Recent events, both in the US and here, have prompted a wave of reflection about who our society chooses to honour, and who it does not. This debate is not restricted to Bristol, but is countrywide; only a few days ago the Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council announced that there will be a review of all plaques, monuments, statues and street names to ensure they “reflect the city’s values”.
The immediate cause of this reflection was the removal of Edward Colston’s statue by protestors in Bristol. Some are outraged about the way this was done.
As liberal democrats the rule of law is a fundamental principle, central to our beliefs. This does not mean that we should automatically join those outraged by the events in Bristol. As our party President Mark Pack says in his statement on this issue
“What is vital is the equal application of fair laws. And these protests were born out of anger that the law and police treatment have not been equally and fairly applied.”
As Mark points out, in the last 30 years there have been 1,741 deaths following contact with the police in the UK. He notes that this is a problem in itself. But given that black people are twice as likely to die in police custody, he says “the very unsettling reality of the unequal policing of black people is hard to ignore.” This problem is compounded by the fact that there have been no prosecutions of police officers over any of those deaths.
Given this context, it should come as no surprise that these protests have happened now. The spark was the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and in the past we have seen protests at deaths at the hands of the police both here and in the US flare up and then die down again, with little impact on the lives of the people experiencing the negative effects of unequal treatment by the law. But this time feels like it may be different.
One thing that is different is the COVID-19 pandemic and its differential impact across our community. Specifically, BAME people made up 16% of all corona virus related deaths in England (up to 28 May). The causes of this are complex and there is as yet no firm evidence about what they are. What is clear though is that the virus is having a disproportionate impact on one part of our community. The outrage expressed in Bristol and across the country is understandable, personal and urgent.
As a party we need to acknowledge that we have not always made enough noise about systemic injustices. It has been too easy for us to fall into the trap of worrying about the rule of law some of the time. This will not be true of all members our party, but for many of us these protests expose an unhappy truth.
The global Black Lives Matter protests are an important historical moment. For those of us who have not questioned our own approach to the application of the rule of law closely enough, this is our chance to listen, reflect and learn. It is our chance to support those leading the campaign and we must be careful not to distract from their work and priorities.
Words however are not enough. We have to look long and hard at our own party. Are the inequalities within wider society reflected in our own structures? We are a party that welcomes debate and diversity of opinion. But do we see this reflected equally within our party? If we don’t, do we know why? And what are we doing to correct these inequalities?