One year after the death of George Floyd, what have we changed?
NOTICE: A year ago we heard the name of George Floyd for the first time.
Like many, I witnessed the brutal and horrific murder of a black man at the hands of the police. The prevalence of anti-blackness and the lack of value for the lives of black people are not new. It is linked to a long history and a system of state-sanctioned abuse.
George Floyd’s murder was galvanizing. It encouraged me and so many other Black, Indigenous and Pacific youth to mobilize and take action. Soon after, protests erupted in the United States and around the world. Thousands of people gathered in Auckland. Wellington had its biggest march in a decade, with around 20,000 people taking to the streets.
Tāngata whenua, Pasifika, Africans, Asians, Pākeha and all of our diverse communities have come together to reaffirm that black lives are important and to underline our kotahitanga and our commitment to eradicate systemic oppression and racism.
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New Zealand Police Commissioner Andrew Coster has dropped the trial of armed response teams in predominantly Maori and Pacific communities. We have started an important conversation about removing the statues and renaming the streets, towns and villages whose names cause painful trauma to many.
It was as if we were finally able to distinguish between the brutal murders of unarmed black and indigenous men by the police and the racist systems that allow such atrocities to happen with little responsibility.
But in the months that followed, such protests ceased. And it seems that not much has changed in this regard. There were reports of police illegally photographing and storing footage of rangatahi Māori.
In March, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon accused police of “systematic and institutionalized” racial profiling following revelations about the tactical use of pain on Maori suspects. Police Minister Poto Williams’ position is no different from that of her predecessors. It has yet to recognize the existence of systemic racism in the police force.
Likewise, Opposition Leader Judith Collins has also denied the prevalence of systemic racism, despite having served as both police and justice minister during her tenure in government. I’m tired of having this same conversation.
The evidence is overwhelming and we choose to dismiss the issue of racism – at our peril. The Maori have faced and witnessed this for hundreds of years and continue to do so. While events in the United States may make us feel that we are so incredibly far removed from the same struggles as African Americans across the water, this is far from the truth.
The reality is that in many ways, the experiences of black people are a comprehensive and shared experience, as a 2016 TUE study on the prejudice and ill-treatment inflicted by the police on many black New Zealanders. Almost all of the 30 young people we spoke to spoke about their experiences of being unjustly arrested by the police, told them they had no place here, insulted with racist slurs, questioned about their identity and their intentions; offended and insulted in every way to make them feel like they weren’t welcome.
Maybe we think because these reports are not very numerous or because black communities represent a small percentage of the population, that these problems, these prejudices and these struggles do not matter. We cannot and must not continue with this mentality.
Even if it was just one person, it matters.
We will keep saying it again: Black lives matter. Our lives matter. Yet while the issue of race relations in the United States remains polarizing and divisive, one thing is clear: Unlike New Zealand, the need to tackle systemic racism remains an area of focus for its lawmakers.
Although the initial deadlines have not been met, the main institutional reforms proposed in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act are expected to be passed in the coming weeks. My hope is that the mahi to help dismantle the structures that allow and facilitate murders like Floyd’s can start in New Zealand as well.
We have to start looking at the facts and questioning why 50% of those imprisoned are Maori. Why 1 in 142 Maori is in prison. It is neither by chance, nor by chance. It is systemic, historical and structural racism.
The challenge is to stay energetic. We cannot let the momentum die off. And in doing so, let’s take the time to remember the man behind the global movement and remain optimistic that change will someday come in part because of him.
* Guled Mire is an award-winning designer, community advocate, policy advisor, Fulbright New Zealand scholar and research fellow at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.