On Friday evening a rally was held in Altab Ali park, Whitechapel, as part of the day-long launch of nationwide #Shutdown protests against prejudice, discrimination, and police killings, organised by the UKBLM movement.
There were very moving accounts from various speakers whose families have been deeply affected by police killings and the institutional racism and self-preservation that invariably follows.
Among the string of speakers were Marcia Rigg, who spoke of her ongoing 8-year fight for justice for Sean Rigg, who died at Brixton police station in August 2008, and Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennet, who told of her unimaginable torment and the litany of appalling corruption, lies and cover-ups over the death of her twin brother Leon Patterson who died at the hands of Greater Manchester Police in 1992. She finally received the death certificate last week – her fight for truth and justice goes on.
There has been a distinct lack of diversity among a majority of protest movements in the UK for many years, despite the glaring truth that many social justice issues affect people of colour disproportionately. It also seemed for a while that young people were disengaged, perhaps after the violent quashing of the student fees protest movement in 2010.
However, it looks like this might be changing, as political mobilisation, especially among the young, is on the rise. The newly appointed president of the NUS, who also spoke at the rally, is Malia Bouattia, a black Muslim woman with a refreshingly uncompromising attitude. She spoke against the racist and divisive Prevent strategy, which criminalises thought, and also warned about the new Extremism Bill which attacks all of us who think a different world is urgently needed as well as possible!
The exciting thing too, is that there seems to be more connections happening – student rights, economics, climate change, sexual politics and equality. While I’m not advocating diluting the BLM message, it was interesting to see visible support from many LGBTQ activists among the truly diverse crowd of several hundred attending. Sisters Uncut also supported the rally and the wider #Shutdown movement, recognising a common fight against racist state violence and police brutality.
The SWP were there of course, with a batch of their branded banners, and with plenty of newspapers to sell. A BLM speaker asked for people to sign up online to an email list (on their FB page), but suggested that ‘other groups’ in the park may also ask for email addresses, and to use discretion whether to do so – a reminder that not all groups shared the same clear agenda. Meanwhile, someone was quietly ripping the SWP branding off a stack of banners, something that I’d recommend as standard practice – it was great to see.
A large purpose of the rally seemed to be to share experiences and to build and strengthen networks, so to this end, it split into four smaller groups for a while (based on North/South/East/West London), to facilitate communication and to discuss building a widening movement.
Police ‘Liaison Officers’ prowled the park, listening in to these meetings, while a high-resolution police camera van surveilled the park from one of the entrances, collecting images of all involved.
After a brief concluding statement from BLM activist Wail Quasim, the plan was for some #Shutdown direct action, but as a small group carrying a large ‘Stand Up To Racism’ banner led people out of the park, the SWP issue reached boiling point as female activists refused to march alongside SWP representatives, including Gary McFarlane, on account of the SWP’s mishandling, cover-up, apologism and sexism regarding rape allegations over several years.
McFarlane refused to step aside, and the banner was physically grappled over for a short while, but then, as knowledge of the issue spread, almost the entire crowd turned back into the park, refusing to follow the small group who took to the road, despite the initial plan for a mass #shutdown.
So while networking, communication and debate continued on the grass, and people began to drift away into the night, the banner group (no more than a couple of dozen, and not all of them SWP), caused havoc on Whitechapel High Street, eventually blocking the junction with Commercial Street and gridlocking traffic for the next 40 minutes.
Interestingly, the police were on clear instruction from above to avoid conflict at all costs – wish that it was ever so! Two blue-bibbed Liaison Officers watched protesters sit in front of vehicles and only occasionally engaged with irate motorists, telling them that the protest would probably move on in a while and to remain calm.
A white man on a moped, angry at first, argued and then debated with two female activists, who gradually persuaded him round to their view.
Adding to the gridlock, first a coach took to the wrong side of the road at the bottom of Commercial Street, and then a delivery lorry travelling west, also drove on the wrong side of the road, hoping to turn right, but finding his path blocked by the coach. His lorry then effectively blocked the eastbound flow.
After around 30 minutes, a vanload of police arrived, and a further 3 TSG vans rushed through the junction and seemingly parked up nearby out of sight. I expected the familiar pushing to begin, but instead, the police facilitated the coach driver reversing back to his rightful place and then let the lorry through. This meant that a little traffic flow could begin.
Back at the park, people were beginning to disperse, and at the same time, the banner crew decided to head off up Commercial Street and apparently towards Tottenham, followed by hands-off police.
The solidarity in disassociating with SWP was novel and powerful, while the #shutdown itself showed what just a few people can achieve. Imagine a co-ordinated wave of small groups closing key junctions across London at the same time – with careful planning, a very powerful protest could be accomplished. The UK BLM movement is in its infancy and looks set to grow. With the protests at Heathrow and in Nottingham and Birmingham on Friday, they certainly made their mark. And with support and solidarity from other groups, who knows what changes are possible.