Labour MP Dawn Butler considered quitting politics over horrifying racist abuse – but the bullies won't win
When I speak to Labour MP Dawn Butler, she's relieved - in fact, she's "great". She tells me that yesterday, a man who sent her an abusive and threatening message, reading "Can somebody hurry up and kneel on her neck", has been issued a 12-month suspended sentence, and a fine.
Butler has been subjected to vile abuse throughout her 16 years in politics, but never so much as in 2020. Last July, she was forced to close her constituency office after receiving a barrage of racist threats against her and her staff after speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
A year of unrelenting abuse
"There was a lot of abuse, and threats on the answering machine. Someone tried to force their way into my office with a golf club saying 'Where is she? Where is she?' We've had a missile thrown through the window... the door smashed in," Butler reels off matter-of-factly.
It all came to a head when the 51-year-old saw that a member of her team had shown up to work in a stab-proof vest, which he had purchased himself. "I stopped in my tracks," she says. "That was one of the reasons why I decided we had to close the office. My team are just doing their job. It's not fair."
It was profoundly disheartening, but above all, surprising. Butler truly believed that we had come further than that. "In 2020, [I realised] how many people did not believe how systemic racism works, how many people didn't believe that it exists, and how many people are actually racist.
"I thought we had made a lot more progress than we actually had, and I was like, 'Wow. Dawn, you took your eye off the ball'. People think I like talking about racism. I hate it. It doesn't make me feel good. But if we don't talk about it, quite evidently, people think it doesn't exist."
'For the many, not the few'
Born in Forest Gate, East London, to Jamaican immigrant parents who worked in the NHS and on the railways, Butler had always looked after people. She speaks of how her family still tell her stories that she doesn't remember – how she stuck up for a classmate, or supported the so-called "underdog" at school.
And Butler's dedication "for the many, not the few" has not wavered. This is a true testament to her character given the obstacles she has faced.
At the beginning of her career, Butler was advised to not come across as "too Black". "What does that actually mean," she asks rhetorically. "They were like 'you don't want people to think you've got a chip on your shoulder, or that you're trouble. You've got to let things go'."
When she won the Labour candidacy in Brent South in 2005, Butler was only the third Black black woman to become a British MP after Diane Abbott and Oona King. Her peers, however, were not able to tell them apart. "I was constantly called Diane for five years, and Diane had been there decades before me. There's not a lot of us. You would think that out of 650 MPs, you'd be able to tell apart two black women."
For its part, the media has repeatedly conflated Butler and Abbot's politics, and identities, until they seemed like interchangeable figures. "We're two very different people," she continues. "Apart from the fact that we're both Black women and of Jamaican heritage. It's stereotyping and laziness. Diane put up with a lot of abuse in Parliament and she never spoke about it. But that's not who I am. Not all Black people are the same."
Butler recounts the time when she was stopped on her way to lunch, and asked where she was going. Another time, she entered an elevator and was told: 'This lift isn't for cleaners'.
"I tackled it there, and then I spoke about it. It's happened so many times - I've got to be an MP and tackle racism. If all I did was tackle discrimination, I wouldn't get my job done. And I have to because if I didn't, it would be used against me. They're asking a lot."
Everyone must be involved in anti-racism work
When I ask Butler if she ever considers giving up, she replies: "Oh yeah. Yeah, I do. Sometimes I think 'Gosh, is it worth it?' My family are like, 'Dawn, get out'. They're scared for me.
"I think it's important to say that I don't have the strength to challenge and fight and go on every single day. Sometimes, I just want to stay in bed and put the cover over my head." In the same breath, she adds, "If you fight for everybody and everybody's rights, the abundance of enlightenment, joy, energy that it gives you, is worth it.
"There's no way that I want the next generation of young Black women, the next generation of LGBTIQ+, or the next generation of people who don't fit the normal narrative to go through the same things. I don't want them to have to fight four times the sh*t. I want them to be able to just focus on their job, and to be treated fairly."
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In order for progress to be made, Butler stresses the need for everyone to involve themselves in anti-racism work. ''We cannot, under any circumstances, shy away from the conversation," she states.
"Race was designed for a reason, and structural racism is fundamental to holding groups of people back. We have to call it out and have uncomfortable conversations, when we're around the boardroom table and when there isn't a Black person in the room. It's very easy to talk about principles in the abstract but what are you doing right now? I believe we need allies in every walk of life to help progress this."
To be continued...
At the end of our conversation, we circle back to the individual who has been found guilty for sending Butler that sickening message. It's a win, sure, but not one that she should have experienced in the first place.
"They want to silence me, to stop me from speaking out. That's why they attack and bully me. I want them to know that they're not going to stop me. And, in fact, I'm coming for you. You come for me, and you'll get a knock on the door from the police."
As she adds in a tweet that was published several hours after our interview, the fight is only "to be continued..."
*Black History Month – to fully understand the present, we must educate ourselves on the past.