Belly Mujinga. Mark Duggan. Sheku Bayoh. Christopher Alder. Jimmy Mubenga. Leon Briggs. Ricky Bishop. Brian Douglas. Sean Rigg. Leon Patterson. Cynthia Jarrett. Cherry Groce. Derek Bennett. Kingsley Burrell. Roger Sylvester. Azelle Rodney. Habib Ullah. Faruk Ali. Adrian Thompson. Aston McLean.
These are the names emblazoned on a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park, central London; the names of black British people, and people of colour, killed or mistreated in police custody or while going about their lives in the UK. This is one of many rallies planned in the capital, part of a wave of global revulsion at the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis, Minnesota when a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. That outrage spilled out into the latest set of worldwide stands against the treatment of black citizens everywhere.
“There are no other ways that we can be heard” –17-year-old Farouk Maloney
“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s just an American problem,” says 29-year-old Oleta White. “But I think this is the first time… People saw the video from the beginning to end and saw that this man had done nothing. You would hear a little in the news – ‘This man’s been killed by a police officer.’ And people are like: ‘OK, that happened in the US – let’s move on.’ Whereas this has been shown from the very beginning the end. I feel like that’s what affected everyone more to understand that this is normal for us.”
Thousands of people have braved the pandemic to make their voices heard. Almost everyone is wearing a face mask, there’s plenty of hand sanitiser and organisers have asked protestors to self-isolate for two weeks after the event.
More important, though, are the signs – which range from devastatingly simple pleas such as “Stop killing black people” to more complex, long-term demands: “Dismantle power structures of oppression” – and the collective chants: “No justice, no peace, no racist police”; “Shut London down”; and “We will not be silenced / Justice will be served.”
This protest, which will be followed by another on Saturday (June 6) and many more shows of solidarity across the country over the coming weeks, begins in a congregation at the park, before activists march through central London. It starts at Speakers’ Corner, historically an area for public debate. There are various speeches today, one on Belly Mujinga, a TFL worker who died in April after she was spat at by a man who claimed to have coronavirus.
“There are no other ways that we can be heard about this,” says 17-year-old Farouk Maloney. “It’s a cry out for justice. The story is tragic. She has a daughter. We often get silenced.”
“This is basically our only opportunity to be heard about this case,” adds his friend, 18-year-old Cuthelia Lewis. “They said they couldn’t see [what happened] on the CCTV. We wanna see the footage. If you’ve got nothing to hide…” (The British Transport Police released the following statement: “Senior detectives are confident that this incident did not lead to contracting Covid-19. This is because the man in the CCTV footage who detectives interviewed as part of the investigation had a negative antibody test result for Covid-19 in the time after the incident, therefore showing that he had never had the illness.”)
Asked if he believes that the current wave of widespread Black Lives Matter activism – online and in the streets – can lead to real, long-overdue social change, Farouk replies: “Well, it’s a start. Things can’t get progressed if you don’t do something about it.”
“Deep, deep down I don’t know if things will ever change,” says Cuthelia. “We might get justice for [Belly Mujinga’s] situation but then it’ll just go back to how it was. That’s what I feel like. We – black people, our ancestors – have been protesting for years.”
“We’re doing this so that one day maybe our children won’t have to do this again,” explains Farouk. “Having to do this again and again – it’s getting exhausting. It’s just a bit long. Why do we have to cry out – why does everyone have to be here for our voices to be heard? It really shows something about how the system is.”
Oleta White is cautiously optimistic: “I think that if there is change it will be within people. Not the system, not the Government. I feel like people will probably be more united and understand how we feel. Or try to understand and educate themselves on our worlds.” She adds that, “other than that”, she broadly agrees with Cuthelia.
Still, Oleta explains that this latest wave of activism has been a wake-up call for some of her white friends: “They didn’t really understand the term white privilege. Since this has happened, they’re understanding our world and their world – it’s completely different. I’m getting more of my friends now looking out at things that are going on.”
“If there is change, it will be within people” – 29-year-old Oleta White
Yet this has given her complex feelings about some of the people close to her: “Since it’s happened I’ve have friends that been educating [themselves] and I’ve had friends that have said nothing. And it’s made me question the people around me. It’s just made feel, as a black person, that you want everything about us but you don’t want us. That’s exactly how I feel.”
As we’re funnelled out of Hyde Park, away from Speakers’ Corner and onto the streets of central London, 19-year-old Jarad shares some of his personal story. “I came here to learn more about my history and my grandparents’ history,” he says. “I’m half-Jamaican, half east African. My granddad came to this country by boat. He got a lot of hate for it because he was black and he was a bit different.”
Asked what he learned today, Jarad replies: “That us black people can be strong. I’ve always wondered – and I’m not trying to be racist – why have white people always been [on top]? Why can’t we be on the exact level? I’m not really a confident person, but I think coming here today made me feel more confident.”
The protests continue.