It all started with a hashtag.
At trial, lawyers for Zimmerman tried to make the argument that Martin was somehow at fault—implying that he had marijuana in his system the night he was shot. Zimmerman was later acquitted, but many continued judging and attacking Martin.
According to the movement's website, “#BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”
The movement just celebrated its third birthday on July 13th, and what started as an American, social media phenomenon has grown.
— Black Lives Matter (@Blklivesmatter) July 13, 2016
It is no longer just about American society anymore.
Now other countries are getting involved, showing their support for activists and persons of color here in the US, and sometimes taking relevant discourses and adapting them to also make them relevant in their specific countries.
— #BLM London (@BLMLDNMovement) July 7, 2016
London kicked off several days of Black Lives Matter actions on July 8th, and people young and old, flooded the streets.
— Fully Focused (@UKfullyfocused) July 12, 2016
“People were defiant and proud to be speaking out, and adamant that their voice would be heard loud and clear,” explains Sef, a film maker who ended up at the first London action almost completely by chance.
“I was leaving a meeting and saw people marching across the Southbank area opposite the Houses Of Parliament in Westminster,” he explains, “I'm a film maker but didn't have any cameras on me other than my phones. I decided to follow the march and document it with what I had available.” Sef started by just taking a few still shots, but as the crowd grew, he decided it might be best to live stream the march on Periscope.
“This was all happening on a Friday night and it was surreal to see so many people marching peacefully and bringing Central London to a standstill,” he says, “I've lived in London all my life but have never seen anything so spontaneous by so many different types of people.”
— #BLM London (@BLMLDNMovement) July 10, 2016
People are organizing in support of persons of color in the US, but they also have their own concerns—relevant to their specific, national context. For example, in the UK, there has been some concern regarding perceived media bias when it comes to coverage of Black Lives Matter movements. “They were angry that the BBC hadn’t covered what was going on fairly, so they turned up in huge numbers at their doorstep to let them know that they weren’t exactly impressed with that,” explains Sef.
People in Britain also have their own concerns when it comes to the way the police there relate to the people, and Black Lives Matter activism has now brought these concerns into mainstream conversation. “There has always been division and tension between the police and a number of ethnic and religious groups,” explains Sef, “It’s fair to say it’s not as violent or brutal as what we see in the US as the majority of police here aren’t armed, but there is a deep-rooted issue dated back a very long time.”
Sef also drew an interesting parallel between Black Lives Matter discourses, and discourses on Brexit in the UK. “The UK is coming off the back of the Brexit vote which was one of the most divisive and racist political campaigns this country has ever seen,” he says, “People are now realizing that those leading it didn’t actually have a plan for what comes next, and it’s the rest of us that will pay for that.” Sef goes on to remind leadership, both here in the States and in the UK, that they cannot deny people their right to dignity, peace and safety.
Sef offers a very useful piece of advice for Black Lives Matter activists here in the US: “Never be silenced and don't let those that benefit from division win. It's the oldest tactic in the playbook.”
Ireland has had several Black Lives Matter actions. On July 12th, Anti-Racism Network Ireland & the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) joined forces to organize demonstrations in Central Dublin, Cork city, and Galway. On July 16th, people took to the streets yet again—gathering outside the Central Bank of Ireland to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
— Áine Anu Aisling (@AineAnu) July 12, 2016
Like the English, the Irish have organized in support of American Black Lives Matter activists and persons of color, while also using Black Lives Matter discourses to address their own concerns. Eimear Clarkin took part in the July 12th protest in Dublin. “I feel like the recent wave of rightwing Islamophobia has made the average person on the street more aware of racism in Europe and in Ireland, for a start,” she says.
As for the seemingly fresh push to combat anti-Black racism specifically, Clarkin implies that the Irish media have only recently had their eyes opened to the realities of life for persons of color in the US. “Specifically in terms of anti - Black racism, the reports of unarmed Black men and women being killed by police in the USA have started to make the national news in the last two years,” she says. Clarkin continues, noting that, “We have seen the stories on social media but the fact that the national TV broadcaster is also sharing those stories has had an impact on people.”
Irish activists have now made it so they share the task of informing the public with media professionals. The day of the protest in Dublin, activists stood on street corners, held signs, and spoke the names of victims of police brutality.
As the saying goes, “”The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting you have one.” The relationship between police and persons of color is just the “tip of the iceberg.” Clarkin offers a nuanced analysis of the situation faced by persons of color in Ireland. “Institutional racism and violence against Black people is best represented in Ireland, not by the police,” she says, “but in the system of direct provision which keeps refugees and asylum seekers in poverty and without any freedom to interact with Irish people or Irish communities.” The system of direct provision has come under fire for cutting people off from mainstream society—forcing them to live only in crowded accommodations designated for refugees and asylum seekers, and requiring them to take their meals at designated times, among other things.
As one solution, Clarkin also suggests that the Gardaí (the Irish police) need to have their eyes opened in the same way the Irish media has. “For a start, I would say that the Gardaí need to admit that the Ireland that exists now is hundreds of times more diverse than it was even twenty years ago, and as a result they need to retrain and reevaluate all their members who grew up in such a different society,” she says. She continues, noting that, “The Gardaí are used to policing an Ireland which is made up of small local communities where everyone looks alike and everyone knows one another, and not enough is being done to combat the xenophobic and racist attitudes that have cropped up in our new era of multiculturalism.”
And it seems like the Gardaí might have started to get the message that day.
“I did see two Gardaí confront a white Irish man who shouted ‘No they don’t [matter]!’ and take him to one side to tell him to leave the area,” Clarkin says, “The Gardaí did their jobs and stood back for the most part.”
Protesters brought a lot to the march that day, and they certainly did not walk away empty handed. The experience was as empowering as it was educational. Clarkin describes a spoken-word performance by Clara Rose Thornton—a Black, Dublin-based, poet and journalist. That day, Thornton shared her poem, “Wet Grass.” “We don’t cover a lot of Black poets in schools here, and we rarely discuss anti-Black racism unless we’re talking about America,” explains Clarkin, “So it was powerful to hear the words ‘When did it become a sin to be brown in your vicinity? To challenge your ideas of your own divinity?’ and know that it was just as true in Ireland, it was just as important a message in Ireland, it needed to be said in Ireland.”
Clarkin also makes another interesting point about how the Black Lives Matter movement has been experienced in Ireland. “We’re so used to our history as the victims of British occupation, we find it very difficult to own up to our own prejudices and racist attitudes that all white people grow up learning,” she says, “So to hear that poem, and to have everyone standing silent, acknowledging that the only way to combat racism is to do it actively, every day, fighting our own racism as well as fighting others’, was important.”
On July 16th, nearly 2000 people took to the streets of Sydney, Australia and marched to the US Consulate for their own Black Lives Matter action.
— LITMAMI (@RazazElsir) July 15, 2016
The march was organized by Keshia Gibson & Enoch Mailangi. When asked what exactly prompted them to take up the cause, Gibson mentions the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. “Two deaths is a crisis and I was absolutely disgusted that our ancestors fought hard and long for our rights without the media avenues we have today,” says Gibson, “and yet still today in 2016…we are still without those rights, being killed purely because of the melanin that flows through our veins.”
For Gibson, Black Lives Matter is also personal. “I wanted to show support to my family members in Georgia, that I am fighting for them over here," she says, "Though I may be far away, I am always thinking of them and actually scared for them as Black men, women and children living in the States.”
Aboriginal Australians helped Mailangi & Gibson meet protocols for protesting on Aboriginal land. The Black Lives Matter movement also has special meaning for the Aboriginal community as well.
Hey Aussies! ...the black lives that matter in Australia are our Aboriginal people...Stand up for our first peoples. #blacklivesmatter
— FREE ASSANGE (@AssangeCase) July 18, 2016
When asked to characterize the relationship between Australian police and persons of color, Gibson mentions that it is actually quite similar to what we find here in the US. Be that as it may, she still remembers the planning stages of the event, where people who were opposed to the rally were saying things like “This isn’t America,” and “Stop trying to bring this problem to our peaceful country.”
No one needed to bring the problem to their country though. It was already there. Gibson notes that as of the date of our interview, the Aboriginal people of Australia had suffered 560 deaths while in custody. Here in the US, victims of police brutality are typically front page news, yet Gibson notes that those 560 deaths “…are not given any light or media attention.”
Ingrid Matthews, an academic with a background in Law and Cultural Studies was also at the march. She provides some useful context for Gibson's remarks, and makes the argument that "...state violence against Aboriginal people is part of the colonial foundation of the white Australian nation." "Aboriginal people are vastly over‐represented in the legal and prison systems," she continues, "and this is a result of heavy handed police surveillance of Aboriginal people and communities." Matthews notes that white Australians often explain away the problem by saying that it is "...a simple matter of Aboriginal people 'breaking the law'," but mentions that "...this ignores the institutionalized racism of the individual police and an aggressive police culture." To illustrate the point, Matthews refers to specific laws which she says "criminalize poverty and transience and therefore Aboriginal people, who are more visible as well as over-represented among the homeless, transient and low-income groups."
In some ways, then, the Sydney action was not only a way to show solidarity with persons of color in the United States. It was also a call to action.
When asked what needs to change between police and persons of color, Gibson expresses a hope that the deaths of people in custody will be addressed, and that the police and the authorities will be held accountable—especially in cases where a death in custody was ruled an “accident” or a “suicide.”
“Like the saying goes: ‘No justice, no peace’,” she exclaims.
To persons of color here in the US, Gibson offers some words of encouragement: “Stand strong my brothers and sisters, we are united with you standing in solidarity, have no fear! Our lives do matter and we will continue to fight with you across the globe.”
Gibson sent along a picture which says more than any concluding paragraph I could ever write for this article. In it, 10 people, of all different races and religions, stand huddled together at the Sydney protest with their fists raised.
I challenge anyone to find me a better show of solidarity, and a better call to action!