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  • Transcriber: Ivana Korom Reviewer: Joanna Pietrulewicz

  • I'm a human rights lawyer.

  • I've been a human rights lawyer for 30 years,

  • and this is what I know.

  • Once there was a man alone in a room.

  • And his name was Alton.

  • And then seven other men, seven strangers,

  • rushed into his room and dragged him out.

  • And they held him in a horizontal, crucifix position.

  • One on each arm,

  • two on each leg,

  • and the seventh man held Alton's neck in a vice-like grip

  • between his forearms.

  • And Alton was struggling for breath

  • and saying, "I can't breathe,"

  • just as George Floyd said, "I can't breathe."

  • But they didn't stop.

  • And soon, Alton was dead.

  • When I was asked to represent his mother and his brother and his sister

  • in the inquest into his death,

  • they asked me, "How could it happen?"

  • And I didn't have an answer.

  • Because Alton had injuries all over his body.

  • He had bruising to his neck and his torso.

  • He had injuries to his arms and his legs.

  • He had blood in his eyes, his ears and his nose.

  • But they claimed no one knew anything.

  • They claimed that they couldn't explain how he died.

  • For Alton had two problems.

  • Firstly, the corridor in which he died

  • was a prison corridor.

  • And secondly, he was Black.

  • So I want to talk to you today

  • about Alton's mother's question.

  • How could such a thing happen in our country?

  • How can these things happen

  • in countries across the world?

  • How can they happen still,

  • and what could we do to stop it?

  • For three decades,

  • I've been representing the families of people of color

  • who have been killed in state custody in the United Kingdom.

  • And I've done human rights work across four continents.

  • And what I've learned is this:

  • that if we want to do something about racism,

  • we have to first understand what it is.

  • So let's talk about this thing called race.

  • What exactly is it?

  • A fact of our lives?

  • One of the most powerful forces in the world?

  • Something we don't particularly want to talk about?

  • It is all these things,

  • but it is something else.

  • It is a myth.

  • There is no such thing as race.

  • Scientific research shows that race is an illusion.

  • For example,

  • someone of European descent

  • might be genetically closer to an Asian person

  • than to someone else of European descent.

  • So if race isn't a biological fact,

  • what actually is it?

  • It is a social construct.

  • Which means it's been invented.

  • But by whom and for what reason?

  • As a species, we share 99.9 percent of DNA with everybody else.

  • But visible external characteristics,

  • like hair type and skin color,

  • have been used in order to promote this racist genetic lie

  • about the supposed racial genetic differences.

  • Racism has been endemic for centuries.

  • The Nazis, of course, were very keen to promote the racist lie.

  • But also, in the United States,

  • there were eugenic experiments and eugenic laws.

  • And in Australia,

  • children of dual Aboriginal heritage were confiscated from their parents

  • in order to create a white Australia.

  • This kind of thinking is rising again with alt-right groups

  • hankering after racially pure homelands.

  • How does this work?

  • You see, we don't have social inequalities because of race.

  • We have social inequalities that are justified by race.

  • I started to understand this

  • when I was representing anti-apartheid activists.

  • And they showed me how apartheid was a system of social exploitation

  • and discrimination

  • that was justified by race.

  • By the supposed superiority of white people

  • and the supposed inferiority of Black people.

  • The apartheid regime said it was nature

  • and so it was inevitable

  • and there was nothing you could do about it.

  • The Mother Nature lie gives discrimination and injustice a pass.

  • I've also found it in cases

  • where people suffer from the legacy of colonization and empire.

  • I've seen similar effects amongst people of the same color in Africa.

  • And how people of certain castes are looked down upon in India.

  • The victims may be different,

  • but the mechanism --

  • the labeling and the lies --

  • is exactly the same.

  • And so you can see why people are so keen to embrace the race thing.

  • Because it gives the privileged,

  • people like us,

  • a get out of jail free card.

  • The simple truth is that race is a system.

  • It's like oxygen, like an atmosphere.

  • It flows everywhere in our society.

  • It infects everybody it touches.

  • It protects power and privilege.

  • Whose?

  • Well, look around you.

  • So what is it like for people of color,

  • people like me,

  • to try to speak to white people

  • about racism?

  • Many, many white people find it extremely difficult to do.

  • Some white people say they know nothing about it.

  • Others say that our societies

  • may not even suffer from racism at all.

  • So if you are a white person who is wondering about all of this,

  • there is a thought experiment that you can do.

  • Because here's the truth.

  • You know.

  • You already know.

  • So ask yourself this:

  • Would you, would you really want your son or your daughter,

  • your brother or your sister,

  • to marry a practicing Muslim from the Middle East?

  • Or someone recently arrived from South Asia, who is a Hindu?

  • Or an asylum seeker from Sub-Saharan Africa?

  • Or someone who's recently crossed the US-Mexican border?

  • You may not have a total objection,

  • but you may have a concern.

  • A qualm that scratches at the back of your brain.

  • It's not because of the color of their skin.

  • But because you know that in countries like ours,

  • as things stand now,

  • their life prospects are likely to be affected by this union.

  • And you realize that you do know,

  • you do understand that people will judge them.

  • And in a hundred ways,

  • those judgments will impact their lives

  • and the lives of their children.

  • At that moment,

  • you are connecting with a powerful truth.

  • Which is that you know systemic racism is real.

  • So why do you not want to talk about race?

  • Because it's uncomfortable, certainly.

  • But that's only part of the answer.

  • The bigger truth is far more damaging.

  • Your bristling isn't just defensiveness.

  • It is a defense mechanism.

  • It defends the system of privilege

  • and the unequal division of wealth and power.

  • Fragility gives racial inequality a pass.

  • Who are the winners and losers?

  • Well look at the data.

  • In income.

  • In health inequalities.

  • In school exclusion.

  • In career prospects.

  • In stop and search.

  • Look at how people of color

  • have been disproportionately dying of COVID.

  • So if the racial myth invisibilizes

  • and the fragility response silences,

  • what choices are you left with?

  • The binary choice between you being a racist and a non-racist.

  • Or is there another way?

  • Because almost everyone in this TED Talk

  • will say that they are non-racist.

  • But we have to face it,

  • being non-something is not enough.

  • The third choice is being actively anti-racist.

  • So if you agree that Black lives matter,

  • ask yourself,

  • "How do Black lives matter in my life?"

  • "What have I done to show

  • that Black lives matter to me?"

  • By adopting a visible, conscious, active anti-racist stance,

  • what was once invisible is made visible.

  • What was once silenced,

  • is shouted out loud and clear.

  • But that still is not enough.

  • After weeks of bitter struggle at the inquest,

  • the all-white jury returned to the courtroom in Alton's case.

  • There was a moment of complete silence

  • when the foreperson stood

  • and then he announced the verdict.

  • And it was unlawful killing.

  • And at that moment,

  • all hell broke loose in the courtroom.

  • And there was just this deafening noise.

  • People were screaming,

  • Alton's sister got up into the aisle to my left

  • and she was pointing at the prison officers

  • and shouting at them,

  • "You killed my brother!

  • You killed my brother!"

  • And the family desperately wanted

  • that the prison officers who were responsible for Alton's death

  • should be prosecuted.

  • We all desperately wanted that.

  • But not a single one of them was prosecuted.

  • So we took the chief prosecutor to court,

  • the director of public prosecutions.

  • And the highest judge in the land,

  • the Lord Chief Justice,

  • agreed that the decision not to prosecute

  • was fatally flawed and unlawful.

  • Every day during Alton's case,

  • his brother would sit on the courtroom steps

  • and he would say to me,

  • "Train them up good today, Mr. D."

  • But when he realized that nobody would ever be prosecuted

  • for the killing of his brother,

  • it crushed him.

  • And he died a few years later in a psychiatric hospital.

  • So how does Alton's death connect to you

  • and to the racism and privilege in our societies?

  • What do I want from you?

  • What I want from myself is to be put out of a job.

  • You see, families come to me who are grieving

  • and I see the hope in their eyes.

  • And I have to tell them

  • that the chances of anybody ever being prosecuted

  • for being involved in the killing of their loved ones

  • are very remote.

  • I saw these grieving faces

  • in the springtime of my career.

  • And I still see them

  • now that I'm entering the autumn of it.

  • And the summer season was full of blood.

  • And somehow I think that the blood is on my hands,

  • even though I know rationally that that is not the case.

  • But I could not bring back

  • Alton or Gareth or Zahid

  • or any of the others,

  • which is all their grieving families ever wanted.

  • So I'm asking you to see through the lies.

  • And to see through one of the most disempowering lies of them all.

  • That what we do will not and cannot make a difference.

  • I'm sure they said that to Rosa Parks

  • and to Martin Luther King

  • and to Nelson Mandela.

  • And they just went ahead and did it anyway.

  • And I tried to think of them

  • as I was cross-examining the prison officers.

  • And I would say to each of them,

  • "Look at Mrs. Manning, Alton's mother,

  • and you tell her why her son is dead."

  • And not a single one of them could look at her.

  • They wanted her to be invisible.

  • Sadly, realizing that no one would be prosecuted for her boy's death,

  • she sank into a deep depression

  • and she died.

  • But I'll never forget how, in the chaos and mayhem,

  • when that verdict was announced,

  • I turned to her and said,