Dismal grey clouds hang low and gloomy in St Albans on Friday evening as more than 1,000 people space out in Verulamium Park. Lightning energy comes in the form of Shelley Hayes, a black mother born and raised in the city, who takes the mic and stands on a plywood table turned makeshift stage.
“George Floyd can’t just be another name. The knee has always been [on] our neck and we can’t breathe. Enough is enough with overt racism, covert racism, the microaggressions every day!” Cheers ripple down the park. A sign reading ‘Treat Racism Like Covid’ bobs high, while Hayes calls for local schools to recruit black governors and for children to be taught a decolonised history. “If you don’t think St Albans has a problem, wake up – we have it massively and we need you allies. We need every race to stand up.”
Hayes has no experience of organising protest and works as a childminder. “St Albans has never seen anything like this. For the first time in my life, I feel change is coming.”
This small Hertfordshire city on the commuter belt is overwhelmingly white but the crowd is broadly mixed in ethnicity, age and class. Parents have been brought by their children and vice versa. The last time Kate Cooper and Nick Scott say they demonstrated was against the poll tax in 1990. “We had to be here and do something,” says Cooper, “if you don’t speak out now, you are tolerating racism.”
To the surprise of established activists, Black Lives Matter protests mushrooming across the country have not been divided by racial lines, nor co-opted by experienced leaders. Despite the pandemic, hundreds of peaceful demonstrations have taken place over the last week with more than 155,000 protestors gathering organically, by word of mouth and social media, without networks or experience.
In British towns from Ledbury to Prestwich, Darlington to Blackpool, anger and frustration at generations of racial injustice has burned up young, first-time activists. A DIY sense of community is palpable; scrappy homemade signs and face masks replace glossy placards and loudspeakers.
“I’m asthmatic. I’ve been shielding for 12 weeks and I know the Covid risks are even higher for me as they are for all BAME people, but this is life and death too,” says Khady Gueye who has lived in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, her whole life.
Gueye and Eleni Eldridge-Tull, both 24-year-old students, tell the Observer that they pitched “a celebration of BAME culture” in Bathurst Park, Gloucestershire. Having secured agreement from the police, the local and district councils, they methodically planned for up to 1,200 people to attend the event on Friday socially distanced by cones set three metres apart. Gueye weathered significant racist abuse for her efforts but was also surprised by the support received. Yet, at the 11th hour on Thursday evening, Lydney council withdrew its support in a letter signed by the mayor in a decision taken without the knowledge or vote of other councillors.
“They underlined All Lives Matter three times in the letter,” says Eldridge-Tull. “We were forced to cancel.” The slogan “All Lives Matter” is often used as a hostile rebuttal and a critique that overlooks the premise that if all lives did matter equally, then the Black Lives Matter movement would not need to exist.
“This is a very white area and that’s why I felt it was extra important to have this positive message, to help people become aware,” says Gueye. “I am upset, but I can’t be the angry black girl. I’ll get told ‘this is classic, pathetic black behaviour, you always feel sorry for yourself’. It’s sad I can’t express my emotions and am allowing [others] to control the way I behave, but the area I live in means I would rather not get emotionally involved in case I hinder the movement as a whole.”
In Ramsgate, 2,000 people marched peacefully on Saturday afternoon along the coast to Broadstairs, a follow-up to a similarly well-supported demonstration last week. “I almost had a heart attack last weekend – we were expecting 500 and 3,000 turned up,” says Ayaan Bulale.
Bulale, a 46-year-old British-Somali mother from Margate, says she is “a keyboard warrior” with no prior experience of organising street protests but she is undeterred by threats of violence from the far right and football gangs, which led to a number of protests being cancelled.
“I was 17 when I watched the video of Rodney King beaten by the LAPD and I can never watch one of those videos again. My own daughter is 17 now and this has set her on fire. I am used to these things being a trend – white people move on very quickly – but this feels different. It’s like people are waking up, they’re understanding they need to be part of the conversation and reprogramme themselves to be anti-racist. They’re asking me for book recommendations, that’s never happened before.”
The district has been hit hard by the coronavirus, with an unemployment rate the highest in Kent at 9%. In some wards, child poverty runs at 50%. Yet on Wednesday, local Tory MP Craig McKinlay called for the statue of Edward Colston, toppled in Bristol by anti-racist campaigners and dunked in the Avon river, to be rehoused in Ramsgate.
“Our own MP has also claimed racism doesn’t exist here,” says Bulale. “No racism, but we had the only Ukip council in the country?”
Although the momentum is still building, older campaigners in the UK are unsure how the movement will harness energy for change. The vacuum in leadership is another concern.
Black Lives Matter UK, which has taken more than £1m in donations in recent weeks, had remained dormant until recently and has regrouped with a core of around 10 activists. Joshua Virasami, who has been with the movement since its incarnation, says the left must unite unequivocally if the battle is to be won.
“Sectarianism will be the death of us – but people are really belligerent about their politics,” he says. “That said, there is something unique about the fact Black Lives Matter is a ubiquitous slogan people can call out. You don’t have to be a black Marxist or a person of colour to understand that it’s about being for justice. For now, it’s an umbrella for everyone.”