The killing of George Floyd by a white police officer was the catalyst for widespread anti-racist protests in the US this summer. Though Floyd’s death took place thousands of miles away, the cry for racial justice was felt deeply in the UK. Britons stood up against racism, declaring support in their thousands for the Black Lives Matter movement via a succession of passionate protests.
More than 260 towns and cities held protests in June and July – from Monmouth in south Wales to Shetland in Scotland. British historians described them as the largest anti-racism rallies since the slavery era and at the heart of many of these protests was a new generation of young black Britons.
Although the protests were inspired by the movement in the US, the protesters’ anger was rooted in the British experience. They carried handmade placards with the names of Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Sheku Bayoh and others killed by British police. They chanted for the Windrush generation and the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, and decried the high Covid-19 death rate among members of the BAME community.
In a groundbreaking series in August, titled Young, British and Black, the Guardian interviewed 50 protesters, from Glasgow to Newcastle and Abergavenny to Falmouth, on what inspired them to organise the country’s biggest anti-racism rallies for centuries. As well as citing the painful experiences of growing up black in the UK, they said they were fighting for a radically more equal society.
We catch up with five protesters to find out what has happened since and where the movement for racial equality goes next.
Natasha, 21, London
A student and co-organiser of one of the first UK Black Lives Matter protests in May, Natasha has since helped found All Black Lives. It is a youth-led campaign, with a group who held Black Lives Matter protests every Sunday for 10 weeks in several major UK cities. All Black Lives was behind the march through Bristol in June when demonstrators toppled a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston.
“Since the spring, we’ve managed to ride the momentum to form established teams in London, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham,” says Natasha. They have been working to get their message across on social media, holding several panels throughout Black History Month, and producing informative videos. “There’s even talk of venturing into politics,” she says.
All Black Lives has a number of demands, which include the abolition of the Metropolitan police’s gang violence matrix and changing the school curriculum to include more black history.
Over the past six months, Natasha says she has become more resilient. “I’ve learned so much, but I’m always keen on learning more … If you learn how the house is built, you’re going to know how to dismantle it.”
Benitha Iradukunda, 25, Edinburgh
On the day the Young, British and Black series was first published, Benitha Iradukunda was shocked to find her face on the front page of the paper. “My university saw it and mentioned it on their social media and my old high school teachers messaged me sending well wishes,” she says.
Iradukunda was one of the organisers behind the Black Lives Matter rallies in Edinburgh. The group is now setting up a charity, the African Caribbean Society for Scotland, to support the black community in a range of issues, from health and education to economic empowerment. The organisation has held online Black History Month events, including a series of interviews and a DJ set.
“I’ve also started a podcast called Speak Your Truth, which features conversations with black people in the Scottish community,” says Iradukunda. “A lot of people think activism should be a really big in-your-face thing, but there are little things you can do, like have conversations.”
She also feels that the Black Lives Matter movement has helped shift discussions about racism in the UK, which have tended to focus on the south of the country.
“People down south are always shocked that black people live in Scotland. They don’t realise how big the community is here,” she says. “We’re 1% in Scotland, but we’re very present”
Tré Ventour, 24, Northampton
After participating in protests in Northampton, Tré Ventour was invited to London to take part in a Black Lives Matter panel event. While he is excited by the broadening interest in black British history, he feels there is more to be done.
“When we celebrate black people in Black History Month, it’s very much ‘acceptable’ black people, like Walter Tull. So when we do black history are we acknowledging the diversity of black lives? I am not sure we are,” he says. Ventour also wants the focus to include black LGBT history and is keen for the movement to have a conversation about intersectionality. “When you look at blackness in the context of LGBT, specifically trans people, they are victims of not just police violence, but violence in general.”
He admits he was surprised at the number of people who rose up and joined the Black Lives Matter protests. “So many more people care than I thought,” he says. “The protests have shown there is still community in Britain, despite everything. In places like Northampton, I think that’s really important.”
Lexia Richardson, 17, Abergavenny
Since the protests, many people have congratulated 17-year-old Lexia Richardson for speaking about her experience of growing up and going to school in a predominantly white area. “I think a lot of people I work with didn’t realise how much racism I had been through,” she says.
Several black and Muslim people got in touch with Richardson to tell her they had gone through similar things.
She is currently working on a Black Lives Matter project for the school where she was previously a pupil and wants to ensure conversations on racism in the UK continue. At her sixth form college, she is happy to hear people discussing the protests and whether the movement is needed in the UK. But she is most proud of the impact she has had at home.
“Getting my voice heard has helped my younger siblings,” she says. “They feel like it’s OK to follow in my pattern. My 11-year-old brother made a movie about BLM to show to his class. I thought: ‘Wow, I could have never done that at that age.’”
Shekinah Swamba, 19, Cheltenham
Shekinah Swamba, who works part-time in Waitrose, has had customers ask if she was the one that organised Black Lives Matter protests in the area. “A branch manager approached me and said well done. We sat down and had a chat. He wanted to know what he could do in our branch. I gave him some suggestions, such as mentoring,” she says. John Lewis and Waitrose announced a mentorship scheme soon after; through it, Swamba is paired up with a woman in Liverpool.
Swamba has since helped set up the Local Equality Commission, which works to combat racial and economic inequality in rural communities. “My role is a mentorship programmer,” she says. “I want to create an environment where people can be supported in various disciplines and have their voices heard on all matters of interest.”
She has also met with her local MP and taken part in panel discussions. “Up until June, I never felt confident to say that I moved schools because I received a lot of racism; I always dodged the question,” she says. “Now I feel more confident in myself and I have got a lot more self-belief.”