My week at the Black Lives Matter protests
I had a bit of a moral conundrum over attending the first week of Black Lives Matter protests. How responsible was it to attend a mass gathering during a pandemic disproportionately affecting the BAME community and other minority groups? Ultimately I decided it was too important to sit out, particularly for those of us with the privilege of being able to make that choice. The week was an important reminder of the solidarity and empowerment many of us feel - maybe uniquely - at protests. Not to mention the work that we must all be doing to support an anti-racist movement.
100,000 protesters with a week’s notice
The protest began in Hyde Park, with some confusion as to where and when things were going to get moving. I joined with some other members of Our Future Now and while we were happy to stand in the park and cha(n)t, there was a feeling in the air that we wanted to get moving – and do some shouting! It turns out that the real reason we were waiting so long was that John Boyega was making an inspiring speech just a few metres away as more and more protesters joined. I know now that the organisers simply hadn’t expected such a turnout.
The last protests I went to in London on this scale were the anti-Trump demonstrations In July 2018. These were officially announced by prominent commentators and organised by a coalition of activists months in advance. The scale of UK Black Lives Matter demonstrations in London was comparable. But they were planned with no more than eight days notice. They were in response to the murder only a week before. They were initiated by two teenagers. My estimate on the days were that 30,000 people marched on 3 June, then over 100,000 a day over the weekend.
These were the most unifying protests I’ve ever attended. Hugely diverse crowds enjoyed massive public support from passers-by and even drivers stuck in traffic seemed to be on board. It’s always a fairly safe bet that central London protests will make their way onto Whitehall. The crowds outside Downing Street last week were there in consistently large numbers, with police resorting to midnight kettles to dispel crowds. There were of course some small and widely publicised (and politicised) outbreaks of violence throughout last week’s demonstrations. The first of these was on the Wednesday, initiated by a policeman throwing a punch and subsequently dragging protesters out of the crowd. Though mainstream media would rather fixate on those five minutes, my experience was five hours of peace and solidarity.
We experienced powerful moments of kneeling along the routes and brilliant signs; some funny and some poignant, many both. The noise at a demonstration is often the best indicator of the mood. The main chants I heard on Wednesday were “No Justice, no Peace, no Racist Police”; “What do we want? Justice”; “Silence is Violence” and of course: “Say his name. George Floyd.” Nobody was forgetting or overlooking others’ names and we can’t reduce them to an ‘et cetera’. Breonna Taylor, Belly Mujinga, Trayvon Martin. It goes without saying that the list is far too long. There were also several (at least 6 variations) prominent and strongly worded criticisms of Boris Johnson and/or Donald Trump.
Resisting media bias
On Saturday night tensions were clearly heightened. The TSG were out in full riot gear, blocking roads from 5pm. Many of those on the streets were young, potentially at their first demonstration. A moment that stands out is the reaction of around a hundred demonstrators to a policeman shoving someone with a riot shield. Although not universal, it was undoubtedly a response to the tension in the air and fear of violence from the police. The people induced to panic were overwhelmingly young and non-white, more so than the crowd itself.Of course a tense atmosphere and frustration can lead to some heated exchanges and face-offs. But the vast majority of these were non-violent.
The tearful and powerful speech of an organiser imploring fellow young black people to protest peacefully is framed against the officer who threw a punch because he was shouted at, or the police commander who ordered a cavalry charge into a crowd of hundreds. So it’s important to resist the sways of media bias. Moments that stand out for me were ones of peaceful solidarity. They were the instant huddles of people that surrounded music or dancers; the cheers as a child with their fist aloft appeared in the window of a second-storey house; the homemade first-aid, refreshment, and hand san stations; the march route flanked by sympathetic motorists; brave activists who put their bodies between fellow protesters, police and violent acts for the sake of the movement.
Moving forward, what will change look like?
There is the real possibility that these voices continue to grow in strength and we see meaningful change in this country as a result of peaceful protest. But what is that change going to look like? Will we see inquests, prosecutions and apologies? A mandated strategy overhaul for the Met? So far the country is seeing the magnitude of the desire to challenge systemic racism, now the mechanism and the demands will start to appear. One burgeoning success story is the movement behind (vital) alterations to the National Curriculum.It’s our collective responsibility to amplify these movements and the voices and stories spearheading them.
Minnesota is moving to disband their police department. If done right, this could serve as a case study for other parts of the US and the world in how to develop a community-based public safety model that is not institutionally racist. The UK doesn’t seem quite ready for those conversations. My sign reading “Defund The Police, Defend The People,” was popular on the streets, but one person in my shared house couldn’t bear to be under the same roof as it. Meanwhile, the predictably unhelpful reaction of our PM to these protests was to gaslight an entire nation, as he’s been doing for months and years, with the crises of Covid-19 and climate change respectively.
These three days of protesting have made me hopeful that we’re seeing the continued onboarding of a massive wave of activists and change-makers. I’m confident that all present felt the solidarity and empowerment I did, be it for the first time or the fiftieth. Hopefully we will all benefit from lasting results. There are more protests coming in London. I hope people consider (mindfully: re Covid) attending if they're able, and that it doesn't end there. Black Lives Matter.
Photo by Steven Jackson