Since the killing of George Floyd, Manchester has seen an outpouring of anger and passion in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, with local action ongoing across the city, but continued and active support is still needed to win the struggle against racial injustice.
On 25 May 2020, the world witnessed murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, on the same day New York birdwatcher Christian Cooper was maliciously and falsely reported as threatening a female dog walker in Central Park.
Just days before that, prosecutors in the US finally decided to press charges against two men who shot a black man Ahmaud Arbery who was out for a morning run, the video footage that finally surfaced showed Arbery being hunted down by two separate pick up trucks, a 21st century lynching, all caught on camera, yet no arrests were made until after the footage emerged.
A few months earlier health worker, Breonna Taylor had been gunned down in her own home, by police operating a “no knock warrant”, who battered down the door of her flat while she lay asleep.
All tales that are too common place, almost too familiar, but this time, the combination of these highly visible and obviously racist events led to an explosion of outrage and activism.
Black Lives Matter protests sprang up everywhere, not just in the US, but across the world. Spanning the globe from Europe to Australia, people came out onto the streets not just to voice their anger at another black death at the hands of the police, but their outrage that the racism that still endures can go on so openly and without punishment.
In the UK the response to these events was huge, Black Lives Matter protests took place across the country and not just in the big Metropolitan centres, but also in towns and villages across the country.
Prominent amongst the banners was the slogan “The UK is not innocent” and the recognition that here in the UK, whilst 100s of Black people have died in custody. In only one instance (in 1971) has there been a successful prosecution, and almost always there are no charges brought at all, with examples like;
- Sheku Bayoh – died in Kircaldy after being “restrained by police” – no charges brought due to “insufficient evidence”
- Azelle Rodney – shot by Police whilst in a car – police marksman found not guilty
- Christopher Alder – died in police custody after being assaulted in night club – the judge directed the jury to return a not guilty verdict.
The UK is not innocent slogan took on further significance after the dethroning of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, which laid bare the depth and implication of Britain’s historical involvement in the slave trade, and how the UK has profited from that trade the profits from which paved the way for much of the Industrial Revolution.
Debate about race and racism began to be raised in every corner of the UK.
Here in Manchester, once known as “Cottonopolis” and the home of the Industrial revolution, the initial response to the BLM movement was overwhelming and positive.
Saturday 6 June and Sunday 7 June saw tens of thousands of mostly young people demonstrate in support of the BLM movement in central Manchester.
The turnout was far in excess of what had been anticipated, especially given the requirements to keep socially distant and the vague mutterings that people should not attend, some tens of thousands turned up to the protest. But what was most impressive about the demonstrations was the real and genuine anger and emotion from the demonstrators, a mix of generally young people from across Manchester who felt this important enough to take to the streets despite the risks.
This was not some extensively organised, staged, show piece from veteran campaigners, but a genuine outpouring of anger and passion at the clear injustices faced by black people across the world and specifically here in the UK.
Most of the protesters had home-made placards, and the message was clear – “enough is enough”. The time to end racism is long overdue. After an impromptu march around the city centre, the crowds dispersed peacefully and with real positivity. After the march those same cardboard slogans adorned windows of houses and flats, throughout Manchester proclaiming the support for Black Lives Matter.
Other events were organised and took place across Manchester, there has been a “take the knee” event every Wednesday at locations including Stretford, Old Trafford, Levenshulme, Sale, Hulme and Salford.
BLM supporting graffiti has sprung up across Manchester, such as the Justice for Belly (Mujinga) banner in Levenshulme. Belly Mujinga was a railway worker who died from Covid 19 just weeks after being abused and spat at by a passenger. Although the man responsible was arrested, no charges were brought against him.
With similar outpourings of varying size and scale happening all across the country, it didn’t take long for a media inspired backlash to take hold.
In Bristol protestors pulled down a much hated statue of Edward Colston, a man who made his fortune as a slave trader and who had been the subject of a long campaign to have his name removed from Bristol’s civic life.
That was the trigger point for many BLM critics. For days after the statue of Edward Colston came down the mainstream media were filled with stories about “the threat to British history” and how British heritage must be protected from the extremists in BLM, who were seeking to rewrite the story of Britain.
“Respectable” politicians across the spectrum from Priti Patel to Kier Starmer lined up alongside the editorials in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail to condemn BLM demonstrators and the removal of the Colston statue as an act of vandalism and criminal damage. No wonder then that the following weekend saw demonstrations by assorted right wing groups and hooligans operating under the banner of “save our statues”.
From that point on the whole tone of the conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement has changed and this has been reflected in events both nationally and across Greater Manchester.
Locally we’ve seen anti-BLM graffiti sprayed over the image of George Floyd in Stephenson square, we’ve seen the Burnley ‘fans’ paying for an “all lives matter” banner to be flown over the Etihad stadium as Manchester City played Burnley in the premiership, we’ve even seen an attack on the mini-bus of a predominantly Black Church in Longsight, which was daubed with racist slogans.
Similar incidents have happened nationally including the attack on Bristol health worker and rapper K-Dogg, who was run down in a car by youths shouting racist abuse and is lucky to have survived, though his injuries will be with him permanently.
Despite the backlash, and the inevitable impact of the Covid 19 lockdown with continued confusion around what is or isn’t open/permissible, BLM and BLM inspired events continue to happen across Manchester.
Last weekend saw artists from the Black Music protest travel up from London and perform an open show in Piccadilly Gardens, recent weekends have seen an emancipation day celebration in Platt Fields park, and protests against police misuse of tasers, which was so graphically illustrated in the recent Resistance Lab report into Tasers.
There are conferences and meetings taking place around “decolonising the curriculum”, in other words ensuring that all of Manchester’s school children get a view which is both inclusive and reflective of the people and historical events which have given rise to modern Britain. The outcome of these conferences will be the basis of what could feed into the mainstream education system to help combat the root of many deep seated racist views.
As well as these events, there are continued “take the knee” protests continuing across Greater Manchester in the run up to September 11 when the trial of the policeman charged with the murder of George Floyd begins in the US. That should see a much larger central event bringing together protestors from all over the region to highlight the trial and the issues around it, and ensure that the call for justice to be done is carried all across the country.
George Floyd’s killing has pushed the debate around race and equality centre stage, with the points raised and the debate that has been opened by BLM now topics for household discussion, but winning the arguments around these ideas is far from resolved. The pace with which headlines move on and main stream agendas change, means that keeping the attention on this level of injustice will be an ongoing struggle.
The good news is that the injustice has been acknowledged and decried at so many levels of society, that is truly unprecedented in the UK.
However that only presents the opening, the opportunity, to radically change the racist narrative that has played out for centuries.
To make the most of this opportunity groups like BLM and Greater Manchester Stand up to Racism, who have been at the forefront of organising the visible protests need ongoing and active support.
But in addition to that there are many many other instances where support can be given, from specific campaigns, like Justice for Grenfell, to ongoing campaigns around education, around housing around policing, to organisations like the Institute for Race Relations.
Most importantly there are opportunities in our daily lives to challenge the notions, assumptions and narratives around race and equality, that is what the Black Lives Matters movement has brought to the forefront and that is what needs to be maintained, in order to keep on pushing for the justice and equality that should be everyone’s right in our society.
Raf Mulla is an anti-racism campaigner and member of Greater Manchester Stand Up To Racism
Greater Manchester Stand up to racism can be contacted through a number of social media channels:
YouTube: Stand Up To Racism Manchester
Feature image: Hulme Take The Knee event August 5, photo credit Lamin Touray