A Black Lives Matter rally, London. Photo: Isabel Infantes / EMPICS Entertainment. All rights reserved.Over the past three years, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has raged through the American body politic. After countless demonstrations, protests, community meetings, a persistently virulent social media campaign, the deaths of black people at the hands of the police has become one of the prime hot-button issues in contemporary US politics. Indeed, this issue is such a persistently tragic feature of our news cycles that, in the wake of Brexit and its ensuing unholy parade of demagoguery and incompetence, it’s one of the few remaining hooks upon which Brits hang a vague sense of political smugness. It may be bad on this little island of ours, we sometimes tell ourselves – but at least it’s not that bad. Black activists in the UK, however, see little grounds for this comforting sense of superiority. Franklyn, a musician and student from London, said that “As much as people praise it for its cosmopolitanism, the UK is a historically racist institution, with its history rooted in imperialism. We’re still living with the inheritance of that system”. And so, last Friday, Black Lives Matter UK took to the streets, launching a series of secretively-planned direct actions throughout the day, followed by large public rallies in cities across the country.
Activists shut down major arterial transport links in London, Birmingham, Nottingham, and Manchester. Whilst some displayed banners declaiming ‘This Is A Crisis” and “#blacklivesmatter”, others laid down spread-eagled over the road, locked together at the hands by concrete arm tubes, designed to give intervening authorities as much hassle as possible when it comes to the troublesome task of removing activists from the streets. One passive resistor going rag-doll can be fairly easy to remove. It becomes tricker when there’s a whole human paper-chain of them, jointed together by cuffs that can take hours to remove. If the trams wanted to cut their usual route through central Nottingham, or if cars wanted to make it to Heathrow, they would have had to plough their way over the Black Lives Matter Activists in their path. And so, traffic ground to a halt – to the profound irritation of commuters, holiday makers, and their sympathisers, who took to social media to make their exasperation heard. But this, of course, was the point of the whole exercise. Under the moniker ‘shutdown’ – serving as hashtag, rallying cry and tactical advice all in one - activists and supporters called for the country to be brought to a standstill.
activists and supporters called for the country to be brought to a standstill.
According to Franklyn, “some people will question the efficiency and effectiveness of these kind of tactics. And sure, if I had a plane to catch I would be pretty irritated too, so I do understand where people are coming from. But the whole purpose is to disrupt the normal commercial flow of this country, to say that this normal is actually abnormal for some people. Normally, it’s our lives that are disrupted, and this is a way of calling attention to that. This is just an introductory phase though. I’m sure actions will be more targeted, and more focused.”
True to form, the next day saw rallies gather outside the police station in Tottenham, the site of some controversial incidents of alleged police brutality against black people. It’s where five years ago, police shot dead Mark Duggan, sparking a country-wide blaze of rioting. Despite a notoriously self-contradictory defence case, the actions of the officers were deemed legal by the court in 2014.
"the whole purpose is to disrupt the normal commercial flow of this country, to say that this normal is actually abnormal for some people"
Much like its American counterpart, Black Lives Matter UK focuses on a number of grievances around the black experience in the UK. SOAS Women’s Officer Fatima Diriye told me that “since 1990, 1563 people have died in police custody [...] There have been no convictions – zero. Black people are 37% more likely to be stopped and searched. And as you’ve probably heard, after Brexit there’s been a 57% rise in hate crimes” – It rolled off the tongue. It was a peaceful gathering, but the activists and supporters had come heavily beweaponed with statistics to defend themselves against the onslaught of calm-downers ready to tell them that this was at best an over-reaction, at worst an incitement to racial hatred. There’s a continual tussle over how to count the racial makeup of police-related deaths. The charity INQUEST reports that 10% of people who died “in custody or following police contact” were from a BME background. And “following police contact” can encompass many situations in which no force was used by the police. However, this number rises when you take into account deaths that occur in immigration detention facilities. They rise still further if you adjust the figures to look at targeted uses of force: the IPCC has reported that a third of people shot by the police since 2004 were black.
The ‘Black Lives Matter’ action callout states that three back people have died in police custody in the last three months – most recently, 18 year old Mzee Mohammed, whose name was emblazoned across the signs and t-shirts of many of those who gathered for the evening rally in Altab Ali park. Many have been quick to point out that these numbers are significantly below those in the US, where some reports state that a black person dies at the hands of the police every. But as Marcia Rigg stated to the Guardian, the same issues of “disproportionality, accountability and conspiracy” are also at stake in the UK. Marcia is the sister of Sean Rigg, who died eight years ago in police custody in Brixton – an incident for which no officer has been held responsible. She has been a key voice in the campaigning group ‘United Friends and Family’, and addressed the evening rally, inviting them to join her in echoing the words of Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to fight or our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Fatima was keen to emphasise that it wasn’t simply a question of black death at the hands of authorities, but about the overall quality of black life: “Black men are much more likely to be sectioned under the mental health act.” And moreover, “it’s about housing, about poverty, about the attainment gap.” The racial wealth divide could not escape the notice of anyone present, gathered as we were in the heart of Tower Hamlets; a borough that serves as perennially bleak metaphor for the worst aspects of London. The gleaming jags of the City office blocks look out over some of the most deprived areas in the UK, with the worst rates of child poverty. Those on the sharp end of this disparity are disproportionality comprise people of colour. The eponymous Altab Ali was a Bangladeshi human rights activist murdered by fascists in the 1980s. The site has since been the staging ground for a regular theatre of contestation between anti-racist activists and whichever band of hard-line nationalists is in vogue at the time: the National Front, the BNP, the EDL.
"it’s about housing, about poverty, about the attainment gap."
The police presence was surprisingly light. Eerily light, even – you get a more pronounced Metropolitan presence at demonstrations against badger culls to keep people in wellies and fading eighties glam rock hairdos in proper legal order. One suspects that the Metropolitan police did not want to provide the Black Lives Matter activists the confirming narrative that a heavy police presence might well provide. This proved little hindrance to the message of the rally in the eyes of those present – indeed, some welcomed the space this provided for different, “more accessible” ways of organising social justice movements. As Lola, a charity worker, told me: “I’ve been on protests where people provoke the police or do dangerous stuff, and it’s usually white anarchist guys. These aren’t the people who are going to have it worst if things go pear-shaped. They’re not in the most in danger, or most likely to suffer the legal consequences. That’s anti-racist, but it’s not necessarily pro-black liberation. Because in black liberation, it’s the priorities and experiences of black people that have to be central. It’s not just about getting into fights with fascists.”… “Everyone here is really supportive and I’m sure people are here for all the right reasons.” She pointed at the organising groups that had gathered after the speakers, organised by area. “But if you look who’s putting up their hand to speak – it’s all white guys, again. They want to be useful, but sometimes the most useful thing you can do is just listen.”
Malia Bouattia, president of the National Union of Students pointed out that the policing of people’s lives is not always enacted through immediate, emblematic, headline-grabbing violence. She took the podium at the rally to condemn ‘Prevent’ legislation, which obliges schools and other organisations to monitor and surveil the lives of Muslims, in order to ‘prevent radicalisation’. These provisions have seen teachers are legally obliged to report their students to the police for spelling errors. Bouattia was there in place of Aadam Muuse, the NUS Black Students’ Officer, who had been arrested for his role in the shut down. Four Nottingham activists have since been charged for their involvement in blocking the tramways, an action which clogged the city centre with traffic for several hours. Bouattia extended her solidarity, stating that “For every arrest, a movement stands behind them”.
Most speakers rounded off with a reminder of a forthcoming demonstration at Yarls Wood Detention centre for female migrants. Signs proclaimed “UKBA – racist scum” and “Your borders kill.” Of course, all people of colour are not black, all immigrants are not Muslim, all Muslims are not people of colour and all black people are not immigrant – but as Fatima noted, these distinctions don’t seem to have overly troubled those responsible for the hate crimes that have recently grabbed headlines. The activists were keen to resist this monolithic perception in its simplest terms. According to Lola, “there are many different experiences, and it’s important that queer groups, immigrant groups, and women groups, for instance, create their own discourses, and bring those to the wider discussion. It’s a way of making sure that voices that are usually marginalised get heard.” Nonetheless, there was a sense of being united not so much by a common enemy, but by being perceived as such. Fatima told me that “it’s been going on for years, of course. These aren’t new problems. But the propaganda in the EU referendum essentially blamed immigrants and black people for all of the country’s problems, and that’s given rise to a 57% spike in reports of racial hate crimes. so it feels particularly urgent.”
This sense of urgency didn’t resonate with all observers; some claimed that the use of ‘shutdown’ techniques alienate people from the cause. To this, Fatima responded that “we’ve tried the usual routes – courts, petitions, all that – but no one’s listening. Eventually, you have to make them listen.” Franklyn echoed her sentiments. “People have become disillusioned with conventional structures. There’s a rigidity to those structures that leaves little room for things to actually be changed”. “We’ve been lobbying politicians for the last fifty years. And there are obviously still problems, massive problems, people are still dying. When do you say enough?”
"People are still dying. When do you say enough?"
This problem, he emphasised, persists even when there are black voices in the halls of power. “People like David Lammy get elected and, well, I’m not sure people think he’s doing very much.” He smiles wryly. Lammy famously came in for heavy criticism when he blamed the 2011 riots on a lack of discipline and corporal punishment in the home. Presumably the children of Kensington and Chelsea were being permanently birched by their elders and betters. “You might be able to appeal to the law, but the law can’t be superseded with ordinary tactics, and a lot of the time it’s the law that’s the problem.” Fatima echoed his unease about the extent to which the judiciary upholds the interests of black people. “I wouldn’t go to the police if I had a problem, I don’t feel I could. But I should be able to. We should be able to access all of the same services that white people have access to.”
“We’re trying to make people aware. If people are aware you can change society”. In tone with the optimism of the evening, Fatima said that the day had been a success. “People have really responded to it on social media, and on the news more generally.” She remained nonetheless cautious. "It's a lengthy process. You're not going to solve it in a day, or a year."
Drawing whoops and applause, one speaker (who wishes to remain anonymous) took the megaphone and stated plainly: All lives will not matter until black lives matter”. Those I spoke to – on record and off – were thoroughly exasperated by a familiar chorus of commentators who criticise the Black Lives Matter movement for being ‘divisive’. “I’ve lost patience with those who just derail the issue without trying to understand it,” Franklyn said. “It’s 2016, all the information you need is out there – google it.” He then referenced a speech by actor Jesse Williams, who accepted a BET Humanitarian Award with a speech stating that “the burden of the brutalised is not to comfort the bystander”.
"We’re trying to make people aware. If people are aware you can change society"
Lola was similarly frustrated. “It’s kind of exhausting having to constantly re-assert your right to exist. […] But obviously this project is about awareness and education. And these are the same struggles we’re still fighting. So to some extent, you are re-stating the problem, but that’s still incredibly important.” It’s in light of her words that we can perhaps understand why the activists and supporters called the day a success – despite the multiple arrests, despite the negative press, and despite the fact that, in the end, the country was far from ‘shut down’. It seems that the aim of the game was to make the invisible visible, to speak the publicly unspeakable. “It gives people a language to understand their experience and what they can do about it. If they’re feeling uneasy about the situation but they’re sitting at home, they don’t feel like they have a handle on it, or feel they can’t do anything about it. It’s also meant to reinvigorate the discussion for older people, who perhaps have given up and become demoralised. It says don’t worry, we’re still here. We can still win.”