Dawn Butler interview: ‘Boris Johnson knows there’s institutional racism’

Dawn Butler interview: ‘Boris Johnson knows there’s institutional racism’
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Dawn Butler is optimistic.

It’s not the expected attitude, given all that happened to her last weekend: a police stop of herself and a friend in Hackney for what some label as the crime of “driving while Black”, a deluge of abuse and conspiracy theories claiming the stop never happened, and a denial that the Metropolitan Police is institutionally racist from the prime minister hours later.

If you know anything about the Labour Party’s former women and equalities secretary, however, you’ll be aware that – sadly – gaslighting and racist abuse are anything but new to her. In fact, they have become somewhat routine.

It has been little over a month since the Brent Central MP was forced to close her constituency office in Willesden after violent and racist threats “drastically escalated” to the extent that the immediate safety of the MP and her staff became a huge concern. The month before, the police had arrested one person over similar racist intimidation tactics and is looking for others, an issue Butler says has become worse the longer she speaks out “on key issues such as the impact of Covid-19 on the Bame community, the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter”.

In a conversation over Zoom, she tells me that although she “shouldn’t be surprised because that kind of racism exists”, she was particularly taken aback by the rush of conspiracy theories that followed her announcement of the Hackney police stop on Twitter.

The Metropolitan Police has strongly refuted Butler’s claim that race played any part in her being stopped, and denied that they are institutionally racist. Predictably, within hours of her posting that all-caps, 19-word tweet and then the video of the incident that followed, there were claims of foul play.

Some of the culture war-fuelled conspiracy theories suggested that Butler’s friend, who she said is Black, was actually a white person. Comments swirled about the video being doctored to hide some sinister truth. Butler told me others even went as far as saying it was not worth complaining about because it wasn’t “that bad”.

“I could have just spoken about it but it wouldn't have started a conversation as much as it has,” she says of her decision to speak out about the incident on social media.

I don't go public on everything. But when the police officer almost was agitating the situation, it got me thinking about how a situation escalates.

When young people, or somebody who's having a rough day, is stopped and asked these sort of mundane questions about the fact that the back windows are tinted when it's not illegal, I can see how that situation can become inflamed and escalate. I was thinking: wwhat can we do to stop this from happening?

As a Black woman and an MP, it’s unlikely it was a decision she took lightly. As Amnesty International exposed in 2017, ethnic minority MPs face Twitter abuse “far more than their white colleagues”, with Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott receiving the most abuse out of any other woman MP. Given some reactions to pushes for racial equality in the UK, especially following Black Lives Matter protests, it’s clear there’s still a way to go before Black people’s experiences are taken at face value, even with clear evidence of the abuse they face. When it comes to Black women, the challenge is often much harder.

“It's really quite sad because there's generational trauma that gets brought up each time you see an injustice,” Butler tells me.

“A journalist recently asked me if I’d been stopped before, and I was like, oh, years ago. And then I started talking to him and I thought, oh, I remember now. I was stopped not even a mile down the road from parliament when I was driving home. And, actually, I was stopped going to parliament. I started to remember because things happen to us and we just compartmentalise it and you move on. Otherwise, how would we get on with our day?”

Prior to our call, Dawn Butler’s office shared with me a selection of the hate mail as well as the tweets targeted at the MP, a lot of which poured in after the police stop was reported across mainstream media. The messages I’ve seen are, to put it extremely mildly, shocking. She has been called a liar, the N-word, a “freeloader”, instructed to “clear off to a Black hell-hole”.

Thankfully, after responding to a call from Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick’s office, Butler informs me she isn’t exposed to everything all the time. “I've asked my office to send me some of the abuse that they're sending to media outlets so I'm not shocked by it. But in the main, I don’t read [it],” she says.

When I ask why she thinks so many are quick to question the validity of Black women’s lived experiences, she flashes me a knowing smile.

“I'm sure that you've experienced that yourself. No matter [which Black woman] you talk to, the likelihood is that we will all have had similar experiences. I can't explain to you emphatically why that is at all."

But I can say to you that the outcome of it is that Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

I can tell you that the outcome of it is that Black people are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 deaths than white people.

I can tell you that violence is used against Black people more in regards to stop and search or tasers being used. I can tell you that the outcome is that Black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped.

With that in mind, you can see where Butler’s scathing criticism of Cressida Dick came from. In a column for the Metro, she called for Dick’s resignation, citing her problems in dealing with, let alone believing in, institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police.

She told me:

I don’t think William Macpherson thought it would take 20 years for institutional racism to be resolved when he wrote his report [into Stephen Lawrence's murder].

I want to make sure she understands that she shouldn’t get upset about the term institutional racism, that it is a reality and that the outcomes of it are poor. If she’s not part of the solution to eradicating that, then she’s part of the problem.

So too is Boris Johnson, who after Butler’s incident echoed Dick’s belief that the Metropolitan Police isn’t institutionally racist.
“Oh, the prime minister knows that there’s institutional racism in the Met. The government knows this,” she says, speaking of the numerous reports and inquiries into racism in recent years.
Her thoughts on the latest “race commission”?
Absolute waste of time. What the government needs to do is just implement the 200-odd recommendations from all of the past reports. Civil servants could do that.

Following a meeting with Dick, the Butler has said in a statement that she is committed to working with the Met to "build a better system", tackle racism and reform 'stop and search' laws.

Other than a Labour government (of course) these aims form a key part of her wishes for the future of politics, policing and equality.

"I would like to see us change the [policing] system, invest in youth centres, in community groups, in mental health services. We need to live in a society where people can be their authentic selves and not be judged or discriminated against because of it.

If I couldn't make change or improve people’s lives nationally or even globally, then it wouldn’t mean anything to me at all. That’s the whole reason why I do this job. The whole reason.

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