Annie Whilby is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Brighton whose main interests are mental health, intimacy/sexuality and decolonisation. Annie endeavours to intertwine academia and creativity within her activism as an outlet, often in the form of spoken word poetry. Annie can be found at email@example.com and @aflo.thepoet on Instagram and Facebook.
Following the events of May 25th in Minneapolis, we have witnessed protests and demonstrations worldwide in which people have been standing up against police brutality and institutional racism. The murder of George Floyd has sent seismic shockwaves across the globe and, although some of us are no longer shocked by police brutality, people who may not have engaged with the plight of Black people before are now actively trying to unlearn racist behaviours and are turning up to protests. This particular wave of Black Lives Matter seems different to the waves from previous years, appearing to have greater momentum, and this has been reflected in activist movements in Brighton.
Some folks are asking ‘why now?’, and this is a good question. You don’t have to see the footage of George Floyd’s encounter with the police to know he endured 8 minutes and 46 seconds of torture in broad daylight. You don’t have to see the footage to know George repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” whilst Chauvin continued to kneel on his neck. These two elements have created a spark – we cannot argue that the four officers’ actions were in any way acceptable, and they had the duration of nearly 9 minutes to take action and prevent this tragic loss of life.
Alongside this, the public have been trapped inside for weeks on end as we take cover from Covid-19. Are some people protesting because they are Corona-bored? Probably. Alternatively, are more people protesting and engaging with anti-racism because they have had the chance to spend more time gathering knowledge on police brutality, colonialism and institutional racism? Absolutely!
The extra time away from ‘normality’, being forced away from our comfortable habits and routines, and facing an unknown threat collectively (both nationally and internationally), has awakened many of us to our shared humanity and outrage at the powers that be; both in the sense of a poor response to coronavirus, as well as the West’s inability to face up to its anti-blackness and institutional racism. This newfound outrage is welcome. Yet the ability to only be outraged now is a privilege that many of us, particularly Black people and people of colour, are not afforded.
The wave of outrage crashed upon Brighton’s shores and throughout June there were a number of protests in our city. There has been some confusion regarding who is organising these demonstrations, with many people keen to know the ethnicity of the organisers and their connections with local activist groups. Simultaneously, rumours buzzed around that these marches were organised by white people and white people alone. Whilst protesting in the context of Covid-19, we must be acutely aware of the Coronavirus Bill and the potential punishments for orchestrating gatherings. Therefore, although some residents would like to be reassured that Black people are spearheading the movement in Brighton, this simply is not possible. Several separate groups have organised a variety of marches and silent demos and, from my understanding, each group is comprised of Black people, people of colour and white allies.
Some have commented on the lack of focus on British institutional racism at marches and demos in the UK. Yes, we stand in solidarity with our siblings in the US; and yes, we should shout George Floyd’s name in recognition. But chants of “hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe” feel mislead and insensitive; we cannot simply co-opt an American movement and hope for change in British institutions. Yes, Mark Duggan was shot by the police, but many people have been killed by tasers in our country, including Dalian Atkinson; therefore, a chant of “hands up, don’t tase” would do much better if we are to push for tangible change here. Every British demo has repeated George Floyd’s name and those infamous final words, but what about Adrian McDonald or Simeon Francis? Adrian and Simeon’s last words before dying in police custody were the same as George’s, yet these names aren’t often echoed throughout BLM protests. Unfortunately, there are many people in the UK who believe ‘racism isn’t a thing here’, and many more who ‘think it’s awful’ but that ‘people shouldn’t be protesting in a pandemic’. It is our duty as protesters to ensure our doubters know exactly what we are protesting about; we are demonstrating solidarity with our American siblings but also shining a light on institutional racism in the UK.
Within the demonstrations themselves, it has felt at times that the opportunity for direct demands has been missed. For example, the march that took place on June 3rd made its way to the police station on Edward Street without demanding an investigation into why Black people are 12 times more likely to be stopped and searched in our city. On the other hand, a more targeted demonstration took place on June 5th in front of the British Airways i360 as a direct response to Brighton and Hove City Council’s plans to light up the i360 purple – demonstrating the city’s commitment to anti-racism. Some residents were outraged at this faux pas. British Airways profits from the hostile environment and racist deportation contracts with the Home Office. Organisers also made a point of highlighting the story of Jimmy Mubenga, who was restrained and suffocated whilst being deported on a British Airways flight in 2010. Jimmy’s final words were “I can’t breathe” – those three words that are tragically too familiar. This targeted action led to the i360 not lighting up purple and has refreshed demands to end British Airways’ sponsorship of the i360. Brighton BLM have now adopted this demand, as well as demanding that the money owed from British Airways to Brighton and Hove City Council be ringfenced for investment in community projects for Black people and people of colour.
With the recent murders of Nicola Smallman and Bibaa Henry, and two police officers photographing and circulating photos of their deceased Black bodies, we are reminded that the UK is not innocent. This behaviour is sickening, but even more frightening given the fact that this took place in June 2020, in the context of BLM and calling out police brutality. While I do not wish to speculate, I cannot think of many reasons as to why they would engage in this behaviour. These actions perpetuate racism and the devaluation of Black lives. This case is symbolic of the shrouded anti-blackness and institutional racism that is woven into many British systems.
As protests continue, we must take care to remember the names and the stories of those who have fallen victim to British police brutality and institutional racism. We must remember Grenfell. We must remember Windrush. We must remember our nation’s pivotal role in the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, and the financial profits gained from these endeavours. We must direct our efforts and demand tangible change and, if we are to protest, we must ensure it is not simply performative.