It still seems quite murky to me as to why these protests are taking place in the UK. It was my understanding that the UK retained particularly strong race relations across it’s ethnic minority groups. On top of this, with Covid-19 lock-down in effect, it should be in people’s best interests to follow government rules and remain socially distant. However, according to the protesters, Covid-19 could wait because there was another pandemic, one of racism.
The flashpoint to all of this is obvious. The murder of George Flloyd by a Minneapolis Police Department officer, while on looked by three of his colleagues marks the beginnings of the protests and the violence taking place across the US and UK. Since this abhorrent incident took place, it has led the racial equality movement Black Lives Matter to draw parallels between the overt racist incidents that take place in the US, and more subtle and far less numerous incidents that have taken place in the UK (for a different interpretion of George Floyd’s death see Candice Owens below).
I personally think the UK has come a long way from its colonial past. Figures such as William Wilberforce and the Quakers were instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade. During the Second World War, black soldiers with the US military felt safer and more accepted here in the UK than they did at home. In 1965, the Race Relations act was passed making discriminations based on colour, race or ethnic background illegal in public places in Great Britain. In 1968, the act was strengthened to cover employment and housing. It was repealed by the ‘Race Relations Act of 1976’ which brought about the creation of the Commission for Racial Equality. Racial tensions between the various ethnic minorities have boiled over throughout the 70s and 80s, but systematically speaking the racist legislation was eliminated by this point.
However, the recent Windrush scandal, and tragic Grenfell Tower fire and aftermath have given momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement as both of these neglectful incidents have led to disproportionate effects on ethnic minorities, leading BLM members to believe that the UK is systematically racist, through neglectful policy making. On top of this, crime statistics have been rolled out stating that black people are more likely to be arrested than other ethnicities.
The George Flloyd incident appears, to me at least, to be an opportunity for the BLM movement to point out racial injustice in the UK at a time when the topic is currently poignant.
What it’s been like living in Newbury
I’m not black myself, but mixed race. There are some people who don’t make that distinction but others (myself included) do, which may potentially cause polarisation, so make of that what you will. My father is African American, and has since returned to the US, meaning my white English mother raised me. Due to this, culturally I’m more white than I am black. I’ve grown up around white faces with very few people of colour.
I’ve lived in Newbury my entire life, except for the four years I spent at university in Hull. For the entire time I’ve lived here I’ve noticed very few faces of colour, though that trend has been changing more recently. But the lack of coloured faces is not something I’d consider problematic. It’s just the way Newbury has been. Generally speaking, this is a strongly middle class area with fewer less-skilled work opportunities. Subsequently it doesn’t attract many people of any ethnicity to construct a new life here. There are more commonly opportunities of that kind in the larger cities and that’s where the majority of migrants congregate.
However, this has not negatively affected my personal experiences in Newbury. Excluding the occasional comment based in ignorance such as being called ‘half-caste’ rather than mixed race, or being asked where I’m from ‘originally’, due to my ‘exotic’ name and complexion, I’ve not experienced any aggravated racism. The ignorant comments and questions I have received have not been taken to heart, because my reading of them wasn’t contextually negative, but just curious. Unfortunately my partner of full African heritage has in her time here, as did my father when he was here, so I don’t believe it is completely non-existent. There are still unfortunate instances of normalised racial slurs in common usage such as ‘paki-shop’ and ‘chinky takeaway’. In my own experiences though, these are used by older people and my generation tend to avoid these.
Who is instigating the protests?
The protests in Newbury were organised by 16 year-old friends Sam Morton and Livia Popplewell from the local area with support from the Black Lives Matter movement and the local council. They stated that they felt the protests in Reading and London were too far away to reasonably attend with lock-down in effect and that it is important that a small town like Newbury should have the opportunity to show solidarity with the wider movement protesting the murder of George Flloyd.
This is where the issue gets a controversial. The Black Lives Matter movement is more than just a racial justice movement. On it’s website, it mentions a number of political issues irrelevant to racial justice: it is in fact a far-left neo-Marxist group. This is partially why I was conflicted about attendance. I disagree with neo-Marxism and find it distasteful for this group to politicise the death of George Flloyd. I’ve read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and feel it dangerous to begin erasing national histories. With the attacks on statues taking place across the UK, a concerning precedent is being set about how to treat British history.
Certain statues, such as the infamous Edward Coulson statue in Bristol, in my opinion could be relocated to a museum, where anyone interested could learn much more about the exploits of the man, both positive and negative. I don’t however, condone the vandalism, and believe the utmost respect should be adhered to when dealing with such issues.
Why was I going?
I decided in the end that I wanted to attend in order to protest for police reform in the US and reform of institutional and cultural racism here in the UK – without supporting the political leanings of BLM.
I felt an urge to stand in solidarity against police brutality that has taken place for too long in the United States. I fear a scenario where my father experiences a similar injustice. With regard to Newbury, I’m proud to have been part of the protest and of Newbury in general. The local council was very supportive of the protest which took place without issue. There would appear to be very little room left for bigoted views in the UK, and it’ll take time for the remnants of those views to disappear. Similarly, I don’t see need for sweeping political change in the UK. Policy implementation with a thought given to residing minorities is a must. But in my opinion the UK in not in a bad place as progress long as steady and continuous.
How did it go?
The organisers were expecting fewer than 50 people, but come the time, Newbury came out in force at an estimated 500 people mostly, but not all, young. Plenty of thought was given to social distancing too, with almost everyone wearing masks and trying their best to maintain a distance from each other. The crowd marched down Northbrook street towards the Town Hall, chanting and waving signs. As we passed the First World War memorial at St Nicholas’ church, police and a handful counter protesters had gathered to protect the memorial, but in this instance there was no interest in it.
The march continued on in to the market where the crowd rallied to listen to the speakers. I found it difficult to hear the speeches, but a friend I attended the rally with said that listening to the first hand accounts of being bullied and frightened helped her to understand better the privilege of not experiencing these hardships and barriers herself. The event ended with the crowd taking a knee for a two minute silence in memory of George Flloyd, before the protestors peacefully dispersed.
I think the protest has drawn a lot of attention to the cause of tackling racism. The local council and police were supportive of the protest and there was little counter to it. However, I think it’s effectiveness in tangible action is very difficult to measure. With the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic requiring us all to return to our homes, with limited connectivity with the outside world, this could easily have been an opportunity for many to signal virtue without any intention to take action.
Prolific black conservative Candice Owens posted a video online stating that George Flloyd should not be viewed as a martyr for his tragic death. He died committing a crime, and while he definitely should not have died in police custody, he also should not have committed the crime. I’m in agreement with this perspective. He had a history of criminal activity and at the time of his arrest was caught in possession of drugs and acting suspiciously. However, neither Candice nor I see this as a valid excuse for the actions of the police officer.
She goes on to state however that racial discrimination in policing in the US is a myth, and my interpretation of what happens leads me to agree to an extent. In both the UK and the US, statistics show that black people commit more crime than other ethnic groups. I therefore believe that what may be called racism by the BLM movement and the media may actually be another instance of these policies unintentionally and disproportionally effecting black communities with no deliberate racism taking place.
Similarly, in the case of the US, the job is exceedingly tough, and the police force rally around their own, often resulting in officers not being held to account for their actions. I therefore believe that both sides should take away a lesson from this incident. I believe certain elements of the black community may need to look within to address those that commit crimes. I also think that police and policy makers must also look within to better address policy written in ignorance.
Click here for the Penny Post video of the protest in Newbury on Friday 12 June 2020