Activists gather in Altab Ali park. Photo: Isabel Infantes / EMPICS Entertainment. All rights reserved.Last Friday, traffic on main roads across England was disrupted by activists calling for an end to global structural racism. Motorways leading to Birmingham, London’s Heathrow airports, and tram tracks in Nottingham were blocked as part of a ‘day of rage’ organised by Black Lives Matter UK.
The actions got a lot of media attention and the general opinion voiced by mainstream media was that the deliberate targeting of ‘innocent people’ was wrong and that while the Black Lives Matter movement is relevant to the USA, British campaigners were just jumping on a bandwagon. Both of these responses show a lack of understanding (or a deliberate ignorance) of the state of racism in the today’s Britain.
Origins of a movement
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement started in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted following the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot dead while walking home from the shops. At first it was little more than some tweets and a hashtag but as the black bodies continued to pile up the movement grew. It gained national mainstream awareness when protests following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York turned violent. The movement was never about violence though; it was about creating a world where black lives really do matter as much as everybody else’s.
From the birth of the hashtag, even the movement’s name has been a contentious issue for some. The original criticism was that by saying ‘Black’ Lives Matter, the campaign was in some way negating white lives. All Lives Matter, not just black ones, was a relatively common response to the BLM cry. I liken this argument to responding to the call ‘hungry children need food’ with the response ‘all children need food’.
Not recognising the severity of the problem that black people in the USA were enduring was a privilege that much of white America wallowed in. Slavery and the civil rights movement were things of the past, there was a black President and much of mainstream America allowed itself to believe thy were living in a post-racial nirvana. Black communities complaints about heavy-handed policing or continuing structural racism were dismissed as belonging to past or being part of a ‘victim narrative’ that was impeding black advancement. It took vociferous campaigns by the likes of BLM and the pervasiveness of camera phones to force the issue onto the national agenda.
Black people are being killed by law enforcement in the USA at a rate of about two deaths per week. This is almost identical to the rate that lynchings took place in the Jim Crow era. Lynching didn’t stop in the USA, it just put on a uniform.
Black people killed by American cops in recent years such as, Travyon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, have become household names in the UK. It is easy to see this as an American problem born out of their even more brutal racial history and gun-toting fearful police force but no nation has a monopoly on racism and Britain has a long history of discrimination within the criminal justice system as well as in society as a whole. The names of black people killed while in custody in the UK are much less known but there stories are every bit as harrowing and in almost every case justice is just as illusive.
The BLM movement is about more than deaths in custody but these killings, by the state we are all supposed to be protected by, are the most stark betrayal of the social contract all of us have with the societies we live in.
In recent times we’ve seen a steady flow of black deaths in the UK, including:
Cherry Groce, who in 1985 was left paralysed after being hit by a police bullet when they came to her home looking for her son.
Joy Gardner, who died after a struggle with police who came to her home in 1993 to serve a deportation order.
Roger Sylvester, who died in 1999 after a struggle with police
Frank Ogboru, who died in 2006 after police used CS gas and restrained him
Sean Rigg who died in 2008 at the entrance to Brixton police station
David Emmanuel (reggae artist Smiley Culture), who allegedly stab himself in the chest during a police operation at his home in 2011.
Mark Duggan, shot dead by armed police in Tottenham in 2011
Sarah Reed, who was apparently found dead in her prison cell at the start of this year
Mzee Mohammed, who died in Liverpool police custody last month
Although the black deaths at the hands of the police in the UK are nowhere near as frequent as in the US, each of these is still a family shattered and a community left grieving. Each death feels as if it’s family because black people know that each death could well have been them in different circumstances.
As in the US, the cry that Black Lives Matter is relevant because when it comes to the killing of a black person at the hands of the police, no one is ever brought to justice. The disposable nature of black lives in this way, without any real recourse to the law, leaves communities feeling that the people they grieve for are not considered to have much consequence to the powers that be.
A matter of life as well as death
The movement in the US was never just about deaths, it is about the structures that maintain and nurture racism and all of the different ways that the negating of black worth destroys lives. BLM in the US has expanded to campaign on issues like, immigration, transphobia, violence against women, poverty and prisons. These are all issues that are just as relevant in the UK.
Black people make up just 3.5% of the UK population but 10% of the prison population, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. If you are black in Britain, despite being less likely to do drugs than your white counterparts, you are six times more likely to be stopped and searched in the streets by police, and then you’re more likely charged if found to have committed a crime and your sentence will be longer. Being black, it seems, isn’t quite a crime but it is certainly an aggravating factor.
Those who try to placate black communities in the UK, with claims that the British police are not the same as those in the US are only partly right. The lack of guns and a different police culture here shouldn’t be ignored but cultures can change. While the public have been scared witless by the threat of terrorism, Britain is moving slowly in the direction of having more armed officers on the city streets. Only the most blissful optimist would not expect more armed officers to equal more dead black people. As the 2005 killing of Jean Charles de Menezes shows, just having brown skin can be fatal at a time of national nervousness.
Of course the criminal justice system is just one battleground in the fight for true equality. Success in the workplace, education, the health system, housing and pretty much every part of society is still hopelessly inversely proportionate to the amount of melanin in your skin.
Black people in Britain are three times more likely to live in overcrowded homes and are disproportionately more likely to be homeless, accord to research by the Runnymede Trust.
Black youngsters are more likely to be excluded from school, less likely to achieve decent grades and less likely to get into university and earn a degree. After education, young black people in the UK are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts and the numbers have increased drastically in recent years.
Even if a black Briton manages to avoid the traps of unemployment, poverty and the criminal justice system, the workplace is often full of pitfalls. Bullying, isolation, being over looked for promotion and being first out of the door when redundancies happen are all regular challenges that disproportionately impact black people. No wonder then that black people very rarely get a seat at top tables. Research by executive search firm Green Park Group, found that 62 FTSE 100 companies had all white boards and that even where black people made it on to the boards of top companies, they were often there in non-executive roles. Bearing all of this in mind, it’s no wonder that if you are black in Britain, you are 17 times more likely to suffer from mental illness.
The protests in the UK, last weekend were just the continuation of a struggle that has been going on for years. The protests marked the 5th anniversary of the killing of Mark Duggan and in some ways they connected to the protests which followed. They were also held three weeks after Mzee Mohammed’s death and show that the struggle continues. Even some of those who claim they were sympathetic to the BLM cause said that the weekend’s protests were ‘ill-conceived’ because they inconvenienced ordinary members of the public. This sort of action, they said, would ‘lose the campaign’ support. I’m left thinking that if a handful of protestors temporarily blocking some roads can ‘put you off’ supporting the struggle for an end to global racism, you were never really ‘on’.