15 June 2020 | OPINION
The Conservative Party does not have the greatest history with protest movements. It is the duty of its young members to change the party’s approach going forward, and this starts with supporting Black Lives Matter (BLM) during this critical time of racial tension. The party must strike the right balance between protecting civil society and showing compassion for BLM protestors.
BLM is a trans-national organisation campaigning for an end to systemic racism and police brutality against minorities, as part of the broader social movement for racial equality. The group continues to make international headlines for organising mass protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, an African American, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. Floyd’s killing sparked a global response, breathing fresh life into racial equality campaigns. Nonetheless, the group now faces a backlash on account of riotous behaviour from some protest attendees and the neglecting of social distancing rules put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Vandalism, looting, anti-social behaviour and assault are unacceptable in all circumstances. The government and local representatives have a responsibility to protect both civilians and police officers. To do this, they must enforce tougher legal deterrents, while putting racial equality at the forefront of the parliamentary agenda. Genuine BLM protestors were quick to condemn opportunistic looting, destruction and violence and have made clear such acts undermine their goals.
The government must respond by imposing tougher sentencing laws for individuals who degrade the racial equality movement by engaging in criminal activity. Furthermore, monetary fines must be issued to those in violation of social distancing rules, with people being encouraged to use public transport to attend protests only if no other means are available to them and always outside of peak travel times, to safeguard our essential workers.
Critics argue that it is irresponsible to allow protests to continue at all, especially given the virus disproportionally impacts the BAME community. However, protests are an important part of representative democracy and the right to partake is a civil liberty worth keeping. ‘Anti-protesters’ ultimately reveal a deep lack of understanding about why COVID-19 affects this diaspora more. BAME groups often have poorer socio-economic circumstances, which leads to poorer health. There is also a direct correlation between racial discrimination and negative mental and physical health outcomes.
Furthermore, studies show that ethnic minorities are both more likely to live in densely populated urban areas, where the virus spreads the fastest, and to live in over-crowded accommodation, which increases risk of transmission. BAME individuals are also more likely to be key workers. Structural inequalities as a result of state neglect, such as poverty, overcrowding and unequal access to healthcare, can be just as damaging as a knee on the neck, given time. Floyd’s death may have triggered demonstrations, but these long-term disparities are what’s keeping them going.
Conservative parliamentarians and government ministers must address protesters with much greater sensitivity moving forward. These uprisings are the result of long-term state neglect, and the party must work with the BAME community to counteract structural disadvantages entrenched in British state systems through new policy initiatives. Furthermore, they must endeavour to challenge poignant symbols of racial oppression.
Many Conservative politicians were quick to condemn the removal of the Edward Colston monument in Bristol, yet very few publicly questioned why a slave trader’s statue was allowed to be displayed proudly in one of our cities in the first place. In modern Britain, one would expect such artefacts to be immortalised in our museums, not glorified on our streets.
Statues have long been an emotive area in race relations the world over, and especially for young people. In April 2015, the University of Cape Town removed a statue of Cecil Rhodes after weeks of student demonstrations. In August 2018, students at the University of North Carolina toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier on campus. In June 2019, students at the University of Sydney tried to remove a statue of William Wentworth from their campus. The list could go on.
It is important that every person in Britain feels welcome; it is vital that every British national feels this is their country. This Conservative government must lead the way and put measures in place that will allow protests to continue as safely as possible for participants, the police and the rest of the population in the coming weeks.