I was 31 in 1993 when Stephen Lawrence was murdered. I remember, as if it was yesterday, the anger, the frustration, the feeling that we (black people) had had enough! That this was not right, that something needed to be done. I remember at the time wanting to find a place to vent that anger. I wanted to find a way of exacting the equivalent amount of pain on something, on someone!
Five years later in 1988, I somehow managed to slip through cordons of police and court officers, to find myself in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. I was there on the day that David Norris, Jamie Acourt, and Neil Acourt were being questioned. I am not sure which of Stephen's murderers entered the inquiry dock, when a loud shout came from a black man in a military-looking uniform. On his instruction, a line of black soldiers stood and saluted, removed their berets and stood firm in the space. In a moment the court was cleared. The inquiry chair disappeared with the murderers into some backspace. On his next command, the soldiers who I have since learned, were from the ‘Nation of Islam‘ organisation returned to their seats. It all took place in less than five minutes. The space returned to the proceedings of the day. I don’t know what that moment meant to the proceedings (if anything), but to me, as a black man with two young children it was a moment when I experienced the power of what could be. The power of a strong, black disciplined force. It felt good! For a moment at least, I experienced US giving some pain.
As I watched Michael Mansfield, and Mr and Mrs Lawrence continue to fight the battle for justice and understanding, I came to realise that my responsibility was to be more than angry. That our collective responsibility as a society was to forensically take apart all that had happened, to examine it in each and every part. To seek and pursue the changes which had to be made to reduce the likelihood of this ever taking place again.
32 years later, it was my daughter-in-law, a nurse in a large London hospital who first alerted me to the disproportionate number of BAME people on the COVID-19 wards. Since then, I have watched with horror and with fear for myself, my family, my community. Again, I am feeling that anger and the frustration. The feeling that we have had enough!
The first ten doctors who died from Covid-19 were BAME. Why? How come? 34% of people who have died from Covid-19 are BAME, when we only make up 14% of the population! Why? How come of 119 NHS staff known to have died in the pandemic, 64% were from an ethnic minority background (only 20% of NHS staff are from an ethnic minority background) Why? How come?
We are now in another moment when we need to stop and come together as a society. We need to forensically examine each piece of evidence, each question, each moment of the unveiling of this disaster to search for ways to ensure that the conditions which led to this are found, mitigated and that we put in place robust systems to tackle them.
It is with great pride that I have watched the work of the Ubele campaign team. Over the past six weeks or so, they have been responsible for so many moments with the potential to do so much more than force an independent public inquiry. They have brought together 2500 people to debate the issue. They have flooded social media with messages of truth and questions to be answered. They have had their work streamed by ITN. They have joined with the trade union movement to ensure that our stories, our questions were prominent in the national news and press. Their coming together has provided another example of what could be. A series of moments of pride for me, my family and my community.
An independent public inquiry with all of its shortfalls is the only space for the wide-reaching investigation necessary to satisfy my fears for myself, my family and my community.
I suspect that some would argue that this anger, these questions could be satisfied in other ways. The NHS executives have started their own review. The government could go further and call another investigation of its own. The NHS might develop its ideas around a BAME health observatory, on the lines of the London health observatory. The calls for an inquiry into the governments handling of the COVID-19 emergency could also provide a mechanism for some aspects of this to be examined. I suspect that it is only with a root and branch exploration specifically cantered on the disproportionate impact of Coronavirus on the BAME communities, by an independent judge, with the power to call for evidence and the ability to recommend systemic change and hold to account the powerful, that we will do any justice to the fear and anger of the community.
That we will ensure we put in place the robustness to stop this ever happening again.