Black people’s position in the Western world has been nothing short of a dystopian nightmare. Despite there being countless laws, policies and even social mores protecting the rights of all people, the year 2020 raised global concerns about the extent to which black people (particularly black cis women, LGBTQIA+ and disabled black individuals) possess the same civil liberties as their white counterparts. America has been, and remains, at the forefront of this tense political conversation. There has been pressure from its own citizens and the world at large to make America a safer space for black people. Not only were there demands for police reforms, but society also demanded for the reformation of several institutions (both social and political) that may have contributed to systemic racism in the US.
The Influence of the George Floyd Protests
The murder of George Floyd and Breyona Taylor ignited discussions of race and racism across the world that transcended social media. These socio-political discussions have dominated global news cycles and have even migrated to kitchen tables, with families and friends having candid conversations that they may have never had before about police brutality. Protests even emerged in other Western countries, with people marching on their streets in solidarity with black Americans and demanding justice for victims of police brutality. Racial tensions in America had never been so high. But this tension has been bubbling under the surface for more than half a century. Black Americans were tired of being mistreated; they were tired of being overpoliced and they were tired of being killed.
The Black Lives Matter movement has even transcended geographical borders, triggering debates about racism in Britain and the extent to which it exists. Many protesters in the UK claimed that the world’s frustrations should not be directed at America alone because ‘the UK is not innocent’ either.
‘The UK is not Innocent’ Campaign
British protesters took notes from their American counterparts, taking to social media to share informative posts about the history of institutional racism in the UK using the hashtags #BlackLivesMatterUK and #TheUKisNotInnocent. And just as memorials to the confederacy were vandalised and removed in the US, statues of former British slave traders were targeted by British protesters. Supporters argued that the former slave traders do not deserve to be honoured, celebrated or immortalised in this way, leading to an intense debate about who should be honoured in such a way and whether removal of these statues, in fact, erased an essential part of British history.
The statue of Edward Colston, former slave trader, was removed by demonstrators and thrown into the water at Pero’s Bridge in Bristol. The statue was later replaced by a statue of a Black Lives Matter protestor, which was recognised as a symbol of hope amongst the otherwise defeated protestors who had received much criticism and were threatened with jail time for their involvement. Nonetheless, the statue of the protestor was removed within less than 24 hours given that it was not commissioned or placed there by the local authority but instead by an independent party.
Even though the protestors were defeated in this instance, it was clear that the British public had become much more compassionate towards the Black Lives Matter cause, with ensuing discussions about who should be memorialised in this way taking place throughout the media.
Tolerance: A Key British Value
When the protests initially broke out in the UK, many critics claimed that demonstrators were just jumping on America’s bandwagon, so to speak. British protesters were admonished not only members of the public on social media, but also by the government. The prime minister Boris Johnson referred to the protests as acts of ‘thuggery’, negating the protesters’ claims that the UK is ‘a racist country.’ Ever since Home Secretary Roy Jenkins defined the UK’s culture as tolerant in 1967, this political narrative has become a central component of British culture. In fact, the quality of tolerance is intrinsic to Britishness and school children are taught that tolerance is a key British value.
Supporters of Black Lives Matter UK challenged the prime minister’s claims, arguing that for many black people and other ethnic minority groups living in the UK this notion of tolerance feels like a utopian myth, particularly in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Also, many suggested that the notion of mutual tolerance, in fact, reinforces the idea that race and ethnicity are what define an individual’s basic character. Some even took to social media to express that despite tolerance being a core British value, they failed to experience tolerance in their day-to-day lives whilst living as black (or as an ethnic minority) in Britain.
Posts describing experiences of casual racism and stereotyping were abundant, causing many to compare these stories to the police brutality experienced in America. Activists, however, argued that while Black British experiences on the whole may be less violent compared to those living in America, they still deserved to be heard.
A New Generation of ‘Woke’ Britons
While the protests in Britain were provoked by the killing of George Floyd in America, the protesters’ grievances were mediated through a British lens. The power of social media brought together a new generation of young black Britons and their white allies in a way that, perhaps, would not have been so impactful without social media. Information was quickly spread on social media and protests were organised in a matter of hours via social media. But it was not just the police and the government that were the targets of their frustration. Young black Britons banded together to express their difficulties experiencing racism in Higher Education.
The Equality Act 2010 protects everyone in Britain from discrimination, harassment and victimisation whether you’re in the workplace or getting a pint from your local pub. Public funded universities are also subject to public sector equality duty, but activists argue that this duty does not ensure that universities do everything in their power to prevent or resolve racial harassment.
Racial Harassment on Campus
The Equal Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that university students from ethic minority backgrounds frequently experience racial harassment on campus. Students claimed that universities do more to protect their reputations than to effectively deal with racist incidents. Believing that their claims won’t be properly dealt with or taken seriously, most students said that they avoid reporting racial harassment, particularly if they believe that doing so could jeopardise their education or career. This begs the question: if most racist incidents are not reported, to what extent do black and other ethnic minority students experience racism on university campuses?
The EHRC published this report in late 2019, but it was only with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK that students now feel comfortable enough to express their concerns that universities have not done enough to protects their black and ethnic minority students and staff from racism. Young activists claimed that many Universities’ statements of sympathy and their pledges to support black students were merely performative and tokenistic because activists believe that universities only began to express their support of Black Lives Matter once they were put under pressure by their students to do so.
Since the heat of May and June’s protests has died down, activists have called out Universities across Britain, claiming that it remains unclear what actions universities have taken to tackle racism on their campuses. Though the protests may be over for the most part, these students seem unwilling to rest until they see a satisfactory change and will continue to push universities to promote anti-racism within their institutions.
Say their Names
Since the protests, the British public has become much more conscious of the extent to which police brutality exists in the UK. While most British police are not armed with guns, activists dispute that guns are not necessary for lethal force. Black people make up 8% of those who have died in police custody in the UK, which Black Lives Matter supporters claim is an alarming number given the fact that black people account for only 3% of the UK’s population.
Many have heard of the infamous case of Stephen Lawrence, but here are some names you may not be familiar with: Joy Gardner; Smiley Culture; Mzee Mohammed-Daley; Roger Sylvester; Trevor Smith; Sarah Reed; Cherry Groce; Dalian Atkinson; Jimmy Mubenga; Julian Cole; Mark Duggan and Cynthia Jarrett— all of which died in police custody. Activists have urged the British public to say their names and learn their stories.
The Race Report
The British government eventually relented to the pressure of protesters and commissioned a ‘Race Report’, which was released at the beginning of 2021. The report refuted the existence of institutional racism in the UK and has received much criticism from those who believe that the UK is anything but a post-racial country.
The report was written by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, who have been heavily criticised for attempting to put a positive spin on slavery and colonisation. Critics claim that the report suggests that slavery should not be regarded as stories of suffering, but instead should be viewed as a story of how black people transformed themselves into multicultural British citizens. The report has also been slated for insinuating that racism is not the pre-eminent social problem in the UK and that an individual’s socio-economic background or religion is more likely to impact their opportunities than racism. Black Lives Matter UK supporters were outraged and felt that last year’s protests had been in vain.
Kill the Bill
The release of the report came just a few days after the Kill the Bill protests had begun across the UK. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill intends to introduce new powers to the police and reviews current rules concerning crime and justice across Wales and England. The bill could potentially give police the ability to impose ‘conditions’ on any protest that is deemed to be disruptive and could even lead to up to 10 years in prison for those found guilty of damaging statues or other memorials. Protesters believe that the passing of the bill through its second reading in Parliament signals the rise of an authoritarian regime. Black Lives Matter supporters are particularly concerned that the bill will impact marginalised people most and fear that any form of protest or dissent will be servery punished.
Cardiff’s Race Riots
The catastrophic events of 2020 and the recent developments of 2021 have caused many activists to reflect on similar times in British history: the Cardiff race riots.
Parallel to the celebration of Black History Month in February across America, the month of October is dedicated to Black History Month in the UK. Protesters have criticised the British school curriculum for limiting black history taught in schools to the US civil rights movement and the transatlantic slave trade. Not only do they argue that Black British experiences are much more than tales of trauma and oppression, but they also lament that what we have been taught does not represent the true extent of racism in the UK.
Caribbean British history extends further back than the Windrush generation (i.e. those who migrated from the Caribbean to Britain between 1948 and 1971). Following World War One, many black soldiers who were brought over to England to fight in the war remained in the UK afterwards. The British economy of 1919 was in tatters and historians claim that this is what lead to the race riots that took place in Cardiff. Three people died and hundreds were injured. After the riots, many black men were repatriated (i.e. sent back to their home countries).
Despite this being such a catastrophic historical event, activists claim that the Cardiff race riots have almost disappeared from history and merely exist in memory. Black Lives Matter activists have used this event to justify their claims that racism is not a tale of the colonial past and to highlight that extreme racial violence in post-twentieth century Britain can at least be traced as far back as 1919.
Significance in Anthropology and Culture
While Black Lives Matter protesters may not have quite achieved their mission yet, it is clear that more and more productive conversations are taking place about the extent of racism in the UK. These young protesters have given both themselves and the next generation a platform to fight against injustice. If the PCSC bill does pass in Parliament, it is unlikely that this new generation of socially conscious Britons will be silenced. If they cannot take to the streets, they will surely take to Twitter or Instagram: social media is no longer just about posting selfies and tweeting about your favourite tv show. The protesters have altered the landscape of social media entirely and have undoubtedly revolutionised the way that we think about activism.