ARTEH Odjidja

“It’s starkly evident that major ethnic and racial inequalities persist in employment, housing and the justice system. Black and Muslim minorities have twice the unemployment rate of their white British peers and are twice as likely to live in overcrowded housing. They are also much more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. We could also add to the list the alarming ethnic differences in deaths from COVID-19”

Quote by: Anthony Heath, Director of the Centre for Social Investigation, Nuffield College, University of Oxford and Lindsay Richards, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Oxford.

On May 25th in Minneapolis, Minnesota United States, a black man by the name of George Floyd was killed at the hands of the police. The events were filmed in broad daylight on the smart phones of those watching it all unfold. The graphic scenes of his horrific and inhumane killing horrified onlookers powerless to intervene as the police asserted their authority to secured the scene. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds officer Derek Chauvin knelt down on Mr. George Floyd’s neck whiles he was handcuffed behind his back, firmly pinning him to the concrete street beneath him. George’s haunting pleas could be heard in the video as begged to simply be allowed to breathe, as he fought to survive. The officers restraining him heard, yet no compassion was shown. The desperate crowd echoed his pleas to the police, but to no avail as he perished before them. The memory of watching the whole video still sends chills down my spine. Floyd’s slow and inhumane murder has been shared and watched possibly billions of times online for the whole world to bear witness to the crime. The murder of Mr. George Floyd was sadly one in a flurry of similar killings of defenseless black people that had hit the news in recent months and weeks. The timing of this most visceral and heartbreaking incident against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 health pandemic, (which has also disproportionately affected the black community) proved to be the timely components of a perfect storm of trauma, unrest, and a burning desire for justice that shocked the world out of it’s passivity on racial injustice to spark the largest civil rights uprising in modern history.

As a black man and a photographer/artist, my life and sense of peace were rocked to their core when I watched the video. It wasn’t the first racially motivated killing of a black person that the world had heard about and we’d collectively felt appalled by, but this was different. This time we’d seen it all happen with no cutaways, no aftermath footage that could be framed to say the victim was violent or whatever other ways these deaths are often explained after the fact. We saw for ourselves the brutality that had been inflicted on a man that wasn’t resisting, just asking to be shown a bit of humanity and was denied even that, and the result was a man losing his life. I think every black person around the world could potentially see him / herself or someone they love in a similar vulnerable position. I personally thought of my nephews and brothers and the thought of them ever finding themselves in a similar position was just too much for me to bear. As I mentioned the world is currently facing unprecedented challenges with our ongoing battle against COVID-19, anxieties from lockdown, an uncertain future for the world, declining faith in our leaders, a swathe of similar killings of blacks without sufficient justice prevailing, and the heart-breaking, ugly reminder that racism still reaches so far into the depths of our systems was just too much for many of us to ignore. We were all faced with our own failings to challenge the prevalence of racism in its now mutated forms. Racism is rarely overt these days as it once was when it was socially acceptable, but that doesn’t mean its roots still don’t hold strong ground. It’s ingrained in the very fabric of our collective history and the current supremacist values that keep power in the hands of the few. Being a black man in Britain we don’t have the same experience of racism from police as an African American might, but I for one was stopped by the police multiple times as a teenager whiles doing absolutely nothing except going for a walk or being out with friends. That definitely shapes your experience of the country you live in and your perceived place within that society. Having travelled the world as a photographer I see the UK and the USA in relation to other countries in regards to race relations, and that awareness of the world gives me hope that things will continue to improve and set an example for other countries, but not whiles some are still convincing themselves that we’ve arrived at the promise land. We haven’t! The problem of racism is a personal one that each and everyone of us white, brown, yellow, black have to face and confront and commit to working on, as much as we need to examine our institutions, laws and even the monuments and statues in our modern society that no longer represent the values of a society moving forward with progressive ideals.

George’s death may have been the one that ignited the largest civil rights movement in history, but it wasn’t just his name that would spark outrage and worldwide condemnation of the treatment of blacks and unite the world against the insidious tyranny of racism. It was also the deaths of the EMT worker Breonna Taylor shot in her home by police, Eric Gardner, Armaud Aubery, Trayvon Martin, Belly Mujinga to name only a few victims. We mustn’t simply see these names, as words on a page, or placard. We must see them as family members, teachers, young people en-route to their dreams, possible friends, or colleagues. Apathy should never be our default when it comes to the lost lives of others.

Throughout June 2020, uprisings in America continued to gain momentum. The national and international community consumed sound bites from black community leaders, 24/7 news outlets and famous faces condemning the actions of the officers. The mainstream media covered the intensity of the protests over there, and reported on looting and violence of supposed protestors. I believe those perpetrating those acts were simply opportunists taking advantage of the moment and not true protestors at all. However they’re actions became synonymous with the protests, and the essence and positive message of the protests were in my opinion being lost in a blizzard of sensationalism and images of buildings ablaze. Unity and equality was what I was interested in, but that truth seemed to be getting lost amongst the headlines of destruction to property and other anti-social behaviour reported. The news craves a sensational headline; ‘Peaceful March For Social Justice For Black People’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Fight Breaks Out and Property Damaged By Black Lives Matter Protestors”. In all honesty those opposed the movement needed very little fanning to start condemning it in its entirety. Even the recent peaceful protest of former 49ers Quarterback Colin Kapernick in the United States where he would kneel at the national anthem playing in protest to police brutality of blacks drew widespread condemnation from the conservative right in America. Any dialogue he was hoping to start about police brutality was overshadowed by the conviction of anti-patriotism landed at him, from even the U.S President himself.

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The government’s pioneering ethnicity facts and figures website brings together in a single accessible format the hard evidence on ethnic disparities collected by government departments. It is a world-first, established in 2016 by former prime minister Theresa May, who pledged to tackle “burning injustices”.

Critics could plausibly argue that disparities of the kind demonstrated by the website do not, in themselves, prove that racism and discrimination are the driving forces behind the inequalities. But, when combined with other direct evidence, it’s hard to avoid concluding that they play a role.

Before I go to a protest, I examine my intentions for going and envision the kind of pictures I want to take, and the stories I want to share with the world. My intention is to tell the human stories of the protests, to counter the monolithic approach often taken by the mainstream press and those dismissive of the movement as a whole. As a black photographer I also feel it is my duty and responsibility to approach capturing the protests in this way, as I am acutely aware of how black people in general are often portrayed through un-empathetic lenses, perspectives and words.

The Black lives Matter Movement of 2020 so far has seen every state in the US hold protests against police brutality against blacks and the systemic racism that emboldens it. In addition over 18 countries worldwide including my land of birth the United Kingdom have also held multiple peaceful protests up and down the country. I think we are faced with an opportunity to have plenty of uncomfortable conversations, the type we’ll want to run from and avoid but that are essential for healing and building and that will enrich our understanding of what we want the future to look like in a tangible sense. The burden and responsibility of change belongs to us all now, and our lives lived with awareness, compassion for others and proactive inclusion of those we deem as ‘other’ is the contribution we can all make in our efforts to do better.

This is a photo I took in Moscow city, Russia. It's from my photo series 'The Stranger In Moscow’. The story is about the experiences of a young African migrant man living in Moscow city.

 

Find out more at http://www.arteh.co.uk/4351044-stranger-in-moscow-ebook

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These photos were taken on the 6th of June 2020, at the mass parliament square peaceful protest in London. There were thousands of us there that day. It started at 1pm, and I arrived at about 1.30pm and literally had to spend 15 minutes edging myself through the dense crowd from Westminster tube station to the square itself, to be in the heart of it all. The energy was electric, creative and focused on the mission we had all aligned ourselves with. Braving the threat of COVID-19 to mark this moment in history for those who would come after us. To know that we stood for what was right and didn’t give into fear and division. We all very much felt part of an historic moment, as we lifted the baton of Martin, Malcolm, Rosa, Maya, and James. Speaking their names and wearing their words. People of all ages were holding up banners and placards chanting “No Justice No Peace, No Racist Police!” There were of course were real health risks to being there as we were a mass gathering during a global pandemic, but I, like thousands of others that had woken up to and deeply disturbed by the state of our society’s racial disparities just felt compelled to be present and heard in this very significant moment in time. To be honest I don’t think anything could have stopped me from being there that day and at the other peaceful protests I had been on before and after this one. The movement makes disempowered black voices heard, and educates us all on the systemic racism that continues to pervade our education, legal, law enforcement, and political and corporate institutions. This old challenge met by renewed focus and ally-ship is one we must face together as a human family, no one alive today was the architect of racism. But we all inherited a world plagued by it. We can be part of the generation that stays actively engaged in foraging for new ways to bridge the gaps in our society or we can be the generation who when faced with this opportunity, squandered it and allowed the current structures, beliefs and values in place, to keep racism and inequality alive and thriving. Lets identify prejudice and choose to challenge it everyday starting with our own thoughts and beliefs.

 

Many have criticized the protests here in Britain as conflating the extremes of racism in the United States with that of a more progressive British society, where incidents of racism are less prevalent. To that I would say the experiences of black people in Britain is different to that of our American cousins, but in the UK racism is still very much alive and ingrained. Things have most certainly progressed since the days that slave ships would dock in Liverpool and Bristol, or when you’d get the N word shouted across the street as you walked down the streets of east London in the 60’s. Yet when we look at unemployment, housing, and current data on stop and searching of people from Black and Muslim minority groups we see that there is a lot of progress yet to be made.

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