United Kingdom

Black Lives Matter moves to the U.K.

Five years after the London riots, tensions remain high. But activists are divided over the arrival of a U.S. protest movement.

People chant and hold up with placards in Altab Ali Park in east London, as they attend a Black Lives Matter event, on August 5, 2016. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty)

People chant and hold up with placards in Altab Ali Park in east London, as they attend a Black Lives Matter event, on August 5, 2016. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty)

Five years ago, violence and destruction erupted in London, quickly spreading to cities across the U.K. What started as uncontrolled anger transformed into hooliganism, the images of burning buses and smashed shops a symbol of how close a society can come to the breakdown of the rule of law.

Today, the tensions and inequality that led to that first outburst of anger are still present. And, with the recent emergence of a Black Lives Matter U.K. movement, they are threatening to boil over again.

On Saturday, a scorching sun overhead, hundreds of residents of north London’s Tottenham gathered together at Broadwater Farm estate. This was the home of Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked the 2011 riots. Duggan was killed by police who were attempting to arrest him; at the time they said they believed he was carrying a gun.

“The police are the murderers. The police are the biggest gang,” families and friends chanted, as they began their annual procession to Tottenham Police station.

Female relatives led the march, angrily charging forward, halting traffic as they moved. Several observers stopped on the pavement to applaud. The locals also called out the names of other black Tottenham residents who died in controversial circumstances involving the police, including Jermaine Baker, Cynthia Jarrett, Joy Gardner and Roger Sylvester.

Stafford Scott, a local community leader and organizer, was quick to highlight that little has changed in the area since 2011. “If anything I think that for young black kids in black neighborhoods things have got worse.”

He said the gaps in deeply embedded inequalities in education, employment, housing and health are widening. “A lot of our young people are being stigmatized as gang members while they’re born into this environment of inequalities. They’re victims of those inequalities and the state has a responsibility of addressing them.”

Scott said black people in certain parts of London were living “parallel lives” to both their white counterparts and those from ethnic minorities with wealthier backgrounds.

The riots had happened because of the pain felt by his community, he said, as well as the unwillingness of the police to hold discussions with them. “The feeling became uncontrollable for many, it exploded.”

However, Scott said for the moment further outbursts can be avoided. “Tottenham is not in the mood to burn down Tottenham anymore,” he said, before families of those who had died released doves into the air.

Not everyone present agreed.

Marcus Knoxhooke, 34, from Broadwater Farm, grew up with Mark Duggan. A burly, tattooed man with a silver tooth, he described Duggan as a “people’s person.”

Knoxhooke said another riot was definitely “a possibility,” becoming ever more likely as families and friends of those who had died lost the motivation to “push for justice” through conventional means.

“The issues are still there,” he said. “There’s a lot of gentrification going on. Local people are being pushed out as they rise the rent.”

“There is no change in how people feel,” agreed Cassandra Bernard, a softly spoken 49-year-old who stood quietly at a distance from the speakers.

She said police behavior was perceived as “hypocritical” and tensions were still evident. “There’s been regeneration but no local people have got the jobs,” Bernard bemoaned. “If you have a lack of opportunities what do the youths do? What occupies their time? There’s no encouragement.”

Black people made up 10 per cent of the U.K.’s prison population in 2014, despite only accounting for 3.5 per cent of British residents.

Despite promises to promote inclusivity following the 2011 riots, England’s capital city also has the largest discrepancy between the makeup of its police force and its inhabitants. Forty per cent of Londoners are black or from an ethnic minority, but only 12 per cent of police are.

Victor Olisa, Scotland Yard’s newly appointed head of diversity, admitted in a June interview with the Guardian that there is a systematic racism occasionally at play in the way black people are treated by the British police. “My view is that on occasions we work on stereotypes and that stereotypes of black men being more aggressive, more confrontational, is a stereotype that plays on some officers’ minds and that can lead to a different level of policing style and force being used on a black suspect than it probably would do otherwise.”

Supporters believe the adoption of the Black Lives Matter campaign from the U.S. could help correct the balance, with public disturbances making it increasingly difficult for politicians to ignore. Yet some activists, like those  in Tottenham, are dismissive of it.

“I ain’t going to lay down for Eric Garner when I could stand up for Jermaine Baker,” Scott said, adding that the movement was treating this like it was a recent problem, when his community had been campaigning around this for decades.

“Why didn’t they all come up here today to support us?” he asked.

His point was timely. As speeches were ongoing, word came through to the assembled media that a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters were about to occupy iconic London Bridge. Several cameramen called taxis straight away, noting that the spectacle of a large scale blockage might be more newsworthy than a relatively small community demonstration.

This was just the latest in a series of similar disturbances over the past week: Black Lives Matter protesters made headlines on Friday by lying down and attaching themselves to Heathrow Airport’s slip road, blocking approaching vehicles. Wail Qasim, who took part in the protest, said similar actions would continue until they achieved “justice and a society where black lives matter, we won’t stop short.”

Activists lay on the road outside Nottingham Theatre Royal as they attempt toshut down part of the city centre tram and bus network in Nottingham, England Friday Aug. 5, 2016 to protest for social justice movement Black Lives Matter. Activists affiliated with the U.S.-based group Black Lives Matter have blocked a road leading to Heathrow Airport, and Nottinghamand city centre and in other British cities (Edward Smith/PA via AP)

Activists lay on the road outside Nottingham Theatre Royal as they attempt toshut down part of the city centre tram and bus network in Nottingham, England Friday Aug. 5, 2016 (Edward Smith/PA via AP)

Simultaneous demonstrations took place in Nottingham and Birmingham, while later on Friday another group obstructed roads in east London. A 28-year-old going by the name Brown Sugar, who sat down directly in front of a truck, explained her actions. “We’re representing for our brothers and sisters worldwide, even Aborigines in Australia.”

Creating publicity was key, she said. “In the U.S. [this is] more covered by the media, I think that’s because of the riots and the death of Mark Duggan.”

Kadija Sesay, a speaker at Friday’s protest in east London’s Whitechapel, agreed, thanking Black Lives Matter for getting the media interested again in her family’s campaign.

Her cousin, Sheku Bayoh, 31, died last year after being arrested and restrained in Scotland’s Kirkcaldy.

Sesay said she recognizes differences between the issues of systematic racism in the America and elsewhere. “Things are different in the U.S. because they use guns. It’s more covert here,” she said.

However, for Sesay, being part of a global movement can only be a positive thing. She pointed to her t-shirt emblazoned with her cousin’s picture, “support justice for Sheku Bakoh” imprinted above it.

“I wear it on planes, walking up and down the isle so people will see it. I want them to ask me what it’s about,” Sesay said. “Hopefully people are becoming more aware of what’s happening.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.