We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

(c) Sean Rayford / Getty Images

A challenge to power

Race
United States

‘I’m eight years old, I’m unarmed and I have nothing that will hurt you.’ Ariel has rehearsed this line. She looks into the camera as she says it, holding her hands up, her feet dangling from her chair. Her father, who sits beside her, explains that, at home, they practise how to deal with the police.

During the short video, other black American parents describe how they teach their children ways to react to the police, which include how to try to stay alive when confronted with the people paid to protect them.

It’s difficult viewing, but these parents are not prepared to take any chances. Of the 987 people killed by US police in 2017, nearly a quarter were black. Twelve were under 18.

The assault against black people, perpetuated by the police and by others, has brought a renewed urgency to US anti-racist campaigning and has sparked a global response that enough is enough – for black people everywhere.

Grief and anger

The turning point came six years ago when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, as he walked from a local shop to his father’s house in Florida. The death provoked protests worldwide as people demanded Zimmerman be prosecuted.

‘If the police continue to kill black men and women with impunity, the kind of urban rebellions that shook American society in the 1960s are a distinct possibility. This isn’t the 1960s, but the 21st century – and with a black president and a black attorney general serving in Washington. People surely expect more,’ wrote Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at the time, as the wait continued for Zimmerman’s arrest.

On 11 April 2012, more than 40 days after he killed Martin, Zimmerman was charged with murder. On 13 July 2013, he was acquitted by a jury invoking the stand-your-ground law, which allows people to use force to protect themselves against real and perceived threats.

Following the news via social media in Britain, Martin’s killing, and the reaction of the state and press, stuck with me. It was a stark reminder that being black reduces how people value your life and your right to live it – that my male family members could be seen as threatening because of the colour of their skin and that other people would consider such a reaction justified.

I wasn’t alone. In Trayvon Martin – an unarmed teenager wearing a hooded top, headphones and carrying sweets – black people around the world saw their sons and brothers. A July 2013 poll found that 87 per cent of black Americans said the shooting was unjustified, while just 33 per cent of white people felt the same.

Over 90 per cent of black Americans voted for Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections, but a black man in the White House was not going to undo hundreds of years of racism in a society built upon the foundations of slavery.

Martin was one of many black people killed by supposed upholders of the law during the Obama administration, representing, as Angela Davis wrote in 2014, ‘an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extra-legal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan, to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes’.

Race was still a major factor in how every part of black Americans’ lives panned out. For example, between 2009 and 2012, as the US began to crawl out of recession, the income of black households declined by nearly 11 per cent (compared to a 3.6 per cent decline for white households).

The collective grief and anger which spilled over after Martin’s death brought fresh energy to civil rights activism. After the news of Zimmerman’s acquittal, Alicia Garza – an activist in Oakland – took to Facebook, writing: ‘There’s a section of America… cheering and celebrating right now, and that makes me sick to my stomach... I continue to be surprised how little black lives matter.’ Los Angeles-based Patrisse Khan-Cullors reposted Garza’s words, adding the social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, and the two joined with New York-based Opal Tometi to spread the message across social media, building what would become Black Lives Matter, a campaign network of over 40 chapters across the US. It would also become a rallying cry around which a new generation of civil rights activists throughout the world could act.

Assa Traore, the elder sister of Adama Traore takes part in a commemorative demonstration, July 2017, one year after he died.
Assa Traore, the elder sister of Adama Traore takes part in a commemorative demonstration, July 2017, one year after he died.
Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

Trial by media

TAKE ACTION

US

Black Lives Matter
blacklivesmatter.com

Movement for Black Lives
policy.m4bl.org

We The Protesters
wetheprotesters.org

Radical Monarchs
radicalmonarchs.org

Britain

Black Lives Matter UK
@ukblm

United Friends and Family Campaign (UFFC)
uffcampaign.org

Canada

Black Lives Matter Canada
blacklivesmatter.ca

Brazil

Fórum de Juventudes do Rio de Janeiro
facebook.com/ forumdejuventuderj

Reaja ou Será Morto! (React or Die!)
reajaouseramortx.com

France

Brigade Anti Négrophobie
@Antinegrophobie

Australia

Democracy In Colour
democracyincolour.org

SOS Blak Australia
sosblakaustralia.com

Trayvon Martin’s death was one in a stream of killings increasingly visible on social media. On 17 July 2014, 43-year-old Eric Garner was killed in New York City after being put in a chokehold, his face held down on the sidewalk, as he repeatedly told police officers, ‘I can’t breathe’. A video of Garner’s final moments quickly went global.

The killings continued: 18-year-old Michael Brown shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, making Ferguson the epicentre of protests for weeks.

Then, in November 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police in Cleveland, Ohio. He was holding a toy gun. The protests continued.

Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Rosan Miller… With the news of each killing, the dead would also face trial by media.

‘Black brutality victims are almost always described as beings of superhuman strength, next to whom police are frail mortals,’ wrote journalist Matt Taibbi in his 2017 book I Can’t Breathe: The Killing That Started a Movement. ‘Try to imagine a world where there isn’t a vast unspoken consensus that black men are inherently scary, and most of these police assaults would play in the media like spontaneous attacks of madness. Instead, they’re sold as battle scenes from an occupation story, where a quick trigger finger while patrolling the planet of a violent alien race is easy to understand.’

A global struggle

With social media undercutting reliance on mainstream media or police sources for information on what was happening to black people, a new wave of black liberation movements – often with women and LGBTQ+ people at the forefront – became more visible around the world. From Britain to Germany, South Africa to Australia, black people recognized the feeling that our lives mattered less.

Less than six months after Rice was killed, 10-year-old Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira was shot by police in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil when they apparently mistook his cellphone for a gun. The killing was filmed by a member of Papo Reto (Straight Talk), a collective which documents abuses and reports police violence in the favelas.

‘The reality in Brazil is that a person is killed several times,’ explained Raull Santiago of Papo Reto in 2016. ‘First, they are killed by the actual bullet. Then, they are killed by the media narrative, which parrots the police version of events by describing that person as criminal and assassinating their reputation. And finally, they are killed by the legal systems that fail to hold perpetrators accountable.’

In Europe, similar struggles were taking place. In France – where talking about race is taboo and barely any official data on it is collected – what happened to Babacar Guèye, killed by police when he wouldn’t drop a knife he had been using to harm himself, or Adama Traoré, who died in police custody after an ID check, as well as to many other black men who died after contact with the police, have brought people out on to the streets under the banner of Black Lives Matter.

The UK saw its first Black Lives Matter day of action in August 2016, building on decades of organizing against racism and police violence in the form of groups like the United Families and Friends Campaign.

Black Lives Matter protesters blocked roads in several major cities, including into London’s Heathrow airport, to coincide with the anniversary of the death of Mark Duggan, who had been shot dead by police in 2011, sparking riots across the country.

Black Lives Matter’s British debut came just a month after the UK voted to leave the European Union. In the 11 months after the referendum, with a Leave campaign largely built upon racism and the scapegoating of migrants, racial and religious hate crimes in England and Wales rose by 23 per cent. The racism beneath the surface of British society had emerged with a new confidence.

The spike in numbers was bringing street racism to the attention of people who had previously been able to ignore it, and it was holding up a mirror to the connection between physical, political and state violence. The 2016 ‘Healing a divided Britain’ report found that, in England, 37.4 per cent of black people felt unsafe in their homes or around their local area.10 Many of us had experienced street level racism long before Brexit.

Trayvon Martin’s killing was a stark reminder that being black reduces how people value your life and your right to live it

Black Lives Matter’s entry into Britain prompted some to ask the question: ‘But aren’t things so much worse in the US?’ While guns are nowhere near as much of an issue, the police and criminal justice system lets black people down at every stage. Rates of prosecution and sentencing for black people in England and Wales are three times higher than for white people.10

Sarah Reed, Sheku Bayoh, Sean Rigg, Rashan Charles, Kingsley Burrell are just some of the black people who have died in police custody in Britain over the past 10 years.

In Australia, Jack Latimore, a Goori writer and researcher based in Melbourne, believes that the profile of the Black Lives Matter campaign could a have a positive knock-on effect for indigenous rights. In November 2017 he met with Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Rodney Diverlus from Black Lives Matter, when they travelled to Australia to accept the Sydney Peace Prize.

Latimore feels that the visit could bring more attention to indigenous struggles as he sees a strength in uniting people under a ‘global blackness’. He views social media as an important aspect of this, to ‘go beyond the media concentration that we have and access greater, more informed and nuanced representations of blackness and indigeneity’. He talks of an appetite for exchanging knowledge about activism and organizing to counter ‘the ongoing colonial project in the form of state institutions that are geared against people from indigenous or “black” communities’.

The new generation of black-led activism has made it harder for countries that outwardly promote themselves as ‘diverse’ or ‘tolerant’ to sweep race under the carpet. It also forces the (often majority) white population to confront their whiteness.

‘The idea of white privilege forces white people who aren’t actively racist to confront their own complicity in its continuing existence,’ writes Reni Eddo-Lodge in her 2017 book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. This does not ‘mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.’

Built on racism

‘Anything that says let’s reform, let’s make changes here, let’s get acceptance – that’s not radical’

For hundreds of years, whiteness has been relied upon to keep those with power in power. Colonialism, white privilege and capitalism go hand in hand. ‘The West is built on racism,’ says Kehinde Andrews, Associate Professor in Sociology at Birmingham City University in Britain. ‘The fundamental organizing principle of the society we live in is white supremacy. The West is the best, the West takes resources from those people who are not in the West, who are not white and has built empires through colonialism and slavery… It’s not a coincidence that Africa is the poorest continent in the world and the white countries are the richest.’

For Andrews the way to disrupt this is through black radicalism: a radical politics that is about embracing blackness in the African diaspora across borders. ‘To be radical, the goal of the politics has to be to overturn the existing political economic system,’ he explains. ‘Anything that says let’s reform, let’s make changes here, let’s get acceptance – that’s not radical.’

Although he sees it as a positive development, Andrews is not convinced that Black Lives Matter has taken its fight deep enough – at least not so far. ‘What we do far too much is focus on the symptoms of racism which are ever-present, such as police brutality… there’s lots of symptoms of racism but we don’t ever focus on the disease. The disease is the system,’ he says.

Racism is an integral part of the world’s power structures, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. We are in challenging times politically, but there is also an opportunity to disrupt the notion that this is just simply ‘the way things are’ as the establishment is challenged from the Left and the Right.

Black and indigenous people are on the frontline of some of the most important fights for social and environmental justice across the world. While anti-racist activism is not new, these new movements remind us that not only do black lives matter, but that we can organize, mobilize and prove a real challenge to power. We have the power within us.

Amy Hall is is a freelance journalist, working for New Internationalist and openDemocracy, among others. She is a member of Shoal Collective, a co-operative writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism.

New Internationalist issue 510 magazine cover This article is from the February 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop