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BLM UK protests: Moving the discussion off social media and into the real world

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On Friday 5th August, Black Lives Matter UK – or BLM UK – activists protested across different parts of the nation. Some chained themselves to the roads in areas such as Nottingham and on the M4 leading up Heathrow airport, grinding traffic to a complete halt in the latter area for about 25 minutes. Police were called to the scene at 8.25am after complaints of traffic congestion and a number of protestors were reportedly arrested across the sites where the demonstrations took place.  

These were timed; they took place on what would’ve been the fifth anniversary of North Londoner Mark Duggan’s shooting at the hands of the police – for which no conviction was made; an inquest jury decided that he was ‘lawfully killed’. There was an additional aim to commemorate four other Tottenham residents who were killed as a result of encounters with the police since 1985: Cynthia JarrettJoy GardnerRoger Slyvester & Jermain Baker.

The BLM UK activists outlined the reason for this nationwide ‘shut down’: “to mourn those who have died in custody and to protest the on-going racist violence of the police, border enforcement, structural inequalities and the everyday indignity of street racism”.

This ‘shutdown’ has helped to formalise the presence of BLM UK. People sat up and took notice of the protests, whether or not they were in sympathy with them. A media frenzy ensued, causing an unquestionable impact upon mass conversation.

All great change comes about through this initial step – discussion. There has been previous, albeit marginalised, kitchen-table and online talk of such a movement being needed in the UK, for the purpose of peacefully combating racial inequalities that take place in our own backyard. It only gained real traction yesterday when such talk surpassed the boundaries of social media and into the real world. It then became official: BLM UK have developed a real presence and there’s a chance that their agenda will be about more than just about standing in solidarity with the US; there’s work to do here, after all. Whether or not it is a ‘flash in the pan’/temporary hype, remains to be seen.

Heathrow airport is the busiest in the UK and sixth busiest in the world. When protestors used their bodies to block the road, the plans of many holidaymakers and commuters were disrupted; while this was unfortunate for them, the often-covert racism that thrives in the United Kingdom is a huge inconvenience for the average black person and these protests demonstrated this perfectly. Recent statistics released by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has shown that Black graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed. TUC has also found that Black workers with degrees are being paid 25% less than white colleagues, prompting the Union’s general secretary Frances O'Grady to conclude that: "Race still plays a huge role in determining pay”. Black people are three times more likely to be excluded from school and are twice as likely to die in police custody. They are stopped and searched at just over 3 times the rate of white people. According to a previous Healthcare Commission census, black people were 44 times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health act than their white counterparts. 

Friday’s protests were about economic disruption and general unease. They were a comparison, on a lesser scale, to the inconveniences of wasted time, money, opportunities and dignity that Black people suffer through institutionalised racism, state sanctioned slayings, the futility of the IPCC, CPS and the inquest system. The ‘shut down’ of major transport hubs was a declaration against avenues of justice being inaccessible to blacks in the justice system. To the open minded, the concept of Friday’s campaigns is rather easy to grasp. For those who were hacked off – that was the point.

With all of this said, my post-protest thoughts are as follows:

*Now that BLM UK have lay down in the road and demonstrated their ethos, what will be the next move? I am interested to see how will they go about influencing real systematic changes that will lead to not just equality, but equity for black people in the UK. If the group does not make a palpable, peaceful and powerful follow up then this protest would have been pointless.

*Is BLM UK about black lives – as it says on the tin? In the protest’s promotional clip (above), reference is made to 3,034 ‘black and brown’ bodies drowned in the Mediterranean in 2016, "fleeing conflict Britain is responsible for”. The lumping together of ‘black’ and ‘brown’ – Afro-Caribbean and Asian – toes a dangerous line. Not only does it reinforce the ‘they all look the same/similar, so are’ rhetoric, which is a legacy of racist, colonialist perspective, it also suggests that BLM UK are attempting to repackage 70s-80s politics which implied that black was simply a case of being 'non white'. Look up Southall Black Sisters, for a bit of context. 

If the activists behind this movement feel so strongly about this item on their agenda, then they need to change the group’s name altogether and avoid this potential confusion and conflict of interests. It is an oxymoron, in the context of a movement that is deemed to protect the interests of black people. 

*Does the aforementioned reference mean that the movement aims to protect the interests of immigrants, Asian people, black lives from within and outside of the UK? If so, then this is too extensive and too soon; the movement would need to be more precise, controlled and build from the inside-out. Unfortunately, not everyone can be ‘saved’ at the same time.

*The aforementioned clip also draws reference to “1,562 deaths in police custody” – this figure (which is actually a bit more, according to official statistics) refers to all deaths which took place within police custody or following contact with the police in England & Wales from 1990-date, and not just black deaths. Again, this calls into question the agenda of BLM UK. Is this group about black lives or all lives? Neither is wrong per se, but clarity is needed.

*Judging from the same clip and the group's general media exposition, BLM UK strikes me as more middle class than anything else and, so far, the people at the forefront have not been representative enough of the group it claims to advocate. I just don't see the black road men, old people, rastas, muslims, chavs. Why, I even see a lot more women on the front line than men, which often seems to be the case in black protests. There are a number of different groups within the black community and I hope that BLM UK's membership becomes more wide-ranging in the long run. It is still early days but this will help to solidify its effectiveness. It was good to see a lot of white protestors, though!

The fruits remain to be seen, but there are more than a few indications that BLM UK can yield a positive and lasting impact on race relations in Britain. Such a movement is most definitely needed.

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