‘Justice for Belly! Justice for George!’

Mass protests have returned to British streets following the police murder of George Floyd in the US. Systemic racism and police violence are endemic in Britain too. As one chant put it: ‘The UK is not innocent.’ Report by Max Stein and photos by Steve Eason.

Yesterday (31 May) marked the sudden end of the (coronavirus-induced) two-month pause on mass protests in Britain. Thousands of people assembled in Trafalgar Square to demand an end to racist police violence against Black people – in the United States, in Britain, and worldwide. Protests also took place in Manchester and Cardiff.

The impetus derived from events in the US – where a group of Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd on 25 May, while the incident was filmed on camera by a passer-by – was clearly visible at the outset of the event. The gathering ranks chanted Floyd’s name, and knelt on one knee with their fists raised, in imitation of the American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players who have used this stance to abstain from taking part in obligatory start-of-game renditions of the US national anthem.

But the crowd left onlookers under no illusions that this was solely a response to events occurring overseas. Placards clearly indicted systemic racism and police violence in Britain, drawing attention to the 1741 individuals who have died either in police custody or following contact with the police in the UK since 1990, and underscoring that, as the chant has it, that ‘the UK is not innocent.’

The slogans raised drew clear connections between racist policing, the Windrush scandal, the Grenfell Tower disaster and the devastating racialised impacts of Covid-19 – particularly the case of transport worker Belly Mujinga, whose death from Covid-19, shortly after a man infected with the virus spat at her in her workplace, is no longer being investigated by police. One of the most common call-and-response chants rang: ‘Justice for Belly! Justice for George!’

Growing anger at government mismanagement of the pandemic, and the devastatingly unequal impacts of this, may help to explain the fervent welcome that protesters received from many onlookers and passers-by. Driver after driver slowed down to applaud the protest; several even stopped dead in the road, dismounted, and joined in on the spot. A huge cheer went up at Trafalgar Square when a bus driver honked his horn and stuck a fist out of the window in salute of the protesters, something that was repeated time and again throughout the day. When several dozen bus drivers, overwhelmingly people of colour, have died of Covid-19 following woeful negligence by management, the basis for solidarity between these struggles is as clear as day.

It did not take long for the police to provide a public example of the very racism and repression that demonstrators complained of. The officers tasked with policing the march repeatedly launched unrestrained and unprovoked assaults on protesters throughout the day, including several that targeted children or young teenagers. Huge mobs of officers swarmed individuals who were chosen seemingly at random; at one point, a young teenage girl was arbitrarily seized by four or five large male officers, smashed roughly against a set of iron railings, and held there at length. Police arrested a declared total of 23 people throughout the day.

Police intervention also had the effect of ruining the marchers’ diligent efforts at social distancing. The vast majority of protesters wore masks (with the Queercare collective also mobilising to provide masks to any who were short of one) and worked hard to maintain a reasonable distance between each person. The police bothered with neither and – after justifying their dispersal orders with reference to the government’s emergency coronavirus legislation – forcibly compressed the demonstrators into tight compartmental boxes where distancing was impossible.

With today’s events over, it’s hard to predict what will come next. Many pre-existing activist groups did not formally endorse or attend the protest; the ethics and practicalities of holding mass demonstrations amid a dangerous pandemic, which is killing people of colour at the highest rate of all, are profoundly challenging. At the same time, with the government visibly riding roughshod over the short-lived national consensus in favour of maintaining a strict lockdown – something that protesters were quick to point out, when police began using Covid-19 as a premise for dispersal orders – it may be  that mass protest will naturally return over time if other aspects of life are being progressively re-normalised.

The one certainty is that the grievances, both long-term and short-term, which gave rise to today’s action remain very much in force. The rebellion in the United States is large and determined, meaning that the urge to show solidarity will likely be ongoing. Inescapable evidence is mounting that the pandemic, in Britain and the US alike, is being managed by the state in ways that callously push danger and death onto working-class communities of colour. The state’s variant of enforced social distancing in the UK has itself entailed a draconian escalation of police surveillance and repression, with fines and penalties disproportionately meted out to people of colour, often outside the written bounds of even the new and expanded police powers. Only yesterday, a video emerged of police in Lewisham, South East London, pinning a Black woman to the ground, suffocating her and punching her repeatedly as she screamed, ‘I can’t breathe.’ [Content Note: the article linked to contains an embedded Tweet showing a video of this violence.]

It would be a mistake to assume, in this context, that the explosive mood at today’s demonstration can be read solely as a response to events of the last week’s news cycle. In chants, placards, and furious stand-offs with police, the tone was shaped by a confluence of enflaming influences: the scenes of murder and repression in the States, crisscrossing global media; the suffocating death being directed onto communities of colour here in Britain; the cruelties and oppressions that the British state has visited on Black communities since time immemorial. As police attempted, once again, to order a dispersal, one man, backed up solidly by the crowd, retorted:

Are you proud of yourselves? Are you proud of yourselves? What you’ve put us through for four hundred years! You won’t even give us ten minutes!

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