We often take social change for granted in our day to day lives. It’s the result of protests throughout history; from votes for women as a result of the Suffragette movement, to LGBTQ+ liberation following the Stonewall Riots, to the strengthening of Unions during the Miner’s Strikes, protesting has the power to shape the political landscape according to the needs and demands of the oppressed. On protesting in America, the brilliant James Baldwin said: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually.”
In America, we are already seeing change being implemented as a result of the global #BlackLivesMatter movement; all four officers involved in George Floyd’s death have been charged (though Thomas Lane is currently released on bail), Breonna Taylor’s case has been reopened, NYC mayor De Blasio has committed to defunding the police service, and Minneapolis has banned the use of chokeholds by the police.
“We still have a long way to go, but we are already seeing the proof that protests work.”
In the UK, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has pledged to take down statues which honour those who contributed to slavery following the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, Liverpool University are renaming its halls and Windrush memorials are being planned. We still have a long way to go, but we are already seeing the proof that protests work.
This monumental societal impact is something which can be felt by those protesting. Enforcing your right to protest is a beautiful, courageous and liberating act. Protesters experience a profound sense of solidarity within their community. More personally, I found that to recognise the value of my voice, and to have my voice heard and respected is deeply empowering, and emotional.
“There’s something highly emotive about seeing Black people congregate safely. I experience the same sentimentality each year at Notting Hill Carnival. Once a year I am afforded the opportunity to see streets brimming with people who look like me, after existing in a world where I am too often the token Black friend or colleague.”
I was one of an estimated 2,000 people who attended Sheffield’s Black Lives Matter march on Saturday the 6th of June. Our city has a long history of showing up for some of the most vulnerable people in society, and that day we lead by example. Devonshire Green was packed to the rafters, “no justice, no peace” was bellowed in unison, and traffic was stopped as we marched through the streets in solidarity.
On multiple occasions throughout the afternoon I felt the overwhelming sensation of my chest tightening as I fought the urge to not cry. Every time the chant “George Floyd…Say his name” rippled throughout the crowds, my chest tightened. When a choir of a mourning community sang a sombre rendition of Three Little Birds by Bob Marley, my chest tightened. When a little girl, no older than 6 weaved through the crowd holding a placard saying “I MATTER”, my chest tightened. When the march paused for a synchronised dance number to the song Candy, my chest tightened. It tightens even now, five days later as I reminisce through these words.
There’s something highly emotive about seeing Black people congregate safely. I experience the same sentimentality each year at Notting Hill Carnival. There’s always a point during the festivities where I voyeuristically observe my surroundings in a state of disassociation. Once a year I am afforded the opportunity to see streets brimming with people who look like me, after existing in a world where I am too often the token Black friend or colleague. Who Knows by Protoje is my soundtrack to represent the solidarity and connectivity with an entire community. I’m not a religious or spiritual person, in fact I’m a devout atheist, but that annual sense of belonging is the closest thing to spirituality I have ever been able to identify.
“With a protective mask covering half of my face, passersby would only be able to see the tears if they were to examine my eyes closely and this permitted me to wail publically. I no longer had to adhere to social etiquettes that prescribe us to put on a brave face.”
It was in the packed crowds of Division Street, as our march paused, when the floodgates opened. In front of me the crowds parted around a Black Lives Matter activist, with a billowing purple afro, who pounded the floor with her feet as she ferociously chanted “I CAN’T BREATHE”, until her voice became hoarse. The words echoed down Sheffield’s high street, and as I turned round to take in the crowd I saw a placard boasting the faces of those whose lives had recently been taken. The environment personified them, our voice was their voice: two thousand people chanting in unison. Slowly, the crowd began to take a knee, and as I knelt, I felt heavy, like it was impossible for me to get up, and I cried.
It was a cathartic expression of emotions that somehow felt deeply personal and individual despite my being surrounded by thousands of people. With a protective mask covering half of my face, passersby would only be able to see the tears if they were to examine my eyes closely and this permitted me to wail publically. I no longer had to adhere to social etiquettes that prescribe us to put on a brave face, and pretend to be okay in public. Those tears represented the stripping back of society’s norms and the unveiling of the problematic structures we are expected to adhere to. At a protest you are under no illusion, you are aware that the world is built on exploitation and pain.
“A protest is a blatant wake up call for those who doubt the validity of our experience.”
A protest represents how personal the political is. There, thousands of people impacted by a flawed system congregate as the living proof of the issues which politicians, media agencies and even your friends and loved ones strive to dilute into a smaller problem. It is impossible to deny the existence of inequality, when a global community of Black people are standing up to visibly ensure those who want to shy away from the truth are unable to forget.
A protest is a blatant wake up call for those who doubt the validity of our experiences. To be prejudiced and surrounded by an entire community united in grief and outrage forces you to recognise your complicity in the ongoing struggle. These issues are not separate from you. Protests are uncomfortable because Anti-Racism, challenging your own privileges and confronting your internal biases is uncomfortable.
After the protest I was symptomatic of activist fatigue; I was worn out, numb, emotional and drained but was also inspired, empowered, liberated and fuelled with a renewed momentum to continue my participation in the movement. The events following George Floyd’s death are reported to be the biggest global Civil Rights Movement in history, and when our children and grandchildren ask us where we were during it, I’ll be able to proudly say I was front and centre in the struggle. Will you?
Evie is a staff writer at Aurelia, as well as a sociologist, domestic abuse specialist and intersectional feminist. @xeviemuir