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Black Lives Matter

On May 25th 2020, George Floyd, a black man, was killed whilst in police custody in Minneapolis, USA. His death led to protests against police brutality quickly spreading across America and internationally, with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign leading the way. The protests also focus on ending structural racism that exists in all aspects of life for Black people across the world, and encouraging everyone to be actively anti-racist. George Floyd’s death was an example of the disproportionate violence that has been perpetrated against people of colour, and it was in response to this, some of the protests turned violent. There have been riots and looting which are a response by people frustrated at a system that they believe values goods and services over human lives. There are many examples in history of moments of violent retaliation that have paved the way for peaceful resistance. 

Credit: Protest Stencil 

These images are of protest artwork by street art group Protest Stencil that were placed outside the US embassy in London on Saturday 30th May. Ben from Protest Stencil said, “This protest seeks to add to global expressions of outrage at the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and anger at widespread police brutality against black people in the US and elsewhere.” 

Many peaceful protests have happened across the world, including in the UK. For many, the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement and the need for immediate change to protect black lives has meant a willingness to go out and protest, despite the lockdown measures.

Peaceful BLM Protest in Bradford. Credit: Rosie Freeman and May McQuade.

In Bradford on June 3rd 2020, a peaceful, socially distanced protest took place in Centenary Square. We spoke to Funmilola Stewart who was at the protest, who has written a blog discussing why the BLM movement is so important.

Why the BLM movement is so important 

To me, the fact that we are STILL having to speak the words ‘black lives matter’ and the fact that we are STILL being met with hostility when we do epitomises the reasons why the movement is so important. In the year 2020, it is incomprehensible that people are still being judged, mistreated and denied various opportunities in life due to their genetic makeup and appearance.

Many people believe that because slavery was abolished, because segregation is no longer enforced and because groups like the KKK and the National Front are no longer prominent on the political scene, that BLM is an unnecessary movement. I often see people referring to BLM supporters ‘living in the past’ or ‘playing the race card’ when ‘racism no longer exists, especially in the UK’. To hold any of these views is to be in a privileged position. To be able to ignore the legacies of the history of anti-Blackness on a global scale is to be in a privileged position. Black people may no longer be enslaved, but they do continue to suffer vast economic inequality due to the harrowing lives of their ancestors. Segregation may no longer be enforced under the law but in both the US and the UK black people are viewed as an ‘other’ rather than an ‘equal’. Racist political parties may seemingly be less prominent and their racist policies less open but we do still have a Prime Minister that has uttered racial slurs on numerous occasions. We do still have people from all social classes, from all areas and from varying levels of education openly preaching racial hatred on social media and in the streets.

BLM strives for forcing an end to systemic racism, police brutality and white supremacy. It strives for the beginning of equality for Black people. In stating that ‘black lives matter’ we are by no means suggesting that other lives do not matter. In striving for progression in the social status of black people, we are by no means striving for the diminishment of the social status of others. It is so important for people to understand that BLM is NOT a hostile movement, it is a movement directed AGAINST hostility. Of course, in principle, we all agree that all lives SHOULD matter but the fact of the matter is that, currently, black lives do not matter in the eyes of some, and it is this that we are hoping to change.

On a personal level, I will continue to speak out about BLM in the hope that my young niece and (in the future) my children, are not faced with many of the harrowing experiences that I myself have faced. I don’t want them to be restricted to playing with white dolls with blonde hair and blue eyes only. I don’t want them to feel ‘ugly’ and ‘different’ within a class of white peers. I want them to be able to recognise the diversity and celebrate their own beauty, regardless of whether or not they look the same as the people sitting next to them. I don’t want them to ever accept being called ‘quite pretty, for a black girl’ as a compliment. I don’t want them to have to wonder why there are only a few ‘token’ black characters in their favourite films and TV shows, and why even then those characters seem to live up to every stereotype in existence. I don’t want them to be called ‘sassy’ and ‘aggressive’ for voicing their opinions ‘because that’s what black women are like’. I don’t want them to be called a the ‘n’ word whilst walking down the street and receive no support whatsoever from those around them.

 For the first time since I have been old enough to understand, it feels like people are listening and want to make a change to all of the above and more. People are listening because they have been made to listen, due to the protests and due to the huge influence across social media. The BLM movement will continue to educate people and, so long as even a handful of people are willing to listen, we will start to see change.

 Why it was important to peacefully protest during lockdown

Image credit: Funmilola Stewart.

Attending the BLM protest in Bradford was one of the most significant and meaningful things I have ever experienced in my life. It felt so important to me to be surrounded by people, of all colours, all striving for the same thing. There were a variety of speakers and poets and I could relate to every single thing that each of them said. That’s when it really hit home to me that ,if these strangers had suffered identical experiences to mine, a huge amount of other people must have endured these experiences too, which is what makes the protests so important.

The peaceful nature of the protests was important because it made clear (to all that were willing to listen) that no hostility was intended. The message was clear: we want equality and an end to racial discrimination in all forms. The atmosphere was positive and there was a real sense of ‘togetherness’.

Of course, there has been controversy regarding the protests due to the ongoing pandemic. However, the very nature of protesting always involves making sacrifices to ensure that your message is heard. Throughout history, black people have been forced to protest for their rights. During the Civil Rights movement, peaceful protest was a prime strategy of MLK’s and, eventually, the protesters were able to make progress. Even then, their peaceful protests were met with objections.

At the BLM protests, everyone wore masks and made great efforts to remain distanced. Given that, simultaneously, people in the UK were flocking to beaches and celebrating events like VE day with street parties, it appears as though those that objected to the protests during a pandemic were more opposed to the BLM message itself, rather than the timing.

Finally, it seems like a strange thing to say, but I am grateful for certain aspects of the Pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. Of course, I am devastated at the losses people have experienced. However, I am glad for the time that the lockdown has provided people with to reflect. Had George Floyd’s murder happened in ‘normal’ times, I highly doubt that so many people would have paid attention. I remember being devastated at the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner but, whilst I conversed with my family about them, my friends said nothing – they weren’t even particularly aware. Now, however, everyone is talking about it. The majority of people I know were outraged by the way in which Floyd was killed. This has led many people to read into the BLM movement, to educate themselves about systemic racism and to use their newfound education to influence others also. Had they been at work and busy with ‘normality’ this may not have occurred.”

Written by Funmilola Stewart.

Standing in Solidarity

Communities across the UK have also shown their support for the BLM movement.

The Bridport Black Lives Matter Banner is a pilot project of the Lyric Theatre’s Curtain Up On Communities initiative. The Lyric, always a dynamic and community-rooted enterprise, donated its curtain to make the backdrop for the banner because the Lyric is closed as a theatre due to Covid 19.

The banner was hand stitched together by local people (observing social distancing) who discussed issues of race and privilege as they sewed and learned that it was possible to have friendly and enlightening conversations about these issues. The banner was then carried through the tiny Dorset village of Symondsbury in a cortege style procession and unfurled on iconic Colmers Hill. It was then filmed by a drone cameraman. The images were posted on social media and were shared widely, and over £1000 was raised via Crowdfunder by partnering Bridport with Bronx Defenders, who are protecting black lives in New York during the protests against the killing of George Floyd. 

The banner is now available to be hosted by another village, and can be draped in the landscape to be filmed by a drone camera. In this way small rural communities can show solidarity with their urban counterparts without breaking pandemic restrictions. If you would like to bring the curtain up on race and social justice in your village, please get in touch with the Lyric Theatre Curtain Up On Communities Project. 

Emily Boltona villager and a lawyer with the charity APPEAL which fights miscarriages of justice in this country, comments;

“The conversations (socially distanced of course) that took place as this banner was stitched in our garden are part of what the Black Lives Matter movement is making happen: white people examining their own complicity in a racist society. I have lived on both sides of the Atlantic and I know that on this side, we don’t talk about or challenge these things like they do in the States. Maybe draping an ancient English hillside with the same words that are emblazoned in the street formerly known as Pennsylvania Plaza will do something to change that.”

You can watch a video of the banner here:

Video and Photo credit: James Loveridge Photography