The murder of George Floyd has brought worldwide attention to the systemic, anti-black racism that continues to exist in America and beyond. This includes in our own city, Glasgow, which has not yet confronted the legacy of its slave trading past.
In the 1700s Glasgow grew rapidly, becoming the ‘second city of Empire’, thanks largely to its role in the cotton, sugar and tobacco trades. The city’s merchants controlled much of the global trade in these commodities, owning plantations in America and the West Indies where tens of thousands of slaves toiled for their Glaswegian masters.
Many of Glasgow’s most famous streets were built off the back of slave labour, and named after the city’s celebrated ‘tobacco lords’.
We have now added alternative names to some of these streets to mark the legacy of slavery – celebrating those who rebelled against it and who fought for its abolition, and for civil rights and liberation. We also remember those who continue to bear the brunt of bias and police brutality, three centuries on.
Joseph Knight was taken from Africa to a sugar plantation in Jamaica owned by a wealthy Scottish landowner who later brought him back to Scotland. Knight escaped and fought against his former master in court, ensuring that slavery was illegal in Scotland.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in the American state of Maryland before escaping at the age of 27. She helped set hundreds more free, including when leading a daring raid on a plantation fighting for the anti-slavery side in the American Civil War.
Rosa Parks was another brilliant woman who struck one of the first blows for equal rights in America. From Montgomery, Alabama, Parks by law had to sit at the back of public buses and give up her seat to any white passengers who needed one. On the first day of December, 1955 she refused to do so, sparking the eventually successful campaign for civil rights in America.
Fred Hampton was born in Chicago in 1948. In his short life, he united the street gangs of Chicago against their common enemy – the racist state – and his leadership skills saw him rise through the ranks of the Black Panthers, a revolutionary organisation which fed the poor and challenged police brutality in black communities. Aged just 21, he was assassinated by the FBI.
Despite the advances won by Joseph Knight, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Fred Hampton and many others, black people continue to suffer from discrimination and to die at the hands of the state, here in Scotland, in America and elsewhere.
In 2015, Sheku Bayoh, a 32 year old father from Kircaldy in Fife, was murdered by nine officers from Police Scotland, who used batons, CS gas and leg restraints on him. Sheku suffered 23 separate injuries and died from suffocation as police officers kneeled and lay on him for several minutes. He couldn’t breathe. The cops refused to talk for more than a month until they’d got their stories straight. No-one has ever faced justice for Sheku’s death, and his killers continue to walk the streets of Scotland.
Five years later, George Floyd died in very similar circumstances in Minnesota. Unlike the case of Sheku Bayoh, the cops involved now face the full weight of the law, which they had themselves applied on the neck of their helpless victim.
George Floyd’s death provoked public outrage and has prompted many of us to examine our consciences, and our consciousness. We must now ask whether Glasgow should continue to celebrate the names of the city’s slave masters instead of icons of the fight against slavery and for equal rights, and why we are not demanding justice for Sheku Bayoh and George Floyd and an end to bias and police brutality. Where Glasgow once led the world’s slave-reliant industries, it must now lead in tackling racism.