This summer the Black Lives Matter movement, protesting at the number of black people who die at the hands of the police, spread to Britain. Zak Cochrane of Stand Up to Racism says this is about more than solidarity with black people in the US
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine September-October 2016, issue 17. Email UAF to ask for printed copies firstname.lastname@example.org
The question of police brutality in the US has once again come to the fore following the cold blooded killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in July. Both of these horrific deaths were captured on video and seen by millions of people across the world via the internet.
Sterling and Castile were just two of more than 760 people who had lost their lives at the hands of US police this year by the time we went to press. The disproportionate number of people of colour in that figure has highlighted how persistent the problem of racism is within America’s police force and wider society.
Deaths of the unarmed black men hit a chord with many Americans not dissimilar to the response to the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, both in 2014.
There was an eruption of anger in cities across the US in July which manifested itself in the form of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement where thousands took to the streets and protested.
The anger at police brutality in the US this summer also spread to towns and cities across Britain. On Friday 8th July, just two days after Castile’s shooting was streamed live around the world, a solidarity protest was organised via social media site Twitter. The protest organiser was a teenager who said she only expected up to 100 of her friends and peers to attend.
Yet within an hour there were up to 1,500 people outside the meeting point on the South Bank in London, most being between 16 and 20 years old.
The demonstrators walked through Central London shouting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter”—the slogans first used in the US founded BLM movement.
The march was quickly followed by a second day of protest in Brixton where around one thousand mostly young people marched to the local police station and brought the area to a standstill. By Sunday of that same weekend, the protest movement had reached between 3,000 and 5,000 people. This time they marched to the US Embassy in central London.
The feeling of anger at police brutality was also felt in other towns and cities that, like London, organised Black Lives Matter protests at short notice.
These included Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Bradford, Huddersfield, Sheffield and Nottingham. Again the demographic was very young mainly black people who were angry at what they saw as miscarriages of justice in the US, but also at their own experiences with the police in Britain.
Indeed, these demonstrations were about more than just solidarity with America’s black population. They were also about highlighting issues such as Stop and Search and deaths in police custody which disproportionately affect the black communities of Britain.
A poignant example of this was the death of Mzee Mohammed who died after being detained by Merseyside police in Liverpool less than a week after the first BLM protest had taken place in London.
Mzee Mohammed was just one of more than one thousand deaths in police custody since 1969. Speakers on the protests shouted the names of other black people who have died while in contact with the police, such as Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Joy Gardner, Smiley Culture, Christopher Alder, Azelle Rodney, Cynthia Jarrett and many more.
The Crown Prosecution service announced in mid-September that none of the officers concerned with Sean Rigg’s death in 2008 will face prosecution. An inquest in 2012 found police had used “unsuitable” force.
There has not been a single successful prosecution against any police officer involved in these deaths despite several verdicts of unlawful killing.
The frequency of Black Lives Matter protests has levelled off since July, much like the protests in 2014 did following the killing of Michael Brown.
Nevertheless, there has been a concerted attempt by activists to sustain BLM activity by relating to wider questions of racism in Britain.
Two successful open meetings were called to discuss future activities. Activists now plan to hold a workshop around Black Lives Matter at the Stand Up To Racism National Conference in October.
The tragic death of ex-footballer Dalian Atkinson after being shot by a police Taser in August (see page 4) as well as the questions surrounding the effectiveness of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), the body responsible for monitoring the police, is evidence of the continued necessity for a Black Lives Matter movement in Britain which responds to the particular challenges of racism in Britain.
Black lives must matter not just when black people come into contact with the police, but also when they become stuck in appalling camps such as the “Jungle” in Calais and in detention centres across Britain. Black lives must also matter when black people become the victims of racist harassment and attacks on our streets.
Black Lives Matter should be seen as one component of a much broader anti-racist movement that we need to build in our communities, colleges, unions and workplaces.