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10 June 2020

David Lammy’s Diary: A slave trader falls and why George Floyd must be more than a hashtag

We have to find a way to transform this righteous anger over racial injustice into meaningful reform. 

By David Lammy

The death of George Floyd has become a truly global moment, with the demonstrations – some of the largest the United States has experienced in decades – spreading worldwide. Across Britain last weekend, thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand racial justice. Protestors in Bristol tore down the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader who is estimated to have transported more than 80,000 African men, women and children across the Atlantic. I never condone criminal acts, but it is shameful to treat a man like Colston as an icon. The statue should have come down a long time ago, in a democratic way, and been put in a museum.

With much of the world in lockdown, people are watching the news and scrolling through social media more than ever. It’s easy to see how the issue of black lives has hit a nerve. But we’ve witnessed similar moments before, after which little changed. We must ensure that people are interested in racial injustice even when it’s not in the news cycle. We cannot look back in five years and remember George Floyd as a hashtag. We have to find a way to transform this righteous anger into meaningful reform.

What we’re seeing on the streets of the US is partly a product of a president whose electoral success is based on manufacturing hatred. Donald Trump has actively decided to inflame tensions, appearing to declare war on the American people by threatening to deploy the military against them. In pandering to elements of his base that are undoubtedly white supremacist, Trump probably hopes to stoke tensions right through to the presidential election in November. I’m praying this is when his reign of division comes to an end.

Britain’s race problem

As we watch events unfold in the US, it’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back as if we don’t have problems of racial bias in our own backyard. When I was asked to conduct a review into the treatment of ethnic minority people in our criminal justice system by David Cameron in 2016, I found that UK prisons were more disproportionately filled with black people than those in the US. With black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) people still making up 51 per cent of inmates in the youth justice system, despite BAME people making up just 14 per cent of the general population, it is clear we still have a long way to go.

The Covid strain in prisons

Starting a new job virtually is a very odd experience. Since becoming shadow justice secretary I’ve probably spent more time on Zoom than I have with my wife. One enjoyable call this week was a webinar hosted by the Society of Labour Lawyers, which had politely reminded me on taking the brief that my own subscription fees were long overdue. Justice might not be the first thing the public worries about in a pandemic. But, as I discussed with the participants, Covid-19 has put immense strain on our prisons and courts. The obvious pressure is public health. Already, too many people who work in our prisons, probation services and courts, as well as those who are incarcerated, have died because of the virus. On the other hand, justice cannot wait. The system still needs to do its job: protect vulnerable people, punish and rehabilitate offenders, and defend the rule of law.

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The system can do more to adapt to the crisis. That means committing to emergency funds for legal aid and adapting new spaces to hold socially distanced trials, as well as continuing the implementation of virtual hearings and cases where appropriate. Some lawyers were rightly concerned about prison overcrowding. Prisons are a ticking time bomb in the pandemic: an outbreak could act as a pump that spreads the virus through the rest of the community. At the start of this crisis, the government said it was going to release up to 4,000 low risk prisoners to reduce overcrowding. So far it has released fewer than 100. As with many of this government’s actions, will this prove too little, too late?

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Enjoy the silence

Typically, guests on the BBC’s Question Time do their best to slip in sound-bites between applause, or boos, from the audience. I’m still unsure whether removing Question Time’s live audience improves the quality of discussion, or whether it’s just weird. On one hand, landing a well-timed zinger on a political opponent isn’t as satisfying without the crowd egging you on. On the other, the lack of bravado makes space for a more honest, constructive conversation.

At least, that’s what I thought until the Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi started talking about the pride he felt for parts of the government’s handling of coronavirus when I appeared on the programme alongside him on 4 June. Given the UK has the highest official death toll in Europe, I think Nadhim should have been more relieved about the lack of live audience than I was. Oddly enough, the same cannot be said for his leader; as we saw in Keir Starmer’s first few Prime Minister’s Questions, without a supportive crowd behind him, Boris Johnson is as exposed as the emperor who wears no clothes.

Democracy inaction

I’m used to queuing up in Portcullis House for the jerk chicken. I’m not used to queuing up in Portcullis House to vote. It was particularly frustrating to do so in order to vote on whether or not to repeat the farcical queue again next week. Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Tories were quite happy to drive us all round the bend. As a black male living in a city, I’m already twice as likely to die from the virus, according to the recent report on the disproportionate rate of BAME fatalities. So when I later saw Alok Sharma had been sweating profusely in the Commons I started to panic, racking my brain over whether I ran into the Business Secretary somewhere on the estate. Fortunately, Alok tested negative for coronavirus. But forcing us to vote in this way is not just ridiculous, it’s dangerous. 

David Lammy is shadow justice secretary and the Labour MP for Tottenham

This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt