Inspired by the US, the Black Lives Matter movement took off in Britain over the summer. Harold Wilson looks at the issues that sparked the protests and at the activists who found themselves leading the charge.
A summer of street protests called in response to police killings of African-Americans began at the skate park on London’s Southbank in July. What began with 100 people or so gathered momentum, doubling in size. Soon 1,000 were on the move spilling onto Waterloo Bridge. Parliament Square was choked with protesters.
Other cities in the UK followed: Sheffield, Leeds, Huddersfield, Nottingham, Manchester, Leicester.
In Birmingham’s Bullring the death of Kingsley Burrell became the focal point of demonstrators’ silent protest. Kingsley died of a cardiac arrest following prolonged police restraint. Three hundred gathered in Liverpool after 18 year old Mzee Mohammed died following contact with the police. Footage would emerge of Mzee lying motionless, barefoot, with his hands cuffed behind his back and surrounded by police.
UK protesters weren’t simply wagging a finger at the US. We were drawing parallels with our own plight at home. An abiding impression was that the leading voices of dissent were young, black and female. One placard — “I don’t know why I’m still demonstrating over this shit” — seemed to speak of a generation shocked that such naked and deadly displays of racism weren’t finished off during the Civil Rights era.
Additional calls for marches were made over social media and duly took place on successive Sundays in the West End toward the US embassy. Numbers swelled to a peak of around 5,000. Speeches were projected through megaphones, the neglected device of yesteryear. Traffic limped to a halt. Bus drivers who under normal circumstances would be preoccupied with steering double decker vehicles through gridlocked London fist-pumped their support instead.
London’s cops were taken by surprise. Wary of the ghastly behaviour of their US counterparts yet unsure how best to react, they put out pleas to demonstrators for information regarding future protest locations. We formed a noisy colourful block, upwards of 5,000, when Stand Up To Racism co-organised a march in opposition to austerity and racism through London.
A water fight among youth in Hyde Park during one of the hottest days of the year turned ugly when riot police intervened. The young people responded by taking up the chant, “Black Lives Matter!”
Our BLM group was permitted use of a mosque in Hackney, north-east London, as an organising base. It was fitting, given the toxicity of Islamophobia. The first meeting drew in a diverse collection of activists; young and very keen. All wanted change. The discussion and contested viewpoints which continued outside after the meeting’s conclusion, affirmed the thirst for answers.
While activists sought change, the vision of what constituted change differed widely. So, black-owned businesses were seen as the salvation for some, with the idea of pooling resources to support the “Black pound”. In time, the very idea that demonstrations are the path to freedom was itself challenged. Identity politics and debates on the role of non-black supporters appeared to fill the void when the marching levelled off.
Despite the active numbers plateauing out, the flashmob demonstration inside Niketown’s flagship London store registered impressively. Security staff and shoppers were taken aback as activist Gary McFarlane took Nike to task for exploiting the image of Muhammad Ali while not being vocal over the rising body count of African-Americans from trigger-happy police.
Another intervention took place at a Jeremy Corbyn headlined anti-racism rally in Highbury Fields, north London, two weeks later. An audience up to 3,000 in number chanted “Black Lives Matter” repeatedly and vigorously as platform speaker Roger McKenzie, assistant general secretary of Unison, made reference to the police tasered death of Dalian Atkinson.
The blue uniformed enforcers of state racism were startled and wrong-footed during the summer protests, but the beast still lingers. The Metropolitan Police’s Diversity boss Victor Olisa disclosed to the Evening Standard last month that stop and search was racially biased.
In her inaugural speech as prime minister Theresa May admitted as much. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary recently found that the figure, compared with white people, was “eye watering”. Yet despite the deaths of Dalian Atkinson and Adrian McDonald in 2014 there’s no indication deadly tasers will be withdrawn. Spit hoods, which Amnesty International says can restrict breathing and cause disorientation, are set for a pilot trial across 32 London police stations. (London’s unswerving Blairite Mayor, Sadiq Khan wasn’t consulted because the Met police “didn’t think it was such a big issue”.)
Who knows what reaction a presidential victory for Donald Trump might provoke in the US, and a home-grown response right here. If the potency of BLM can be fused with working class opposition to austerity, it could get interesting. It was, after all, a black London train driver who led a protest through London’s Canary Wharf. It’s a volatile up and down street movement. But fighting for black liberation has never seemed so fulfilling.