Why Black Lives Matter protests are happening in UK


For the fourth consecutive weekend, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were held in different parts of the UK despite the coronavirus pandemic lockdown guidelines being in place. Peaceful marches were held in London and Leeds on June 21.

In London, the demonstrators gathered in the Hyde Park and then marched to the Downing Street, the official residence of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Protests have got ugly at times in the UK resulting in altercations with the police.

But why something that happened 4000 miles away in the US, has such repercussions in the UK?

Does the UK have its own reasons for BLM protests?

INCIDENT THAT IGNITED UK-BLM MOVEMENT

It happened on March 21. A man claiming to be a coronavirus patient spat on 47-year-old Belly Mujinga, who was working on the Victoria station. Fourteen days later on April 5, Belly Mujinga died of Covid-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus. She left behind her 11-year-old daughter Ingrid and husband Lusamba Gode Katalay.

Investigation by the British Transport Police (BTP) concluded that the man in question did not have coronavirus. The BTP released a statement saying, “Following a review of all the information, senior detectives have concluded that there is no evidence to substantiate any criminal offences having taken place.”

The police further added, “As a result, the matter will not be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service.”

Lusamba Gode Katalay, in response, demanded to know “why she (Belly Mujinga) was sent out to work unprotected on the station concourse that day. We want to know why she was working when she had a respiratory condition.”

BLM protesters clash with police in Westminster in London. (Photo: AP/PTI)

THE CONNECTION

The UK incident happened earlier than what triggered a protest in the US. George Floyd died in the US city of Minneapolis on May 25 in police custody. His death became the face of Black Life Matters (BLM) protests.

When the BLM movement crossed the Atlantic over to the UK, Belly Mujinga case gave it a purpose and she soon became the face of it here. The protests picked up momentum in the UK and the BTP recently reversed its decision in the Belly Mujinga case to hand over it to the Crown Prosecution Service.

“Belly Mujinga is certainly one of the people who are symbolising the UK movement, and her story really underlines the gross injustice black people, and specifically black women, experience in the UK. There are many others too,” said Remi Joseph-Salisbury in an Interview to India Today. Remi Joseph-Salisbury is associated with Racial Justice Network and is an academic at University of Manchester.

Belly Mujinga is definitely one of the symbols of UK-BLM protests but she is not the only one. The issues in the UK are deeper –more seeded and have a historical context too.

They can be divided into recent and historical. Let’s look at the recent issues first.

MORE BLACK PEOPLE IN UK PRISIONS

“While the connections with the US are important, and protesters are standing in solidarity with African American communities, the UK protests also have a life of their own. In the UK, the Black people are more likely to be stopped and searched, more likely to be subject to police use of force, more likely to be tasered and more likely to die as a consequence of police use of force,” Remi Joseph-Salisbury pointed out.

On the basis of 2018-19 official figures in England and Wales, police are ‘three times more likely to arrest a black person than a white person and five times more likely to use force on them.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission figures show that black persons have made up 10 per cent of prison population since 2014 while they comprise only 3.5 per cent of the total population of the UK.

Natalie Jeffers, co-founder of Black Lives Matter UK, said, “In Britain, somebody dies every six days in police custody, not just black people. But black people are over-represented in these cases. As with 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.”

Some experts believe that this has a lot to do with the socio-economic disparities too. Equal opportunity is the call of the hour.

A protester standing in front of placards left by other BLM protesters in London. (Photo: AP/PTI)

BAME COMMUNITY AFFECTED MORE BY COVID-19

Disproportionate Covid-19 casualty rate among BAME (an acronym used for Black, Asia and Minority Ethnic) communities in the UK is a case in point.

The disproportionate deaths due to Covid-19 among the BAME communities of the UK had alarm bells ringing earlier. This led Public Health England (PHE) conduct an inquiry, which revealed connection with the massive inequality of opportunities that exist in the UK. This was one of the major contributors towards disproportionate BAME deaths due to Covid-19 than others.

Demanding action, the British Medical Association (BMA) said, “This pandemic has brought to sharp focus the longstanding inequalities affecting BAME communities in this country, with greater numbers of people from a BAME background living in deprived areas and overcrowded housing, and a higher proportion as key workers that exposed them to the virus and who were often not provided with necessary protections.”

A recent survey of BMA has revealed that “more than a third of BAME doctors in the UK are still not being given access to potentially life-saving Covid-19 risk assessments.”

The BMA further added, “The findings are particularly troubling with the same survey revealing BAME doctors are still less likely to feel fully protected from coronavirus compared to their white colleagues (29 per cent compared to 46 per cent), and far more likely to often feel pressured into treating patients without the proper protective equipment (7 per cent compared to 2.5 per cent).”

The issues that are now resulting in protests every week have had reasons brimming under the surface for long.

GRENFELL TOWER AND WINDRUSH SCANDAL

The Grenfell Tower, a residential block in London, caught fire in 2017 due to lack of fire safety measures. It caused death of 72 people, most of them from black and Asian background.

In yet another incident in 2018, the legal status of thousands of people of Caribbean and African descent living in the UK was questioned denouncing their British Nationality wrongly. This incident is popularly known as Windrush scandal.

Windrush is the word for immigrants who were welcomed by Britain in 1948 to fill in the shortage of labour due to World War-II. Many a time, these people did not carry passport as the British Nationality Act 1948 gave those from the empire the right of settlement in the UK.

They were asked to leave. Once the full picture emerged it brought into sharp focus the racial mindset that still somewhere permeates in the systems here.

IMPERIAL PAST OF BRITAIN: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

As a contributory factor, one cannot ignore the imperial past of Britain. This has led to the call for the removal of statues and changing the street names. In some cases, the statues have been violently removed or vandalised. Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square London was vandalised and then boarded eventually.

Explaining the argument, Remi Joseph-Salisbury said, “Statues reveal who we think is worthy of memorialising, and what kind of nation we want to see ourselves as. I’m all for statues of brutal colonialists and white supremacists coming down. The toppling of the statues has sparked really important conversations and teaching moments – hopefully these conversations will see Britain reckon with its colonial past. We need to remember that it takes far more than toppling a statue though – that is just the beginning.”

A worker cleans the graffiti from the plinth of a statue of Winston Churchill in London. (Photo: AP/PTI)

The BLM movement has sparked a counter protest among the section of population influenced by right wing ideology. Many moderates have questioned the drive citing push for removing statues. They have called it wiping of the history of the country.

PM Johnson, in an interview, is reported to have said, “It is absolutely vitally important, incredibly important, that when children are learning about our nation’s history, they learn all aspects of it, both the good and the bad.”

“But we mustn’t forget that in this nation we have an incredibly rich history and we should be incredibly proud of our history because time and time this country has made a difference and changed things for the better right around the world. We should as a nation be proud of that history and teach our children about it,” Johnson said.

Responding to all this, Remi Joseph-Salisbury said, “People don’t know, or are in denial, about Britain’s true history. The toppling of the statues is creating an opportunity for us to challenge that denial and understand the true history of Britain – and it’s not a rosy one. Education on this history should be embedded in our education system. Britain needs to get over its colonial amnesia and face up to its role in shaping historical and contemporary inequalities.”

CRITICISM OF BLM

Apart from the right wing supporters, the usual suspects to oppose the BLM viewpoint, the movement has faced criticism from within as well.

Author and broadcaster Esther Krakue, a 24-year-old black woman of Ghanaian descent, told India Today, “I do not agree with the BLM protests here in the UK. The real issues faced by black communities centre around business opportunities, fatherless homes and tackling crime within our communities. BLM UK’s agenda to abolish the police, dismantle capitalism and destroy the traditional family completely counters the needs of many predominantly black communities in the UK today.”

Reacting to the pulling down of statues, Krakue said, “Removing names of streets and statues is a useless, virtue-signalling farce that has been falsely marketed as anti-racism campaign. It has not tangibly helped any black people in the UK and I find it offensive that an insidious group is using black people to peddle a Marxist and subversive agenda.”

A protective hoarding has been erected around a statue of Thomas Guy outside Guy Hospital in London in the wake of BLM protests. (Photo: AP/PTI)

Taking about her own personal experience in the UK, Krakue said, “My personal experience of the UK has been one of warmth and a plethora of opportunities. While I do recognize that there are individuals with racist or bigoted views, the idea of systemic and institutional racism is a complete lie. Britain is one of the most tolerant and multicultural societies on the planet.”

Krakue is a lone voice in many ways and draws flak from her own for holding this view. “I have received a wave of online abuse from many mostly black people. However, this abuse is not limited to them only. There are also white liberals that have joined the campaign to destroy my reputation and bully me into submission,” said Krakue.

The criticism for the BLM movement also comes because of social distancing rules being flouted many a time resulting in social media hashtag – “all lives matter”. PM Johnson too has referred to violence as “thuggery” and backed “all lives matter” counter-campaign.

“All lives will matter when Black lives matter – it is Black lives that are treated with flagrant disregard in this country,” said Remi Joseph-Salisbury, who asserted the need to sustain the movement at this point of time.

“Things are fraught at the moment, certainly. We have an incredibly right-wing prime minister and government, who have consistently shown an inability and unwillingness to tackle racism. The far right is feeling emboldened by the government and angered by Black Lives Matter protesters speaking up for equality,” said Remi Joseph-Salisbury.

He said, “It is important that the support for BLM, and anti-racism grows generally, is sustained and continues long after these protests. In order to put the far-right on the back-foot, BLM needs to become a strong and sustained mass movement – and recent turnouts suggest it could.”

For the US as well as the UK, Floyd and Belly have worked as catalysts to a movement, the seeds of which have festered through generations. This movement with newfound vigour aims to settle the score once and for all. One though fears that it might lead to a backlash from the right-wing which has already launched a counter-campaign.



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