How communities of colour fought back

How communities of colour fought back
Micha Frazer-Carroll examines the challenges that the UK’s minoritised communities have faced over the last five years, and reports on the ways that they have come together to organise, support and uplift one another.

In 2019, I worked with Huck on a series called Cut Out, which looked at the impact of nearly a decade of Tory rule on various marginalised communities. My piece in the series looked at communities of colour, finding that successive Conservative governments had lowered our living standards, contributed to dangerous housing conditions like those found at Grenfell Tower, and enacted cuts to public services that disproportionately harmed ethnic minority groups. I also suggested that under another prospective Tory government, people of colour would only continue to lose out. I wish I hadn’t been right.

Almost five years on, I’m returning to the same question, which sends a cold shot of dread rushing through my body. And no wonder – I’m picking up my reporting from where I left off in 2019; a moment in which we were door-knocking in the hopes of a Jeremy Corbyn win, blissfully unaware that we were facing the worst Labour defeat since 1935, and a global pandemic, whose mismanagement would contribute to the deaths of over 200,000 people in the UK.

Another significant political development of the last five years was the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had begun organising under this banner in the early 2010s, waning towards the end of the decade. In 2020, when much of the world was still subject to Covid lockdowns, footage of 46-year-old George Floyd’s murder went viral, igniting what may have been the largest global anti-racist protests in history. While these protests rallied around police violence (which, a 2021 investigation by myself and Huck revealed, disproportionately affects Black people and other people of colour), many protestors also were roused by racism in healthcare, education, housing and border policies.

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Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK), a grassroots organisation that had been struggling against anti-Black racism in the UK, gained over £1.2 million in donations during this period, leading to a significant expansion in its work over the following five years. Kojo Kyerewaa, a BLMUK representative, agrees that during this period of Conservative rule, the material conditions of Black people in the UK have only continued to deteriorate.

“Since 2019, the Tories have delivered shrinking wages, crumbling public services, ever-increasing living costs and a two-child benefit cap,” he tells me. “All of these factors have contributed to over half of all Black children in Britain now living in poverty, which is double the rate for white children. The benefit cap, which Rishi Sunak recently pledged to keep if the Tories got into government again, notably impacts Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black African households, who tend to have larger families, with Black households being more likely to be helmed by lone parents. Kyerewaa says: “We know more Black children today are often living in overcrowded and poorly maintained homes, while going to school hungry and stressed.”

As was the case in 2019, people of colour are disproportionately likely to be living in poverty in the UK. This means that they have generally seen the sharp end of the past five years’ Conservative economic policies. Kyerewaa cites the two million adults that can no longer afford to eat every day, and the near-10 million who are waiting for NHS hospital appointments or treatments after Sunak broke his pledge to cut waiting lists. While these headlines may not automatically read as issues of racial justice, Black people are affected at an elevated rate than their white counterparts. Kyerewaa tells me: “In every home, school and hospital, Black people can see the cost of Conservative rule.”

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The Covid-19 pandemic also disproportionately hit communities of colour, in large part due to these economic factors. In 2020, ethnic minority Covid deaths were two to four times greater than those among white populations in the region. One reason for this is that, during lockdowns, Black and Asian people were found to be more likely to work in high-risk jobs, like taxi-driving, security, cleaning, nursing and care professions. Due to poverty and an increased likelihood of being on precarious contracts, they were also more likely to go to work when they knew it was not safe; something Kyerewaa told me “has been made socially acceptable by successive governments.” Relatedly, people of colour were also more likely to live in multi-generational and “overcrowded” households – which may also be linked to poverty – and increased risk of transmission. And, to add insult to injury, ethnic minority groups bore the brunt of draconian pandemic policing, with fines for alleged breaches of lockdown going to ethnic minority communities at seven times the rate of their white counterparts.

In the general election of 2019, we were only a year out from the revelations of the “Windrush Scandal”, in which it was revealed that Theresa May’s government had detained, denied legal rights, withheld healthcare and deported British Caribbean people who had been granted the right to settle in the UK decades ago. While a compensation scheme for victims was launched over five years ago (followed by fanfare including “Windrush Day”, a “lessons learned” review and a Windrush Overground line), Human Rights Watch found the scheme to be “unfit for its purpose”, with only 12.8% of victims compensated as of January 2023. The “hostile environment”, May’s policy legacy from her tenure as Home Secretary in the early 2010s, has only continued to ramp up over the last five years.

Kyerewaa says that despite the Windrush review, it appears few lessons have been learned from Tory border violence. “Instead of the Windrush scandal becoming a full stop on punitive immigration policy, it became a comma in a long list of cruel and unusual punishments.” Former Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Rwanda scheme, which declared that any asylum seeker entering the UK "illegally" after 1 January 2022 could be sent to Rwanda, was a particularly surreal and dystopian development for migrants in the UK. The following year, the government announced plans to begin housing asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm, a barge plagued by poor living conditions, food and health and safety, which attracted controversy and campaigning after a number of suicide attempts related to the ship.

These various forms of structural violence – across the economy, healthcare, housing, policing and immigration – are made all the more insidious by the Conservatives’ co-option of “identity politics”, another novel development of the past five years. When Boris Johnson was elected in 2019, he quickly brought in the most diverse cabinet in British history, though this did not lead to more diverse policy.

The increasingly hostile conditions faced by people of colour in the UK have, however, given rise to increasingly powerful organising and protest. BLMUK, which in 2020 crowdsourced its donations from people who recognised the need for a well-resourced anti-racist UK movement, is a clear example of this. By 2023, the organisation had distributed £600,000 to Black-led organisations that shared its values; from the United Families and Friends Campaign, a coalition of people affected by deaths in state custody, to Sistah Space, a Hackney-based domestic violence charity supporting Black women, which has faced repeated threats of closure.

The group has also been working against anti-migrant policies, organising direct action with the Anti-Raids Network to stop forced relocations of asylum seekers across London hotels. This year, the group successfully stopped a relocation to Bibby Stockholm from Peckham. It also expanded its organising around racist British foreign policy, playing an active role in the broader Free Palestine Coalition, working to end British arm sales and complicity fuelling the Palestinian genocide.

When politicians appeal to the idea of the “worker”, the image we often conjure up in our minds is that of a white person, who is likely a man. However, Kyerewaa understands, just as I do, that many of the most precarious workers, for example those in outsourced and gig economy jobs, are people of colour. He tells me that, in 2023, BLMUK and Independent Workers of Great Britain joined the predominantly Black outsourced workers’ campaign at University College London, demanding an end to what is often called a “two-tier” workforce, in which outsourced workers do not gain access to the same pay and conditions as others doing the same job. In 2021, BLMUK also used part of its funding to cover a Black trade union organiser at United Voices of the World, a small, migrant-led union.

As both the Tories and Labour pledge to put more police on the streets, police violence is also still a central concern for the organisation; which continues to supports the families of those who have been victims of it.

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As we face the genuine likelihood that a Labour government will be elected on 4 July, it is important that we do not begin to eulogise the state violence that has been wrought on people of colour in recent years. As it stands, there is little promise that a Keir Starmer-led Labour government will reverse the last 14 years of damage done by successive Conservative-Liberal Democrat and Conservative governments. Labour has said “no return to austerity” but has refused to rule out further cuts to public services if they take office. Starmer has also said he’d keep many other policies that have harmed families of colour, like the two-child benefit cap (which even the Conservative-right Suella Braverman wants to scrap).

Despite the fact that Starmer has pledged to halt the Rwanda scheme, Kyerewaa says that: “We do not expect Britain’s border regime to improve for migrants [...] We have watched the debates, which have seen both parties attempt to outcompete each other on the cruelty with which they will crack down on immigration. This can only mean that [Starmer] intends to keep immigrants as targets for state violence.”

So what can be done? Rather than despairing at the options we have in front of us, we might see the prospect of a Labour win as an opportunity to continue to deepen the organising established in resistance to Tory cuts and state violence. Kyerewaa says: “We are planning to grow our movement and scale up our operations to increase effective resistance to Starmer’s mildly changed version of Tory rule.”

Perhaps, in the coming five years, we might serve as the opposition, rather than a Labour Party that has repeatedly disavowed people of colour fighting against racism – from Diane Abbott to Faiza Shaheen. We will need to continue work that improves the conditions of workers, migrants, patients and families living in poverty, because, as we have established, people of colour see the sharp end of these policy areas. As always, when the state won’t save us, we will save each other.

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