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Covid-19, Black Lives Matter and Reparations

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The brutal killing, as I care to describe it, of George Floyd, by Minneapolis police on May 25,sparked an almost unprecedented reaction not only in America, but around the world. The slogan Black Lives Matter provided the rhythm that sparked protests far and wide. Covid- 19 provided the context, since it exposed the inequalities in societies. A video of the police kneeling on the neck of George Floyd would have touched the hearts except for downright racists, all around the world. It is one thing to speak of racial injustice and the killing of black people, but to have seen it executed via video with the alleged police killer apparently least concerned about George’s cry that he couldn’t breathe, would have touched the hearts of those who saw it. The slogan, Black Lives Matter, would have defined itself. Additionally, it did not stand by itself, for there were other recent examples, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, et al. 

With a number of countries on lock down because of the virus, people had more time to reflect and to participate in protests, even risking exposure to the virus. It incorporated an examination of the legacies of colonialism and the insane policies of the President of the US. Confederate monuments and those of participants in slavery and in native genocide came tumbling down. Institutions like the Church of England, the Bank of England, of Scotland and Lloyds found themselves apologising for the roles some of their members, directors and Clergymen played in slavery, many having made not only enormous profits, but had also received compensation for loss of their property, the slaves.

Universities too, some doing their own research, had to come to terms with their involvement, not necessarily as an institution, but of some of their outstanding members. Even Oxford College supported the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes whose will provided Rhodes Scholarships since 1902.

Surprisingly, although there was a lot of sympathy and identification with the Black Lives Movement, few protests took place in the Caribbean and those that did, lacked the kind of impact that one would have expected. It has, however, given more fillip to the Caribbean Reparations Commission that had recently been gaining ground. Through the efforts of Chairman Sir Hilary Beckles and Professor Verene Shepherd, Director of the Centre for Reparations Research at the UWI, there had been growing awareness of the validity of the strong call for reparations for native genocide and slavery.

Eric Williams’ 1944 Capitalism and Slavery had provided the historical context for reparations by showing the contribution of slavery and the slave trade to the Industrial development of Britain and by extension the underdevelopment of the Caribbean. Williams’ thesis has long been under attack by euro-centric historians whose argument is really about the extent of the contribution to British Industrial development. Williams, by showing an economic factor in the decision to end slavery, did to some extent downplay the role of the humanitarians which was another bone of contention. 

Some governments and institutions have apologised for their role in slavery, but Beckles and Shepherd argue that apologies and regrets are insufficient; that there should be some dialogue that would formulate a contribution to Caribbean development. Not only did profits made in the Caribbean not go to Caribbean development, but at independence no major effort was made to provide the kind of support needed for Caribbean development. In SVG we also have the added argument involving the genocide and exile of the native population and the occupation of their lands. In 1763, the division of St. Vincent and the other ceded islands by the British and French was imperial arrogance at its highest.

The advocacy of the Black Lives Movement has given more prominence to the call of the Caribbean for reparations. This has to be strengthened, since any return to normalcy if that is possible, could set back the movement.

 Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian

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