I have seen race hate in the US and UK and the message is the same: no one is free until we are all free
I came to London more than 30 years ago to protest against the vicious murder of 15-year-old Rolan Adams. He and his younger brother were waiting at a bus stop when they were chased by a gang of white teenagers, many yelling racial epithets. Adams was stabbed in the neck with a butterfly knife and died.
The white mobs here were eerily similar to the white mobs we witnessed while protesting in places like Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Similar stares, similar hate, similar use of the “N-word”, similar unease, similar tension and a similar lack of justice. More than three decades later, I return to share my film, Loudmouth, which chronicles my lifelong journey advocating and fighting for civil rights. While there has been progress that I have witnessed first-hand, both the US and the UK are still dealing with an excessive amount of police brutality. Whether it is back home or across the pond, the need for effective, thorough police reform is long overdue and we are here to demand it in unison.
As I left the US, my thoughts were still with the family of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was beaten to death by officers according to videotape footage. I delivered the eulogy at his funeral and stood alongside his grieving mother, stepfather and loved ones. The pain that they will carry for the rest of their lives is just like the grief and agony that every family member of victims of police brutality endures whether in the US, the UK or elsewhere. Back home, there is case after case of officers killing unarmed Black and Brown folks in disproportionate numbers, as well as profiling, arresting, incarcerating and just plain targeting them. In the Nichols case, the accused officers are Black. This abuse is a systemic problem, just as it is a systemic problem in the UK.
Last September, the Metropolitan police shot and killed unarmed 24-year-old Chris Kaba. Police followed his vehicle and Kaba died from a single shot by an officer, according to reports. He was about to become a father. His family, members of the community, activists and even some politicians have called for accountability in the case. Similar to protests in the US, many on the ground in the UK have led rallies for reform. The Independent Office for Police Conduct said that it is conducting an investigation, but it may take anywhere from six to nine months. That is simply too long. This heartbroken family must receive answers and justice.
The problems with policing, whether here or in the states, often begin with dehumanising and devaluing Black and Brown lives. At an early age, our children are criminalised, perceived to be older than their age and treated harshly and unfairly. We saw that in the UK in a case in 2020 that garnered international outrage when a 15-year-old Black girl was strip-searched by female officers without the presence of her parents or another adult. The young girl was taken to the school’s medical room and strip-searched (while she was menstruating) by officers reportedly looking for cannabis. No drugs were found. This was not an isolated incident. According to the children’s commissioner for England, 650 children were strip-searched by police in London from 2018-2020. The majority were boys, and about 58% were Black. Simply unacceptable.
Impacts from systemic racism and a police culture that does not view us as deserving of basic human rights has detrimental reverberations. In June 2020, two sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, were murdered and their bodies discovered in a park. Two Met police officers took pictures of their bodies, circulated them to others and made crass comments. The family also learned that a missing person log was incorrectly closed, and police failed to take any real action on the day the young women went missing. Not only was this gross negligence, but it again highlights the lack of care, respect and treatment that our communities receive. Those officers may not have killed them, but they caused further harm by their utter disregard and reprehensible behaviour.
Related: I’m tired of watching Black men like Tyre Nichols die. This shouldn’t be normal | Tayo Bero
These are just a few of the cases in recent years that have rocked neighbourhoods and communities in the UK, along with many others. It is similar to the pattern and practice misconduct we have been dealing with in the US for years and years. That’s the bad news. There is, however, a glimmer of hope and some good news. Many who’ve fought for justice in the UK are having their voices heard. Stephen Lawrence’s mother, Doreen, is a respected peer. Simon Woolley, the activist I came to protest with in 1991, is now Lord Simon Woolley and the principal of Homerton College, Cambridge. In the US, we elected our first Black president, Barack Obama, and now our first Black vice-president, Kamala Harris, who just gave a moving statement at Tyre Nichols’s funeral.
So yes, we have gained, but many things sadly remain the same. We have gained because it has not been in vain. The struggle continues as we fight for civil rights, police reform, equal treatment and justice. After all, whether in the US, the UK or around the world, none of us are free, until we are all free.
Rev Al Sharpton is an American Baptist minister, civil rights activist and radio talkshow host