picton statue at City Hall. UNISON wants to work with the council to find a more appropriate replacement. Why not a statue of Betty Campbell, the first Black head teacher here? She would be inspiring.
Removing statues is a symbolic disconnect with the past. Slave owners are on pedestals to impress upon us that the wealth of the country was built by these people. Well, it wasn’t. It was built on the back of slaves. Slave owners should not be on public display or celebrated in any form.
It’s not about damaging or destroying these statues. Put them in a museum for children and others to study the slave trade.
KH-Morgan: Extremely hopeful. I’m so optimistic because you look at the numbers of young people involved. I spoke at the recent Swansea #BlackLivesMatter protest and the organisers were barely out of university. Young people are questioning and challenging. Look at the older people getting involved. They know they have to get out of their comfort zone. Hope comes from this strength. It is no longer a ‘Black problem’ but one everyone must confront.
DT: Yes, things can change, and they will. Listening to the way people are talking, people have become angry and want their voices heard. People are speaking out more, especially young people.
4. How can UNISON lead campaigning on rights for Black people?
KM: UNISON has a planned webinar with the heads of every department — local government; health; education etc.; the general secretary and other senior figures to listen to our Black members. If we don’t look at our own structure and see what needs to change, how can we demand the same of employers we deal with? The National Black Members Committee is acutely aware of what needs to be done.
UNISON must encourage every employer to conduct their lawful duty with risk assessments for the coronavirus to protect the health and safety of every employee.
KH-Morgan: I’m the branch equalities officer and I know we’ve got a long way to go. Equalities officers struggle to get time off for trade union duties. UNISON needs to have Black members in leadership positions throughout the union and we need to question whether we need to change our structures to allow more Black people to be promoted. As a union, UNISON must listen to members and ask how we can get people involved.
DT: UNISON needs to support the efforts to increase the number of Black MPs, Assembly Members and councillors in our local governments. There are just a handful of Black MPs in Westminster and none from Wales. I’m sure we have enough Black people out there who are graduates interested in politics. If Black people are not speaking up for themselves then no-one will.
5. What would you say to politicians in this country?
KM: It is important to listen to Black people and stop speaking on our behalf. We can speak for ourselves. They don’t know us any better than ourselves. Politicians in Wales were talking to us in UNISON about change 20 years ago but little has changed, and they are still only talking. This has shaken Black people’s confidence and has reduced moral credibility in our politicians. We see them as gatekeepers.
Uncomfortable truths need to be heard. I remember Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng were elected as MPs in 1987. 30-plus years later we still haven’t got Black MPs in Wales.
Years ago, UNISON decided to improve Black representation within the union by guaranteeing a number of seats on our National Executive Committee. Why can’t that happen with Labour in Wales? If the will is there, our politicians could be more representative. I call on the Welsh government to make a commitment now to challenge the structural racism that we are currently experiencing in Wales.
KH-Morgan: I don’t have anything positive to say about the UK government of the last ten years. Their policies have been divisive and discriminatory. Politicians need to remember their power is borrowed from the people and we have the power to change the government.
DT: Politicians need to change their views; plus, policies need to change. They need to listen and represent our community. That needs to happen in Wales and Westminster definitely needs to sit up and listen.
6. Are there examples where you experienced racism?
KM: I have experienced racism from a service user and he was dealt with properly.
KH-Morgan: Before lockdown, I was going into work. My car was in for a MOT, so I took the bus. When I arrived at the bus stop, the driver was taking a smoking break. I asked him if this was the bus to… and he waived his hand dismissively. I asked if it was ok to board and he did the same thing, scowling at me. Before my stop, I pressed the bell and he didn’t stop. I walked to the front of the bus to tell him he’d missed my stop and when he eventually pulled in, a young Muslim woman was getting on when I was getting off. The driver said “You f — — — — half-breeds the lot of you.” I got off the bus, phoned the police and the bus company and made a complaint. The police were supportive and said they would deal with it as a hate crime. This bus route was through Swansea university, a diverse community, and I hate to think how he was treating people.
DT: I remember the time I was asked to lead a team by social services managing the movement of clients from one property to another until it was properly furnished. It was understood if this was achieved satisfactorily, I would be the manager of that particular house. I did it; got glowing reports from social services but didn’t get the eventual managerial post.
When I went to get feedback from colleagues, people I’d worked with for many years, they told me I didn’t get the job because “my body language was wrong” in the job interview. Not getting that job put me off from ever applying again for a managerial position even though I know the job inside out.
When you think about daily discrimination, I’ve seen it and it’s happened to me, when a Black person walks into a shop, suddenly a security guard across the other side of the shop heads over, becomes conspicuous and very interested in that person, following them, watching them. It’s extremely uncomfortable.
7. Some have said people should not be protesting during the Covid lockdown?
KM: We know how serious the pandemic is. It goes to show the gravity of the situation Black people are facing and the evidence that enough is enough. We refuse to lie down any more and take it.
Since the protests, the charge against the police officer has been upgraded and charges have been brought against his fellow officers at the scene as complicit in the murder. It was a completely inappropriate use of force. Black and White people feel if we don’t protest, we are complicit and protecting the White privilege status. That status quo is not sustainable.
Since the protests, New Jersey police force are updating their use-of-force guidelines for first time in two decades. Maryland police; St Louis police are now making changes too. The protests are having an effect.
KH-Morgan: Black people are dying in disproportionate numbers from Covid-19 — which the government has accepted — and we will continue to die in disproportionate numbers without action. Yes, it is a pandemic, but we are also more likely to die than White people from police brutality. We must take a stand.
DT: Yes, it is hard to get your voice out there in lockdown with social distancing. There is a pandemic, but people are angry. You can’t have an effective protest from the comfort of their armchair. It’s not just Black people out there but White people too. Racism is also a pandemic. It hasn’t gone away and we don’t have a vaccine for it.
8. Covid-19 has disproportionately affected the Black community. What needs to happen next?
KM: We need to encourage and work with employers to ensure meaningful risk assessments are conducted. They have a lawful duty to protect the health and safety of their employees and that should be at the forefront of their minds. If they don’t co-operate, UNISON should think about taking them to court. Without legal action against bad employers, they will continue to abuse.
We have seen an increasing number of migrant public service workers passing away and in particular, Filipino nurses. If employers did what they were supposed to, many would be alive today.
We need to have a royal commission on why so many BAME people have died from Covid-19 so we can prevent this happening again.
KH-Morgan: Covid has shone a light on inequality; in work; in housing and education. This government has responded in the way we’ve come to expect, blaming the individual or the community if they get sick — Black people have a lack of Vitamin D or poor genetics. People have been too ready to accept this. The pandemic has exposed the deep racism in the UK. Many ethnic minorities are those on the front-line supporting the community — the cleaners, NHS staff, in public-facing roles and therefore more liable to infection.
Migrant public service workers have been afraid to speak out if they lack personal protective clothing. They worry they will be sent back to their country if they complain.
DT: It needs to be looked into in more detail and I am glad UNISON is pressing for an inquiry. Risk assessment guidance for BAME people is being uploaded onto the UNISON website and is really good. Any inquiry should look at housing and poverty in Black communities. Black communities have been underfunded and forgotten and we need to ask why.
9. Finally, Kebba, congratulations for your recent election as chair of UNISON UK’s Black Members Committee.
KM: I am honoured and humbled to be the first Mandinka (West African) -Welshman elected to this prestigious position. The chair of our Black Members Committee has always been from England and never from the devolved nations. I am proud of my dual culture.
UNISON represents the largest concentration of Black workers of any trade union in Europe. That gives us enormous strength to negotiate with employers and government to improve the livelihoods of people in this country.
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