Last week, on Friday morning, protesters blocked off the M4 leading to Heathrow. They were from the UK branch of the Black Lives Matter movement, and their aim was to highlight the issues facing black communities in the UK. With posters reading in bold white letters against a black background "THIS IS A CRISIS", they wanted to make the statement that racism is very much alive and well in this country, embedded within our institutions and in the micro-aggressions that black people like myself experience on a daily basis. The protest was disruptive, stopping traffic until authorities intervened and attracting national media attention. Other Black Lives Matter protests took place around the UK across the weekend, in Nottingham, London and Manchester.
While racism in America is, currently, more visible – with stories of police brutality making headlines almost weekly – racism in Britain can be just as deadly. 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in Tottenham in 2011, an event which (in part) sparked the London riots. And what's changed since then? Just last month, 18-year-old Mzee Mohammed died in police custody in Liverpool. As research from the campaign group Inquest demonstrates, a disproportionate number of black or minority ethnic people die in police custody in the UK compared to white people. Perhaps what is more worrying is the fact that there have been zero convictions. Racism pervades within our prison system. Black people, especially young black men, are 37 times more likely to be stopped and searched compared to their white counterparts, according to national statistics. Black people are 44 times more likely to be detained under the Mental Heath Act (according to the Mental Health Foundation), and less likely to receive talking therapies (according to the charity Mind.) Black people are also three times more likely to be arrested (Institute of Race Relations) and twice as likely to die in police custody (IPCC). It is not confined to black men, either. Sarah Reed was found dead in her cell on 11th January 2016 in Holloway prison. In November 2012, she was beaten up by police officer James Kiddie after she was reportedly caught shoplifting. The act was caught on CCTV cameras. Officer Kiddie was convicted of common assault for his brutality, but only sentenced to a meagre 150 hours of community service. In October 2015, Sarah Reed was charged with grievous bodily harm with intent. Reed's mother told the Guardian that her daughter had claimed she was simply defending herself from sexual assault.
Around me, racism is very real. Whether that is witnessing a stop-and-search or being at an airport and my friend being taken away to be searched simply because of her name. Through and through, I see how the public and state target certain ethnic groups. And it is painful to watch when innocent people are stereotyped, humiliated and discriminated against by institutions that were designed to help them feel safe.
In London, I became black in a way that I had never been when I was in Nigeria
As a black woman in Britain, I know I am much less likely to be shot by the police than if I lived in the U.S., but I still experience everyday racism, whether that’s at school, on the street, in the workplace or by the state. I moved to Britain in 2011. I was 13, naïve and expecting a tolerant society. I didn’t know that by virtue of being black, I would have to move through the world in a very different way. In London, I became black in a way that I had never been when I was in Nigeria. In London, I learnt that being black meant feeling different and experiencing discrimination. This became my new reality.
In the wake of Brexit, a statistic quickly circulated stating that hate crimes in the UK had risen by 57% in four days. For me, this felt like more than a statistic. A few days after the vote, I remember being at King’s Cross Station, waiting in a queue to get my train ticket to go and see a play in Leeds. Beside me was a white woman, and even though I made no indication of pushing in or walking in front of her, she shouted: “I’m next in the queue! Or do they not have queues where you come from?” I decided to leave it; it was early, I was tired, and it felt at the time like an insignificant account of racism. For too long, people of colour in the UK have been left to deal with the effects of minor-to-grave incidents of racism on their own. But the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK is inspiring, because finally, people are pushing back and demanding that this country, and this government, look at the pervasive ways that racism affects our daily lives. This summer marks five years since Mark Duggan's death. It also marks the five-year anniversary of my move to London, a place that I sometimes call home. And what is a home? Somewhere that you feel safe, but being a black woman, I know that this might always exist as a paradox. Seeing the Black Lives Matter movement make headlines here in the UK empowers me to sit up and demand more. It gives me hope that if we keep saying black lives matter, eventually someone will listen.