31 May, London, UK

By Ian Burns

I took myself for a long walk today and had another visit south of the river. The relaxation of many lockdown constraints and the contempt for government instruction since the Prime Minister’s special advisor decided he was sufficiently exceptional to make his own rules in lockdown, meant that all the parks and public spaces I visited were packed with sun worshipping picnickers, volleyball players, tennis matches, and group gatherings. I heard one young woman say to a friend as they walked into one park, “Are we social distancing? Is there any point?” I think there is still a point, but I understand the lack of compliance. We must be storing up trouble.

On the subject of trouble, many things came together in my head. My initial target was to reach Brixton, which is around 10km from my flat. There I intended to meet a friend, who has a flat just off Brixton Road, and to have her guide me around south-east London, which is not an area I know at all well. In fact, I have always felt threatened by it. In 1981, on my birthday, Brixton was ablaze and the rioting continued for some days. Railton Road was described like a war zone, as “the front line” on news reports. Today it was sunlit, very tidy and calm.

I was 17 when the Brixton Riots exploded. I am ashamed to say that loaded with white privilege and a reluctance to know anything other than what some sensationalist news reports to me, I associated Brixton with fecklessness and lawlessness, with depredation and dereliction. Despite the changing face of London over many decades, until today I had never done more than drive through it. The reason all of this has played on my mind is that the US is seeing fresh rioting after a black man, George Floyd, was murdered by a white police officer. Alas, that is far from unusual, but this was captured on film. The officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, despite his cries “I can’t breathe” and his calling out for his mother. It is sickening.

The response by the US authorities has been to raise the stakes by patrolling cities with the National Guard. Police are armed and firing rubber bullets into protests. It is more than fifty years since the Civil Rights Movement, and since the assassination of Dr. King. How can so little progress have been made in so long a time? Three years ago, I was introduced to two books that made me wake up to some of my own dormant biases about race, including my stale demonisation of Brixton and its residents. They were Natives by Akala, and Why I no Longer Talk to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Lockdown has enabled me to read Ben Judah’s excoriating analysis of London’s postcodes This is London. I recently finished Albert Woodfox’s Solitary, which updated my views on the US’s attitude to its black male population and I doubt anyone could read it without being appalled by the systemic abuse.

I am one of the more mature (in calendar years rather than mindset) of the mature students at my university. Last year, I had a black mentee. She was really bright and vivacious and described what growing up in Islington had been like for her. Today she sent me a WhatsApp message with a beautiful poem/song about George Floyd’s murder and how sadly unexceptional it was. It reviewed and name-checked multiple victims with pictures of the victims as her moving message unwound.

Lockdown is encouraging a great deal of introspection. It forces some fresh thinking. Many people are asking what they want to see post-lockdown. Before we run with ideas for how much better society can be we need to address the sores that currently hurt us. I know that when I was growing up I knew spectacularly and embarrassingly little about the treatment of African Americans in the US and their attempts at resistance and finding dignity. I was aware of riots in Brixton and Tottenham, but never asked what might be the catalysts for these desperate protests.

My views started to change when I saw the film Cry Freedom in the late ‘80’s, about the murder of black activist, Steve Biko. Although it was about apartheid era South Africa, the first scales started to fall from my eyes. I read Biko’s own writing, and ever so slightly repositioned my world view. Today, I watch the news coverage from many US cities and think about the dignity of protest rather than the property destruction. I certainly do not condone lawless behaviour but laws have to be good laws and upheld by a balanced and tolerant police force. In London, there has been a protest to support the Black Lives Matter organisation. It is getting less news coverage than the government’s decision to allow horse racing to restart.

I walked home from Brixton, I walked through Camberwell and some housing estates close to Old Kent Road. I thought of Ben Judah’s brilliant book and wondered how I would make my life work, if this was home for me and if my job prospects were low.

There are no easy answers, I know that. But if London is not to see rioting again, it needs to address some of the underlying issues of race, poverty and health and employment inequalities. I see little prospect of things improving in the US soon, because it seems to be part of Trump’s election strategy to pit voters against their own neighbours. I hope we in England do better, but today, despite the glorious weather, had a slightly ominous overtone.