Many stayed up through the night watching distant footage and livestreams of protests against the killing of a black man at the hands of the police. The circulating images of crowds demanding justice sounded the familiar chant of ‘no justice, no peace’ and ‘black lives matter’. Militarised lines of law-enforcement formed and barricades were constructed in response. The daytime streets of the US became worldwide viewing for those who could not sleep through their own night while things were kicking off.
That was the international response in 2014 as Ferguson, Missouri came to terms with the public death of Michael Brown. Eventually buses, reminiscent of the Freedom Riders, would arrive from other corners of the United States to offer their support. But in the UK and elsewhere, the initial response could be little more than to watch.
Those of us not in the United States find ourselves in much the same position half a decade on, as George Floyd’s killing is mourned and protested throughout the US. Just as it did in 2014, the anger today has quickly spilled over into an uprising. While familiar condemnatory tones circulate about the damage to property and looting, we risk once again silencing those who cry out for justice. As we live through this moment in their battle, our solidarity has lessons to learn from previous rounds of struggle.
The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr is easily and often quoted by critics of violent protest. His commitment to the strategy of nonviolence is widely taught, though it seems doubtful that those who evoke his memory at times of rioting are, as the civil rights leader was, truly on a ‘pilgrimage to nonviolence’. It is true that King was critical of rioting and would likely repeat his pacifist commitment today, but his criticism was measured by appreciation of why people riot.
Those who support a more understanding approach also quote King, turning to his 1967 lecture The Other America. Though often shared as a truncated motto, the wider context of the quote makes his point clear:
America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.
King may have spoken those words over 50 years ago, but as Minniapolis and other cities across the United States begin to speak again in that language, we must ask: what is it that we have failed to hear today? King posed the question to America, yet those who rush to give their analysis and not their solidarity from afar must answer the same question.
It was for this reason that, in 2015 and following the initial wave of protests in Ferguson, organisers from the emerging US Black Lives Matter movement were invited to the UK on a solidarity tour. They joined public events with the families of Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Christopher Alder, Leon Briggs, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, and many others whose loved ones had died following contact with the police across this country. It was an opportunity to listen to those who had been on the streets in America and to learn lessons from the type of movement they were trying to build. But it was also a chance for British unheard families to speak and to be listened to, as they had not been before the US situation became internationally prominent.
In October of the same year, the exchange ran the other way. Marcia Rigg, Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, Shaun Hall and Kadisha Brown-Burrell (pictured above), all representing someone who had died in British police custody, toured communities across California with Black Lives Matter activists. As well as sharing their campaigns with many in the US who were not aware of the British version of their struggle, these families were able to learn from the many community organisations they met: about the structures activists were developing to support those affected by law-enforcement killings, about how these deaths are linked to the school-to-prison pipeline and about calls to defund the police as a route to saving black lives.
Far too often, we think of US police brutality as unique and exceptional. The stories that families on both sides of the Atlantic have to share prove otherwise. In 2016, direct actions and protests across England took up the Black Lives Matter UK moniker to highlight our very own continuing legacy of state violence. In the years that followed, we continued to see deaths, losing Dalian Atkinson, Mohammed Yassar Yaqqub, and 20 other black and minority ethnic (BAME) people following police contact from 2017-2020. If George Floyd’s death and the mass response to it is a consequence of black America being left unheard, what consequence can we expect when black Britain is equally silenced?
Some will continue to decry a ‘violent’ response to violent racism. In King’s quote, the most haunting subject is not the riot, however, but the unheard. It is likely that, however much fires blaze in the US right now, racism will live on in that land – and here at home too. But still the unheard will go on speaking. There is a choice for people to make: do you go on failing to listen, preferring a tranquil road, built on refusals to recognise racism? Or can we silence the voices that condemn only responses to state violence?
Those who have known state violence, anywhere in the world, have much to teach us about justice. Our role is to be quiet until we have found where they are speaking, and can join in their shouts of ‘no justice, no peace’.
Wail Qasim is a writer and anti-racist campaigner based in London
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