#BlackLivesMatter began in the USA, but it’s a message that resonates heavily in the UK. The country marched – but what happens next, and was it worth the time?
Just days ago news came through of not one but two deaths at the hands of American police: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In response, Black Lives Matter protests were organised in the US and abroad – including one in Birmingham.
At first glance you’d be forgiven for being skeptical. What’s the point of marching in Birmingham for something that happened in America?
But the city has its own history of police incidents. Alongside the now familiar roll call of names – names like Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray – was that of Kingsley Burrell. Detained by West Midlands police under mental health laws, he died in custody in 2011 due to “prolonged restraint and a failure to provide basic medical attention”.
Turnout was higher than expected. The crowd outside the Bull Ring had already grown to considerable size by 12, and in the 2 hours following attracted more newcomers and passersby to the cause. Stock still, mouths taped over, the sight was reminiscent of another vigil that took place the week before – although those casualties had been killed in the Somme, not in the street.
Those 2 hours of silence gave way to a roaring outcry, as if all that had gone unsaid was now free to be spoken. Moving through the streets at an even clip, it was up to an older activist to slow the march down. After all, the point of a protest march isn’t to get from one rallying point to the next – it’s to disrupt the quiet complacency of the streets and broadcast your message loud and clear.
As we neared the police station, the focus shifted from the general struggle to Kingsley Burrell – a protest calling for justice had set out from Handsworth and was due to rendezvous outside the station that housed the officers involved. The afternoon was filled with spoken word pieces and speeches from Burrell’s family, as well as the brother of Mark Duggan (whose death sparked the 2011 riots).
Was the protest a success? In the moment it seemed so, but as with any movement a public protest is only the first and easiest step. Anybody can come out once, shout a few slogans, have a good time and go home; in a world where even the largest peace march in world history can be ignored by the powers that be, activists need to have a solid plan to keep the pressure on.
There also needs to be a set of achievable goals. While a general sentiment of “stop police brutality” or “end institutional racism” can get people out for an afternoon, without aims that can be measured and pursued that enthusiasm will peter out.
True change happens incrementally, a policy at a time. Now more than ever the UK needs a credible opposition to racism in all its forms – from the abuser on the street to government policy – and one that’s serious about the task at hand.
Otherwise, this will have all been a waste of time.