America Sent the First Man to the Moon, but Can’t Track Police Killings


I started writing this article at a time when hundreds of people were taking to the streets to protest the death of Freddie Gray. Of course, if I had written this article a few weeks before, I would have been writing at the time of the death of Walter Scott; two months previously, I would have been writing at the time of the shooting of the homeless man known as Africa or three months before that, the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice. I could go on.

In the United States, black men, women, boys, and girls are dying at the hands of the police every week. Let us not underestimate what is happening here; this is, as Dr. Randy Short described it, ‘incremental genocide.’This month, Chicago has become the first U.S. city to have to pay reparations to over 110 mostly African American men, who were tortured into confessions, between 1972 and 1991, by Jon Burge, a police lieutenant, and his subordinates.

We can call these tortures and these deaths whatever we want but what we cannot disagree on is that they are unjust, disproportionately affect a certain race and are predominantly ignored. Despite this blatant oppression and systematic abuse of people’s Human Rights, there are those who are still determined to deflect attention from it or justify it.

They are the people who shout louder about the rioting in Baltimore than they do about the decades of high-level homelessness and unemployment. They are the people who look for any trace of a criminal record on Mike Brown, as if somehow, an unrelated conviction justifies a heavy-handed death sentence. For some it is cognitive dissonance; for others it’s ignorance. Whatever the reason, the outcome is further oppression.

I have been writing for Social Work Helper for over a year now and greatly admire the hard work of the Founder and Editor Deona Hooper in highlighting the rampant racism that still exists in America. It has come to my attention, however, that many of the articles she posts on this topic receive a lot of negative attention from Social Workers who argue that advocating on this issue is not relevant to Social Work.

So what is the role of Social Workers in preventing these deaths and the racism that underpins them?

We know firsthand that the rioting in Baltimore and in Ferguson, and in London after the shooting of Mark Duggan, was a result, not only of poor police-community relations, but of huge societal inequalities. American and British Social Workers know that we live in two of the most unequal nations in the world, not because we read research articles that prove this, it’s because we live and breathe it with our Service Users every day. We sit with the homeless outside the multi-million dollar business head office; we take the young Mother shopping to show her how to make her $30 a week feed her whole family, whilst our politicians spend thousands of dollars on one meal.

As Social Workers, we see what poverty does. We see the corrosive, ubiquitous impact it has on society. Poverty is like a poison that seeps in to every aspect of a person’s life. It leads to the deterioration of physical health, mental health, our environments and our resilience. It leads to drug abuse, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse.

Yet, two of the richest nations in the world allow a huge proportion of their population to live in poverty. As Nelson Mandela said “overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice.” Children’s Social Workers, Mental Health Social Workers and Criminal Justice Social Workers, would have a much reduced strain on their resources if the underlying issue of poverty was addressed. Therefore, we must keep giving a voice to those living in poverty until the current structures are changed and equality is achieved.

We know that poverty is a man-made injustice in the USA and Britain. So, what does it say when statistics show that you are less likely to live in poverty if you were born with white skin? There is a complex, yet undeniable role that racism plays in poverty demographics.  In Britain, people from a Black or Minority Ethnic group are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be paid below the living wage and more likely to be discriminated against at work.

This is only the very tip of the iceberg of a plethora of unequal treatment that runs through healthcare, mental healthcare, legal aid and education. Sometimes the inequality and discrimination is obvious, sometimes it is not; but the inequality is everywhere. Put simply, we cannot address poverty without acknowledging racism and we cannot call ourselves affective Social Workers without tackling poverty.

Being an effective Social Worker isn’t about filling in your paperwork better or faster than everybody else, it is about identifying the areas in which the people you work with are discriminated against, disadvantaged and oppressed while fighting to remove those obstacles.

Deona does not profit or get paid from this magazine, yet she continues to run an online international magazine which has over 80,000 followers on Facebook alone. When I asked her what motivates her to advocate nationally on issues of racism, she said: “I do it because I care… I feel that if I don’t stand on this issue important to my community in the Social Work world none of the other Social Work platforms located in the U.S. will.”

As a perfect example of the innate racism I have just described, Deona receives an enormous backlash for her selfless and important work. The Social Work Helper Facebook page was purposefully trolled by conservative Social Workers who all gave it one star ratings in an effort to drive the ratings down for the page. Eventually, Deona removed the Facebook ratings feature to prevent this type of nuisance. This is an effective tactic for companies and product pages to motivate change. However, Deona explained that Social Work Helper is free information and resources that people can choose to use or not use.

Apart from the actions of the conservative Social Workers being petty and hateful on a personal level, they are in fact part of the wider problem. If you silence oppression, you yourself are an oppressor. As a woman, I know what it is to have an invisible war waged against you. When people laugh at the fact your colleague makes sexist jokes at your expense, you’re told to take it as a joke; be quiet; stop complaining. As a result, those who did not even tell the joke – or pull the trigger on the innocent black man – provide the perfect environment for the oppression to continue unchallenged.

This is not an issue of black people versus white people. It’s an issue of those who recognize that racism affects us all versus those who don’t. Racism means we don’t get the best Teachers or Scientists because they were locked out of education from an early age due to their race. It means more crime and social problems for everyone. When I talk about race, as a white woman, it’s often deemed irrelevant. What does she know, she’s white? My family and loved ones are black. Racism affects me too.

What if the best Doctor in the world, who could save my Mum from a life-threatening illness, was shot dead at 15 by a Police Officer because he was black? Regardless of that person’s potential, treating another human being differently because of the way they were born is very simply wrong. Racism makes the world a poorer place, and we all feel that.

We all have to take responsibility for racism. The onus to solve this enormous problem cannot be on those who are victims of racism, much in the same way that we wouldn’t expect the victims of Domestic Violence to solve the issue of Domestic Violence. Dialogue is better than monologue and articles, such as the ones posted on Social Work Helper, are an ideal platform to start that dialogue.

If you are reading this, as one of the Social Workers who has stated that racism is not the cause to the rioting in Baltimore, or Ferguson, then you are, either through choice or ignorance, ignoring the facts. If you truly believe racism doesn’t exist, the very most that means, is that you haven’t opened your eyes to it. You are the reporters who insisted that the nooses hanging from the tree at Jena High School, after six young black boys sat under it, were a rodeo joke and nothing to do with the legacy of lynchings.

You may not want to talk about racism, but when you don’t, the result is the rioting we are seeing in Baltimore today. It is the rioting we saw in London in 2011 and it is the rioting we will see again next month.

The Ferguson police force were proved, beyond reasonable doubt, to have racist views. When a white man with racist views, kills an innocent black man through fears of the black stereotype, that is a racist killing. The rule appears to be, that if you are in Police uniform when you kill someone, it is not only justifiable to wrongfully kill someone, but to some degree, it was the victim’s fault and the black community’s fault.

I have three nephews, aged ten and below, who are of African descent. By Police standards, they would be considered to be black. I am thankful everyday that they are being raised in England and not the U.S.A. And whilst England too is plagued by racism throughout the criminal justice system, I can rest easy knowing that summary executions of young black men by the Police are the exception here, rather than the rule. I cannot even begin to imagine the anguish parents of black children feel every day across the U.S.A. knowing that regardless of that fact their son has never committed a crime, he one day may not come home because he refused to stop for a police officer.

Aside from the economic racism, there is a potent institutional racism within our Police forces that I have written about countless times before. In England, Sir David McNee, then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, defending the actions of the Special Patrol Group (SPG), said to a black journalist “I understand the concern of your people. But if you keep off the streets of London and behave yourselves you won’t have the SPG to worry about.”

In 2003, Las Vegas Police Officer Brian Hartman shot and killed unarmed Orlando Barlow in the back, as he was on his knees and attempting to surrender. Hartman and the other officers in his unit celebrated the shooting by printing up t-shirts depicting Hartman’s rifle and the initials B.D.R.T. (Baby Daddy Removal Team), a racially charged term and reference to Barlow. The country that sent a man to the moon, decades ago, has admitted that it can’t keep track of the number of people killed by police officers. In a country such as America, this should be a very simple statistic to acquire.

You stay quiet about all this if you really want, but don’t call yourself a Social Worker. Don’t ever silence others who are courageous enough and determined enough to say what needs to be screamed from the top of all of our lungs.

When it comes to racism, sexism, or any other form of oppression, you can continue to tell us to sit down and shut up, if you really want, but we won’t ever be quiet. I can guarantee that it is you that will be on the wrong side of history.

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Rebecca Joy Novell

Rebecca Joy Novell is a Qualified Social Worker working with gangs in central London. She graduated from The University of Sheffield in 2012 with a Masters in Social Work. Rebecca has been involved with Youth Justice since 2008 in a variety of voluntary and paid roles and is currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Criminal Justice. She was elected to the Professional Assembly for The College of Social Work, is part of the Criminal Justice Reference Group for the British Association of Social Workers and regularly blogs for The Guardian’s Social Care Network. She is also the author of Starting Social Work: Reflections of a Newly Qualified Social Worker. Her blog can be found at View all posts by Rebecca Joy Novell

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