It’s the Sunday before George Floyd is murdered, and I’m watching camera phone footage of a young black man pinned to the ground by a policeman while ten others silently look on. This time the setting isn’t the American Wild West but a street in South London close to where I live. The man is a delivery driver for a Caribbean restaurant. He was out on his moped delivering hot food to hungry customers when the Stop and Search took place. I know this because his worried manager later posts the footage captured by a witness on Instagram. I cannot see the witness but I can hear her incessant questioning. What has he done, she keeps on at the gang of loitering policemen. But what has he done?
I watch as the young man on the ground cycles through a range of big emotions, confusion, fear, anger and pain. His handcuffs are too tight, he warns the casually observing officers. Aside from the obvious pain, I worry about the intense shame and exposure he must feel. This is a quiet South London street on a Sunday afternoon after all and he was simply out on a job. Now he is the protagonist of a horror film complete with riveted audience leaning on their garden walls silently taking it in. Well, almost silently. The black woman behind the camera is not silent. I can tell she is black by the timbre of her voice and her constant badgering despite one policeman’s attempts to shut her down. It is as if in that moment, she knows she is the only family this young man has.
People who work the ‘front line’ – our youth workers, domestic violence supporters, educators, advocates, healers and carers - are often motivated by a broader sense of family or as Rastafari philosophy will have it, the ‘I-and-I’. In other words an ‘I and you are one’ mentality. It’s certainly not the pay. The frontline is made up of voluntary workers and the meagrely paid and is a hot and exasperating place to reside. The frontline can also be a place of riotous joy because despite the deep-seated inequalities that leave many dangerously exposed, that sense of being here, alive and together is never more felt.
The frontline is almost always a labour of love. The type of love that brings doctors and nurses out of retirement during an epidemic despite the threat of death and subsequent deportation. The type of love that finds many up before the birds, cleaning our streets and driving our buses, exposing them to four times the dose of a deadly virus.
As a child, I was the recipient of this kind of love. My mum made sure my two brothers and I were fed, bathed and safe in bed before she went to work the night-shift as a nurse at the hospital. Throughout the night she held the hand of frightened patients then returned home in the morning to wash, feed and send us to school before collapsing into her own bed. I have often witnessed such selfless, thankless love from those for whom society doesn’t seem to care for much.
When George Floyd’s brutal murder pushed our entire worlds to the frontline, I wondered whether the delivery driver would ever heal from such violent and dehumanising humiliation. I thought of the woman who chose to stand beside him in his desperate time of need and I thought of those who, every day, make the choice to do so for others. Like 4 Front Project, a membership group of young people, who recently sat in front of a police van one bright day in Colindale to stop the police carting away a 14 year-old boy for allegedly smelling of weed. “Here we have enormous issues with strip searches,” 4 Front Director Temi Mwale was recorded in The Guardian newspaper after the situation escalated. “We have had young people with their trousers down on the main road … this is why we said we don’t really trust what you are doing today.” The 4 Front Project team work this beat everyday so they see the reality behind stats such as black people are 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white. They also know how a child's life can be irrevocably derailed were he to join the disproportionate ranks of underage black boys in youth detention centres (almost 30%). “We tried to de-escalate the situation, I actually think it was going well,” Temi Mwale continued. “But at some point, someone … decided it would be appropriate to send four, five huge vans full of hundreds of you, to start dragging community workers across the floor.” 4 Front's young labourers of love were then arrested.*
After George Floyd's murder at the hands of Minnesotan police, I wanted to seek out those organisations in the UK who do this relentless and often dangerous frontline work year round. There were lists of such US organisations but a similar UK list didn’t exist. Like many of my naïvely considered projects, a simple social media call-out surfaced a plethora of names and an urgent need. Thanks to generous people on social media, particularly a useful thread on Black Ballad's feed, volunteer administrators Lily Green, Esther Lisk-Carew, Nina Robinson and US media expert Andrew Kamphey, who is tarting up my rather tasteless google doc, details of 180 organisations across the UK were amassed in a matter of days.
The initial intention behind this list was simple. I wanted to give and I wanted to know who to give to. However the more I worked on the list, my intentions deepened. The project turned into a ritual of honour, a way to hat tip those people and organisations who provide safe havens to our most vulnerable. I was reminded that I needed agencies like these to exist so my teenage godson and others like him can find a haven if ever, God forbid, they need it.
What began as a busying tactic to manage my own anxiety, ended up steeping me in the myriad acts of love and labour that make up the front line. Like Nomad, the group of young migrant, refugee and asylum seekers who provide a friendly place for others like them or the volunteers at Ubuntu in Glasgow who care for women excluded from housing and welfare services.
With every cut and paste, I was reminded that our frontline is the jelly mould that holds our flawed and evolving experiment called society together. The frontline also holds us to account.
It's easy, as we grow older and more weary, to turn away from the frontline. Like many, I have moved far from it and therefore might even begin to question its existence. But in the last few weeks, we have been offered stark visual reminders of the horrors of front line life. And it is clear that if we want our grand experiment to evolve, it is here we must start.
4 Front Project community leaders were later released. *
Link here to the List of UK Black Racial Justice Organisations to offer support or donations.
Watch Daniel Henry’s BBC doc Fighting the Power: Britain After George Floyd if in need of a reminder.