The 1823 Demerara rebellion, Guyana. The Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831–32. The 1968 Washington D.C. riots. The 1981 Brixton riots. The Black Lives Matter protests, 2020.
It feels jarring to mention recent events in the same breath as archival moments we read about in the history books. It’s difficult to comprehend the fact that our present reality will be re-watched and reviewed through the eyes of those who do not yet exist. In many ways, it’s overwhelming to imagine the world we live in becoming a topic of discussion in decades and centuries to come. That’s because we are forced to reckon with the idea that the actions we take today could have an impact on how others remember the world we are shaping.
There’s a cautious voice in my head that tells me that I’m getting ahead of myself. Whilst the death of George Floyd sparked some of the largest protests I can remember in my lifetime, there’s a rash temptation to confuse its unprecedented scale with some unprecedented impending impact. We need to pause and ask ourselves why, this time, millions of people across the globe marched in protest against police discrimination. George Floyd was no different to Eric Garner who cried out the same three dying words – “I can’t breathe” – in 2014. It’s just that, this time, the world was forced to watch.
At the time of his death, we were at the height of coronavirus pandemic, stuck indoors watching the news and scrolling endlessly on social media. We were fixated on breaking news about lockdown rules and daily death figures. And we were stupefied by the words and actions of populists around the world: Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson. Amid all of this came George Floyd. Suddenly, we had something else to focus on.
However, as a descendant of slaves – who is still stopped and searched by the police to this day – I know that black pain is nothing new. Racial discrimination has been a metronome of history; it’s no longer surprising to see a police officer choke a black man to death in the United States. For this reason, even in the wake of a truly global movement demanding action, we cannot afford to assume that change is inevitably on its way.
Counterbalancing this caution is hope. What’s most inspiring about the recent protests is the fact that a new generation of all colours and creeds is coming together to fight for their collective future. Black people have been fighting this battle for centuries, but we’re no longer fighting it alone.
For this reason, the kind of caution I have expressed is no reason to step off the stage. Far from it. It’s a reason to double our efforts in empowering this new generation to make their voices heard. It’s a reason to sharpen our attention when listening to them. It’s a reason to build an inclusive movement that invites others to learn and grow. And it’s a reason to hold those in power to account for kicking racial injustice into the long grass.
As a black MP, I feel a duty not only to provide the space for movements old and new to speak, but to engender the belief that their demands can be transformed into substantive action. Let’s be clear. We don’t just want 2020 to go down in Black History. We want it to go down in Black History for the right reasons. That is, we want to be remembered for showcasing the power of protest and redefining the boundaries of political action.
Ultimately, history is written by the victors. When our grandchildren read about us in the history books, let’s make sure they can celebrate being on the winning side.
After being elected for the 7th time as the Member of Parliament for Tottenham in December 2019, David Lammy was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Justice. He became the first black MP to hold the Justice post, either in government or opposition. This appointment concluded a busy year for David, who has fought for justice on behalf of the Windrush Generation, spearheaded the struggle to resist Brexit, campaigned for a humane immigration system, sought to protect vulnerable teenagers from surging knife-crime, re-applied pressure on the Government to compensate the victims of the Grenfell Tower Fire and continued to expose racial bias within the British criminal justice system.
This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students. If you enjoyed this piece, please check out this piece on the societal roles of the African ageing population by another SOAS alum, Nesta Hatendi.