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They were both murdered by policemen. And, in both cases, the public outcry was huge. But, months on, what does the wider reaction to the deaths of George Floyd and Sarah Everard tell us about how we are tackling discrimination and the violence associated with it?
It’s an important question and one I have been thinking a lot about recently in the context of my role as Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester. That’s because it reveals both the new opportunities to make progress — and the very real barriers still in our way.
First, the positives. When it comes to race equality, I hope I am not being naive in saying that I increasingly feel we are living through a moment of profound change. When I see Premier League footballers continuing to take the knee in this new season, and whole grounds applauding them, I do think people are beginning to understand what those players are saying — both for themselves and on behalf of black people everywhere — and a clear majority are supporting it.
I learnt more myself when I read Michael Holding’s outstanding book Why We Kneel, How We Rise on my summer holiday. If you haven’t read it, please do. I promise you will learn something. I now realise I didn’t know half as much about racism as I thought. The author explains clearly things I only half-understood, particularly about the way black people can be made to feel by the behaviour of others. It had such an effect on me that I am thinking of asking all schools in Greater Manchester to recommend it to their students and make it available in school libraries.
This is where progress can be made. There is today a younger generation of Londoners and Mancunians who are growing up not seeing the difference between people the way that society encouraged older generations to do. We saw this societal change over the summer in the England football team – young Black and White working-class English men, many of whom live and work in London and Manchester. They felt able to resist pressure from politicians, stood by their principles and got the whole country behind them.
But now to the negatives. Can we honestly say that we are seeing the same level of public understanding about violence against women and girls following the sentencing of Sarah Everard’s killer and the killing of Sabina Nessa?
I would say it’s the complete opposite. Last week, it was truly depressing to hear the suggestions the police offered as to how we should tackle the issue. Women should flag down a bus. Women should learn about the legal process and resist arrest. Women should be streetwise. Women should … the list went on and on.
These suggestions, some of them from men, reminded me of those judges in rape trials who say that women should not dress provocatively. In other words, male violence is always the woman’s fault or the woman’s responsibility.
The only positive that we can take from this is that at least the problem has been clearly identified — and perhaps the potential solution too.
Just as tackling racism starts with education and white people taking more responsibility, as Michael Holding writes, so tackling violence against women and girls must start with men and boys. That is the basic truth everyone needs accept if we are to make any progress.
In Greater Manchester, I am going to lead personally a campaign on this issue aimed at men and boys which starts from the recognition that we all need to change our behaviour if our daughters, sisters and mothers are to feel safer on our streets.
I’ll be honest and admit that I am still learning too. As my daughters have grown older, we have started to have longer chats about what they encounter from men when they’re out and about. And frankly it is shocking — and embarrassing.
If some of the men in their thirties and forties responsible for intimidating behaviour sat down and heard young women talk about the effect it has had on them, I think most decent men would stop.
But as well as changing the behaviour of men and boys, we also need to look at the culture of our police forces. How officers treat women when they come forward as victims must improve and I know this is an issue for our own force here, Greater Manchester Police. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate made clear that support for victims of crimes like stalking and coercive control, which overwhelmingly affect women, was not good enough. This has to change, and our new Chief Constable has already set about this task.
The time has come to change the narrative. And perhaps if our friends in London could join forces with us, then maybe the country’s two great progressive cities could together lead a change for the better, just as we have seen with Black Lives Matter?
This week, I lost another close friend. I don’t know if I’m unlucky but it seems to be happening to me a lot at the moment. While it wasn’t directly related to the pandemic, you can’t help but think it is related and all part of the terrible toll still revealing itself.
I first met Duncan Chapman in the mid-1990s when I started work for then MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, Tessa Jowell. He gave a lifetime of service to London and Londoners through his work for Tessa but most people wouldn’t know about it. Duncan was an unsung hero. He didn’t seek the limelight or much for himself.
I wanted to mention Duncan in this column because I know there are many more people like him who we have lost in this dreadful time but whose contribution to our communities hasn’t been properly recognised.
When I saw Duncan for the last time a fortnight ago, he told me of the great pleasure and pride he felt when he travelled through East Dulwich on the bus and heard the announcement for the “Tessa Jowell Health Centre”. He didn’t say it but I know he felt that was his legacy right there.
So, when you are next travelling on the number 42 bus, and you hear that next stop announcement, would you do me a favour? Please think of Duncan and give thanks for him and all the other Londoners who built this place into what it is but are no longer with us.