By Maxine Thomas-Asante and Myles Smith-Thompson
Over the past two weeks, we have seen race equality protests take hold all over the world. These demonstrations were sparked by the death of George Floyd on 25th May 2020. As usual, this latest killing has stirred up a renewed sense of collective passion and unity against systemic and structural racism. It is important to note these passions are not new or momentary, but a response to generations of oppression. That being said, what we are witnessing today is a unique display of vision shared by communities across the globe. A declaration by the black community (amplified by allies) that enough is enough. There has been something different about the action and impact the movement has seen in Spring 2020, noted by Angela Davis herself, which we hope to explore more here.
The infectious spirit of hope has meant that where protests are usually limited to the site of an incident, communities and towns that have historically been very quiet on issues of inequality have demanded their voices be heard. From the UK, to Syria, to Palestine, the solidarity movements have been visible, vocal and active.
Some of the most interesting discourse happening within the UK’s solidarity movement has been a recognition of the fact that racism is deeply entrenched in British history. In Britain, this manifests through different means to the US. In addition to the violence used by police forces towards black people, we still find profound disparities in education, health, welfare and the application of law. The most recent consequence of these persistent inequalities existent in Britain is shown through the differing impact of COVID-19 on the BAME community, in comparison to the wider population. It is no question that injustices are hidden within British society, and often little to no accountability is held by those responsible. Of the 10 black people in the UK who have died during or subsequently to police custody, in the last ten years, there have been no charges. In fact, since 1969, there have been no successful prosecutions for deaths in British police custody. Therefore it has become imperative for the black community to take an active stance, and make their voices known. In 2020 we are living through an unprecedented era. Through this article, we will look to highlight the ways in which traditional and modern techniques of activism have dominated the public sphere, and the impact they have had.
Taking Action – Case 1: Protests in Milton Keynes
On Saturday 6th June, I (Maxine) attended a protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter at Milton Keynes Train Station. In all my years I have never seen such numbers turn out for any cause in Milton Keynes, a town 54 miles from London. People of all backgrounds, ethnicities, genders and ages, filled the entire concourse. We came out with passion, with loved ones in toe and with our placards. The whole protest lasted one hour, including speeches, chants and a silent kneel. Despite being short, there was an energy and passion that I have never seen in my hometown before. A demand to be heard.
What was particularly powerful about the protest was the intergenerational dynamic. The protest was attended by people of different ages. Some who were veterans to the black liberation movement and others who are finding their voice in this moment. As we all knelt together the sense of unity and empathy was palpable.
Taking Action – Case 2: Protests in Luton
Being from Luton, and residing in Nottingham, I (Myles) have been actively engaged with protests and campaigns in both a virtual and physical capacity. Similar to Maxine, the unity within the communities has been noticeable, and the cohesive messages of challenging racism, advocacy of Black Lives Matter and the feeling of ‘enough is enough’, is evidently clear. To provide context, Nottingham has a BME population of around 35% and Luton around 45% (Census, 2011). These statistics, against the backdrop of the 13% national percentage of ethnic minorities highlight that these communities are particularly diverse and hold an above-average proportion of ethnic minorities within them.
In Luton, protests took place across the town centre with people from all backgrounds collectively protesting against institutional and systemic racism, as well as addressing the harsh and unjust phenomena of police brutality, which is rife throughout communities across the world and in the UK. Friends described the protest as:
“The first time I have felt a real sense of community collectiveness in response to inequalities which have burdened the black community for generations, people of all backgrounds had spoken out, enhancing my voice as a young black man who has been profiled and targeted my entire life.”
Being at a “Black Lives Matter” protest in 2020 was very weird for me. Simply because after everything Black Lives have contributed to the UK since being here, you’d think that our lives more than “matter”. However yet again here we are having to protest to get our point across and be heard. I’m glad I was able to stand with others on something that the majority of us have been subject to but have seen it brushed under the carpet for so long. I’m proud to be black and It’s about time things start to change
Taking Action – Case 3: Protests in Nottingham
In Nottingham, I had attended a protest that congregated initially at the Forrest Recreational Grounds, from there moving on to the city centre. This protest was organised by three young women of colour and attracted over 4000 members of the local community. In the two hours, thousands of spectators witnessed speeches, engaged with rallying chants and took part in commemorative activities. The most poignant moment to highlight was definitely the haunting 8 minutes of silence we observed whilst knelt down, which brought about a sombre realisation and acknowledgement of the pure disregard for life Derek Chauvin had demonstrated when kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, which consequently led to his tragic passing. From these demonstrations, many of us experienced a visceral feeling from deep within, a tangible realisation that change is on the horizon.
Other Forms of Action
In the context of Covid-19, it has been essential to find creative ways of protesting virtually alongside physical demonstrations. With increased periods of free time, we can engage and challenge further. To this end, we have taken two different approaches.
Taking Action – Case 4: Writing to MPs
Accompanied by the spotlight placed on racial inequality within the UK, I (Myles) took it upon myself to write an open letter to my MP, Sarah Owen, who represents the Luton North Constituency.
In writing to Sarah, I was able to bring up challenges around the UK’s involvement in the state response to peaceful protest in the US, as well as advocating for our government to condemn Donald Trump’s authoritarian response to these matters. The letter also called for my MP to highlight the injustice we have seen in the Belly Mujinga case which was quickly dismissed without a proportionate or adequate investigation, again highlighting neglect within our CJS to seek resolve in instances of white on black crimes.
Since the letter had been posted on social media, Sarah had responded:
Here we see that through direct action in virtual spaces, individuals and groups can initiate real change. From this, I have learnt that although it is important to use our voices in a physical capacity, it is integral to incorporate direct challenge through virtual spaces to see a response. Plain text can be found here if any readers want a template to write to their own MP’s.
Taking Action – Case 5: Writing to embassies
The approach I (Maxine) took was to reach out to the British Embassy in the US. This action tapped into the “special relationship” between the UK and the US (in the words of Theresa May). Our aims demanded British political bodies uphold the ‘British values’ they claim to represent in our diplomatic relationships, namely equality and human rights. Based on this, we proposed four demands
- Publicly condemn the unlawful killing of George Floyd as a consequence of police brutality
- Call for the charging of all police officers involved
- Issue a statement for the US to carry out a review and reform process establishing criminal repercussions for murder by state authorities, most specifically – but not exclusively – the police forces.
- Pressure our national government into acting on the continuing discriminatory practices against black citizens in the United Kingdom too.
What was most important for me in drafting this email, was supporting people who felt helpless following the unlawful killing of George Floyd. The need to encourage those who feel disempowered by the recurring state violence is central to the success of Black Lives Matter and other black liberation movements. Following the sharing of the template on social media, many people were emboldened to send it in their personal capacities.
In order to maximise this, I also redrafted the email to be sent to the Ghanaian Embassy, the Nigerian Embassy and shared a translation, tailored for the Spanish Embassy. This not only broadened the impact, but it also meant those undertaking this action were able to co-own the communication for themselves. This live document was also used to share updates on the situation around George Floyd and resources that people could use to educate themselves further. Please find it here.
It was encouraging for those who had sent this email to receive an active response from the British Council, of which an excerpt is included below.
‘Racism and prejudice are unacceptable. The British Council supports and stands with those who experience hatred, and those who are working to end it. We strive to bring communities together. We do this through culture and education. Like, everyone, we must listen to how we can do this better. Together, we must keep fighting the challenges of today if we want to create a more inclusive tomorrow.’ (British Council, 2020)
In both cases, it was empowering to be proactive as individuals, as well as using our craft to provide a framework for those who want to take action but do not know how to. Sharing ideas of creative engagement is going to be essential to the success of the black liberation movement going forward. The responses we have received have been reaffirming and we will continue to facilitate students and citizens to take direct action. People have found a plethora of innovative methods to physically and virtually support the movement, namely, sharing best practice to empower their networks to take initiative.
So, on Monday 8th June, waking up to the Minneapolis announcement to disband the police department in favour of an alternative model for ensuring public safety, felt like a true success for the Black Lives Matter movement and all the global black liberation movements.
Up until this point, it has been evident that the sanctity of life is not enough for state authorities to treat black people reasonably. Even in the context of this case, it was only when an international campaign arose from the spreading of videographic evidence on social media that the police department fired the officers involved, and pressed charges. Initially, the police officer who unlawfully killed Floyd was charged with third-degree murder. However, as more pressure was applied, this charge was upgraded to second-degree murder, his bail was set at $1.25m and the other officers were charged with aiding and abetting. Unfortunately, as we gather in the drive for equality, others also mobilise against this. Chauvin has since been able to make bail from public donations.
The announcement to explore and implement an alternative model for public safety demonstrates an overhaul and reimagining of our current society. Disbanding police departments and prisons are something activists have called for many years, and have been told this is a pipe dream. So, as the Guardian reported “concrete steps” that will be taken towards the materialisation of a disbanded police force, we see that significant changes to our society are not only possible but realistic.
This changing tide has been consistent, not just in the Minneapolis context, but more widely. During the Milton Keynes protest, it was notable that no police were visibly present. The organisers and attendees collaboratively maintained a positive atmosphere and social distancing. This in itself was remarked upon by protestors. Though Milton Keynes is a small town, this experience encourages the thought that the reimagining of public safety could spread more widely than Minneapolis.
Perhaps this dramatic shift in mindset by decision-makers was only possible in the context of Covid-19. While people across the world have had to completely reconceive their daily realities in lockdown, we have suspended our conventional way of life. In many cases, this has led populations to prioritise what is most important.
In the British context, it is important to also recognise the smaller wins. A key demand of the British #BlackLivesMatter solidarity movement has been #JusticforBellyMujinga. Though this has not been recognised at a national level, London Mayor – Sadiq Kahn, has launched a British Transport Police investigation to uncover exactly what happened to Belly Mujinga.
Comparatively, we are yet to see the reflective and evaluative approach to race equality being adopted by British decision-makers at a national level. Despite our history of racial inequality, evident from the Windrush Scandal, the Grenfell tragedy, and the killing of Mark Duggan by police, we are yet to truly address it as a society. In order to do so, Britain first has to take accountability.
Boris Johnson’s statement, televised on Monday 8th June, started well by acknowledging the validity of the Black Lives Matter protests. However, he went on to reiterate the out of touch sentiments of Priti Patel, that protestors should not confront police or bring down statues of celebrated slave owners. Patel’s own engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter protests, and particularly her response to Florence Eshalomi MP whilst in the Commons, demonstrates the lack of solidarity the black community often receives in the context of fighting structural racism. To insinuate protests are only valid if they are peaceful by the measures of non-black political elite is to have no appreciation for the reality of structural and state violence that the black community face on a daily basis. To Johnson and Patel we apply the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr in his Letter from Birmingham Jail lightly paraphrased below:
[Black people’s] great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom [are those who] […] who [are] more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”
(Martin Luther King Jr, 1963)
So, to a generation that has had enough, we stand together.