‘Deaths are not just happening in the US’: how a protest movement first launched in America made its mark in Britain
On the same day last week as protesters lay down in front of traffic on roads around England, a video of the shooting of an unarmed teenager by police in Chicago was released in the United States.
Shock and anger greeted the death of 18-year-old Paul O’Neal and sympathy poured in for his family. Some 4,000 miles away, the peaceful protest being played out on the asphalt, the first ever day of action by Black Lives Matter UK, met with disbelief and irritation and a handful of arrests. Why were motorists being inconvenienced over a racism that was America’s problem? There lay the British complacency, said Natalie Jeffers, co-founder of Black Lives Matter UK. There might be fewer guns used in the UK, she said, “but there is a war going on against black people”.
Her words are supported by statistics showing an alarming gulf between the experiences of black and white people in Britain – in education, in the justice and prison systems, and in employment. Stop and search is heavily targeted at young black men – who are four times more likely to be stopped by police than young white men – while people from black and ethnic minorities are far more likely to go to prison than a white person committing a similar offence.
n 2014 black people made up 10% of the total prison population, while making up 3.5% of the UK’s total population, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. There is a greater disparity between the proportion of black people in prison and in the general population than there is in the US.
Research by the campaign group Inquest shows a disproportionate number of those who have died as a result of the use of force in police custody were black or from minority ethnic groups. Despite numerous scandals over abuse at immigration detention centres and allegations of brutality used during deportations, no criminal charges have ever been brought against anyone.
It suggested a radically different picture, said Jeffers, of the kind of equality in British society than many like to paint.
“We have dozens of British families left fighting for justice over their loved ones suffering state violence, so we know there’s a problem in the UK, and that’s before the Brexit debate that we’re now seeing reflected in the rise in racism at street level,” said Jeffers.
It was no coincidence that Friday was the fifth anniversary of the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old north Londoner whose death sparked riots that spread across Britain in the summer of 2011, and whose inquest verdict of lawful killing is now being challenged by his family. Campaigners chose Heathrow for one of their sit-downs as a nod to both the proximity of two immigration detention centres and as an act of remembrance for Jimmy Mubenga, the 46-year-old who suffocated while being forcibly restrained by three G4S security guards on a deportation flight to Angola. The three were acquitted of manslaughter, and the judge in the case refused to accept that streams of racist texts on phones of two of the men were relevant.
“We really are focused on sharing the British narrative,” said Jeffers. “It might have taken the shocking images from deaths in the US to awaken young people, but they’re aware of oppression at an individual household level, they see what happens within our communities.
“After Brexit, people are seeing the direct change in language online, aware of being seen as another in your own country. People of colour even being told to ‘go home’. There were vans bearing racist slogans being driven round British streets. We know there’s a direct link between street racism and state racism.
“When you are walking around the streets of the UK as a black or brown person you’re seeing this, you’re feeling this. It’s an everyday occurrence. It’s been too often silenced by the national narrative of where the UK is at.
“But we know the black and ethnic minority community was hit twice as hard by austerity as everyone else, we know a black woman is more likely to be unemployed than a white woman. We know black women and queer women are facing extreme levels of oppression. All the statistics that affect families here every day.
“We need to look at high levels of violence in impoverished communities in the UK. I grew up in a mixed community. I saw black people, Asian people and white people facing the same sorts of oppression and difficulties. That is the way the white liberal left like to paint it. But the impact is enlarged when black people are involved.
“In Britain somebody dies every six days in police custody, not just black people. But black people are over-represented in these cases. As is mental health – if a black man has a mental health episode, police are more likely to see that as a show of aggression than if a white person has the same episode.”
Jeffers, from Birmingham, lost her brother, Luke, a 42-year-old schizophrenic, under tragic circumstances when his condition worsened after he lost his benefits. It is not clear how he died.
“For him it was bureaucratic violence,” she said. “It’s not all about deaths. Look at Julian Cole, [a young black man] left in an unresponsive state in Bedfordshire, left with a broken neck. They said he was drunk, then back came the toxicology and he wasn’t. The family has no answers. Sean Rigg [who] died in 2008, his family [is] left to fight at a time when they are traumatised. It’s happening time and time again. Of 1,563 deaths in police custody since 1990, we have zero convictions.”
Rigg’s sister Marcia has said the Black Lives Matter movement is an “absolutely vital” platform. An IPCC investigation into Rigg’s death identified no police misconduct, but in 2012 an inquest jury found that police had used “unsuitable” force.
“Families like mine have been suffering for a long time and there has been an injustice,” she said. “Deaths are not just happening in the US, they are happening in the UK too, and so it’s the perfect platform to highlight those deaths in Britain because people are not aware of them.”
Another case which was highlighted in Friday’s protest was the death of Sheku Bayoh, 31, who died after being restrained by officers in Fife in May last year. His cousin, Kadija Sesay, said: “People need to realise that this happens in the UK all of the time, in state institutions – it happens.”
Jeffers said the gun-driven brutality in the US was obviously not being replicated on the streets of Britain, but inequality and discrimination existed at alarming levels. Black Lives Matter in the US began initially as a hashtag on social media in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Co-founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi said they wanted to rebuild a black liberation movement, but one led by the most marginalised, giving a voice to women, to gay and transgender people. That, said Jeffers, was the same principle for the UK movement.
“BLM UK gives us a new framework. Nobody is excluded from the room. But we have learned it’s important not to see the movement go the way a lot of anti-racist movements do, led by white people, middle-class white people. We welcome white allies, we want participation, but please do not take over from people who are directly affected by the oppression and acknowledge your privilege. Listen, but don’t dilute or devolve what is being said. Silence, white silence, is complicity and there is room for everyone to engage in change. We can be a powerful force.
“It’s about how we can educate and inform our youth, the traumas that they are experiencing and the outlets for these traumas. The war on black people, these statistics for stop and search – disproportionate amount of police divested in ethnic poor areas and the lack of investment in educating and empowering black communities, working class communities.
“A lot of people have lost their voice, they feel powerless. We want to give them their voice back.”
• The University of Sussex podcast series The Glass Bead Game features an episode featuring Natalie Jeffers by Will Hood at www.theglassbeadgame.co.uk/episode/blacklivesmatter/
How it began
The case that proved to be the catalyst in launching Black Lives Matter was the killing of Trayvon Martin, 17, in 2012.
Martin, who President Barack Obama said “could have been my son, could have been me 35 years ago”, was shot dead inside the gated community in Florida where he had been visiting his father’s fiancee. The man who killed him, George Zimmerman, was a neighbourhood watch coordinator.
Martin had gone out to buy a drink from a store and was 70 yards from home when an altercation with Zimmerman took place. Zimmerman’s claim he acted in self-defence was accepted during what was a flawed police investigation into Martin’s death. Initially no charges were brought against Zimmerman but, when he went to court, a jury found him not guilty.
A survey by the Washington Post found 90% of African Americans called the shooting unjustified, compared with 33% of white Americans.
After Zimmerman’s acquittal on a charge of second-degree murder in 2013, a widely distributed Facebook post used the phrase “black lives matter”, which quickly became the country’s newest black civil rights movement. The US group spawned a British offshoot and groups are being set up in Canada, Brazil, France and South Africa.