A Conversation on Black Lives Matter

Annabel Nugent talks with Equality, Liberation and Access officer Hannah Dualeh about the BLM movement, anti-black violence, dismantling institutionalised racism and finally how to be a supportive ally.

In 2013 Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted. Since then a long history of police brutality against black people has finally been brought to the forefront of the public’s attention, most recently with the killing of Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. Originating from the powerful hashtag #BlackLivesMatter (BLM), the BLM movement has developed across the US and the UK as black communities and their allies work towards dismantling institutionalised racism which leaves anti-black violence unquestioned and unanswered.

I spoke with Bristol University’s Equality, Liberation and Access Officer Hannah Dualeh about BLM, structural racism, the role of social media in the movement, the negative counter movement ‘All Lives Matter’, what makes a supportive ally and why the BLM movement is shrouded in controversy.

Annabel: There have been numerous haunting videos of police brutality against black people, including the highly-publicised murders of Eric Garner and Philando Castel, which have circulated on global news channels and reached the iPhones of millennials across the world. And on a more personal level, Hannah, your Facebook posts range from articles sharing information on BLM protests to videos analysing the microaggressions that occur in everyday life. How do you think social media has shaped and furthered the BLM movement? How has social media allowed you to personally engage? And can you see any drawbacks to social media for the movement?

Hannah: Social media, is without question such an important mechanism for reaching other people and spreading your message. Whether you’re friends with someone or not, your message has the high probability of reaching someone else and causing them to think about what you’re communicating. It’s important for myself as a black person and as a black woman to not only take up space that is often not accessible for me, but also to be able to follow what’s going on in the USA, in the UK and globally to black people; we know the mainstream media has a tendency to callously under-report the violence black people face. However, the reality is that black lives matter activists and people who share their beliefs are under surveillance for having these viewpoints.

Another important power of social media is it provides those who are often denied spaces to express their views the power to communicate and express their thoughts and how they feel. For example, I often don’t have a space to communicate how I feel about political issues or to express my emotions regarding the treatment of black people, specifically black women. So using social media is a cathartic space for me to learn, share and express what is important to me.

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Annabel: Recently, the White Lives Matter Movement has been classified as a hate group but still all too often, the declaration ‘Black Lives Matter’ is met with ‘umm… shouldn’t it be All Lives Matter’? What those people are missing is that no one is telling white people, for instance, that their lives don’t matter – but that we do live in a world where a judicial system  ignores police brutality against black people and acts of murder go unpunished. Can you elaborate a little on your point of view on ‘White Lives Matter’?

Hannah: I can’t speak on behalf of the black lives matter movement, but as a supporter and advocate for black liberation I get frustrated and angered at the ‘all lives matter’ band. If all lives matter, and white lives matter too, where were these people when Mark Duggan was shot dead by police? Where were all these people, who believe all lives matter when Rekia Boyd was shot dead by police? I do not, and will not entertain those that trump the ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘White Lives Matter’ slogan because once again, it’s a form of centering and distracting the spotlight we as black people are trying to place on the systematic violence and degradation we experience everyday for just being black. It just confirms that even when we are saying black lives matter, black lives really don’t matter because we shouldn’t be saying that. It shows even more that white people (the majority make up of White Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements) do not want the injustices black people live with by the police or the government to be acknowledged. Those movements and slogans are in themselves designed to perpetuate violence towards black people as they do not acknowledge the ongoing and societal oppression black people live with daily because it is always compared to the default ‘white people’ or voice. They in fact prove why this movement is needed as those statements devalue black lives by suggesting the issues black people face should not be valued, or are even important enough to voice. Black Lives Matter is not an anti-white statement.

Annabel: And what would you say to non-black PoC who are rallying for a more inclusive slogan, which that can encompass their experiences of racism as well?

Hannah: For non-black POC, with anti-blackness that is so prevalent in non-black POC communities it needs to be reflected upon when they attempt to expand the Black Lives Matter movement. The experiences of Black people differ to non-black POC because of the white supremacist society we live in, and the history of black people globally and in the UK reflects this. For example out of the British national prison population, 10% are black and 6% are Asian. For black Britons this is significantly higher than the 2.8% of the general population they represent. We need to acknowledge the severity of state violence black people face and this is what this movement seeks to address.

Annabel: Originally the movement was started by three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, who coined the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter after George Zimmerman was acquitted for Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2013. Since then women have played a huge role in organising marches, rallies and generally strengthening the BLM movement. Is the BLM movement creating a solidarity that is beyond gender? When the majority of the victims of police brutality are men, why do you think women are playing such a huge role in the movement?

Hannah: You’re correct, the Black Lives Matter movement was started by three black women; three black queer women. The movement is intersectional because we cannot fight for black lives when we reduce the complexity of the black identity. The #SayHerName campaign does this; it calls out the intersectional oppression and subsequent erasure of black women who have died by the state not just through being shot but through other forms of institutional racism. Like Sarah Reid! Sarah Reid here in the UK who was violently assaulted by police while in custody and died following. Cherry Groce was shot in the chest by UK police in the 1980’s-  that was one of the main catalyst for the Brixton Riots. What about the systematic killing of trans people, most of these black trans lives? At least 18 trans women were killed in 2015, most of whom were women of color, black trans women and gender-nonconforming. Black women are at the heart of black liberation as they have been historically , from the American civil rights movement to the UK protests. Black women are often erased after giving so much physical and emotional labour to black liberation movements. Black women have always been the backbones, flesh and heart of black liberation movements.

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Annabel: Popular news programs are always very quick to mention the criminal records of black victims of police brutality, in a thinly veiled attempt to justify the police’s actions – and sadly the public are quick to latch onto this and use it to derail any conversation on BLM. What could you say about structural racism in the criminal justice system?

Hannah: This is a really good question and I’m going to focus this question on BLM UK. In case some people didn’t know, and it’s quite an academic term but nonetheless true, the UK is a white-capitalist-cis-heteronormative-imperialist-patriarchal supremacy, as are most Western societies.This means that if you have an identity that is in line with the power systems of which society is built on, you benefit from these power structures; simultaneously, society oppresses all those who don’t. Institutional racism is an insidious form of oppression that upholds power for white people, and the criminal justice system is one facet of this. For instance, in the UK, stop and search is heavily targeted at black people, who are 17 times more likely to be stopped by the police. Black people are far more likely to go to prison than a white person who has committed a similar offence and women of colour (particularly black women) are four times more likely to go to prison than white women.

Annabel: When I wanted to write an article on the BLM, I came to you rather than attempt it solo. I think allies of the BLM movement, including other PoC, should make sure that we are not talking over black people – our responsibility is not really to talk, but rather to amplify black voices, because we cannot claim black experience. What advice would you give to people wanting to be supportive allies?

Hannah: I think you got it right and said it perfectly. We live in a society that homogenizes people of colour, and expects us to have the same experiences, which is part of the violence. We are more complicated and complex, and we need to recognize that because of our racialization, some experience more violence than others.  Too often those who are closer to whiteness and have the privilege of facing less oppression in our white supremacy society often benefit from the narratives of those who it is their lived reality. You may have black friends, listened to their experiences and for some non black people they think that this grants them access to talk about black issues as if they are experts. Part of being an ally, is that you want to help alleviate the barriers and oppressive forces and power structures that benefit you and simultaneously oppress black people. Best way to do that is to disempower yourself by using your privilege to give them power. This sounds quite odd but it means, for example, that black people are often denied platforms to speak, access to media spaces, and therefore cannot talk about their experiences- because those experiences are often challenging white supremacy and our oppressors. Just as what you’re doing now: providing a black woman with access to talk about and share and challenge the society that is continually benefiting from my struggle. This is disempowering yourself by using your privilege of access to power to provide myself with power. Allies need to ask us how they should be challenging power structures, how they should be disempowering themselves, providing us with access to power and being an ally.

Annabel: I must admit that the first time I heard about the BLM UK movement was actually from your Facebook status when UKBLM #shutdown Heathrow airport on August 5th last month. I’m ashamed to say my first thought was ‘shit, my flight to Indonesia is in 5 hours’… but obviously I quickly realised how stupid I was being and followed the shutdown through social media enthusiastically. Can you educate me a little on BLM UK and its ties to BLM in the US? I feel like we regularly hear about BLM and racist police brutality in the US, but we’re not hearing enough about it here in the UK, where it is also certainly an issue?

Hannah: I wouldn’t want to say I’m going to educate you on BLM UK. I think for those who are not black, that’s something worth doing for themselves. It’s our liberation and our movement on our freedom and our survival in this society. If you want to know more, I’d encourage you to seek out those resources by black people. Often people compare BLM UK with BLM USA and say that it’s not the same issue; that we don’t have the same police killings in the US because we have gun laws. And yes, that may be true to some extent but it would be foolish to suggest that we a) don’t have police brutality in the UK and b) that black people are not subject to state violence in the UK. We have a long history of police brutality and state violence towards black people and people who are quick to dismiss BLM UK have not researched this because if they did, they would know. We have black people overrepresented in the prison system like in US. The black community was hit twice as hard during the recession and austerity. We have a specific narrative in the UK that differs to the US but what remains the same is that police commit crimes of injustice and walk away free. In the UK, black people are 44x more likely than white people to be detained by the Mental Health Act. We have over 1,500 people die in or following police custody without a single police conviction. When Cherry Groce in the 80s was awoken in home by a police raid and shot in her home- did the police get convicted? No. Recently when Mzee Mohammed, an 18-year-old teen from Liverpool, my home city, was killed by a police officer while being restrained, there was no conviction as of yet. Just like in America, we have state violence and families left torn without justice for a crimes committed by those who should be surveilling and monitoring the law. It’s disgusting. And yes it’s not all cops like some complain to me, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold the police institution accountable for having a system of letting their officers walk away without consequence for killing black people. The body we have for assessing and investigating police conduct is the IPCC made of law officials and officers which is a big reason for why we have no police convictions as of yet.

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Annabel: One of the times I have been most disappointed in the University of Bristol was seeing the Black Lives Matter sign taken down from the Student Union less than 24 hours after it was put up. I always struggle to understand why supporting BLM is a controversial action – why refusing to allow the racist murders of individuals to go unpunished is somehow a touchy subject, how that can be construed as ‘political correctness gone mad’. Is there anything you can say that can help people understand why BLM is so controversial?

Hannah: I know what you mean. I was completely gutted as I made the sign and put it up. It was one of the privileges I had as an officer to illuminate a crisis. I think whatever challenges the white supremacy we live in means it will always be subject to attack. It’s funny how we see free speechers trump out the need for others to stop being offended and yet when I put a BLM sign it’s perceived as racist and problematic. In order for this society to continue it relies on a plethora of mechanisms such as white people incorrectly learning that racism is merely a slur and violent act of assault, such as denying women of colour spaces to express themselves and to oppress people of colour through state violence. It’s based on power structures and when you challenge your oppressor, you will be subject to resistance and attack. That’s why it’s important that we exhaust every mechanism we have of people of colour, as black people to challenge whiteness. Through art, literature, film, music, politics, direct action and anything else. We have to use these as tools to breakdown power pillars. Black Lives Matter or even black liberation in general will always be controversial in a white supremacist society. I just want to use this moment to say that black women, black queer people, black trans people need to take up space through so many mediums, we need to take up so much space through our words, literature, activism, film. I always think back to one of my inspirations, Audre Lorde, and how important even our own narratives are for other black people to heal.

Illustration by Olesya Dovgalyuk and photography by Giselle Storm Hyam

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