Dawn Butler: ‘To Dismantle Systemic Racism, We Need Uncomfortable Conversations’

Labour MP Dawn Butler on the racist abuse that forced her to close her office, encouraging her party to do more in response to Black Lives Matter – and why Met Police chief Cressida Dick should resign.

Since I started talking about the abuse my staff and I have received, I’ve always been clear – I never wanted to close my office or to have to relive the abuse I receive. It gives me no joy reliving it and I do not in any way want to give those racists any oxygen.

But now it is no longer a secret what we’ve been through over these past months and years, I hope that by speaking out and putting this information in the public domain we can spark a debate about the meaningful change we need. And in particular, how we develop a healthier public discourse.

As I’ve said previously, it was heartbreaking to come to the realisation that I could no longer guarantee the safety of my team who work incredibly hard alongside me to serve the people of Brent. It was a large factor in the closure of my physical office.

I have been assaulted on the Underground, threatened over the phone at 5am by a stranger, had a solid granite rock thrown through my office window. A member of my team has been forced to wrestle an aggressive man out of my office who was armed with a golf club and others threatened in person with violence. Another felt so traumatised, they wore a stab vest under their clothes to one of my constituency surgeries and developed PTSD due to the trauma of one violent incident.

I have had to report countless incidents to the police over the years. And on top of the violent incidents and personal threats, I cannot even begin to count how many abusive and often racist messages I have received during my time as an MP. This hate has, sadly, increased even more since I started speaking out in support of Black Lives Matter and I’ve been warned by those on the far-right that ‘come the revolution’ I would be the first.

But I have always said that no matter the abuse and no matter the threats, I won’t be silenced. And I meant it. I will continue to speak out in support of the vital Black Lives Matter movement because like so many others, I have had enough and I want to see urgent change.

And until we dismantle the systemic racism that exists in society, we are never going to make the progress that we need to see. To do that, we have to have these difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations to bring about the change we want to see.

Firstly, we desperately need to be able to disagree with each other respectfully again and conduct our politics in a civilised way. That includes having more respect for MPs and their staff as human beings. And it’s not just me – Diane Abbott MP receives more abuse than any other MP, while there have been so many awful stories from MPs of all parties detailing the abuse they receive.

It means being able to disagree with each other without resorting to threats and abuse. Ending this poisonous and dangerous political environment will help save our democracy, which is under threat from the politics of division and hate. This cultural change needs to happen but I know it will take time. I know that the Trump style of politics is the reverse of this, and with Johnson and Cummings often implementing that exact strategy it is an uphill struggle, but in the meantime, there is so much more that can and must be done to tackle this problem.

Social media companies simply must do more to crack down on racism and all forms of hate and discrimination online. I want to see them act quicker to take down abusive posts and hand out stronger punishments. The threshold for what constitutes an unacceptable post must be lowered so there is no space for any kind of hate and abuse.

At the time of writing this, I’ve just reported a comment aimed at me and my constituents, its content is vile and blatantly racist but I fear it won’t be removed and no action will be taken against the author. Now the disgusting comment is left to exist and be present online for eternity, we need proper accountability from the companies.

The status quo is empowering racists. Social media companies should link the abusive social media posts on all platforms so that abusers’ family and friends can see what they are up to. If they are not going to close down their accounts the least they can do is expose their racist views.

Parliament also needs to do more. I’ve raised the issue of security and I was told that the abuse I was receiving wasn’t enough to warrant any special security measures. After being attacked on the tube, I remain nervous about taking public transport and it makes me wonder how much abuse I and others have to receive before it is enough.

I want to see parliament do more to ensure a safe working environment for MPs and their staff, such as through providing secure office space for MPs’ constituency offices. And it is not right that staff should have to grade the level of abuse and determine what will or will not be acted upon, as my team currently feels forced to do. Just imagine every day having to wade through abusive messages and grading the abuse. That has to stop.

And in this most challenging of times, I want the Labour Party to lead the way in the fight for change. Labour is an anti-racist party but it has to prove that moving forward. It’s not something that is a given, it is something that has to be re-earned. That means Labour must win the trust and faith of its Black African-Caribbean, Asian and minority ethnic members by promoting diversity at all levels of the party as well as tackling racism and discrimination within the party, including anti-Black racism.

We can go further than just our internal processes too. I want the Labour Party to put forward an ambitious policy response to Black Lives Matter, in partnership with our diverse communities. So that we not only support the movement but also seek to deliver meaningful and long-lasting change at all levels of society for people of colour.

We have one idea ready to go – I announced at the last election that a Labour government would establish an Emancipation Educational Trust to address the historic injustice of the slave trade in the school curriculum, but also highlight positive stories so often hidden from history. It has never been more appropriate and needed now, in the context of the national conversation about statues of historic figures including slavers. I would like Labour to recommit to this policy.

As an Opposition, we must also keep pushing the government to take action on racial inequality. This must start with taking actions instead of more reviews and talking shops. The government has many existing recommendations to tackle racial inequality from the Baroness McGregor-Smith Review, the Race Disparity Audit, Windrush Lessons Learned Review and Lammy Review. It must implement them all without delay. We all know the new commission is nothing but a delay tactic.

One of the areas which needs to be urgently addressed is policing and the criminal justice system – it’s why implementing the Lammy Review is so vital. We are still seeing so many cases of racial bias and injustices against Black African-Caribbean, Asian and minority ethnic people from the police and in our justice system. It cannot continue any longer.

Take stop and search, for example. A black person was, incredibly, ten times more likely in the UK to be stopped and searched than a white person in 2018-’19. While only 22% of all searches in 2018-’19 resulted in a criminal justice outcome. Stop and search is not only discriminatory, it is also not working. It must be scrapped and replaced with something better and fairer, and I will be working on this with others in the coming months.

My concerns about policing only worsened when I heard Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Met Police, say that she had told officers not to take the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think it is completely wrong to prevent officers – if they want to – from showing solidarity with Black communities, who are so often discriminated against and need support.

The truth is I think she is out of step with her police officers. Most know how to police locally, in Brent, for example, we work hard with the police and have fostered good relations. If our local police followed Cressida Dick’s diktats, she would take our policing backwards, and to tackle the criminal element in society we need to move forwards collectively in a consensual way in order for policing to work.

Given the injustices we keep seeing, I no longer have faith in Cressida Dick to tackle the institutional racism in the Met. Not enough progress has been made over 20 years since the McPherson Report, and I fear we are now going backwards. Cressida Dick should resign. At first, I was hesitant in calling for her resignation but now I believe that the only way we are going to build trust and tackle the systemic racism is to for her to resign, as she is currently part of the problem.

But the sad truth is, policing and the criminal justice system is just one area where we need fundamental change. We also need to take action when it comes to racial inequalities in health outcomes, in employment, in housing, in education and so many more areas. The reality is the system is working the way it was designed to work and that is why it must change.

That is why we must all redouble our efforts and support for Black Lives Matter. The movement has been so powerful and inspirational but now we must deliver on that call to action, and bring about true equity in society – where we remove structural and systematic barriers for all. The hate I receive will never silence me or stop me fighting for this change. This isn’t just about black lives, it is about fairness and justice for all.