As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement spilled over into the UK, with a day of action on 5 August, church leaders tell Keep The Faith we need the movement, and call for dialogue and finding common ground.
The US movement has grown in the past three years in protest at the string of police killings of African Americans including, at the time of going to print, 18-year-old Paul O’Neal who was shot in the back by police in Chicago on 28 July. This was followed by police shooting young mother Korryn Gaines while at home with her five-year-old son in Randallstown, Maryland, on 1 August.
Meanwhile in the UK, 18-year-old Mzee Mohammed died in police custody in Liverpool, bringing to 1563 the number of deaths in custody in England and Wales since 1990, according to Inquest. Of these, 156 were BME, but Inquest says this is a disproportionate number and institutional racism is a contributory factor.
The teenager’s death sparked countrywide protests, with Black Lives Matter UK activists blockading some of Europe’s busiest roads, including the M4 near Heathrow Airport, the A45 near Birmingham Airport and tramlines in Nottingham. Rallies were held that evening in London.
Church leaders say we need the movement. Reverend Les Isaac, founder and director of the iconic Street Pastors, told Keep The Faith: “We do need a movement like this because it is highlighting a very serious concern that not only the Black community has, but also the wider society in America: Black, White and Hispanic.”
There was a ‘global’ concern, he said, over killings of African Americans by police, whose job it is to protect every citizen, “not there to harass or kill citizens”.
He acknowledged that while the police have a “very difficult” task, it was important for them to have the confidence of all American citizens: “People watching from outside need to have the confidence that, if they go to America, especially being Black, there’s not a possibility that they will be shot or some injustice done against them.”
Calling for a major inquiry into African Caribbean deaths in custody in Britain, Rev Isaac, whose Street Pastors volunteers are respected by the public, local authorities and the police across the UK, said the Church should not be “silent on the periphery”, but be a voice for the voiceless, adding: “I would like to believe that the Church would seek to play a significant role in adjusting this issue.”
He called for meetings with members of BLM, describing it as having a moral and a spiritual voice, and calling for the Church to be involved: “I’m saying the Church needs to be there at this point, at the start of it. The train is moving. We need to get on board before it picks up full speed, because what will happen as we see in history, whilst the Church has prayed, it has not been quick to bring in its wisdom and bring in the grace of God within these contexts.”
In a statement on BLM for Keep The Faith, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, said those being persecuted because of the colour of their skin or personality or politics had something in common with Jesus Christ: “He was simultaneously despised, hated and feared by those who crucified Him. Today we look to Him as the Saviour of the human race and His persecutors as archetypal enemies of the human race. Let this be a warning to anyone who is tempted to commit a racist crime: history will judge you unless you stop right now, and see in every other person the figure of Christ.”
According to The Guardian, statistics show an alarming gulf between the experiences of Black and White people in Britain – in education, in the justice and prison systems and in employment. Stop and search is heavily targeted at young Black men – who are four times more likely to be stopped by police than young White men – while people from BME minorities are far more likely to go to prison than a White person committing a similar offence.
In 2014, Blacks made up 10 per cent of the total prison population, while making up 3.5 per cent of the UK’s total population, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. There is a greater disparity between the proportion of Black people in prison and in the general population here in the UK than there is in the US.
Bishop Wilton Powell: “There is scant regard for Black lives”
Critics of BLM say all lives matter, and accuse the UK chapter of jumping on the bandwagon. However, Bishop Wilton Powell, overseer of the UK Church of God of Prophecy, said the treatment of Black people in society needs “clear attention”.
He told Keep The Faith: “The killing and the exclusion we are seeing on television suggest that there is scant regard for Black lives. There is a consciousness that there is a need for such a movement, but at the same time, as Christians, we must be careful not to be seen to distinguish between lives.”
He said the Church can bring the grace of God, pointing to Dr Cedric L Alexander’s book, The New Guardians, which stresses the need for communication with all parties – law enforcement agencies, the Church and all the other instruments within society.
He said: “We need to bring the common ground, those values that we all hold dear to ourselves. So it’s not about separating but bringing people together, and this is where the Church needs to be stressing the point that we ought to be coming together to identify areas, identify officers who need to be corrected, identify people within our communities who need to be respectful to the officers. And all of those are agents who need to be brought to the common ground.”
Bishop Powell, who recently contributed to a Radio 4 discussion on the use of tasers, added: “We need heat but also light in our conversation; in other words, revelation that leads forward and aims towards resolution, rather than just create heat. We need that sense of hope and sense of development, because we have got issues in our society and we need problem-solvers, and I wish to be on the problem-solving side.”
Evangelical Alliance: “We are heartbroken at the overt prejudice and pain highlighted by Black Lives Matter”
Chine McDonald, Director of Communications and Membership at the Evangelical Alliance, said the Church must never be a place that allows racism within its midst or accepts racism in any form outside its doors – whether in the UK or abroad.
In a statement for Keep The Faith, she added: “We are heartbroken when we see examples of the overt prejudice and pain, as highlighted by the Black Lives Matter campaign, flaring up in communities here and abroad. The Church, no matter where it is situated, should be a place that offers hope and life in our broken world.”
A spokesperson for BLM also told Keep The Faith: “Black Lives Matter UK is a group of people who think that Black lives matter. All Black lives. Black lives in detention, in prison, in police custody, between borders. Since Brexit, reported racist hate crimes have risen by 57%. Love thy neighbour is a particularly radical commandment now in the UK, when a whole referendum has centred around the protection of British borders; when human rights organisations find that the EU-Turkey refugee agreement exceeds what is permissible under international law, and when over 3,000 refugees have died this year in the Mediterranean, trying to reach safety on European shores.
“It is a radical concept when so many families are fighting for justice for their loved ones killed in police custody, whilst being detained or deported, whilst restrained by guards in prison. We will fight until saying ‘Black lives matter’ is no longer radical. We organise from a place of love and necessity. Our love comes from believing in better and holding a just vision for the future.”
“A failure to lift our heads above the parapet, to ‘sound the trumpet’ and ‘cry aloud’ means, whether we like it or not, we are indifferent to the loss of Black lives, and regard the loss as unfortunate happenings or as ‘accidents’ of personal brutality by rogue individuals, rather than as an expression of institutional violence, sometimes by instruments of the state, in the form of unlawful acts and social injustices.” (Rev David Shosanya)