The Black Lives Matter protests feel different this time – here’s why

This article accompanies a free two-part set of resources on racism. To download, visit our resources page.

By Liberty Martin

We were all itching to go back outside, but nothing could have prepared us for the onslaught of Black lives lost to racial violence when the US lifted some of its COVID-19 lockdown measures. The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade reverberated across social media until the death of George Floyd became the straw that broke the camel’s back. Protests and riots erupted in Floyd’s home of Minneapolis, spread across the United States and then the world. We’ve seen these events before, both here and abroad, proceed like clockwork: the murder of a Black civilian by the police, the video of this Black person’s final moments circulated across social media and then civil unrest.

But we have reached a turning point. In a recent interview with Channel 4, activist Angela Davis said, “This is a very exciting moment. I don’t know if we have ever experienced this kind of global challenge to racism and to the consequences of slavery and colonialism.” Imagine, a former member of the Black Panthers, a vocal activist in the US Civil Rights Movement, has said that she has never seen protests like this before. And she’s excited. The mass uproar that we are witnessing now is not another tragic repetition of events passed, but rather the next development in a long struggle against anti-Black racism.

The rise of social media marked a new era in the fight for social justice that has been both invigorating and traumatising. The internet has spread information and language such as “white privilege” and “intersectionality” to help us navigate conversations about race, and has also broadcast racial injustice in an unprecedented manner. Today’s protests are the outcry of a generation who have watched Black people die, on their laptops and mobile phone apps for years. Black Lives Matter, the hashtag born from these tragedies, is now a movement that pervades all facets of life, not just police brutality. The discrimination that Black people face in education, academia, health care, the media and workplaces belies the institutional racism at the very fabric of our society. Yes, our society. We cannot ignore the deep-rooted racism in the UK any longer.

Far too often Britain uses the US to distance itself from racism, as if racism is a uniquely American phenomenon. Where do you think the US got it from? The horrific racism of North American history is simply the legacy and evolution of British colonialism. We see this legacy thrive blatantly on British shores with the Windrush crisis, Grenfell, the disproportionate COVID-19 fatality rate in the Black community, police profiling and brutality and the deaths of Belly Mujinga, Mark Duggan, Stephen Lawrence and Cherry Groce (whose fatal shooting by the police launched the 1981 Brixton uprising). Britain is going to have to reckon with its violent history of the Empire, especially because the descendants of colonised British subjects are now integrated into British society. This is why we are going to see more and more demands to take down the statues of figures who played an active role in slavery and imperialism, including British “heroes” such as Winston Churchill. Brits must confront why some of their national heroes are also responsible for genocide, violent exploitation and/or oppression, because it’s not a coincidence. 

So what do we do next? As you will see in the two-part bulletins for your pupils, being non-racist is not enough. We must be anti-racist in order to make a change. Educate yourself about race, institutional racism and the unsung history of colonised peoples such as the African diaspora. Educate yourself about Britain’s investment and transformation through the various crimes of the Empire, like the extremely lucrative transatlantic slave trade. Use this knowledge to engage in those difficult conversations about race with your friends, families and children. Call out racism in your everyday life and support activists who fight for change through donations and standing up to naysayers. And when you do so, remember that anti-racism is not an act of good-will or charity. It is a complete reassessment and overhaul of our self-perception as individuals and, more importantly, as a society. It is, and will be, an uncomfortable, difficult and lengthy process. It is active and necessary work. And it is literally a matter of life and death for Black people across the globe. 

We are living in a moment of history. The protests will inevitably peter out, but racism and the struggle against it will continue in classrooms, workplaces and the streets. Have you ever wondered what role you would have played as a normal person in the abolition of slavery, in Nazi Germany or South African apartheid? What side of history would you have been on? Well, it’s your time to find out. 

Thinking questions:

  • Did any parts of this article surprise or challenge you? Why?
  • Are there any parts of the article that you agree and/or disagree with? Why do you think the author wrote these parts?
  • What steps do you think you can take to be anti-racist?
  • How do you think anti-racism will affect British culture?
  • How much do you know about Black British history? What could you do to learn more?
  • Do you think we should change how we teach history? Why / why not? If you think it should be changed, how would you like to change it?

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