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The Comedy of Errors

“All my life I’ve been taught that the police won’t help me” – Artist and activist Kay on George Floyd, police brutality and the ongoing protests in Britain…

6 June 20 interview: Ashley Carter

For many, the death of George Floyd was quickly contextualised as an American problem. Stories of racial profiling and police brutality have grown to become expected from a country that seems more divided than it has been in a generation, leaving many in Britain feeling disgusted at how things are done on that side of the Atlantic. But, as the events of the last week have shown, the illusion that issues raised from Floyd’s killing are consigned to the US has been roundly smashed, with thousands taking to the streets in eighteen countries around the world (as well as all fifty US States) to support the Black Lives Matter campaign, which is now considered the largest Civil Rights campaign in history. Growing up in the projects of Alameda, California to Eritrea-born parents, artist and activist Kay – who works under the name The Rainbow Prince – has seen the way police brutality and racism takes form on both sides of the pond, having moved to Nottingham six months ago. And as Notts gets ready to play its part in the movement with a protest on Sunday 6 June, we talk to Kay about why activism is important in the UK…

What was your initial reaction when you saw the video of George Floyd’s death?
I saw it the day it happened and it was horrible. Not only was it televised, it was streamed on social media, which reaches far more people. As messed up as it sounds, it was just another day for a black man, but this time it just happened to be on camera. That’s pretty much the only difference. It was crazy. 

Every time we see a brother getting killed, it’s not a good feeling. The crime George Floyd was accused of was not that serious, and he still ended up getting killed. When I see my brothers and sisters being killed like that, I just think that it could be me, or my brother, cousin or uncle, on any given day. Age and gender don’t matter. It could be any of us.

What was your own relationship with the police like while growing up in California?
I’ve never felt protected and I’ve never called a police officer. All my life I’ve been taught that the police won’t help me. I didn’t want to believe it, and I tried to believe cops wanted to help us, but there’s absolutely none of that in my community. I grew up in Section 8 housing in one of the biggest housing projects in California and there was a lot of poverty there. That comes with a lot of police activity, of course. And as I “fit the description”, I was searched, processed and had time taken away from my life more times than I can count. I’ve been slapped, punched, stomped, racially profiled, and it's all just part of being a black man in America. 

The most violent encounter I had was when a friend and I were riding bikes in Oakland, and we got stopped because we had no bike lights, which was stupid. The police jumped out of the car and tacked us off our bikes and started telling us to stop resisting. My boy, Smokey, had his leg all messed up and bruised because it got tangled in his bike. It’s never been good and, as a black man, when a cop drives past, nine times out of ten they’re looking at you really hard. 

My parents were from Eritrea in East Africa, and I’m the first generation of my family to be born in America. My dad was murdered when I was three, and the police didn’t do anything about it. My brother was given seven years in jail for having a fistfight, and served the entire sentence. When you see people getting months for being caught with guns or worse, it’s hard to take. 

How systemic do you think racism and police brutality is in the US?
Police brutality and racism go hand-in-hand. A lot of us have dealt with it, and it’s awful. My friend was beaten nearly to death and has never been the same since. He went from being a normal, everyday guy to worrying about his life being in danger all the time. And he has every right to feel that way. Another friend of mine was accused of doing something and got sent to jail for a few years. Now he’s a schizophrenic, because jail really messed him up. And that was all because of a cop, but it goes beyond that. This is institutional racism that we’re born into. 

People think that because they’re not calling you the ‘N-word’ with that hard r, they’re not being racist. They don’t see clerks checking cameras in stores when we enter their shops, and even white friends that are with you don’t see it, because they’ve never been denied access to a store. They’ve never been told that they can’t go into a shop because the owner doesn’t think they can afford to be there. They’ve never planned a holiday with their friends, only to be denied entry into a bar or a club. These are situations that we’re sadly immune to, and have to adjust to now. We’ve learned how to finesse our way through all of these types of situations, which has ultimately made us stronger.

I’ve had so many British friends tell me that they never knew how privileged they were, or how racist their families were

What sort of an impact does that have on you psychologically?
As I got older, I learnt that all of these things are just recovering or adjusting to trauma. These incidents cause psychosis, depression, substance abuse and a feeling of constantly being in danger, which all stems from a history of racism and discrimination. 

It also causes a lot of paranoia, and means that I don’t think well of a lot of police. It’s really hard for me to trust, especially older white men. I just feel like it's not comfortable sometimes, and it sucks because I grew up with people of all races, but when I'm with my cousins we're all black people -  when we’re together and want to hang out, we can be considered a gang. If we’re just having a good time with our skateboards and bikes, you know the police are going to come over to us first, even when there’s a group of white people partying and doing all kinds of stuff. That’s happened all of my life. 

What have you made of the protests in the US so far?
I feel like what’s happening back home is how it should happen. We’ve been begging, telling you guys please, please listen to us. Please stop killing our people, because this has been happening for hundreds of years. But we’ve never been heard. We only get noticed when we’re messing up people’s property, because then it’s affecting them. We’re just fed up and are taking things into our own hands.

I don’t support looting family-owned businesses, but the looting against corporations is beautiful to me. I support that 100% because these are the same corporations that are giving my people the lowest-paid jobs and making them work in horrible conditions during the pandemic. When protests happen, the Government has to come up with a solution and think about what they’ve done wrong. It may not be the impact we want right away, but it shows how much we want things to change. We don’t want to be out there protesting, but it feels like a last resort. The Civil Rights movement worked because of protesting.

You attended the protest in Birmingham and will be there on Sunday in Nottingham too. How have you found the reaction here in the UK so far?
I really appreciate the UK, as it’s a lot different here. Firstly, because you’re a completely different country, you can stand in solidarity with us – not just in London, but in lots of smaller towns and cities too. The big difference, I feel, is that the UK isn’t aggressive. Back in California, we’re really aggressive – I’m from where the Black Panthers started. We don’t want to talk about things, because there are people that talk, and there are people that take action. I’m the type of person who wants to take action. But the protests in the UK are letting people know that it’s not only in America that the police are killing people. 

How different are the problems with racial profiling and police abuse in the UK compared to the US?
The misconception is that American cops kill black people, and British police come close to killing black people. That’s the big difference. But the British police still kill people in some cases. It’s sad because people think that just because British police aren’t shooting people that they’re automatically better policemen. It’s like, “We almost killed you, but we didn’t, so we’re the good ones.” But in 2008 a 40-year-old black man named Sean Rigg died when multiple police officers pinned him down for eight minutes. He couldn’t breathe. That was in London, but it’s very similar to what is happening in America. 1,741 people have died while in police custody, or from contact with the police in the UK since 1990. That’s a big number for a small country. The number of deaths in police custody is disproportionate for BAME people, and there’s never been a single conviction of murder or manslaughter in any of those cases. 

What have you thought of the support in the UK?
It’s been really positive. I have a lot of friends here. Before the movement erupted there were a lot of people scared to say how they feel. British people aren’t taught about these things, and Britain’s educational system has failed to educate students about their history of colonisation and genocide all over the world. People can tell me how many wives Henry VIII had, how Britain once ruled the world or how their ancestors are heroes, but I’ve had so many British friends tell me that they never knew how privileged they were, or how racist their families were. A lot of them are taking the time to educate themselves and stand against their families, and now they’re going to be attending their first protest. The reaction has definitely been more positive than negative. People actually want to learn about the past, and I really appreciate that. 

It’s so different back in the US – the white people there, especially where I’m from, are better educated about protesting and activism, but it just doesn’t happen as much here. People aren’t as outspoken in Britain, they’re more like: ‘This is how it is, we’ll just talk about it amongst ourselves. Because if we’re too loud it will cause friction between the communities.’

You go into fight or flight mode because you’re finally confronting the people who are supposed to protect you

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the disproportionate death rates among the BAME communities, was it a difficult decision to attend the protests?
No, I didn’t even think twice about it. I know that it’s a big issue among the BAME community since we’re more at risk, but to be honest we can’t afford to miss an opportunity like this. We have to be united and be there. As extreme as it sounds, if I’m going to die because I went to a protest to fight for what I believe in, I’d rather die that way than from police brutality. 

What advice would you give to people who want to support the cause for racial equality, but aren’t sure how? Particularly once the social media attention has died down…
A lot of people of colour have told others to educate themselves, but I’m more than happy to have these conversations with friends. I always say if you can’t find it online you can ask me. But a lot of it is on the Internet, really. Don’t speed through your friends’ Instagram stories, actually read them, because everyone’s posting information. There’s a lot of things you can do on social media: diversify your news feed, follow new accounts, follow artists and buy books published by people of colour, read and sign petitions, use your privilege to intervene, use your social media platform to inform others, un-follow anyone in favour of white supremacy, talk to your friends and family and do research together to look through the history of racism – that one is really important. 

I feel like you can post stuff on social media all day, but the most successful way of getting the message across is by making people uncomfortable by talking to them in person, because making them uncomfortable is a way for them to grow and hear you out. A lot of the time when you talk to people in person, they have a different reaction. Go to a protest, stand in solidarity, donate to families who need to pay for funerals and legal fees, make posters, create art, put something up in your home so that when people come over, it’s a talking point. That’s one of my favourite ones. 

On the subject of social media, how much of a difference has it made to modern social movements?
Every time there’s a social movement like this it gets better because of how much the internet has developed since the last time. Twitter is a huge platform for protesting and putting out information. It’s minute-by-minute, so the information is constantly changing. But social media has good and bad points. The footage of police beating and abusing people is good evidence that might not have been seen otherwise, but there are also videos of people who are out at the protests for the wrong reasons, and that’s what the media is going to focus on, especially if they’re black. A lot of the time it’s these skinny white anarchists from rich towns who just want to come and mess things up. Not just from the right wing, but those on the far left too. They’re coming out and making people who are protesting for the right reasons, and in the right way, look bad. Fortunately social media is calling them out, too. 

Can you describe the emotions you feel when you’re at a protest?
The main feeling is anger. The first protest I ever went to was in 2008, and I became addicted to it. It was like, “Wow. There are people here that are just like me, and they’re here for a reason.” I go into a completely different mode when I’m at a protest – it’s part rage, part depression, part relief. It’s just really, really emotional. A big part of it is fear, too. You’re there protesting the cops, who are people you’ve grown up hating the most, and it can feel like going to war. You go into fight or flight mode because you’re finally confronting the people who are supposed to protect you. 

Of course I have hope. I want to believe that things can change, but when this has been happening since the Civil Rights Movement, it’s hard

There have been several videos on social media showing police in the US giving speeches supporting the protests. What was your reaction to those?
I think it’s bullshit. All those pictures and videos of cops kneeling and saying they’re in solidarity with people, and the media going crazy over it. But Twitter is the place where the people control the media, and you can see that right after kneeling they were throwing tear gas at protesters, and beating up young and old people. The media isn't showing that to the world. I talked to my friend the other day and he said he showed his Mum what the cops had been doing to people. She said she had no idea, because they'd been showing police kneeling, and talking to people on the news. Do not watch the news for updates, go to Twitter.

So how can things improve? Where do you think the police can start?
I don’t think there should be one type of police force watching over everything. There should be cops from each community policing that area, not cops that come from the middle of nowhere and think they understand what's happening in that community. We need cops that know how to communicate with the people there.

Do you still retain a sense of hope that things can get better?
Of course I have hope. I want to believe that things can change, but when this has been happening since the Civil Rights Movement, it’s hard. I’d like this movement to end in equality, but I know that the end result will be that things will continue. 

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
I want people to hear this story first-hand because some think we’re overreacting or are just paranoid, and I want them to see that these are things that happen to us every day. 

When this first happened a week or so ago, I was devastated. It messed me up. It’s been hard not being able to be in the US for my people or my family but with all the positive feedback I’ve got and people messaging saying they’re going to educate themselves and talk to their family members, I feel like I was supposed to be here at this time. I’m supposed to be educating my friends and family in Britain and speaking up for black people in the UK.  


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