The power of a protest

‘a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something’

Over the past week we have seen a rise in #blacklivesmatter protests around the globe including here in the UK. Initially when I came across the physical protests and demonstrations I was shocked, the first thing that came to mind was COVID. I instantly overlooked the reason why the protests were happening and started to judge those attending – how could they be putting themselves and family members at risk like this? The more I thought about what a protest means to me, the more I began to understand why those joining physical protests were doing so. The views of my friends, family and colleagues were all remarkably different and I wanted to explore this further.

Let’s rewind to 30th January 2017

I went to my very first protest. This was to protest the Muslim Ban imposed by Donald Trump in the USA. As a young Muslim I was very upset by the ban but at the same time almost desensitised to the treatment and preconceptions of Muslims. I’d grown up seeing my dad stopped and searched each time we went through Airport Security, I was no longer naive in thinking it was a random check. Muslims around the world were and still are labelled as terrorists. I remember every time there was an attack anywhere in the world, I’d pray the attackers weren’t identified as Muslim because I was so used to how the world would react towards Muslims and towards me. All painted with the same brush, it is so so exhausting. Reading through threads on Facebook and noticing how so many people have already made an assumption about me based entirely on my faith, something that is so personal to me! No one should be given the authority to do this. Taking part in this protest meant so much to me, it was powerful and reassured me that I am not alone. It is a sense of belonging, being in the presence of those who share the same experiences and those who may not share the experience but empathise and support those that do. While I did feel all of this, I cannot ignore how being around so many people was slightly claustrophobic for me and I soon realised as much as I will always support a physical protest, it is not for me. I honestly cannot bear to be around so many people.

I have listened to a lot of people share their views over how the current #blacklivesmatter protests are violent and often being referred to as ‘riots’ and ‘mobs’. I was interested to see if these images and videos were a true representation of the protests or whether unsurprisingly the media showing us what they want us to see. I asked those who had attended the #blacklivesmatter protests whether they were peaceful or violent. The majority of them said the protests were peaceful, minimal police presence, no violence seen, no substance or alcohol misuse. One person who was a passer-by and did not attend the protest reported seeing violence towards police. I knew of a friend who’d attended a protest in London so I thought I’d ask her why she went, her experience and why she attended despite COVID.

This was her response

I am mixed race (White & Black Afro Caribbean) so I felt it was important to attend the Black Lives Matter protests as a representation from both the black & white community, to show solidarity & stand up for what is right, pay respects for those who have recently had their lives taken away & be able to support change & be a part of history! Growing up was largely spent with my white maternal family so I am aware of my privileges as a mixed race person with fairer skin, but this has meant during my adult years I myself have had to educate myself about black history & my ancestors. Although despite being mixed raced I have too experienced discrimination & racism, from the earliest age of primary school being told I looked like “Poo”, to most recently a week ago whilst caring for a patient at work, who inappropriately asked me “was my hair real or a weave?”. I felt extremely passionate to join the protest, due to my own past experiences, but also due to so many others who have experienced injustice, police brutality, lost lives, lost loved ones, been discriminated against, denied a promotion, denied housing, denied adequate health care or simply been ignored because of the colour of their skin.
No matter your age, race, religion, we are stronger together. Attending the protest gave me an overwhelmingly feeling of pride, unity & empowerment & I would encourage everyone to stand up!

Personally I feel racism is a pandemic. It’s taking lives the same as COVID. I chose to take a stand for what I felt right. I wore a face mask & sanitised my hands no different to what I have to do daily at work & daily when I commute to work with others on a train in close proximity. I am BAME & therefore deemed at risk but I have been risking my life daily since the start of this pandemic so yesterday was another risk I was willing to take to stand in solidarity! Yes I know the importance of social distancing, but I also know the government can’t even be bothered to follow their own rules, which has lead to people doing as they please & not respecting it anyway by going to the beach, to other people’s homes etc. So if anyone wants to join the queue of people that are going to accuse the protest if there is a second wave of COVID then feel free. But the reality is, it’s just as likely to spread from the many 1000’s of people going to the beach, & B&Q!!

Sasha, Senior Staff Nurse

Sasha’s response spoke to me on so many different levels. I can relate to that feeling of “unity and empowerment”, it is overpowering. I also agree with her statement that “racism is a pandemic”, there are hundreds of stories of individuals who has suffered from this and the statistics speak for themselves. According to Home Office statistics of the 103,379 hate crimes recorded in 2018/19, three quarters of offences (76%; 78,991 offences) were racially motivated. These increased by 11 per cent between 2017/18 and 2018/19. For anyone who claims that racism does not exist in the UK, take it from someone who has experienced it first hand, it exists and as I can honestly say I have experienced it more as years go by. I’ve never reported it, maybe because I have become desensitised to it. There are probably tens of thousands more like me who go on without reporting racially motivated offences. Maybe this is the issue – we need to report the instances for it to be taken seriously. Sasha is a nurse and has been working throughout this pandemic and she was willing to take a risk to make a statement. She has been in much closer proximity to people on the tube than she was to people at the protest. The more I looked into why people are attending the protests, the more it became apparent that they were doing so to make a statement despite COVID.

‘The BLM movement feels different this time. Possibly due to the pandemic and the obvious risk of COVID. It’s almost like the perfect catalyst to kick start some real change’.

When asked whether social distancing was maintained:

‘Where I was, like towards the end yes, very well actually was surprised. Towards the front, I’ve been told no. Majority of people were wearing masks, there were loads of hand sanitiser about as well’

‘Social distancing was easily maintained as there was plenty of space, no pushing/shoving etc’

When asked about the incident where police were attacked:

I didn’t see anything but there were so many people there I could’ve easily missed it”

From the accounts of those who attended the protests it seems as though conscious efforts were made to maintain social distancing whilst showing solidarity with a very worthy cause. I have spoken to people that attended protests in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff and there was only one incident reported…

‘I only agree on protesting if the matter actually means something to you and you genuinely want to be heard. Not when it’s to cause havoc and join the crowd’

I am not naive nor are the thousands of individuals attending these protests. Violence is happening at these protests. The violent are a minority, a very small minority. It is almost as though the protests have been overlooked and riots and looting have taken centre stage. It is so important to acknowledge that all those who are out peacefully protesting are not to blame for those who are using the protests as an excuse to be violent. At this pivotal point in history we need to be careful not to make the past mistakes of painting everyone with the same brush. The latter quote is so important. For some it is about causing havoc, to be violent and to riot. For some it is ‘aesthetic activism’. This phrase disgusts me, some are using the protests to jump on the bandwagon and videos have circulated of how individuals are doing it ‘for the gram’ (to gain likes/popularity on social media). Both the violence and the aesthetic activism are belittling the cause, they are buffers to revolutionary change.

‘Protest are needed to make noise. So change can happen’

Protests have the ability to bring about some real change. The reason why I as a woman am able to vote in the UK is because of women such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett. Pankhurst was willing to break the law if it meant it would raise awareness for the cause. The Suffragettes were notorious for their violent protests. I see myself as a law abiding citizen and I would never endorse or promote breaking the law EVER but I find it interesting the lengths people will go to be heard, to be taken seriously and for change to happen. The Suffragettes believed in ‘Deeds not Words’ and adopted this motto as they felt the work of the Suffragists was having little effect. The Suffragists carried out peaceful protests and believed in debates and education. They may have used different methods but we cannot deny the Suffragette and Suffragist groups were both influential in raising awareness of the cause.

For some the removal of statues has been deemed unnecessary whereas for others it is a powerful statement. I had no knowledge of the history of many of these statues and quite honestly I cannot understand why they were ever put up. Yes some of these individuals made huge changes and advances for society but at what cost? It was black women who suffered at the hands of J Marion Sims ( a world renowned gynaecologist) who performed unethical experiments on them often without anaesthesia. It took eight years of protesting, activism and petitions for the statue to be removed in 2018. For so many people the statues represent the oppression, mistreatment and torture their community has faced for centuries! I can empathise with why people are petitioning for statues to be removed. The fact that the statues and monuments were ever made is disgusting and we should not be honouring this, not just here in the UK but globally. We all need to make a conscious effort to read into all of history and not just what we find easy to accept.

‘I don’t think little old me being there will make a difference’

We can all think that this is bigger than us, that we wont be able to make a difference but many have lost faith in the government and I believe it is our personal responsibility to educate ourselves and learn more by speaking to people directly. Don’t be afraid of the conversation. Try and understand why people are doing what they are.

‘With COVID I wouldn’t risk it, even if I lived alone. Just because you have no idea how you would react as loads of young people have died too’

Protests during a pandemic have caused a lot of unrest, I know many people who are left upset as they have not been able to visit family members for months yet these individuals are out in mass gatherings. Others have at risk family members and refuse to put themselves and others at risk. COVID and months of quarantining and isolation has been so difficult for so many. Weeks ago thousands flocked to the beaches ignoring lock-down rules for their own pleasure. Over the past week thousands walked the streets to raise awareness for the simplest of human rights, to protest inequality and racism. They have all ignored lock-down rules all whilst so many people haven’t dared step outside over fear of spreading or coming into contact with COVID.

What I do not agree with is when a peaceful, socially distanced protest is being shunned. A few days ago there was a peaceful protest in my home town, I found out from an online article. I was so proud that my neighbours were taking this step, it gave me hope in the future generations. The images from the protest show how social distance was maintained whilst standing in solidarity with the black community. As I read through the comments I felt sick and ashamed of how some people were reacting. It honestly petrifies me but I tell myself that these racist and derogatory views are of the uneducated minority. I have come to realise that for those who are not willing to change their views are simply ignorant. As much as I have tried to debate matters with these individuals in a peaceful manner I have learnt they are just not willing to reason. Them attitudes are deeply embedded in their minds.

I can understand the frustration of those who have not been able to hold their dearest family and friends in months but I also empathise with those who have spent their entire lives facing racial inequality. Now is the best time to reach out and start this dialogue. Change begins with yourself. Make an effort to understand why people are willing to risk their lives and go out and protest. Those protesting are from all walks of lives, they are not all black or teenagers or the unemployed.

People will protest in different ways, some with physical demonstrations, others will write, others will petition however the shared aim is to make a statement. There is no right way to protest for a cause you support. The only wrong way is by using violence. If you have taken anything from this let it be to make the conscious effort to talk to someone with first hand experience and don’t let the actions of a few individuals diminish the efforts of the majority.

I will finish off by asking one very important question…

Would you join the BLM protests if COVID was not around?

Sundas x

4 thoughts on “The power of a protest

  1. Such a great, reflective blog. I love how you are willing to change your initial point of view and how you made connections with your own experience of protesting. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

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