The Killing of George Floyd

I’m struggling for words – struggling to write anything coherent. The best I seem to be able to manage is this collection of thoughts about the killing of George Floyd…

  • The greatest duty – the greatest privilege – that any police officer could ever have is to save the life of another human being.
  • The killing of George Floyd represents an absolute betrayal of everything I have ever believed in – everything I ever stood for as a police officer.
  • And I am certain that every good police officer I have ever known would say exactly the same.
  • But the thing is that it’s not just George Floyd. It’s every other case as well. Every other story. Every other piece of history.
  • Because this has been going on – in one form or another – for hundreds of years.
  • At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, Britain is not America. And British policing is not remotely the same as American policing. But that doesn’t for one moment mean that there’s nothing to see here. There’s a whole host of things we’ve got wrong too.
  • Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racists in April 1993, just a few months after I joined the Met. And his story remains one of the most powerful and impactive of my whole policing life.
  • The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report was published in February 1999, and its findings were utterly damning of the Metropolitan Police – accused not only of incompetence and corruption, but of being institutionally racist. 
  • I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember feeling confused and defensive and genuinely hurt. I knew I wasn’t a racist and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why an Inquiry Panel of complete strangers appeared to be telling me that I was.
  • But that isn’t what they were doing. They were talking about something much bigger than me. At the time, I didn’t really understand what ‘Institutional Racism’ meant. The truth is that it took me years to even begin to get my head round it – and I suspect that I still have a way to go.
  • Back in 1999, as the Met faced up to its undeniable shortcomings and to the overwhelming task of repairing the damage done, talk in the corridors of Scotland Yard turned to how best to begin the process of rebuilding relationships with London’s ‘hard to reach’ communities – those regarded as being most angry with, and alienated from, policing. But from the outset there was something wrong with the language – and with the mindset that lay behind it. The members of these primarily Black and Asian communities weren’t hard to reach at all. They lived in exactly the same neighbourhoods as everyone else. The only real distinction was that, more often than not, they came from the poorer side of the street. Slow realisation prompted a change in the terminology. ‘Hard to reach’ became ‘hard to hear’ – with differences of language, custom and culture suggested as reasons for the ongoing communication difficulties being experienced by the establishment. But that wasn’t right either. The labelling – and the thinking – was still wrong. It took time, but eventually we began to understand. These communities were neither ‘hard to reach’ nor ‘hard to hear’. The truth was that they were simply ‘not listened to’. They had been speaking out for years, but most of the rest of us hadn’t been paying the blindest bit of attention.
  • More so now than ever, policing needs to listen to the voices of the communities it serves. Because listening is the beginning of hearing. And hearing is the beginning of understanding. And understanding is the beginning of change.
  • The truth was – and still is – that Black people in this country (never mind in America) have, for generations, faced overwhelming inequality and injustice that is both societal and systemic.  
  • In trying to understand what that means, we might begin with the simple, current fact that Black people are disproportionately more likely to die from coronavirus – and work our way back from there.
  • Because Black people are also disproportionately more likely to live in poor neighbourhoods, to be excluded from education, to suffer with mental ill health, to be unemployed, to be stopped and searched by the police, to end up in prison. And so it goes on.
  • Black Lives Matter.
  • And when I am tempted to respond to that latter declaration by insisting that ‘All Lives Matter’, I am missing the point. White lives have always mattered – and no-one is suggesting that they should now matter less. The point is that Black lives need to start mattering a whole lot more than they have done up to now – that they need to matter every bit as much as white lives.
  • This is about so much more that just policing of course – but I want to stick with policing here, because policing is what I know.
  • Society has every right to expect higher standards of police officers than they do of anyone else. For three reasons: (i) the promises we made; (ii) the powers we were given; (iii) the place that policing occupies in society. 
  • Whenever a police officer betrays those promises or abuses those powers, the consequences are disproportionately damaging for the rest of us. And so we must never tire of holding policing up to the light.
  • But I don’t think that all police officers are racist.
  • I don’t think that most police officers are racist – completely the opposite in fact.
  • I served as an officer for more than twenty-five years and, in all that time, I only ever encountered one overt display of racism from one of my colleagues. (I was a young PC when it happened and, to my lasting regret, I lacked the courage to say or do anything about it. By remaining silent, I was colluding with the racist.)
  • The fact is that every decent police officer in this country (and there are tens of thousands of them) is as horrified by the killing of George Floyd as the rest of us.
  • Most of us – most of them – aren’t racists, but nonetheless we all have a responsibility to acknowledge the reality and endless adverse consequences of racism for the world we all live in. I recognise that it isn’t enough for me say, “I am not a racist”. I realise that more is required – much more.
  • (For the avoidance of any wilful misinterpretation, I have precisely zero interest in political correctness, in virtue signalling or in being woke – whatever the hell that means. But I am passionately interested in trying to do the right thing.)
  • And it begins with listening.
  • I heard a remarkable professor on the radio yesterday, suggesting that many of us would benefit from a proper history lesson on the origins of racism. She was absolutely right – certainly about me. And it is my responsibility – no-one else’s – to educate myself. When it comes to Black history and Black experience, I have nothing to teach and everything to learn.
  • I have some awareness of the agonising stories of slavery and segregation, but they have never been part of my own history. I have seen the horrifying photographs of police dogs attacking peaceful black protestors in 1960s Alabama, but those powerful days have never been part of my family’s experience. There are no burning crosses or lynchings in our past, no hooded evil and relentless fear. 
  • I have lived in Inner London since the age of fifteen and I have never been stopped and searched by the police. (I was stopped once by officers when I was in my car. But that might have had something to do with the fact that I was driving like an idiot at the time.)
  • And so I need to listen. To the voices of those with lived experience. To the voices of those who know.
  • Anger seems to me to be the only reasonable response to the killing of George Floyd – and to all that his death represents. Anger expressed not in rioting and looting (or in anything else that undermines the unarguable justice of the cause), but in the flat refusal to settle for anything other than fundamental, enduring, systemic and societal change.
  • And that’s up to all of us.
  • Among the endless grim images to emerge from America in recent days (many of which I have found too distressing to look at), there have been some that have given me cause for hope. They are of police officers and soldiers and ordinary white citizens kneeling and asking the forgiveness of their Black neighbours for the generational sin of racism.
  • It might not be much, but perhaps it’s a start.
  • If Donald Trump had read and understood the contents of that bible he was holding, he’d be kneeling too.

 

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(Drawing by the incomparable Charlie Mackesy)

7 thoughts on “The Killing of George Floyd

Add yours

  1. John, As usual you have nailed it. Thanks for broadcasting your feelings in such strong words. Being a Met PC 1974-1994 and since then working in Sub Saharan Africa I’ve been immersed into the melting pot. Often embarrassed at how the British colonialists trampled their way over ancient tribes and their rituals to impose British rule. I’m often surprised that I’m not spat upon as I walk throgh the streets of this amazing continent. It’s my home and I assimilate more with Africans than Europeans, in some sort of supplication to my forefathers treatment of the indigenous population.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yesterday I posted here to say that 25 years of policing by John where he did nothing to address the institutional racism in policing was cowardly.

    And that posting a blog saying “now I’m listening” and to prove it here’s a cute picture of a boy listening….was evidence that John is part of the problem not the solution.

    A man who spent twenty five years paid by the public but not serving all the public is not a leader.

    John has taken the post down, a further act of cowardice….but be sure to buy his books…

    Like

  3. Hello John, you don’t know me but I have heard much about you during my work with the Met using colours (to understand diversity and inclusion) during the Leading for London campaign. I’m the founder of http://www.clarity4D.com. Whenever I read your words I am inspired. Love to connect to discuss further @thecolourbehaviourist

    Liked by 1 person

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