This is the tale of two lives and two deaths. It is also a tale of two cities, two countries and two killings. It is about how we nurse historic pain and nurture future injuries through our action and inaction. It is about the wrongs we tolerate and those which stir us to action.
At heart, it is about how we identify ourselves and what we value. It is about how we embrace a simple way of perceiving a full spectrum of our world. If we only see it as black and white, then our senses are denuded of nuance and complexity. Thus, we tend to condemnation or celebration because we are unqualified and absolute.
This is a story which begins in Minneapolis and London but ends in your hands. These are City stories which highlight wider problems across two countries.
One death prompted mass international protest. The other earned little more than the passing tribute of a sigh.
Above all, these are tales of two black men – George and Jaden – each of whom drew breath not long ago. It is, however, about how their stories should be deeper than the colour of their skin. Their lives were cut short horrifically. They died violently, within a few months of each other. Neither was perfect – by any means – but neither deserved the fate they encountered. One death prompted mass international protest. The other earned little more than the passing tribute of a sigh.
George Floyd’s killing exposed police brutality in Minneapolis. It sent shock waves across the Atlantic. It saddened millions and stirred thousands to march. It shook us to the core.
George was killed by a police officer who knelt on his throat for around 9 minutes. That is well known. The officer ignored his pleas, also repeated requests from fellow officers and bystanders to desist. One observer filmed the atrocity as it unfolded – enabling the full horror to be shared.
George’s death is not the first instance of such brutality in America – think of Philando Castile – but it has stirred the world as never before. It prompted mass protest in America – riots, shocking violence and calls to ‘defund the police’. Mayors have been barracked by crowds and police chiefs have resigned. Senior military figures have voiced concern publicly. The State has been rocked.
In the UK, we have seen similar demonstrations, violence from protestors angered by his death and from extremists opposed to them. Likewise, we have also seen statues toppled, swathes of society ‘take the knee’ in Floyd’s memory – including police proving their solidarity with demonstrators – and a lot of soul searching from politicians.
We perceive George’s death through the prism of race alone. Certainly, his killer might be racist but the killing also begs questions about the wider culture of American policing – recruitment, discipline and governance. The killer had been reported for earlier brutality yet continued working.
It also raises questions about the prevalence of weaponry on American streets and the psychology of officers – especially urban ones – regularly confronting extreme violence. To reduce all of that to race simplifies dreadfully. Such a reduction also impedes the ability of politicians to address the wider complexities.
First, it leads to spending on questionable initiatives. In New York, the Department of Education recently spent $23 million sending 75,000 teachers on bias training. Some such courses are effective but their’s apparently critiques ‘the characteristics of white supremacy’ as ‘perfectionism’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘worship of the written word’. Essentially, such training suggests the very basis of rational thought and expression is corrupted. Frankly, promulgation of such notions is a waste of money.
Still, the ‘movement’ can also demand spending cuts. The call to ‘defund the police’ catches attention but is utterly ridiculous. Assuming that crime continues, it would either be investigated less easily or subject to vigilante action.
George was killed by a policeman who lost authority not one who embodied it. He behaved like a half-trained, doubly-violent vigilante. We need less of that behaviour, not more.
On Tuesday last week the UK Government established a Race Inequalities Commission led by Munira Mirza. She was born in Oldham to immigrant parents and took her degree Oxford University. She is a former Revolutionary Communist, ‘think tanker’ and experienced official. She served as a Deputy Mayor of London under Boris.
Munira has thought deeply about the issues around racism, without fully subscribing to prevailing ‘grievance culture’.
So, the Guardian noted that her appointment caused ‘dismay’. Dr Fatima Rajina groaned ‘not again’ to Middle East Eye. HuffPost reminded readers that she has been associated with Spiked – a site which shockingly to the writer has published articles with titles like ‘the dark side of environmentalism’.
In the City of London, we have similarly set up a Working Group to examine our activities. It will consider the degree to which our institution is racist and guide our response. Our discussion was moving and passionate. One Alderman recalled the campaign against Apartheid. Another declared that the Working Party should serve as an ‘Action Group’.
The composition of the Working Party is encouraging – those on it will approach this matter with great passion, intellect, and common sense. They will channel raw emotion through deliberation to action. We will change because of George’s killing.
Jaden Moodie’s murder made the news too but it did not prompt much change. Why?
In January last year, the 14 year was knocked off his moped in Leyton. He was surrounded by members of the Mali Boys gang and stabbed nine times. He bled to death soon after, in the care of paramedics, pleading for his mother.
Jaden’s death was a senseless waste – he was in the wrong place (another gang’s turf) at the wrong time. Still, he was just one of 42 victims of gang killing on the streets of London last year. Sadly, for too many of us, this was just another forgettable death.
Jaden had apparently been associating with gangs for some time. He been arrested for possession of 39 wraps of cocaine just a few months before his death. Jaden’s death certainly says more about the failings of British society than George’s but failed to provoke such condemnation. His death was one of many others like it last year – many victims being young and many black. His murder was not performed in just 14 seconds. If all ‘Black Lives Matter’ why do such killings shock us less?
I believe the reason lies in our tolerance of a sub culture which excuses failure in school and embraces violence.
When Jaden was just a toddler, his father was imprisoned for drug dealing. Jaden showed early promise at school but his ambitions soon turned to following in his father’s footsteps. By sad coincidence, the only person convicted of his killing – Ajab Majdouline – is also the son of a dealer. In Ajab’s case, his father was murdered – five years ago in a hammer attack. Now he is imprisoned for a similarly shocking crime. He is both violator and victim.
That violence and victimhood is not the focus of debate here. Instead, we are at war with the past, obliquely comparing America to the overtly racist State of Apartheid South Africa and trying to ensure scrupulous and unbiased behaviour in every education and employment decision. Targets and quotas are promoted which sometimes excuse lower attainment for supposedly disadvantaged people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Whilst Jaden’s story is atypical there is evidence of educational under achievement among some black pupils – particularly boys. However, the situation is more complicated. A (2015) study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies noted that white boys from the lowest socio-economic quintile are 10% less likely to go into Higher Education than children from other ethnic backgrounds.
Schools like Michaela, led by Katherine Birbalsingh, get great results with a disproportionately disadvantaged BAME pupil roll – by embracing traditional values and expectations. So reducing inequality to a comparison between black and white, or BAME and other, is to simplify excessively. Yet, in the UK, that frames much consideration of diversity. We focus on process to address that perceived disadvantage.
We also worry about more abstruse matters. It is possible, if the RFU determines, that rugby fans will soon be banned from singing a song which poignantly describes the hopes and dreams of enslaved Americans. Although ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ encourages respectful connection, it apparently is ‘cultural appropriation’.
Nonetheless, a teenager can happily download the Stormzy’s classic ‘Mr Skeng’ and hear him sing ‘my n*gg*s don’t talk or rap, no my n*gg*s don’t talk or clash, no, my n*gg*s don’t talk – they mash’. Skeng means Blade. Mash meant ‘kill’. Now it also has the connotation of ‘insult’. By either definition, Jaden Moodie was certainly ‘mashed’ just as badly as George Floyd. So was Ajab Majdouline’s father.
A child drawn to Grime music, is identifying with, to some extent celebrating a rejectionist culture of violence and greed – one which has little interest in contribution or service. Yet it is that we condone.
The downloading-teenage fan of Stormzy can ‘appropriate’ a culture which celebrates hate and glories in the commission of violence while his father is prevented from singing a song of suffering. What distorted logic entertains that?
There is a cycle of greed and despair on our streets which needs urgent action. It will, however be challenging. It will not reduce to easy action – or easily sit within a specific Departmental silo (it will at least need facilitation from the Cabinet Office, Home Office, Department of Education and probably DCMS). It will also require wider society to confront misplaced tolerance of educational failure and violence.
We need a painful public conversation about drugs and aspiration, about character and discipline just as much as we do race. We might choose to legalise some drugs or criminalise. Each proposition has risk and merit. Whatever we choose though we must enforce the settled law more effectively than we do now.
We also need to ponder the character and ambition of our children. We urgently need to help young boys like Jaden find a better path than that he followed. Alongside the core curriculum, we need to give urgent attention to character. That will be for all of us – parents, friends and colleagues. We need to act through shared society – the thousand invisible threads which unite us all.
Reducing the myriad divisions and inequalities to race alone is a gross simplification. It leads to profound error in action and inaction. We need to calmly identify which issues actually arise from racism but not heed every call to nurture grievance. That only sharpens the very division we need to overcome urgently.
We must remove obstacles and provide support – but without pandering or lowering standards. Indeed, now is the time to raise our sights. We owe it to any child who contemplates the path which Jaden took.
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