Ima, 19, is one of Britain’s most prominent Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists, but she’s nervous at a protest in London. While a pandemic-mandated mask covers most of her face, she keeps her head down for fear of being identified. Her eyes constantly dart to check the location of the police.
Fear is justified in her case. It is costly to defend the rights of Black people in Britain, say activists. A backlash has allegedly been seen and they have even received death threats.
In addition to two White allies, Aima attended a march last month against a proposed law to increase police powers at demonstrations. A trusted volunteer group has assigned them to keep her safe.
If you’re constantly threatened and told that you’re going to die, then you don’t feel safe anymore; you don’t feel safe at all.
According to BLM activist Aima (center), “not just myself but other Black activists have received threats online.”.
As a result of their allegiance, she says, her detractors and authority figures are deflected from unwelcome attention.
CNN spoke with Aima, who uses only a single name for security reasons, at the march. She said that certain tweets she received recently gave her a sense of fear and danger.
In another tweet, she recalled, “Go die, I’d do better if you weren’t breathing.” “There were people bragging about what kind of weapon to use against us,” she recalls.
“I am getting quite a lot of threats online, but not just me — other Black activists too,” says Aima, adding: “This is just a normal daily thing for us to have to witness.”
But her lack of trust in the police means these threats go unreported.
She is not alone. In the UK, public trust in the police and other institutions has been eroded by examples of systemic racism over decades.
After a government report claimed that the UK should serve as a model for countries with white majorities, outrage ensued.
According to activists, the government commission’s statement that it does “no longer see(s) a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities” means that race relations are going backwards.
Racism blamed on anti-racists
Diane Abbott was accused of inflaming racial tensions when she tweeted support for another Black activist recently.
Blaming anti-racism campaigners for racism appears to be a mind-boggling but growing trend in the UK.
Outside of the big cities, where there is less diversity, the vitriol is even more direct, said Sarah Chevolleau, founder of the Stoke-on-Trent chapter of BLM.
From the influential head of a football supporters club, Chevolleau says she received a death threat just 30 minutes after calling for the first BLM rally in central England last June.
The racism here isn’t shocking,” she says. “I took extra security precautions at home, but I had to keep talking. I had to keep speaking out. I didn’t have a choice.”
Protests in London’s Trafalgar Square on May 1, 2021, take place against a proposed law that would give police increased powers.
Chevolleau, which had over 1,300 members a year ago, is proud of its progress. A mother of four claimed that some of her supporters were members of a far-right group, the English Defence League.
According to CNN, she was “kept going by the incredible support of our non-Black allies as well as our White allies.”. We’ve made a difference in so many lives by showing our humanity. This movement changes the world because it changes lives.”
Anti-racism campaigners in the UK are becoming more vocal, which is increasing the number of threats. Chevolleau and Aima see the threats as part of a broader backlash against the anti-racism movement.
In addition, the police are mistrusted, leaving them with no option.
A 1999 inquiry into the botched investigation of the racist murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 found there was “institutional racism” in London’s Metropolitan Police.
Since then, there have been some changes, but Black people and those from other ethnic minorities remain disproportionately represented when it comes to police checks, imprisonment, and deaths while in custody.
HOPE not hate conducted a survey in 2020 and found that 65% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK believe the police are biased against their community.
Defensiveness and sympathy
Last year, massive protests across the globe followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. A new generation of activists in the UK led those demonstrations to demand that the country address its racial divide.
According to campaigners, Britain’s ruling class initially responded with curiosity and sympathy, but that soon gave way to defensiveness and outright denial.
Protesters tore down a statue of 17th century merchant and slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it into Bristol harbor in one particularly divisive episode. Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned its removal as “utterly disgraceful.”
The British prime minister Johnson commissioned a panel to investigate the country’s racial and ethnic disparities in the wake of the BLM protests in June.
According to the report, published in March, institutional racism had not been identified in colleges, universities, or hospitals.
At the march in May, Aima was flanked by two White allies. Assigned by a trusted volunteer group, they are there to help keep her safe.
Samuel Kasumu, the administration’s most senior Black aide, resigned the next day after it was published.
UN Human Rights Council condemned the report immediately for its controversial findings.
Despite considerable research and evidence of institutional racism, the UNHRC’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent argued that the attempt to normalize white supremacy sidesteps the opportunity to acknowledge the atrocities of the past and to acknowledge the contributions of all.
The office of Johnson rejected the UN’s criticism and said the findings of the commission had been misrepresented.
According to Labour MP David Lammy, the government’s report is “a huge slap in the face” to those who advocate for systemic change, and it “weaponizes race and divides communities and frankly takes the country back to the 1950s.”
According to Lammy, who has been a vocal opponent of racism and published an overview of the treatment of Black and Asian people and other ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, Britain has taken massive steps backwards in the fight for racial equality.
Backlash against anti-racism movement
Britain was still reeling from another divisive racial incident when the race report controversy broke.
In their tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey, Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, accused the British press of bigotry and racism against one of Europe’s most elite institutions — the Royal family.
An increasingly divided Britain was revealed by the revelations. An outrage erupted among other members of mainstream politics and media when TV host Piers Morgan blindly defended the Queen and country.
While underrepresented journalists fight for more representation and fairer coverage, colleagues who deny there are any problems scramble to call them out on their tone-deafness.
An industry group for UK journalists, the Society of Editors, asserted that racism had no role in the coverage of Meghan. More than 160 journalists of color signed an open letter rebuking the claim, leading to the resignation of the head of the group.
Britain has also seen a backlash against the anti-racism movement.
At an anti-war protest in the UK, a demonstrator. Public trust in the police and other institutions in the country has been eroded by examples of systemic racism over decades.
According to new Home Office data, hate crimes spiked by as much as a third between June and July 2020, with racially and religiously aggravated crimes up by as much as 20%.
According to HOPE not hate, this was a period of increased activity from far-right groups and counter-protests at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Colonialism must be confronted
Rights groups and campaigners are calling for wide-ranging reforms, from de-colonizing school curriculums to ending stop and search powers for the police to addressing well-documented healthcare disparities. But they say that progress must start with acknowledging that there is a problem.
According to MP Lammy, the country has an ambivalent relationship with colonial history. “This period of enslavement and of colonizing the world is not really taught in UK schools, even to this day.”
“Unless you really confront your history and understand where that structural racism comes from, it is very difficult to fashion a genuine modernity and to truly reconcile across communities,” he says.
But the Johnson administration is either woefully ignorant or deliberately obstructive when it comes to a racial reckoning past or present, according to its critics.
Dominic Raab sparked controversy last year when he described athletes taking a knee as “an act of resistance taken from Game of Thrones” and “a symbol of subjugation and subordination.” He later clarified that he respects “the choices people make.”
More recently, England’s footballers were booed by some fans for kneeling at two warm-up matches earlier this month, ahead of the European Championships.
But manager Gareth Southgate insisted his team would continue with the gesture as a united front against racism; the players have done so during the ongoing European Championship. In recent matches, a majority of fans have either cheered or applauded as the team kneeled.
Off the pitch, when protesters scrawled “was a racist” on the statue of Britain’s former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Parliament Square last year, Downing Street responded by temporarily boxing up the statue, another way that in which monuments have become part of the UK’s culture wars.
Activists say the message was clear: We will not redress the past, we will only protect it.
As Alima explains: “Gaslighting” is often used to explain how BLM activists have increased racial tensions.
She says, “I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall, but those on the other side [completely represent] the majority of the population of this country.” Despite the government’s refusal to listen to us, we must keep fighting against the government. We will make them listen to us.”