#BlackLivesMatter in England, too: How Britain is adapting the movement

Black Lives Matter UK is bringing British concerns into an American-born movement.

Edward Smith/PA/AP
Protestors in Nottingham during an attempt to shut down part of the city center tram and bus network today to protest for the social justice movement Black Lives Matter.

British Black Lives Matter activists gridlocked traffic along the main road to London’s Heathrow Airport Friday morning when they lay down beneath a long banner saying, “This is a crisis,” and lock-boxed their bodies together across the five-lane road. 

Similar demonstrations took place across England in Birmingham, Manchester, and Nottingham, all uniting under a call for a nationwide "shutdown" to end racism, violence, and discrimination.

Some protests were reportedly small, while several thousand people were expected to attend the evening march in Manchester, according to the Independent. At least 19 people across the country have been arrested, the BBC reported.

The nascent Black Lives Matter United Kingdom derives its name from the US-born racial and social justice movement. Black Lives Matter UK describes itself as "a coalition of activists" on its Twitter account, which was started last month; the Nottingham chapter was reportedly founded last year. While the coalition is presenting a purposefully "global" focus, it also appears to be reformatting itself around an experience specific to Britain.

Organizers chose today's date for the nationwide protests to mark five years after Tottenham man Mark Duggan was shot and killed by London police in 2011, sparking what The Guardian later called "the worst riots in modern English history."

Three years later, the United States was rocked by similar nationwide protests that coalesced into a movement that drew its name from an earlier hashtag – #BlackLivesMatter. 

Britain has shown solidarity with US protests in the past, including last month when hundreds of people marched through central London for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, victims of fatal US police shootings. 

Today's protests illustrate how British activists are both embracing the movement and hoping to build momentum for Black Lives Matter in the United Kingdom, reported the BBC. 

"We need people to listen, to really stop and listen to what is happening to black people – not just in the USA,” said Cara Thompson, who was part of the Nottingham movement, to the BBC. 

Activists leading Friday's protests pointed to a startling statistic released by National Police Chiefs Council: Within days of the Brexit vote, racially motivated hate crimes spiked 57 percent. Most of the incidents appeared to target immigrants, as immigration reform was a key concern for pro-Brexit voters.

As in the US movement, police violence and treatment of minorities has taken central importance in the dialogue. Activists cite the 1,563 deaths in England and Wales since 1990 that have happened either in police custody or related to police contact.

While only 156 of the deceased were black or ethnic minorities, a 2012 Guardian report says that on a year-by-year breakdown, police violence disproportionately effects people of color. Three such deaths – Sarah Reed, Jermaine Baker, and Mzee Mohammad – took place in the past 8 months.

And like the US movement, UK activists are highlighting systemic racism outside of law enforcement as well.

"There are everyday forms of racism you face in terms of stop and search, increased levels of unemployment, over-representation within mental health custody, the prison system – this is an ongoing disruption to black people's lives which they constantly face,” said journalist Wail Qasim, who was involved in organizing the Heathrow protest, speaking to a BBC reporter.

As news of the road blockages and peaceful protests across the country spread, some Britons took to social media to question whether discrimination in Britain is truly a problem.

In a video explaining the need for today’s #Shutdown movement, Black Lives Matter UK revealed a perspective that encompasses the refugee crisis that has gripped Europe and faces reactions to immigration and religious diversity within Britain.

"This movement is for those who die daily trying to find safety, fleeing conflict Britain is responsible for," says one unnamed woman in the video, which had 189,000 views by the early evening British time on Friday. Footage of a crowded refugee boat flashes before another woman continues: "The 3,034 black and brown bodies drowned in the Mediterranean, in 2016 alone."

Black Lives Matter activist Adam Elliott-Cooper told the BBC that Heathrow was a fitting location for the protest, because "many people are either being killed at our borders or being sent back to certain death." He referred to Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga, who died after being restrained on a flight in October 2010. His assertion echoes a 2010 Institution of Race Relations study that found Britain's deportation plan endangered asylum seekers and migrants. 

The video statement piece also touches on the Preventing Violent Extremism, or Prevent, program, an initiative implemented over a decade ago to prevent ideological radicalization of British youth. The program has persisted despite criticism that it both stigmatizes Muslims, who make up 5 percent of Britain's population, and strains police-community relations.

While this new iteration of the Black Lives Movement has distinctly British concerns, activists emphasize solidarity and globalism, echoing other international movements that have embraced the message.

As organizer Joshua Virasami said outside Heathrow: "We need black people all over the world to come together, groups and individuals, to build this movement to achieve justice and equality in Britain and all over the world."

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