Special Report: Bedford’s Black community speaks “racism is everyone’s issue”

George Floyd
George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, USA by a policeman on 25 May

Over the past week, people from all communities across Bedford have been sharing their thoughts, anger, pain and hopes in response to the killing of George Floyd.

George Floyd, is one of a long list of Black men and women who have suffered at the hands of police brutality, many have tragically lost their lives.

While these incidents mostly happen in the US, similar incidents happen all over the world.

The death of George Floyd has seen an outpouring of anger, grief and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement from across the world, including here in Bedford.

George Floyd’s death is a tragedy for any compassionate human being, but for Black people his death also represents what it means to be Black.

“We’re exhausted,” says Yolanda Copes-Stepney, who grew up in Bedford, but now runs her own business in London.

She was first called the ‘N-word’ when she was three. It’s one of her earliest memories.

“A lot of White people are four-days into really truly understanding that racism exists. Black people and other people of colour have known it for hundreds of years.”

Yolanda’s words may seem strange to a White person who believes they already know racism exists, and doesn’t consider themselves racist.

But Yolanda and others believe that many need to realise that racism isn’t just about hate speech and murder.

Racism is everywhere

Sharon De Leonardis is the founder of Bedford’s Spectacularts, a festival which aims to bring all of Bedford’s communities together. “Racism is everywhere,” she says.

“It’s ingrained. At work customers will go to my white colleague assuming they are the manager, because they can’t see a Black woman in a position of authority.”

“We have to constantly think about how White people see us and make them feel safe around us, we have to act differently so people don’t think we’re being aggressive.”

Sharon De Leonardis talks about systemic racism

Sharon’s 16-year-old daughter, Roberta, has had similar issues, “At work, people consciously choose not to be served by me, at school I experience racism from other cultures too, not just White people.”

Yolanda has also had the same everyday racism experiences, “‘Oh you’re really pretty for a black girl’ is amongst some of the ridiculous things people say to me.

“I’m no stranger to people using my race as a quantifying factor for looks or intelligence.

“I am a Black woman who owns her own business but people don’t think I deserve to be in my position and I should be grateful to be there.”

It’s unlikely any White person will have experienced similar.

White people need to acknowledge their colonial history

So what needs to be done? How can communities in Bedford and across the world come together to have uncomfortable but honest discussions about tackling racism in all its forms?

“We cannot talk about racism without knowledge of colonialism and Empire. This cannot be divorced from ‘Britishness’,” says Simon Beeiiee of Bedford’s Power in Discussion.

“When you consider the recent appalling events involving the ill-treatment of people of the ‘Windrush Generation’, as an example, it really is astounding that anyone would question that racism is a US specific problem.”

Simon set up Power in Discussion for meaningful discussion on a number of topics people feel passionately about or are affected by.

Their primary focus is to create safe spaces online and offline for meaningful conversations for people who are often silenced or erased from wider discussions.

He says now is the time for “White people and non-Black people to interrogate and truly reflect on their privilege”.

“Systematic racism isn’t something that Black people need to dismantle,” he adds. “The onus is truly is on the people who benefit and profit from ‘whiteness’ to ensure that they are not just non-racist but actively anti-racist.

“Call it out as you see it – stick by your Black friends and family when they share their experience and use your privilege to challenge the structures in your workplaces and other institutions.

“Interrogate your personal biases. Be present when you see young Black people in your communities being stopped unfairly by the police, don’t walk on.”

Yolanda has shared her thoughts in an emotional video


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A post shared by Yolanda Copes-Stepney (@yokics) on

Black deaths in police custody in England and Wales

Yolanda agrees, “British Society is still reliant on the class system and it relies on somebody being above another.”

“Police here don’t have guns, and there is a tiny bit more accountability in Britain but Black people in the UK are also still more likely to die in Police custody.”

And Yolanda isn’t making that up, what she and many other Black people already know, but many White people ignore, is that Black people are more than twice as likely to die in UK police custody.

Recent analysis by the BBC’s Reality Check Team showed that of the deaths in the last 10 years:

  • 140 were White
  • 13 were Black
  • 10 were other minority ethnic groups

The 2011 census* shows that 3% of our population is Black, this will. This means that Black people accounted for 8% of deaths in police custody.

You can see why Black people feel victimised.

Included in the BBC analysis, was an independent review of deaths in police custody between 1989/1990 and 2008/2009.

This review said that “a disproportionate number of people from BAME communities (and those with mental health concerns) have died following the use of force”.

Between 1990 and 2009, 16% of those who died after the use of force were Black, that’s more than twice the proportion arrested.

Over the past two years there were 39 custody-related deaths, 17 of which were found to have involved the use of force by police officers.

While White people accounted for 11 of these deaths, six were of Black people – that’s nearly a third of the total.

However, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) says, that death in custody does not “necessarily mean that the use of force contributed to the death”.

Mental health or drug and alcohol problems are also factors and it’s necessary to point out that in 2018-19, almost two-thirds of all the custody-related deaths were directly linked to intoxication.

Even so, Black people are disproportionately more likely to die in UK police custody.

*The 2011 census, is considered the most accurate source for this period, though the proportions stated in the BBC report may have grown since.

Bedfordshire Police need to do more

While this is a national picture, Bedfordshire Police’s Chief Constable Garry Forsyth agrees more work needs to be done to tackle issues of racism locally.

“There are cases across the UK which have impacted on police and community relations, some irreparably,” he said

“We too, have experienced incidents in Bedfordshire which have caused concerns and damaged relations with some of our communities, and we have worked hard to be open and transparent in the formal outcomes of these cases.”

Mr Forsyth added that as a police officer he was “ashamed and deeply saddened” at the death of George Floyd.

“While these were the actions of an individual, such matters always reflect on the whole of policing,” he said.

And he says that Bedfordshire Police will continue to work hard to “rebuild that trust and confidence which is so important to the way that we police.”

Organisers of tomorrow’s (7 June) protest in Bedford Park say they’ve been told that any police there will be more than happy to answer questions and engage with local people to openly discuss how they can do more.

Read: Black Lives Matter Protest to take place in Bedford Park

“We also have built strong relationships across our many diverse communities through our Community Cohesion team and links with Independent Advisory Groups and other volunteer schemes” adds Mr Forsyth.

“We encourage independent scrutiny on body worn video, use of force and in custody. But there is still so much more to do.

“As peaceful and responsible protests are planned to take place in our area, we will continue with a professional, measured and balanced approach to calm tensions and begin to rebuild that trust and confidence which is so important to the way that we police.”

Posting on social media is not enough

On (2 June) social media profiles were blacked out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests happening across the world.

Sharon, Simon, Yolanda, and Roberta all agree this was a positive action but there is concern many will think they’ve now played their part and don’t need to do anything else.

“It’s not just about sharing a black square on Facebook,” says Yolanda, “assess your behaviour and look at yourselves.

“Look at the examples people give online at what racism is. It isn’t shouting the ‘N-word’ or crossing the road to avoid a Black person, it is insidious things like if I am saying something is racist and people not believing you.

“Don’t say ‘I don’t see colour’ there is nothing wrong with seeing colour. The point is I want you to see my colour but then move on with your day.

“Acknowledge different cultures, don’t be offended or upset, just accept it, embrace it and enjoy it.”

Simon also warns that social media can make people feel complacent that they’ve already played their part.

“Just posting the Black Lives Matter hashtag does not go far enough. Read, listen and have conversations which are often framed by White people as ‘uncomfortable’, with other White people,” he says.

But, as a teenager, Roberta also recognises a way social media has racist undertones that many may not recognise.

“A lot of them [social media influencers] are White but they want to have Black culture or the features of a Black woman. But they don’t accept there is racism in their actions, it is like cultural appropriation.”

Mireille Cassandra Harper has created a guide to non-optical allyship on Instagram, giving people ideas on how to do more than just ‘seen to be doing’ on social media.

The 10-steps, “provide those who wanted to support and be an ally with practical tips to move forward and make a change in our society,” says Mireille.


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An uncomfortable discussion

“Words cannot begin to accurately describe the range of emotions that I, a Black man, feels when I think about the killing of George Floyd,” adds Simon.

“Time and time again, we witness Black people being killed at the hands of people who uphold white supremacy and this will never be something that is easily processed.

“There’s often an expectation that Black people are resilient and that we’ll ‘rise above’.

“Whilst I cannot claim to speak for every Black person, many of us are angry, distressed and exhausted.”

It’s clear, and there’s really no way anyone can deny it, White people have to face up to their privilege and we all need to have an uncomfortable discussion.

BAME support and information in Bedford

Power in Discussion: A platform to discuss a number of subjects including: LGBTQ+ matters, community, diversity and inclusion, mental and physical health, wellbeing, identity and experiences of Black people.

Spectacularts: SpectaculArts wants to bring Bedford’s communities together to produce an event which celebrates the distinctiveness of these groups, involving many people from Bedford’s varied population in a fantastic, colourful, and dynamic event.

Stand Up To Racism, Bedford: The town’s local branch of Stand Up To Racism, a group dedicated to campaigning against racism, fascism, Islamophobia and antisemitism.

MENTER: The Black and Minority Ethnic Network for the East of England Region (MENTER) is a regional network of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) voluntary organisations and community groups.

Bedford Council of Faiths: Brings together different faith groups in order to build bridges and engage in activities that strengthen relations and foster friendships between individuals, helping to dispel ignorance and prejudice.

Anti-racist organisations to support

Black Lives Matter, UK: A coalition of Black activists and organisers across the UK, raising awareness of racism and encouraging change through education.

StopWatch UK: Run by lawyers, activists and academics, the group works to hold the police accountable through legal and policy analysis and litigation.

Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust: Founded in the name of Stephen Lawrence, a black British teenager from south-east London who was murdered in a racist attack while waiting for a bus in 1993. The trust works to improve the lives of disadvantaged young people through career guidance, work experience and community support networks.

Imkaan: A UK-based organisation addressing violence against women and girls. It works to ensure that women with insecure immigration status are supported by its specialist ‘by and for’ member services, which does not share data with immigration enforcement.

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