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Black Lives Matter Bristol: behind the scenes


Around 1,000 people marched through Bristol in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on Sunday. Edson Burton, one of the organisers of the march, tells us what went down.

Photo: Norberto Fernandez Soriano

Saturday morning, Bristol. I’m working from home when I receive a notification from young artist and friend Splitz P. He’s incensed by last week’s police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the USA. Splitz P asks for my support in organising a community show of solidarity.

The shadow that has fallen since the shootings lifts into a sense of agency. Our online conversation is feverish and impassioned. In a short time we are made aware of a parallel conversation initiated by Green Party Councillor Cleo Lake and propelled by local residents Cherelle Grant, Ha Rossi and others. We pool energies, and within hours there are many different voices shaping and refining plans for what became a large community demonstration. The time and location is confirmed by 2.00pm, and with that the online campaign gathers furious momentum.

The campaign captures the imagination of hundreds of Bristolians who feel wounded by the police killings. By Saturday evening I’m confident that there will be at least 200 marchers, based on a facebook sign-up of over twice that number. The event organisers work into the early hours to bring everything together. Stewards are called, t-shirts dyed, press contacted, and police informed. Social media aside, I am conscious that the event is being promoted by word of mouth across local communities.

It’s Sunday 2pm at the Malcolm X Centre in St. Pauls. Less than a day has passed since the event was called. I’m overwhelmed by the turnout. There’s a rainbow of people stretching across, age, colour and class spilling out onto Ashley Road.

“Black Lives Matter” “What do we Want – Justice” “Hands Up Don’t Shoot”. The growing crowd chant as they march through St. Pauls, Stokes Croft and the city centre, all the way down to College Green. Bystanders hoot, applause or join in refrains. A lone voice on Ashley Road shouting ‘All lives Matter’ is the sole critical voice that I recall.

We gather on College Green, facing the Council, with a makeshift PA to reach out to the crowd. Splitz P is one of the first to speak, impassioned and immediate, followed by Councillor Cleo Lake, then a poem by Lawrence Hoo recited by Charmaine ‘Ukq Lawrence. I too lend my voice, albeit hoarse from chanting. Like the other demonstrations nationally, we too echo the call for solidarity with Black Lives Matter USA. All the various speakers also rally against the structural racism that has made these killings possible and their redress uncertain. It is perhaps this point which touches the heart of shared struggle, shared grievance.

Hundreds hold a minutes silence. I sing snatches of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. A poem and another powerful song by Nagio Anyia. Rain begins to fall. We hold fast. We chant again, and then march back to the Malcolm X Centre, back to our lives. There is a spring in the air with a sense of a moment shared.

The march had a hyper-real quality. It’s like no other Bristol protest I can remember, which are usually led by white marchers and  planned well in advance. Sunday’s march was organised and brought together in less than 24 hours. I recognized so many faces: artists, gym buddies, mothers and fathers, those who I have watched grow into young adults. There are many I do not recognise. This is not a march of the ‘usual suspects’.

What brought us together? The simplicity of a call for solidarity and a peer-to-peer call for action. Noone was asked to sign up to a manifesto or a lifestyle. There is an essential irony in this moment; out of brutal murder, I and those I march with became fully alive.

What next? This is now the question being asked on and offline. More events are planned. For one, there’s a Black Lives Matter vigil on College Green on Wednesday July 13th. Then there will be showings of the documentary film The Hard Stop exploring the shooting of Mark Duggan, which will be screened at the Watershed Media Centre and Trinity Centre. These will be opportunities to discuss policing in the UK. Perhaps the march on Sunday was a moment of awakening that will through sustained focus gather shape and momentum.

But let us for now live in the extraordinary moment of collective action that led to a march, tragic in origin yet so beautiful in its unity.

Apologies to all organisers and artists not mentioned in this quick turn around report.

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