James Theoharris Martin on Black Lives Matter

My name is James, I am 33 years old and the diversity officer for Enfield Liberal Democrats. As a mixed-race man who grew up in a working class family in Tottenham, racism exposed itself in myriad forms. From slum like impoverishment, gang related shootings and stabbings, having the worst performing schools in the country, neglectful social services, poor housing governance, a high concentration of muggings and burglaries, undernourished children and so on. 

Why is this racism? 

Because areas like Tottenham (although now undergoing gradual gentrification) have a disproportionate population of black and ethnic minorities – an area where for those growing up ambition isn’t on the agenda, life is simply a matter of survival. Areas like this are by design, the most illiberal social experiment conducted in modern civil society. When multiple social factors inflate the poverty bubble, it only takes one tragic incident for it to burst; igniting chaos by way of a black person being slain by those we entrust to protect us indiscriminately. Although I do not condone looting, I understand what happens when the resilience of a community is pushed to its limits. I share the anger, frustration and sadness of what communities are going through in the US – something anyone of my age who grew up in Tottenham knows only too well.

The catalyst of the issue being brought to surface is the blatant injustice of police brutality. This is a sensitive, complex issue and the first step to tackling this as a political party is to understand its historical context and how it shapes the experiences of black individuals, and the wider community. 

As Liberal Democrats, we believe in internationalism by way of global treaties, institutions, and universalist goals. We share the view that international homogeneity will stimulate peace and enterprise, so that individuals may have the opportunity to shape their own destiny. We believe in forward thinking progress as a conduit to a liberal, democratic society. But unless we confront our tainted history, progress will be forever stalled by normalising racial prejudice. 

Let us start by acknowledging the very concept of ‘the West’ as Eurocentric (west of what exactly?). Taught history proclaims Europeans were great explorers, innovators, discoverers, inventors, scientists, teachers, and the ones who gave birth to our magnificent modern world. The British Museum is full of plundered treasure, a reminder of British (white) exceptionalism. The reality is, anyone of colour during the industrial revolution was either systematically enslaved, murdered and not least ignored in our history. Yet without the free labour of African slaves, the very world we have today would not exist as it does. We must accept that our society is built on prejudice, and just because overt racism is largely outlawed and rejected, it doesn’t mean Western civilisation hasn’t inherited a hierarchical perception that white people are entitled to privilege, and black people are inferior. After all, history tells us black people contributed very little to our great civilisation.

Although I reference my experiences growing up in a predominantly black, underprivileged environment, that doesn’t mean all black people are inherently underprivileged. Yet the public’s unconscious, automatic biases are easily triggered, drawing conclusions based on the visible ‘black’ elements of an individual – associated with unconscious assumptions about their character, before they have even spoken. By default, this positions white people as superior to black people. What happens when society adopts this hierarchical perception? What is it like for black people to wait in line at an airport? To ask for assistance from a stranger? To go for a jog? To get stopped by the police? Black people simply do not experience life in the same way as their white counterparts and this, coupled with systematic impoverishment, is a recipe for disaster, especially when you throw heavy handed law enforcement into the mix.

Many people are entirely unaware of the presence of such institutional racism. Others don’t understand or engage with it, as they see the days of public acts of hostility towards the black community as a thing of the past. To understand police brutality, we must acknowledge two fundamental causes. One being that police themselves are individuals existing in our unequal society and are susceptible to the same notion that black people are inferior to white people. The second being that a history of poor social policy planning has ghettoised communities, by placing all those facing the most desperate social challenges in condensed areas, often consisting of high-rise tower block estates with limited social equity. Impoverished areas are notorious for violent crime such as assault, burglaries, rape, and drug trafficking via gangs. Police not only have their work cut out, but facing these levels of crime in areas where black people disproportionately make up the population only reinforces their unconscious biases further. 

While stop and search (or even stop and question) strategies may be intended to effectively combat crime, it fails to recognise the context in which they are applied, resulting in black people being targeted arbitrarily. This racist policing culture is generational, and so black communities inherently distrusts the police and the police systematically discriminate against black people, a never-ending vicious circle. As technology allows us to instantly film and share experiences worldwide in real time, we are witnessing black people being stopped, searched, harassed, and bullied by police for no reason other than being the wrong colour. My Instagram feed has exposed many examples captured within the last week alone.

Eight years ago, I was living with my mother in Tottenham. Her best friend, a care worker and neighbour knocked on our door. A black woman, crying, trembling with shock and fear repeating “my daughter, my daughter, I can’t believe what they did to my daughter, they smashed my door.” My instinct was to call the police, extract as much info as possible from her, and make sure there was no further harm… until she said “no, it was the police!” Somehow, the police had been wrongly tipped off that her top floor apartment was used for distributing drugs, despite her having a CRB check for her profession. As a care worker and single mother, she left for work in the early hours of the morning leaving her twelve-year-old daughter to independently get ready and leave for school. It was at this time, over six police officers, unannounced, smashed through the door. The twelve-year-old girl hid behind her wardrobe and feared it was a break in. An officer removed her by force and handcuffed her whilst other officers tipped the extremely well-kept home upside down. 

By the time the mother was informed and got back to her flat, witnessing her daughter in cuffs, she was approached by an officer who assertively questioned the mother over a cannabis grinder they found in storage. Eventually the police concluded there must be a mistake, uncuffed the child, and left. No apology, no advice on what to do with the smashed broken door. This made front page news in the Tottenham Journal, but had very little impact. Once the Police Complaints Commission found no breach of due diligence, the family – defeated and wanting to put the trauma behind them let it lie. One would assume that just nine months after the 2011 Tottenham riots, police would have acted extra vigilantly.

I could write a book filled with stories from black family and friends about equally as disturbing encounters with the police. The presence of ‘democratic laws’ and ‘equal rights’ betrays the stark reality black communities experience compared to the majority white population. It takes the tragic death of a black man across the pond to bring these issues to surface, yet the brutality albeit without the deaths (mostly) happens in the UK daily, in many cases on our very doorsteps.

So how do we progress towards a more equal society by way of addressing white on black racism? Protesting police brutality is a good start, but how does that tackle the crux of the issue? First, we need to accept this isn’t a black issue. We all have a shared history, thus confronting history and acknowledging the racial inequalities it has brought today is a universal mission. White people need to be honest about privilege, it’s not enough to say “well I’m not racist… I never owned slaves… aww, that’s a terrible injustice (whilst sipping their tea watching the riots on BBC news)” absolving themselves from the conversation. A hurdle we must overcome is white guilt, or what modern discourse refers to as ‘white fragility.’ Black Lives Matter does not mean that black lives matter more than other ethnicities. It represents the fact that discrimination against black people is systemic due to a history of white privilege and should be addressed as its own type of racism. It’s ok to be white, let go of those tribal instincts, and support BLM. White people ought to stop getting defensive over this taboo.

We must address all of the social structures and power imbalances that support white privilege: in government; in our workplace; in the pub; when one of our friends speak out of line – call it out, and challenge it. Reparations by way of social rather than financial capital should be implemented within local governance strategies. 

When the electorate votes for a Prime Minister who refers to black people as “piccaninnies with watermelon smiles,” we are failing this mission. When schools and university curriculums fail to join the dots between our national history of enslaving black Africans and today’s systemic racism (transporting them thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean in conditions so harsh, many were too weak to survive the journey and simply tossed overboard – committing the genocide of the Carib tribes, then replacing the population with African slaves to work the plantations – encouraging their great grandchildren to migrate to the UK and work our public transport and social services due to a labour shortage – deporting these migrants arbitrarily to a place they don’t even consider home) we are failing this mission. When we entrust growth led enterprise as the primary agents to gentrify black communities without any consideration to its social impact – we are failing this mission.

Our core liberal values of justice and dignified living for all will never be attained if civilisation cannot overcome racial prejudice. As a political party there is a lot more we should do. I joined the Liberal Democrats less than a year ago and feel at home here. But, despite intentions to attract BAME members (let alone candidates) we perform poorly. There needs to be a separate campaign strategy at federal level to engage wards with a high population of BAME residents. We also need to unpack the BAME box. No ‘BAME’ person refers to themselves as BAME, it’s a lazy term we use to group non-white and non-indigenous people together. We must be aware of the risk of becoming complacent with this and put work in to unpack the issues that are specific to particular ethnic groups. If we adopt the ‘pick a ward and win it’ strategy, we end up preaching to the converted (middle class, white people) as the odds are in our favour (one might argue this policy itself is inadvertently racist). 

By creating this chicken and egg dilemma, we are never going to connect with the communities where we could make a meaningful difference. We need to fight for racial justice in all its forms, but we must acknowledge that white on black racism is a separate issue. We need to connect and engage with already existing civic organisations and listen to black voices. We need to recreate the noise and energy we mustered around #BollocksToBrexit and unequivocally support #BlackLivesMatter – with synonymous branding and well-orchestrated activism. We need to indefinitely make BLM a core campaign message and should not let the socialist left monopolise on this. 

Many black people vote Labour because they have little choice, who else is fighting their corner? From a democratic perspective black people should have greater choice at the ballot box. We must not assume ethnicity and political ideology are so cemented.

The Liberal Democrats could be the party to lead the charge here, and we have a duty to commit to the emancipation of black people both nationally and internationally and forge a future that’s truly equal, just and liberal.


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