- Across the United Kingdom, protests have erupted over police brutality and systemic racism.
- Monuments that are perceived as validating slavery and imperialism have also become a flashpoint, much like in the United States.
- British activists are hoping the attention they generate will lead to widespread change.
- View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.
The anti-racism protests that spread across the United States following the police killing of George Floyd have reverberated around the world — perhaps nowhere more than in the United Kingdom.
Across the Atlantic, protesters are similarly demanding systemic change and calling attention to racist institutions, particularly the police.
And weeks of ongoing protests have hammered home a recurring message: that America isn’t the only place where Black people face discrimination.
“It took the death of a man who’s not even from the UK to get people understanding that we have some problems here at home,” Katrina Ffrench, CEO of the police watchdog group Stopwatch, told Business Insider Today. “I hope that this isn’t just a flashpoint and everybody gets back to business as usual. It’s happening here, and we need to fix it. Now.”
The UK is grappling with its own history of police killings.
At protests around the country, demonstrators chant “Black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace,” and the name of George Floyd. Speakers repeat troubling statistics — like how Black people in England and Wales are more than twice as likely to die in police custody than people from other ethnic groups.
“What we are seeing is what many of us already knew and experience on a daily basis: the lack of care, respect and humanity for Black lives,” Daniel Edmund, a speaker at a protest in Bristol, England, said.
Helping lead the way are activists like Janet Alder, whose brother Christopher died in police custody in 1998. Police had dragged Christopher Alder, a former paratrooper with the British Army, into a police custody hall and left him unconscious and struggling to breathe for 11 minutes as he slowly choked to death.
“You can hear him gasping for his life, and nobody can mistake the harrowing gurgling sounds,” Janet Alder said. “And he dies on the floor, you know, with them just a few feet away. Being left the way that George Floyd was left.”
An inquest in 2000 found that Christopher had been “unlawfully killed,” and a 2006 report found four of the officers guilty of “serious neglect of duty” and “unwitting racism.” However, all five officers involved in the incident were acquitted.
“Watching those police officers walk out of court, it frightened me,” Janet Alder said. “But it sent a message as well you know to us as ordinary people that there’s nothing going to happen. Absolutely nothing.”
“These people that you’re supposed to have trust in and protect you, could so openly, without any care whatsoever do what they did to George Floyd and do what they did to Christopher.”
Imperialist monuments are facing a reckoning, too.
Much like in the US, monuments perceived as celebrating racism or imperialism have emerged as a flashpoint point for protesters.
In some cases, people are taking matters into their own hands — like on June 7, when protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and pushed it into the city’s harbor.
Colston has long been celebrated as a philanthropist and Parliament member in Bristol’s public spheres, his name featuring in buildings, schools, and streets across the city. But the recent protests have thrust his involvement in the Atlantic slave trade into the spotlight.
“These statues are not just ordinary people. They are slave drivers and they are a representation of the elite,” Janet Alder said. “And these statues are standing over every single one of us as ordinary people.”
Changes in Bristol have been swift. Schools are considering name changes, the Colston Hall arts center has removed its name from its exterior and will change its name, and churches have replaced stained glass windows dedicated to Colston. And a wider debate is taking place over how figures from the past are venerated and how history is taught in schools.
In the US, similar debates are playing out over statues celebrating the Confederacy, as well as figures associated with the slave trade, such as Thomas Jefferson, and colonialism, such as Christopher Columbus.
“I think every country that has an imperial past, a past of the racialization of people of African descent, deal with similar issues around structural inequality,” historian and writer Edson Burton said. “Because we know that if people have been negatively racialized it tends to affect their life chances going forward.”
But people are demanding more than empty gestures.
For Burton, who lives in Bristol, the conversation taking place is one “that I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime.”
“How we respond to this current energizing moment is vital,” he said. “But it’s to an extent of how far we can progress depends on what action we can take now.”
Of course, meaningful change will require more than taking down statues. And when it comes to less visible forms of institutional racism — such as employment opportunities for Black people, immigration, and policing — change may come at a slower pace.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has launched an inquiry into racial inequality that some critics have called an empty gesture.
“We’ve always welcomed people coming together and giving collective testimony and government conducting independent research analysis,” Ffrench said. “However, when you keep doing that and you keep ignoring what you find, is what we call the whitewash. It’s a distraction. It has no meaning. It’s there to tire people out and then becomes another form of institutional racism.”
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Burton blasted what he called as a “gradualist approach towards change,” too.
“If we don’t make movement on them now they will last for another generation,” he said. “We’ll be having the same conversations again.”
Meanwhile, activists energized by the protests won’t slow down any time soon.
“Racism exists everywhere — even here in the UK,” Ffrench said. “And in order for it to be eradicated, we must be mindful, supportive, but most of all, vocal. That it has no place in the 21st century, or any other century.”
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