By Grainne Cuffe, local democracy reporter
A Lambeth councillor was told he could be “part of the problem” after asking that a motion attempting to tackle systemic racism to specify which firm or organisation it referred to.
Cllr Donatus Anyanwu made the comments about Conservative Cllr Tim Briggs at a council meeting last week while debating an emergency motion in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of US police, which was passed at the meeting.
Introducing the motion, which aims to fight inequalities facing Black people, deputy leader Cllr Jennifer Brathwaite said experiences, together with the data, “tell us that racism is systemic, it’s complex, it’s interconnected, and it’s multilayered, and unless you break those systems of structural inequalities, you are complicit with its existence”.
Cllr Briggs said he had problems with the motion because it “seeks to blame or smear the UK police” for something that happened in the US, and questioned what systemic racism councillors were referring to.
“I want to know who Labour councillors mean when they talk about systemic racism that exists within society – who is it we should be angry with? Because the motion doesn’t specify any institutions or businesses.
“Respectively to Cllr Brathwaite, I don’t accept her assertion that I am complicit with the existence of racism because I want to have a useful debate,” he said.
Speaking afterwards, Cllr Donatus Anyanwu said listening to Cllr Briggs confirmed “that he either has decided to ignore racism exists in this country or he is part of the problem”.
He said: “Racism, historically, is endemic in this country, and that is why a lot of residents knelt down in Brixton today in solidarity with what has happened in America.”
Cllr Anyanwu said the Government was “very silent about the situation in America” and the “institutional racism that we have seen in this country”.
“That again is a mark of how they treat some individuals like myself, like all the residents with different complexions in this country. To me that does not show that history cannot repeat itself.
“Whether it is in America, or whether Cllr Briggs believes it or not, from this country, through slavery, through genocide that led to the formation of America,” he said, adding: “Cllr Briggs, if you sit in your tower and think it doesn’t exist, then you are living on a different planet.”
In response to the comments made by Cllr Anyanwu, Cllr Briggs told the local democracy service that “racism exists and we have to call it out wherever we find it”.
He said: “The death of George Floyd was a shock for everyone in the UK.
“I don’t feel the need to talk again about how terrible his death was. I feel an emptiness and numbness when I think about it. I hope his loved ones can find some peace.”
Cllr Briggs said “it’s very important” to support the police and “their right not to be injured”.
“Most police officers want to serve, and do a good job.
“But in Lambeth there are too many instances of police officers forgetting to behave professionally and appropriately when they are under pressure, and carrying out abuses that their superior officers don’t see. This is a reality.
“Black people feel that too many of the police deal with Black teenagers differently to how they might deal with white teenagers.
“In council scrutiny meetings, senior officers talk about police body cameras as a check on poor policing, but Black residents will tell you that body cameras often get switched off.
“The abuses I have seen or heard about range from small to serious acts of violence, from police officers restraining people inappropriately, to deliberately slamming van doors into faces.
“I should be clear that most policemen and women would never do this kind of thing, and treat everyone with courteous firmness and professionalism.
“But abusers, whether they are in the police, the military, or care homes, are lazy people finding the gaps, the places where they cannot be scrutinised, and getting away with doing inappropriate things to other people – because they can, without getting caught, on a sliding scale of mild to criminal.
“There are cultural misunderstandings too.
“Police officers can misinterpret someone speaking without looking at them as rudeness, or being loud as aggression, when these are west African cultural norms. The police don’t have to treat anyone differently to understand these things.
“So it is an easily misunderstood and difficult argument to make, to try to separate lots of different issues. In our anger we often lump them all together. But nothing will improve if we do that.
“And as happened in the council meeting last Wednesday, what my Labour colleagues do is conflate racism with other issues that affect people of colour. Then they insist that anyone that doesn’t agree with their political views is ‘part of the problem’, and somehow racist.”
He said the “lack of opportunities reflected in the figures for BAME communities are not to do with racism”.
He said lowering council tax in Lambeth, giving more freedom to schools, better-run housing, and a cleaner environment would help Black children do better in life.
“To be really honest, and I hope this doesn’t offend anyone because I mean it with kindness – in my experience, most people in this country don’t really care what colour your skin is.
“I don’t ‘see’ people’s skin colour when I talk to them. I understand that colour is part of their identity, and that can be very important to some people.
“But that’s just me, I don’t think of appearances like that. I suspect that outside of the London bubble most people think that too.
“I would argue that thinking like that can’t be a bad thing if you also think, as I do, that everyone is the same,” Cllr Briggs said.
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