At the beginning of lockdown I had this fantasy, like a lot of other people, that I would have time to tidy my house, give it a spring clean, pick up my violin and learn to play it again, and rest my soul. But it is hard to fathom how much sad news we would all face. As for so many other people, every morning – with its former routine of getting ready, having an hour’s trip into work – was disrupted. I could just have a quick shower and put on a top half for the meetings. I would roll out of bed and on to the computer, and there I would stay until I was called by the grumblings of my belly to get something to eat. And I would not leave the computer until 9pm or 10pm. I had to keep going: I could feel the desperation in the voices of the people I spoke to.
The death rate in my constituency of Brent was going up. I was speaking confidentially to doctors who informed me, in great depth, of the full range of coronavirus symptoms and the dangers of the disease, attacking the brain, the heart, the lungs, the kidneys. I had to digest that information and manage my role as an MP and a member of society. It was quite a heavy burden.
On top of wave after wave of the grief my constituents were suffering and sharing with me, Covid-19 hit my own family. My uncle died of it. He had reached a good age, but it was hard not being there, because we’re a big family and we grieve together. His only son, Johnny, had died just a few weeks earlier, so the grief was compounded. It felt like an overload of grief; too much to handle. Media outlets wanted me to discuss it. I couldn’t share or talk about it. Then my auntie’s husband fell sick. His son came over to look after him, and died. Then my auntie’s husband died. There was more grief, more pain that couldn’t be shared, that had to be processed alone by all of us.
Because I’m an MP, people think I know what the government is doing. But I’m in opposition, not in government. My job in parliament is to hold the government to account; I’m not at cabinet meetings hearing all the decisions. I was receiving letters and emails full of questions and a lot of fake news, but I understood that most people were experiencing a gap between what was happening to them and what the government was telling them, so they filled that space with their own consciousness or conspiracies. And sometimes they were right, and sometimes they were very much off the mark. I couldn’t bridge the gap for them. I didn’t know myself – how could I build resilience in them?
And then: eight minutes and 46 seconds happened. The brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. This very public lynching opened up generational wounds and generational trauma, for me personally and for many others.
Structural and systemic racism has existed for 400 or 500 years. It’s a social construct designed to allow one group of human beings to dehumanise another based on the easily seen colour of a person’s skin. It is designed to make one group of people feel superior and another inferior. If you don’t believe me, believe the Covid-19 body count: I haven’t seen convincing evidence of a biological reason why the death toll is so much higher in black African, Caribbean, Asian and minority ethnic people. Covid-19 doesn’t prefer one person’s set of lungs to another’s: we’re all from the human race. It’s not the virus that discriminates, it’s society.
My mother taught me resilience; my brothers taught me resistance. My mother sent me to school in the morning saying to myself: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I would skip along the road singing that tune. But the fights I had in school happened because the other children were calling me names. It wasn’t true that words didn’t hurt. My brothers told me: “Sis, if you’re in trouble, don’t call the police, call us. We will come and help you. The police won’t help you.”
I’d heard the stories about how the police treated my brothers. When I started driving, my brothers told me to look in my mirror when a police car drove past, and if they turned around to follow me, to make sure I stopped in a very public place. The police often help me and protect me, not least by dealing with my hate mail. The majority of police officers are good, but this is about systemic and systematic racism.
My brothers were teaching me resistance tools. My parents had a form of resilience to survive, to get us here, and my generation was retaliating and fighting. Now the new generation has all of that plus social media and a worldwide connection, and that makes their movement different.
Resilience comes from the Latin meaning rebound, recoil – the mental ability to recover quickly from misfortune, illness or depression. Somehow, in lockdown, we have had to find and build our resilience, and we have to keep learning. John Lewis, the US congressman and freedom fighter who passed away in July, said: “We used to say that ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part. And if we believe in the change we seek, then it is easy to commit to doing all we can, because the responsibility is ours alone to build a better society and a more peaceful world.”
I don’t know how this journey will end, but I think that what we will take from this time will be that systemic and systematic racism needs to end, and each and every one of us has to call it out. Because it clouds everything that we do.
Dawn Butler is the Labour MP for Brent Central. This is an edited extract from Letters from Lockdown by Claire Foster-Gilbert, published by Haus in partnership with Westminster Abbey Institute on 1 September
Source: The Guardian