BLM UK: Britain should be having a racial reckoning. Instead, Black Lives Matter activists say they fear for their safety
She has reason to be scared. Campaigners say that standing up for the rights of Black people in the UK comes at a high price. They say they’ve seen an angry backlash and have even received death threats.
Attending a march last month against a proposed bill to increase police powers at demonstrations, Aima was flanked by two White allies. Assigned by a trusted volunteer group, they are there to help keep her safe.
“If you are constantly getting people saying they want to kill you and they want you dead, then you don’t feel safe anymore, you don’t feel safe at all,” she says.
She says the allies also help deflect unwanted attention from her detractors and from the authorities, whom she does not trust.
Speaking to CNN at the march, Aima, who uses only one name for security reasons, says some of the Twitter messages she has received in recent months have left her fearing for her life.
“People were bragging about the types of guns that should be used against us,” she says, recalling another tweet which read: “Go die, I’d do better if you weren’t breathing.”
“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.
A government report on race and ethnic disparities, which concluded that the UK “should be regarded as a model for other White-majority countries,” sparked outrage.
Anti-racists blamed for racism
When Britain’s first female Black Member of Parliament, Diane Abbott, tweeted a message of support for another Black activist recently, she was accused of stoking racial tensions.
Blaming anti-racism campaigners for racism appears to be a mind-boggling but growing trend in the UK.
Outside London and other large cities, where there is less diversity, the vitriol is even more direct, said Sarah Chevolleau, founder of the Stoke-on-Trent chapter of BLM.
Chevolleau says she received a death threat just 30 minutes after calling for the first BLM rally in the central English city last June, from the influential head of a football supporters’ group.
“It’s not shocking for people to be so open with their racism here,” she explains, “It was really frightening. I took extra security precautions at home, but I had to keep talking. I had to keep speaking out. I feel I didn’t have a choice.”
A year on, Chevolleau is proud to have built up a group with more than 1,300 members. The mother-of-four says she even has supporters who were once members of the English Defence League, a far-right organization.
“What kept me going was the amazing show of support from our White allies and non-Black allies,” she told CNN. “The fact that so many people saw the humanity in me and in our calls. This movement is changing the world because it’s changing lives.”
Both Aima and Chevolleau say the constant barrage of threats is part of a wider backlash against the anti-racism movement by an increasingly vocal corner of the British population.
And mistrust of the police means there is nowhere for them to turn.
Sympathy and defensiveness
At first, the campaigners were met with curiosity and sympathy, but that quickly turned into defensiveness and outright denial from Britain’s ruling class, campaigners say.
A day after it was published, the administration’s most senior Black aide, Samuel Kasumu, quit.
The report’s controversial findings prompted swift condemnation from the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“This attempt to normalize white supremacy despite considerable research and evidence of institutional racism is an unfortunate sidestepping of the opportunity to acknowledge the atrocities of the past and the contributions of all in order to move forward,” the UNHRC’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said in a statement.
Johnson’s office rejected the UN’s criticism and said the commission’s findings had been “misrepresented.”
Backlash to anti-racism movement
The controversy around the race report came while Britain was still reeling from another divisive racial moment.
Meanwhile, journalists from underrepresented backgrounds, who had been fighting for fairer coverage and greater representation, scrambled to call out the tone-deafness of colleagues who denied there was a problem.
The backlash to the anti-racism movement has also been seen on Britain’s streets.
Calls to confront colonial history
“This country has an ambivalence to its colonial history,” explains MP Lammy. “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 remains either woefully ignorant or intentionally obstructive to a racial reckoning past or present, according to its critics.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sparked controversy last year when he described athletes taking a knee — an act of resistance popularized by former NFL player Colin Kaepernick — as something “taken from the Game of Thrones” and “a symbol of subjugation and subordination.” He later clarified, “If people wish to take a knee, that’s their choice and I respect it.”
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.
Activists say the message was clear: We will not redress the past, we will only protect it.
Aima says BLM activists are often blamed for the country’s increased racial tensions, something she explains with a single word: “gaslighting.”
“It feels like you are talking to a brick wall, but the people on the other side of that wall [are] the majority of the population in this country,” she says. “We must keep fighting actively against the government because the government refuses to listen to us, so we will make them listen to us.”