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Jacob Blake
Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was shot in the back multiple times by a police officer as he entered his car, reportedly in front of his three young childrenvia GoFundMe

The Jacob Blake shooting and the long road to Black lives really mattering

The trivialisation of Black life manifests not only in the police brutality we saw again this week, but in the unequal impact of the climate crisis on our communities, exclusion from economic opportunity, educational outcomes, and beyond

The months of mass Black Lives Matter protests which were sparked by a police officer’s brutal killing of George Floyd have shone an intense, global light on racial injustice, police brutality, and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In what may be the largest social movement in US history, the BLM protests drew somewhere between 15 to 26 million people across America alone. We saw protests from Boston to Bristol, and Beijing, capital cities and remote, rural areas. But still, only 92 days after the murder of George Floyd, police brutality against African Americans remains as entrenched, and seemingly normalised, as ever. 

On August 23, after breaking up a fight between two women, an unarmed African American man named Jacob Blake was shot eight times by a police officer, as he returned to his children in his car. His shooting was recorded and shared widely on social media. Protests soon sparked up across Kenosha, Wisconsin. What happened to Jacob, who, in the most recent account from his father, is now paralysed from the waist down, should make clear the scale of racial injustice and why we must not let up in our marching, organising and activism.

The police shooting of Jacob shows just how long we have to go to create a world where Black Lives Matter. The trivialisation of Black life manifests itself not only in police brutality, but the unequal impact of the climate crisis on our communities, exclusion from economic opportunity, unequal educational outcomes, medical racism, and beyond.

This change can only be achieved through transformational systemic change. Too often, this movement has been interpreted symbolically – be it the taking down of statues linked to slavery, which I fully support, or perhaps more performatively or trivially, in streaming platform’s removal of TV programmes from the past. Yes, symbolic change is not meaningless – who we place statues of shows what we, as a society, consider worthy of praise. However, it’s important to interrogate why the powerful may opt to enact symbolic, and not systemic, change that we need so urgently.

The systemic change we are desperately in need of all across the world would require a shift in power, wealth, and resources to communities that bear the brunt of injustice. Symbolic change, however appealing it may be on a surface level, is far from capable of bringing out the societal transformation we need to end police brutality against African Americans in the US or disproportionate stop-and-search of Black British people. Symbolic change shouldn’t be ignored, but our movement must remain laser-focused on systemic restructuring.

I believe our focus on systemic change should be threefold: on building a fairer economic model, tackling the roots of racial disparities in criminal justice systems, and tackling the climate crisis.

“It’s important to interrogate why the powerful may opt to enact symbolic, and not systemic, change that we need so urgently”

The link between poverty and racism is so inextricable that we can never achieve racial justice without fighting to end injustice in the economy. The 2008 financial crisis was painful for most but was disastrous for African American households. By 2031 the financial crisis will have caused a decrease in wealth of the median African American household by a staggering $100,000. In the context of the looming coronavirus recession, we have to fight for a new fairer economic model. We significantly need higher minimum wages, a revitalised social safety net that will protect people from job losses as the recessions set in, and greater redistributions of wealth. 

The climate crisis is not felt equally: as with all other crises, those who have the least pay the most. In the US, the home of Jacob, 2005’s Hurricane Katrina exposed how for Black communities the deep racial inequalities in the US tragically interacted with environmental catastrophe. In the UK, where I’m from, the most air pollution deaths happen in the most diverse communities. It’s clear that all across the world the existential threat of climate change will impact the communities that already bear the brunt of systemic racism. That’s why we have to advocate for a Green New Deal that will through billions in investment in green infrastructure, jobs and technology help decarbonise the global economy.

“It shouldn’t take the brutal death of Black people at the hands of the police for the world to realise that, for too long, we’ve been oppressed”

Criminal justice transformation must also be our priority. We need real accountability for police who racially profile and commit acts of police brutality. Too often, as in the case of Philando Castile or Breonna Taylor, US police kill Black people and walk away free. This has to change. We also need to shift the wider societal discussion on crime. We need to convince people that crime isn’t brought down by building more prisons but instead by tackling its root causes: insufficient mental health support for communities, economic deprivation, homelessness, and educational inequality. True safety isn’t about more policing it’s about building new systems based around the values of empathy, equality, and fairness. Just yesterday, Donald Trump Jr retweeted a right-wing commentator who posted the prior criminal convictions of Blake –unconnected convictions or criminal history do not justify a police death sentence, and Trump Jnr’s attitude speaks to the societal excuses made for racist brutalising, and the sickening state entrapment of Black people.

It is a horrifying form of deja vu to see police act with such arrogant impunity. Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland – who’s murders or violent incidents caught on film and shared widely online have become grim templates – are more than recent history. It shouldn’t take the brutal death of Black people at the hands of the police for the world to realise that, for too long, we’ve been oppressed. Even when our goals seem impossible, we have to press ahead. Keep shouting Breonna Taylor’s name and demand justice. Keep Jacob Blake’s case in the light. Even when those who hold power want to maintain the broken status quo we have to advocate for transformative change. Whatever the obstacles may be, we must be intent on building a world where racial injustice no longer ruins and cuts short the lives.