And then seven other men, seven strangers, rushed into his room and dragged him out. And they held him in a horizontal, crucifix position. One on each arm, two on each leg, and the seventh man held Alton's neck in a vice-like grip between his forearms.
And Alton was struggling for breath and saying, "I can't breathe," just as George Floyd said, "I can't breathe." But they didn't stop. And soon, Alton was dead. When I was asked to represent his mother and his brother and his sister in the inquest into his death, they asked me, "How could it happen?" And I didn't have an answer.
Because Alton had injuries all over his body. He had bruising to his neck and his torso. He had injuries to his arms and his legs. He had blood in his eyes, his ears and his nose. But they claimed no one knew anything.
They claimed that they couldn't explain how he died. For Alton had two problems. Firstly, the corridor in which he died was a prison corridor. And secondly, he was Black. So I want to talk to you today about Alton's mother's question.
How could such a thing happen in our country? How can these things happen in countries across the world? How can they happen still, and what could we do to stop it? For three decades, I've been representing the families of people of color who have been killed in state custody in the United Kingdom.
And I've done human rights work across four continents. And what I've learned is this: that if we want to do something about racism, we have to first understand what it is. So let's talk about this thing called race.
What exactly is it? A fact of our lives? One of the most powerful forces in the world? Something we don't particularly want to talk about? It is all these things, but it is something else. It is a myth.
There is no such thing as race. Scientific research shows that race is an illusion. For example, someone of European descent might be genetically closer to an Asian person than to someone else of European descent.
So if race isn't a biological fact, what actually is it? It is a social construct. Which means it's been invented. But by whom and for what reason? As a species, we share 99.9 percent of DNA with everybody else.
But visible external characteristics, like hair type and skin color, have been used in order to promote this racist genetic lie about the supposed racial genetic differences. Racism has been endemic for centuries.
The Nazis, of course, were very keen to promote the racist lie. But also, in the United States, there were eugenic experiments and eugenic laws. And in Australia, children of dual Aboriginal heritage were confiscated from their parents in order to create a white Australia.
This kind of thinking is rising again with alt-right groups hankering after racially pure homelands. How does this work? You see, we don't have social inequalities because of race. We have social inequalities that are justified by race.
I started to understand this when I was representing anti-apartheid activists. And they showed me how apartheid was a system of social exploitation and discrimination that was justified by race. By the supposed superiority of white people and the supposed inferiority of Black people.
The apartheid regime said it was nature and so it was inevitable and there was nothing you could do about it. The Mother Nature lie gives discrimination and injustice a pass. I've also found it in cases where people suffer from the legacy of colonization and empire.
I've seen similar effects amongst people of the same color in Africa. And how people of certain castes are looked down upon in India. The victims may be different, but the mechanism — the labeling and the lies — is exactly the same.
And so you can see why people are so keen to embrace the race thing. Because it gives the privileged, people like us, a get out of jail free card. The simple truth is that race is a system. It's like oxygen, like an atmosphere.
It flows everywhere in our society. It infects everybody it touches. It protects power and privilege. Whose? Well, look around you. So what is it like for people of color, people like me, to try to speak to white people about racism? Many, many white people find it extremely difficult to do.
Some white people say they know nothing about it. Others say that our societies may not even suffer from racism at all. So if you are a white person who is wondering about all of this, there is a thought experiment that you can do.
Because here's the truth. You know. You already know. So ask yourself this: Would you, would you really want your son or your daughter, your brother or your sister, to marry a practicing Muslim from the Middle East? Or someone recently arrived from South Asia, who is a Hindu? Or an asylum seeker from Sub-Saharan Africa? Or someone who's recently crossed the US-Mexican border? You may not have a total objection, but you may have a concern.
A qualm that scratches at the back of your brain. It's not because of the color of their skin. But because you know that in countries like ours, as things stand now, their life prospects are likely to be affected by this union.
And you realize that you do know, you do understand that people will judge them. And in a hundred ways, those judgments will impact their lives and the lives of their children. At that moment, you are connecting with a powerful truth.
Which is that you know systemic racism is real. So why do you not want to talk about race? Because it's uncomfortable, certainly. But that's only part of the answer. The bigger truth is far more damaging.
Your bristling isn't just defensiveness. It is a defense mechanism. It defends the system of privilege and the unequal division of wealth and power. Fragility gives racial inequality a pass. Who are the winners and losers? Well look at the data.
In income. In health inequalities. In school exclusion. In career prospects. In stop and search. Look at how people of color have been disproportionately dying of COVID. So if the racial myth invisibilizes and the fragility response silences, what choices are you left with? The binary choice between you being a racist and a non-racist.
Or is there another way? Because almost everyone in this TED Talk will say that they are non-racist. But we have to face it, being non-something is not enough. The third choice is being actively anti-racist.
So if you agree that Black lives matter, ask yourself, "How do Black lives matter in my life?" "What have I done to show that Black lives matter to me?" By adopting a visible, conscious, active anti-racist stance, what was once invisible is made visible.
What was once silenced, is shouted out loud and clear. But that still is not enough. After weeks of bitter struggle at the inquest, the all-white jury returned to the courtroom in Alton's case. There was a moment of complete silence when the foreperson stood and then he announced the verdict.
And it was unlawful killing. And at that moment, all hell broke loose in the courtroom. And there was just this deafening noise. People were screaming, Alton's sister got up into the aisle to my left and she was pointing at the prison officers and shouting at them, "You killed my brother! You killed my brother!" And the family desperately wanted that the prison officers who were responsible for Alton's death should be prosecuted.
We all desperately wanted that. But not a single one of them was prosecuted. So we took the chief prosecutor to court, the director of public prosecutions. And the highest judge in the land, the Lord Chief Justice, agreed that the decision not to prosecute was fatally flawed and unlawful.
Every day during Alton's case, his brother would sit on the courtroom steps and he would say to me, "Train them up good today, Mr. D." But when he realized that nobody would ever be prosecuted for the killing of his brother, it crushed him.
And he died a few years later in a psychiatric hospital. So how does Alton's death connect to you and to the racism and privilege in our societies? What do I want from you? What I want from myself is to be put out of a job.
You see, families come to me who are grieving and I see the hope in their eyes. And I have to tell them that the chances of anybody ever being prosecuted for being involved in the killing of their loved ones are very remote.
I saw these grieving faces in the springtime of my career. And I still see them now that I'm entering the autumn of it. And the summer season was full of blood. And somehow I think that the blood is on my hands, even though I know rationally that that is not the case.
But I could not bring back Alton or Gareth or Zahid or any of the others, which is all their grieving families ever wanted. So I'm asking you to see through the lies. And to see through one of the most disempowering lies of them all.
That what we do will not and cannot make a difference. I'm sure they said that to Rosa Parks and to Martin Luther King and to Nelson Mandela. And they just went ahead and did it anyway. And I tried to think of them as I was cross-examining the prison officers.
And I would say to each of them, "Look at Mrs. Manning, Alton's mother, and you tell her why her son is dead." And not a single one of them could look at her. They wanted her to be invisible.
Sadly, realizing that no one would be prosecuted for her boy's death, she sank into a deep depression and she died. But I'll never forget how, in the chaos and mayhem, when that verdict was announced, I turned to her and said, "Mrs.
Manning, I'm very sorry for your family." And she looked at me and said, "Mr. Dias, you are family." And she pointed at the prison officers and the jury and she said, "And they are family.
But families bicker and fight, but we've got to sort it out. And we've got to find a way." So how do we sort it out and when? Dr. King taught us the time is always right to do the right thing.
These contentious deaths in state custody have taken place in prisons and in police stations. But finally, the spotlight has been shone on them by the horrendous death of George Floyd. Now we can't say that we didn't know.
The COVID crisis and George Floyd's death have shocked us out of our complacency. They put the world in flux, because what has been seen cannot be unseen. So right now is a historic moment of change.
Now is the time to take action in our spheres of influence, and we all have them. We have voting power, we have pocket power, where we spend our money and what we spend it on. We have the power to confront racism wherever and whenever we find it.
Those of you listening today, who have benefited from that privilege, have the opportunity to turn it on its head and to demand that society changes. Ultimately what happens is now in our hands. And this is what I know.
When someone in state custody says, "I can't breathe," they are in mortal danger. But when a society doesn't challenge the oxygen of racism that everyone breathes every day, the hope for racial justice and equality in that society is also in mortal danger.
There can't be any more Altons, and Gareths and Zahids, and Olasenis and Jimmys and Seans and Sherrys and Breonnas and Christophers and Georges. But this isn't just about deaths, but about life.
And about our human flourishing together. And all of us are needed for that. Racism wants to stay invisible. Expose it. Racism wants your silence. Make a noise. Racism wants your apathy. Make a commitment now to use your voice and your privilege and your power to fight for racial justice always, and to join the crescendo of voices calling for change.
And to be part of the hope. Will you join us?