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The movement from the US is challenging today’s racism is all its forms, and can be just as relevant on this side of the Atlantic

Words: Camille Barton
Photos: Norberto Fernandez

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Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a movement that spread in the United States after the hashtag was coined in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. This was followed by protests and actions drawing attention to the ways that Black lives are targeted by police killings. Since then the movement has evolved and spread globally, taking aim at the many forms and sources of racism. This has encouraged Black and BME (Black, Minority & Ethnic) people to share their experiences in different countries and engage in conversations to affect change.

This summer, a wave of protests took place across the country under the BLMUK banner. After a march in July, to protest the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the US, a local BLM branch was recently created, with the objective to “stand in solidarity with injustices against people of African descent worldwide.” The group claims “to have a particular action plan relevant to Bristol and the UK in the first instance”, and to “have a number of allies and different approaches to getting our voices heard and importantly the voices of the voiceless.”

‘The arts scene in Bristol has provided a direct, personal experience of the city’s racial divide’

Why BLM is relevant to Bristol

I grew up in London but moved to Bristol in December after two years living in San Francisco. During my time in America, I was immersed in the BLM community and affiliated actions including Black Brunch, which interrupted people’s Sunday brunch to raise awareness about police killings of unarmed Black people. As a Black British artist, my choice to relocate was motivated by the potential for work in Bristol’s thriving Arts scene. Bristol is regarded as one of the more progressive, diverse cities in the nation so why is it necessary to have a BLM movement? Despite appearances, there are many racial inequalities within Bristol that need to be addressed.

The Arts scene provides a direct and personal experience of the racial divide in Bristol.  I am often the only Black person at creative events, and am consistently surprised to see white people dominate artistic spaces in the city including The Island and Hamilton House. Bristol is home to the headquarters of festivals including Boomtown and Shambala, with many Bristolians working the festival circuit each summer. I enjoy festival production but notice again that I am one of the only Black people, let alone Black women, getting paid to work in the festival world.

Why is this the case? There are many talented Black creatives that would love the opportunity to get involved but, unfortunately, they are rarely provided. When asking White friends about the lack of diversity in the festival industry, they claim it results from a lack of BME talent or interest. Many BME people don’t feel welcome or acknowledged as artists in predominantly White spaces. In my research about this for the Ujima Cultural Collective, I have heard accounts from Black artists of racist behaviour, including one artist being refused entry into his own show by security at a Bristol Arts venue. 

More broadly, according to research based on indicators including housing, health and employment, Bristol is the second worst place to live as a Black person in England and Wales. Considering it has thriving ethnic communities in areas such as Easton and St Pauls, Bristol, in my opinion, is a racially segregated city. Alarmingly, BME people are being rapidly displaced due to gentrification and rising house prices, whilst traditionally non white areas see many white households move in.

‘It’s important to understand that racism is not just about hate crimes and police violence – it happens unconsciously’

The bigger picture: racism in the UK

Some people criticise BLM as divisive and unnecessary in the UK. But evidence suggests oppression is kicking. To start with it is important to understand that racism is not just about hate crimes and police violence. It happens unconsciously: entering a classroom and assuming a Black person is a cleaner rather than a professor, or feeling safe walking down the street at night in front of a White man but feeling unsafe when a Black man walks past you. We have to be honest about them in order to change these patterns.

Meanwhile, in conversations about racism, I notice that people are sometimes confused by its fuller definition. I will borrow the words of Elizabeth Betita Martiez to clarify this. She argues: “The most common mistake people make when talking about racism (white supremacy) is to think of it as a problem of personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination… It is a system, a web of interlocking, reinforcing institutions: political, economic, social, cultural, legal, military, educational… As a system, racism affects every aspect of life in a country”.

In the UK, we lock up a higher proportion of our Black population than America. Black people are more likely to be stopped and searched than other ethnic groups across the UK and receive harsher sentences than white people for the same offences. And despite the police killings of Mark Duggan, Jermaine Baker, Sarah Reed, Joy Gardner and countless others that died in UK police custody, discussions about inequalities in the face of state violence are not a national discussion.

In the UK Black men are 17 times more likely to suffer from mental health issues than white people. This requires understanding them as the result of structural poverty, daily racism and interactions with the police. My younger brother has experienced multiple cases of police violence and harassment which has had a huge impact on his life. Most Black people in the UK have similar stories to share about a family member.

Whilst happy to criticise the US, White friends feel uncomfortable when I explain these realities to them. Why is it difficult to talk about everyday inequalities and oppression here in the UK?

Pointing the finger across the pond

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One of the things that struck me during my time in the USA, was the exhausting amount of daily racism I experienced. Despite the unpleasantness of having racist abuse hurled at me in public spaces, there was something refreshing. I always knew if someone was behaving in a racist way because people speak their minds. Since moving back to the UK I have felt frustrated by the lack of awareness about racism and the extreme discomfort that White people feel when race is mentioned.

It is easier to point the finger at another country than recognise issues at home. Though there are obvious differences, racism is as present in the UK as in the US. Not being shot daily does not mean that the discrimination BME people face is any less important. BME experiences need to be heard, listened to and acknowledged by White British people to overcome their discomfort, which often comes out as defensiveness.

Britain’s colonial past, slavery and the respect paid to its main contributors, whose legacy is visible throughout Bristol, play a huge part in explaining the behaviours White people are ashamed about deep down. That is what the term White guilt means. I think many White people would rather pretend that these issues are a thing of the past but the inequality that exists today is directly linked.

The BLM airport action in London early September, shows that White allies put their bodies on the line, because they understand that Black people are more likely to face tougher punishment. They carried out the protest understanding their privilege. In that sense white allyship is a crucial form of solidarity that needs to be cultivated. But allyship also involves learning the history of racism, listening to people experiencing it, becoming aware of how you maintain unconscious racist behaviours and challenging it among White people.
That said, I have found it hard to work with White anti-fascist activists because of their reluctance to recognise the way they unconsciously maintain racist behaviour. BME people are repeatedly spoken over in meetings and their views disregarded which ensures that White people determine the plan of action. This may not sound like racism but the behaviours reinforce the idea that White people are better organisers, with better methods to approach anti-racist work. Surely BME people should be actively involved in challenging racism in the UK?

What is success for the BLM movement?

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Black Lives Matters is evolving around the world and it is hard to know exactly where it will lead. As a movement it has already achieved some crucial things. It is connecting BME people, building a network of radical Black organisers, creating a language to name our oppression and developing the safe spaces we need. Such spaces are for black feminists to organise, as we have different needs often overlooked in mainstream feminism.

BLM was initiated and sustained by many queer people of colour but it is still difficult to ensure that all people involved in the movement are respected equally. Older generations in the Black community are being confronted with new concepts around gender and sexual identity, with some people choosing to learn new methods of support and others rejecting them. In order to sustain a cohesive movement, BLM will have to address this tension between the people involved. Moreover, although the BLM banner includes all people of colour, the focus is on Black lives. As a result, police killings of Latinos and Native Americans in The US are receiving much less media attention. It is important to maintain strong coalitions and acknowledge all state violence taken against people of colour.  

Crucially, it can ignite a conversation about racism in a UK which relates to other important issues such the willingness of governments to let brown bodies drown in the refugee crisis. Naomi Klein, a political journalist and author, argues that we must fuse racial and indigenous struggles for justice with initiatives to address climate change. A more equitable world will come about if we address global issues as deeply connected to racism.

Afro-Futurist Sci-Fi writers believe that we need Utopian visions of the future to expand our ability to imagine what is possible. I do not want to limit my imagination by deciding a final measure of success for BLM. I am empowered and inspired by the work that has been done. This is only the beginning.

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