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Why don’t people turn out for black British causes?

It’s shameful that we get angrier about America’s problems than our own

As Black History Month draws to a close in the UK we're aiming to shine a spotlight on those driving things forward. #DazedBlackFutures is a tribute to the artists, activists, designers and key voices shaping black British culture for the next gen.

This year was my third year marching in solidarity at the United Friends and Family Campaign (UFFC) Annual Remembrance Procession. The demonstration, which happens every year on the last Saturday of October, is organised by the friends and relatives of those who have been killed at the hands of the state. UFFC, which is chaired by Marcia Rigg, sister of Sean Rigg who died in police custody. She has been demanding justice for nine years now.

Despite the fact there have been multiple high-profile deaths in police custody in the UK – one of which led to muted so-called “riots” on the streets of Hackney – the turnout was disappointingly low. Weirdly, we seem to give more precedence to issues that are removed from us. This was something which Black Lives Matter UK helped to highlight last year alongside the high profile death of Mzee Mohammad. But, in reality, last year’s summer of activism was undoubtedly driven by events in the US. The killings of Philando Castile, Alton SterlingTerence Crutcher (the list goes on) were rightly met with outrage, but I am yet to see the streets lined with thousands of protesters over black British issues.

Every major Black Lives Matter march that saw huge crowds was in aid of an American case, while our homegrown movements still fight for attention. Our obsession with the  American plight overshadows our own, as the response often levelled against those who raise questions about race relations in the UK is that “it could be worse”. The fact that we aren’t publicly shot down in the street is not a cause for celebration. As one placard at the march noted: police brutality is not just an American issue. 

Last year’s UFFC drew huge crowds so you can only wonder what changed? This year, I saw the familiar faces of some seasoned activists and met some more recently formed groups, but where was the indignation, the passion, and the outraged support from the public?

At the rally this year there were new faces. But these were new faces of more lives lost, and not justice delivered. Grenfell is undoubtedly a colossal failure that impacted poor black and brown families the most. A speaker from the tower reminded us that there has been barely any justice in what many felt was racist, classist social cleansing.

Although Grenfell is an event that touched many, I could not say with any honesty it garnered crowds as big as the Women’s March, anti-Trump demos or American cases of police brutality. We have to remember that the deaths of black people at the hands of the state is not an isolated issue, but an issue which affects wider society. The people and processes that should protect and support us have let us down repeatedly.

A recent report by David Lammy found that despite popular belief there is greater disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons here than in the United States. Police in areas with higher proportions of ethnic minorities receive the most complaints, and deaths in custody remain an overlooked, contentious issue. 

Yes, there are fewer viral videos but there are some cases that have CCTV. Even when we have seen the beating of Sarah Reed and heard the monkey noises chanted at Christopher Alder we can’t bring ourselves to fight for answers for long enough.

INQUEST, a nationwide charity that documents each fatality, supports families and provides them with vital information needed to seek answers estimates over 1,630 lives have been lost at the hands of the state. No one has been brought to book for these deaths. If we truly care about justice, we need to not only turn up as a reaction to events but to follow through in supporting the sustained calls for justice after the events.

We know that justice is not going to be granted instantaneously and that the struggle will continue even after the initial outrage is over. The UFFC annual remembrance procession is powerful because it shows that together we are stronger. It shows that we understand that justice for all those lost in police custody, in prisons, in mental health custody, is linked. But if we can’t get behind a movement against the deaths of our own then who else will?

As someone who has been involved in activist circles, from the NUS Black Students’ Campaign to Black Women's Forum UK, I understand that my proximity to the movement is closer than most. I wasn't always in these circles though, but I knew after listening to people talk, people who have lost family members and friends, and the savage ways in which the state had led to these, that this would be one demonstration that I will always return to.

“In reality, last year’s summer of activism was undoubtedly driven by events in the US while our homegrown movements still fight for attention, as one placard at the march noted: police brutality is not just an American issue”

The responsibility for creating a supportive community should not be on UFFC alone. We can all use our positions to affect change. UFFC have called for a larger turnout at the next demonstration next year, which will mark their 20th year. We need all of those who have called for recognition that Black Lives Matter to come out and support the continued fight for these lives to matter. We need the black community especially to support this direct call to the government, as well as our allies. We are stronger together.

Justice for Sarah Reed, Leon Patterson, Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell, Edson da Costa and so many more whose names you might not have even heard. We need to be strong and we need to be united.