Lockdown rules are the same for everyone, in principle, but the enforcement of them has not been equal. “While our white counterparts were having barbeques and parties during lockdown, 22,000 black men were being stopped and searched,” says Emmanuel Onapa, campaign manager at the youth-led police monitoring group Hackney Account.
The great majority of these led to no action, raising the question of why they were initiated in the first place. To Emmanuel, who’s been campaigning against over-policing in his home borough of Hackney for over two years, the answer is obvious: “We’ve always known it, but now it’s clear to everyone where the inequalities lie.”
Emmanuel cites his college’s outreach programme as the impetus that got him involved in local activism. He worked on a London Living Wage campaign that convinced 50 Hackney businesses to adopt the living wage. Encouraged by this success, he began working with Hackney CVS, an organisation that has been acting as a bridge between the public sector and Hackney community groups for over 20 years.
Inequality has always been institutionally entrenched, causing problems for black communities long before the pandemic; and as one of London’s most diverse boroughs, Hackney is no exception. “The black community in general has an issue with police — seeing the police force as an inherently racist institution,” Emmanuel says. But in a local sense, each community has its own specific problems. “Hackney’s issue might be over-policing on drug-related incidents, or being the first point of call for mental health problems, which shouldn’t be the case.”
This awareness is at the heart of Account’s mission: the initiative allows young members of the community to voice their opinion on what issues are affecting them, and hold the police to account on improving those issues. To that end, Account has a meeting with the local Basic Command Force twice a month. Through interviews with young black men, they’ve compiled a report of their experiences with police and laid out recommendations “in a way designed to help the police stop harassing black communities”. While sceptical about the prospect of really changing police behaviour, Emmanuel believes these meetings do help the community to stay informed.
But Account doesn’t stop with “policing the police”. The young people involved in Account help unify the community. “They take what they’ve learned and bring it back to their friends, brothers, sisters, uncles and nieces, keeping them informed and building connections.” The initiative’s school outreach programme informs young black people about their rights in stop and search cases, for example, but also discusses inequality in other areas and advocates for change.
“It’s a cycle,” Emmanuel says. At its best, community activism can address the social roots of problems as well as the outcomes. Alongside news relevant to its core watchdog mission, Account posts jobs, funding opportunities, and other opportunities for young black and minority ethnic people. Lack of opportunity is a problem across many black communities, and this makes it hard to break the cycle.
“You can’t expect someone to stop being a criminal after you’ve criminalised them. You have to give them an opportunity to get out of their situation.”
Even better, he believes, is to provide opportunities for black and minority ethnic youth from the start: give people hope, and they won’t become criminals in the first place.
Some of Hackney CVS’s young activists have gone on to work for the Council, giving them an opportunity to effect change at the level of local government, bringing the concerns and knowledge developed at Account to a role more associated with traditional forms of power. Would members of Account ever go on to work for the police? Emmanuel is sceptical: “the institution itself is racist, so no. Even in LA, where there are a high percentage of black and minority ethnic police, there’s still over-policing. More police won’t help those communities.”
What will help, he believes, is more funding. "Youth clubs, mental health centres, improved social services - these all contribute towards healthier communities in a way that policing does not. We want more transformative justice. Give us the funding and resources to address our own problems."
The underfunding of community services magnifies the inequalities in an already-divided society, and the problem’s getting worse: the number of youth centres supported by local authorities has halved since 2011. This is why, explains Emmanuel, “when George Floyd was killed, even though there was a pandemic going on, we felt the need to have our voices heard.” Having been involved in BLM protests himself, Emmanuel believes that they have expanded awareness of systematic racism generally, by first and foremost bringing black communities together. “We better understand the diversity within our own community. We have more appreciation for issues faced by LGTBQ members. We now understand how concepts like defunding the police and abolishing prisons might actually work — that they’re not such radical ideas.” This clarity, he suggests, has enabled black communities to help educate white allies as well, who can use their privilege to advocate for these ideas.
Black community leaders can make use of the global awareness around race issues to affect change nearer to home: “Being confronted with race issues on a day-to-day basis means we’re able to win the hearts and minds of people in our community.” Increased awareness means there’s been a lot of interaction with people who wouldn’t have engaged with activism in the past.
Social media has been a main driver, with people increasingly willing to speak out and share content on race-related issues. “Those educational threads on Twitter, or even on TikTok, young people speak about their lived experience — these are all platforms that can go viral and get a lot of attention, especially right now. People who might not have been interested before are paying attention.” That may or may not last, but, he says, the attention presents an opportunity for activists to create long-term local relationships, keeping people engaged through updates about news specific to their community. Public relations is vital, too: having connections with the media means black voices can keep being heard, both locally and globally.
Emmanuel is optimistic about the long-term potential for progress, citing the many new grassroots organisations tackling racial inequality that have sprung up in recent months. They have a lot of momentum, he believes, and some have attracted enough funding that they can continue engaging their communities. “Racism isn’t a seasonal thing,” he says. “We need to keep telling people that the fight isn’t over.”