Death of George Floyd

Matter of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 1st June 2020.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 12:00 pm, 1st June 2020

Mr Gerry Carroll has been given leave to make a statement on the death of George Floyd that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called to speak, they should stand in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes in which to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has been concluded.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

First, I express my sympathy to the family of George Floyd on the death of their loved one. The footage of a police officer putting his knee on the neck of George Floyd, suffocating and killing him while he shouted, "I can't breathe", shines a brutal light onto the reality of racism and police violence in the United States today. That racism, unfortunately, has been emboldened by the words and actions of Donald Trump, who gave the green light to continue shooting people down in cold blood in America, after this brutal killing. Trump, of course, is a man who has done nothing about the continual violence of white supremacists and racist organisations whilst giving them a nod and a wink along the way. It is a cruel irony, is it not, and a true reflection of life in the United States today that a black man can be murdered after being accused of forging documents, while wealthy whites, through tax evasion and other schemes, forge their way to billionaire and trillionaire status, exploiting the labour of black people along the way?

Today, we express our sorrow and anger at the murder of George Floyd, but unfortunately that has been a common theme in recent years, and we also have to remember Eric Garner, Michael Brown and all those killed in cold blood. Unfortunately and tragically, there are too many names to mention them today.

Since the brutal killing of George Floyd, we have witnessed protests across the United States. People have been bravely standing up to and defying the brutal, militarised police state of the United States. On behalf of all socialists, all progressives and all radicals in Ireland, I extend solidarity and support to all the people out on the streets demonstrating against the racist, murdering machine in the United States. In the 1960s, the black civil rights struggle directly inspired the struggle for change here, and people here are still inspired by the ongoing fight for equality, dignity, rights and justice for black and minority communities in the United States. One world: one struggle. Black lives matter.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Gerry Carroll for raising this Matter of the Day. Over the weekend, we will all have seen the images from the United States that began with the horrific murder of George Floyd, a black man who came to his death with the knee of a police officer across his neck. It is shocking and appalling and it matters to us here. It matters to us all, because, as Gerry Carroll said, black lives matter. They matter in the United States. I feel quite a profound connection to the United States because I have spent some time there. It is true that there is an endemic and deep strain of racism that has affected the American republic since the state was founded and we cannot forget about that. As a jurisdiction here, and as an island that is deeply and intimately linked with the United States, we cannot turn a blind eye to the reality of deep and endemic racism there.

During the Irish famine, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass paid a visit to Ireland. He lectured all over this island, including in what is now Northern Ireland, in Holywood, Bangor and Lisburn. He said that while the Irish had been among the worst perpetrators of prejudice against people of colour in North America, they themselves had also experienced prejudice and injustice. Mr Carroll mentioned the links between the civil rights movement in North America and the civil rights movement here in Northern Ireland. The reason why Frederick Douglass's words resonate still today is that responsibility falls on all of us, not just in North America but across the globe, to ensure that we do everything to root out racism, which is a cancer, not just in the United States but across societies everywhere. It is incumbent on all of us to do everything that we can to ensure that people of colour are treated properly and that the centuries-old injustice that has afflicted them, certainly in North America and elsewhere, is properly addressed.

What has happened in North America this weekend is profoundly important all over the world, and I am glad that, today, the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is profoundly connected to North America and to the United States, will issue a strong call in solidarity with the people who are protesting there today.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I offer my condolences to the family of George Floyd; a father to daughters who are grieving and his loss will be felt most keenly by them. I have been reading up on George, and he was known as a gentle giant. He was six foot six; this was a big man. He had a glittering career in football and basketball at Jack Yates High School and led them to championship finals. It is important that we also remember George for the man. He can, and is being used for political statements to attack institutions. Rightly, people need to point out where there are failings. What happened to George was appalling; everyone can see that. The way that he was treated was appalling. The officer responsible has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Due process now, I hope, takes its course and executes justice very speedily, and it is vital that that happens, but what is not right is the mass destruction that has taken place. The destruction of property and the encouragement of that kind of protest is something that I would not want to be party to. I would not want the Assembly to send that message out.

I condemn what has happened to George but I also condemn the way in which the protests have now turned into a violent mob and are being used to attack institutions and the President of the United States and so on. Let us remember George, because it is important that we give a flavour of who we are talking about and not just use him to talk about other things. I read that George did a lot of work in Houston. He worked in the projects, as they are called in the United States, in deprived areas. He was known as a person of peace, and as a mentor to a generation of young men. His pastor in the Resurrection Church in Houston's Cuney, known as "the Bricks", paid a tribute to him. He said:

"George Floyd was a person of peace sent from the Lord that helped the gospel go forward in a place that I never lived in."

He brought the Church to the people. There is a story that George pushed the baptism tank into the projects on the understanding that people there would make a decision of faith and be baptised where they lived without needing to go to the church.

George is to be remembered for the contribution that he made as a Christian, as someone who tackled disadvantage and as someone who brought the Church to the people. We need to see justice for the terrible way in which his life was ended.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I echo some of the comments that have been made around the Chamber. We need to be careful about how the narrative of what happened has been portrayed. George Floyd's death is not the first to be captured on a smartphone and beamed around the world through social media. Such events in themselves are tragedies. Systemic racism, not just one bad apple in an institution, caused his death. Systemic racism, like any form of discrimination, is the disease that hurts not only those who feel the blatant and explicit brutality, but those who have to suffer the comments, jokes and narrative that are made and legitimised by action such as that which happened to George Floyd.

In the North of Ireland, where our freedom fighters and civil rights organisations were inspired by the demonstrations by the American civil rights movement of the '60s, we stand in solidarity with those whose struggle for equality is ongoing. As a child of the '90s, I am lucky that the freedoms that were fought for here in the '60s and '70s have allowed me to live a life without harassment, but it is deeply unsettling to see that, in America, where freedom riders and marchers staged sit-ins and took the same brave stand, their children's children are not afforded the same luxuries. Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

The images beamed around the world of George Floyd being restrained by a Minnesota policeman — pleading with that policeman to take his knee off his neck, fighting for breath and, ultimately, dying — are truly horrific. The police officer who perpetrated that was, rightly, arrested and has, rightly, been charged with murder. He will go through due process because he shamed his office on that day. However, it is more disturbing that three of his colleagues stood and watched while it happened. They are as much to blame as the officer who pressed his knee on the neck of the man who was lying helpless on the floor.

George Floyd was a man of colour. He was a black man in a racially charged US where black men are more likely to die in this way, but I did not see a colour; I saw a man — a helpless man murdered on our screens. I cannot stand here and support the violence that happened afterwards: I cannot, and I will not. All such violence does is create more dead, more devastation, more injured, more victims. We need to remember George, if we are going to support the people who want justice for him.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I rise with a lot of sorrow. On behalf of myself and the Alliance Party, I pass on our condolences to George's family and his community. As others have said, the use of police force and the eight minutes and 46 seconds that that knee was on the neck of a person — the last three of which when George was unresponsive —are shocking to see, read about and hear about. We have absolute empathy with those who have felt anger. However, I draw everyone to what George's brother has said. George's brother Terrence Floyd has condemned the violence that is happening.

He has condemned the protests and has said that his brother stood for peace. He has asked everyone to channel anger elsewhere, and that anger should be focused on the lack of leadership that is current in the United States and in so many other places across the world, where things like racism are taking hold meaning that people are not treated equally.

Instead of having a president in America who is calm, courageous, principled and has great leadership, we have a person who fans the flames of division, racism and bigotry. There are a lot of things that America could do better and one of them would be channelling that anger in a different way. There is a lot of difference between a protest and looting, raiding and violence for violence's sake. We absolutely condemn the violence that is taking place.

It is time that we take the attention back to what happened. This is not a police versus community issue. It shows that there has to be transparency and accountability. We know full well here in this place that our past has shown where police got things wrong. Now, thank goodness, we have professionalism and a force that has improved and that has learned from mistakes.

I know that the officer has been arrested and charged, but it is time that the whole police force in the Minnesota area and other parts of America take a cold, hard look at the type of force that they use against people. As Mr Beattie said, we did not see colour, we saw a man dying in the street with the knee of another person on his neck. That has to stop. That is not right. George Floyd lived until he was 46. His family is now grieving, and we are very sorry for that.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 12:15 pm, 1st June 2020

Anyone who watched the footage could not only be aghast but outraged at what they saw: the deliberate actions leading to the death, nay the murder, of George Floyd. It is right and appropriate, and I am glad of it, that the perpetrator has been charged with offences, and others look to me as if they likewise should be charged. However, what we then witnessed is the exploitation of that incident to unleash, by forces of anarchy, sheer terror on the streets of the United States.

I was very disappointed that the Member who raised this matter did not have one word of condemnation for that anarchy, which is not honouring the memory of George Floyd or anyone else but is seeking to exploit the situation for the advantage of anarchists and the far left, with no regard to the memory or the life or the testimony of George Floyd. Instead of condemning that, Mr Carroll told us that he was in solidarity with those bravely standing up to and defying the forces in the United States. He told us that that inspired things here. Sadly, it probably did.

One of the things, of course, that we will remember the United States for most in terms of own Troubles is the dollars that funded the weapons that armed vile terrorists. Ms Sheerin, they were not freedom fighters. They were vile terrorists of the lowest order, who inflicted the most horrendous killings in this community. Indeed, I have to say that I have no recollection of the United States Congress or any other congress in any state very often raising issues in defence of the innocent in Northern Ireland. I do not recall condemnation of the bloodthirsty murder of the corporals in Northern Ireland echoing around the legislatures of the United States. Today, however, we, as human beings, do condemn the murder of George.

I only wish that that condemnation had been reciprocated when we were the victims of horrendous terrorism.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

No other Members have indicated that they wish to speak.

The Member should rise in her place.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I had risen at the start.

I thank my colleague for bringing the matter to the Chamber today. Racism thrives in the company of silence. The tragedy of the death of George Floyd, who suffered after a police officer kneeled on his neck for seven minutes, in spite of his pleas to stop, has rightly caused anger and protest in Minneapolis and across the world. I stood on the same streets that people are protesting on not nine months ago, as part of the global climate strike outside Saint Paul City Hall. I visited many of the shops that have been looted. People whom I keep in touch with who live in the city tell me that the protests are generally supported and understandable, touched off by some things that had been brewing for a while. What Minnesota has never seen before, however, is the level of violence.

We in the Green Party stand in solidarity with all those, including the Black Lives Matter movement, who campaign against endemic institutional racism, fascism and police brutality. We have seen images of police in the US using cars as weapons, firing tear gas, beating protesters and targeting journalists. That is all the result of systemic racism, inequality and a populist, neo-fascist regime in the form of the Trump Administration. A friend in Minneapolis emailed me on Saturday night, stating:

"If police stopped tweeting racist things to fan the flames, we'd be getting on even better."

He said that to see those tweets coming through in the middle of the night, with the police station and the city burning, was reproachable.

We call for justice for George Floyd and justice for all who have been wronged by those who were sworn to protect them, as this is not the first time that this has happened. We must honour his memory and that of others by continuing to work harder than ever to end racism, tackle inequalities and build a better future for all.

I wish to mention some of the last words recorded from Mr Floyd:

"It's my face, man. I didn't do nothing serious, man. Please, please, please, I can't breathe. I cannot breathe, officer. Don't kill me."

We have a choice. We can raise our voices and join against the systemic and institutionalised racism across the world and push for those in power to do the same.