Yesterday marked one month since the death of George Floyd on 25th May, 2020. The 46-year-old Black man was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota after officers alleged he’d used a fake bank note. Floyd repeatedly cried out ‘I can’t breathe’ whilst a police officer pinned him down to the ground, all caught on film. The video soon went viral, circulating around the world and generating widespread outrage and disgust at the brutality of US police. This callous behaviour, particularly given the context of a global and deadly pandemic, ignited something which, this time, went beyond the fleeting global outrage we’d experienced with the countless other police killings in the US which have been caught on camera. Every single day since his death, even a month on, has been marked by mass protests, both in the US, Europe and across the world. #BlackLivesMatter has become a universal hashtag; a movement which has united POC and White allies everywhere. ‘But what has it actually achieved?’ Ask many, both Black and White.
I would argue the most striking thing the movement has achieved, is making civil rights activism and protest a global ‘trend’, particularly amongst many White-privileged and powerful social media influencers and major corporations. In the absence of travel and luxury events, the stories of many influencers have been flooded with carefully staged and manicured photos of protest ‘participation’. Such performative allyship and protest has now become commonplace. Blackout Tuesday on 2nd June also saw millions of social media users posting black squares on their accounts in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movements. So much so, that the movement requested posts for Blackout Tuesday not be tagged with ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ as they were obscuring valuable posts about live protests and sources of support and information about racial injustice. This highlights a real danger of Black voices being drowned out amidst the rise in the white-privileged ‘protest influencer’. I myself have repeatedly been forced to check myself and ask whether my posts are indeed making meaningful change or are simply a form of performative activism or allyship. White and White-passing people must continue to try and amplify Black voices and creators and not step into the dangerous field of speaking on their behalf and appropriating outrage against injustices for themselves.
There have however, been some tangible changes brought about by the death of George Floyd. On 7th June, protestors in Bristol tore down and defaced a well-known statue of Edward Colston, an infamous slave trader whose historical legacy in the city had been previously obscured by his ‘philanthropy’. This led to increasingly fervent calls to remove countless other monuments to figures with problematic histories and racist attitudes, including a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. Many establishments, including Oxford University and some US States have agreed to remove other controversial monuments. Despite this ongoing change to the physical fabric of our public space, which for #BlackLivesMatter can be counted as a victory, the response to such statues’ removal, both by force as in the case of Edward Colston and by authorities elsewhere, has revealed endemic racism and prejudices amongst public figures and the extent to which Black history is whitewashed.
UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, despite herself being a Woman of Colour, dubbed the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue by protestors ‘utterly disgraceful’, ‘sheer vandalism’ and ‘completely unacceptable’ claiming that it was an act of ‘public disorder’. There is currently an ongoing police investigation into the ‘incident’, which police and government bodies claim was an act of ‘criminal damage’. Although no arrests have yet been made, such attitudes and the desire to prosecute protestors, demonstrates a painful lack of understanding of the depth of pain and suffering the statue both represented and perpetuated in its position of prominence and reverence. The sheer fact that the UK still has a Prime Minister in office who has publicly called Black Africans ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ and argued that the problem with Africa is ‘that we are not in charge anymore’, demonstrates that #BlackLivesMatter has not achieved the structural changes it demands.
Superficial allyship amongst major corporations has also obfuscated the real demands and needs of the movement. Streaming service HBO Max temporarily removed the infamous 1939 film ‘Gone with the Wind’ from its platform before reinstating it with a disclaimer that it ‘denies the horrors of slavery’. UKTV similarly removed and then reinstated an episode of sitcom ‘Fawlty Towers’ because of its racial slurs. Meanwhile, Mars and Quaker who own the ‘Uncle Ben’s’ and ‘Aunt Jemima’ brands, have vowed to remove the Black cartoon characters from their packaging. Whilst it is certainly a promising step that companies are seemingly becoming more conscious of racist stereotypes and language, it has led many White onlookers to view the movements as ‘petty’. Many who grew up with such programmes and products and are fiercely defensive of them, are now able to support their warped attitude that it is ‘snowflake’ movement brought about by the oversensitivity and political correctness of younger generations when this is far from the case.
The changes companies are now making are, at best, superficial and designed to improve their own public image. They are not motivated by or designed to facilitate deep and systemic social change. Nowhere in the angry cries of protestors does changing packaging or film descriptions make an appearance. Whilst these protests happen, the BAME community are dying of COVID-19 at twice the rate of white British people in the UK and continue to be disproportionately affected by poverty and crime. Black people are still dying because of structural racial inequalities and racism. That’s what we need to focus on, not whether or not we can watch an episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’ or ‘Gone with the Wind’.
By @cocohuggins for The Geographer Journalist