Coming to the end of a long and fascinating conversation about Black Lives Matter UK, I asked Adam Elliott-Cooper what parts of the history of UKBLM he was most proud of, as a co-founder.
Adam answered: ‘One of the things I’m really proud of is that one of the things that the movement has done is the mainstreaming of questions of abolition and defunding the police.
‘Whilst previous generations demanded enquiries and inquests, or democratic control over the police, or community control of policing, I think what the Black Lives Matter protest movement and its supporters have been able to help envisage is a vision for a world beyond police and prisons
‘I think it has only arisen since 2020 that we’ve really seen politicians, mainstream newspapers, young people that we work with articulate a politics of defunding and/or abolishing police and prisons.
‘That’s one of the most important things that I’m proud of. Obviously UKBLM hasn’t done it on its own but its certainly been part of a movement which has been doing that work.’
I asked Adam to say a bit more.
Adam responded: ‘Defunding the police basically identifies the fact that since the early 1990s, Britain’s prison population has almost doubled. The women’s prison population has more than doubled. And policing has become more militarised and they have more capacity to monitor and engage in surveillance of members of the public. They’ve had more powers than they’ve ever had.
‘But we haven’t seen a comparable improvement in community safety or a reduction in crime.
‘So what “defund the police” says is that the police-and-prison system doesn’t do what it purports to do and in fact it often brings more harm and more violence into communities.
‘What we need to do is identify the reasons why a lot of people end up coming into contact with the police and prison system.
‘If we look at our prison system, we have people who are more likely to have been experiencing school exclusion, or addiction problems, or mental health problems, or child abuse, or domestic violence, or being undocumented, or being made homeless or evicted, or jobless, all of these types of issues.
‘Then what we really need to do is reduce society’s reliance on the police and prison system, and empower the kinds of community care and social care which would stop people coming into contact with the prison and police system in the first place.
‘Youth organisations, mental health provisions, addiction services, support for survivors of domestic violence, council housing, trade unions, all of these kinds of community and social infrastructure can help to develop alternatives to the police and the prison system, while empowering people to start to build a world in which police and prisons are less and less and less relied upon.’
The ‘black’ in BLM
In Britain, there’s a tradition going back many decades of ‘political blackness’ which unites all people of colour as ‘black people’.
Adam explained to me how UKBLM is an organisation specifically for people of African heritage – but which also relates to that older British tradition:
‘We’re influenced by the Black Panther movement in Britain and the Black Liberation Front in Britain and the Black Unity and Freedom Party in Britain. Pretty much every Black Power movement in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s and ’80s was a politically black organisation and we’re hugely influenced by them and we’re in conversation with them today.
“Whilst previous generations demanded enquiries and inquests, or democratic control over the police, UKBLM has been able to help envisage a world beyond police and prisons.”
‘But we are not a politically black organisation in terms of our membership. All of the people in Black Lives Matter are of African heritage.
‘But it is worth pointing out that, because of our commitment to a radical tradition and liberation for all people, we are committed to working in solidarity with all oppressed people.’
Adam added: ‘I think that the really important thing is we’re building upon struggles of anti-racism that have existed in the past, that have had radical visions, international visions, that have been part of a global movement as well as grassroots struggles.’
A short history
Black Lives Matter started in the US as a social media hashtag, a movement and, eventually, as an organisation, after a number of shocking police killings of unarmed African-Americans.
One of the victims was Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American shot six times by a white police officer in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.
Here in Britain, Adam explained how UKBLM ‘emerged out of a number of different things’: ‘In 2014, 2015, there were a number of solidarity protests across the country, following high-profile deaths at the hands of the police in New York, and Ferguson, and Baltimore.
‘People shut down major shopping districts and other commercial spaces, using different forms of direct action.
‘Following that, there was, in 2016, a year or so later, the establishment of a Black Lives Matter group in the United Kingdom.
‘The first chapter was founded in Nottingham as an official chapter following a number of community events called “The October Dialogues”. And, following that, other groups were set up in Manchester and Birmingham and London.’
Adam explained that ‘The October Dialogues’ was an international conference hosted by Nottingham Contemporary, the art gallery, and funded by the University of Nottingham.
It involved activists from across Britain, including folk from London, Birmingham and Manchester. It also ‘brought activists and thinkers from Ferguson who were involved in the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” uprising over there as well as a number of different anti-racist academics from the United States.’
This is part of the official text for the October Dialogues: ‘A series of panels featuring activists and researchers will explore the roots, dynamics and possible futures of #BlackLivesMatter. Is it a movement or a moment? A transatlantic or an American phenomenon? Is it a new civil rights movement, a new Black Power movement or a new black feminism? What is its protest heritage – is there a usable past for Black Lives Matter? What should #BlackLivesMatterUK be about?’
Adam told me that ‘the primary outcomes of the conference were academic journal articles and organising initiatives.’
UKBLM then took part in a number of actions ‘to challenge deportations, to challenge increases in the militarisation of policing and to challenge police and prisons, and the use of police and prisons more generally.’
Adam explained that ‘these were shutdowns of major transport hubs leading to Heathrow airport, to Birmingham City airport and some of the transport hubs in Nottingham, as well as large demonstrations in other parts of the country.’
UKBLM then put some work into videos and other initiatives to demonstrate ‘the relationship between climate change and racism and imperialism’.
Next was UKBLM’s September 2016 shutdown of London City Airport, protesting against the UK’s environmental impact on the lives of black people locally (through air pollution, for example) and globally (through climate change).
A UKBLM statement at the time said: ‘Whilst at London City Airport a small elite is able to fly, in 2016 alone 3,176 migrants are known to have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean. Black people are the first to die, not the first to fly, in this racist climate crisis.’
Adam told me that, after these big actions in 2016, UKBLM took stock: ‘the group was, I guess, facing a number of different issues. One of them was quite serious criminal charges against some of the activists who were involved in these forms of direct action, but there was also the need to do the kind of community work that brings people in.’
Adam added: ‘Fortunately, no one received a custodial sentence or a serious criminal record following the actions. Some people did have to go to court, but none of the serious charges were upheld.’
Getting back to the organisation as a whole, ‘there was a three-year period – 2017, 2018, 2019 – that period was a lot of grassroots work, less glamorous, less exciting than maybe the direct action stuff’.
UKBLM decided to focus on two or three things, Adam explained: ‘One was working very closely with an organisation called United Friends and Family Campaign, which is a coalition of families and friends of people who have died at the hands of the state: police, prisons, immigration authorities and mental health institutions.’
This has included ‘running public awareness campaigns about their campaigns and the annual march they do to Downing Street’.
UKBLM has also been ‘running a number of educational initiatives in schools, colleges and youth projects across cities like London and other schools and other places in the country as well.’
In the spring of 2020, one of the first things UKBLM did was ‘work with a number of organisations to provide resources to young people into how to deal with the police during the lockdown because we knew that the lockdown was being more harshly imposed and enforced in working-class communities, particularly in black communities.’
Then, in May 2020, ‘we had the police killing of George Floyd in the United States, which led to a number of protests being organised in solidarity with the protests in the US.’
Adam then told me something that I hadn’t realised: ‘Black Lives Matter UK didn’t organise any of these protests. We were unsure about the extent to which we could ourselves remain safe out in these protests as well as guarantee the safety of others, and therefore the extent to which we felt comfortable being responsible in encouraging people to take to the streets.’
One of the things that UKBLM did do was provide bust cards and other kinds of legal support and advice, as well as ‘helping to do arrestee support at police stations where people were being held and making sure they got home safely and had access to lawyers’ and whatever care they needed.
United Friends and Family Campaign annual rally, Central London, 26 October 2013. Mark Duggan, 29, was shot dead by the Metropolitan police on 4 August 2011. The UFFC is a coalition of those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody. PHOTO: Harmit athwal www.irr.org.uk
I asked Adam to explain how UKBLM defines ‘anti-racism’, and this was his answer: ‘There are diversities of views and opinions within UKBLM about what anti-racism might mean. But I think that one of the things that is shared among everyone is commitment to a vision of a world free of racism.
‘But also a vision of a world free from the mechanisms of power that makes racism possible. And the mechanisms of power that make racism possible are capitalism and imperialism.’
This means that anti-racism is ‘also a commitment to ending capitalism, and imperialism as we know it as well.... We also are able to see the ways in which the liberation of black people is bound up to the liberation of all people oppressed by capitalism.’
Adam went on to explain the ‘racial capitalism’ perspective. For this group of thinkers, rather than capitalism making people more similar, because they’re doing similar kinds of work, capitalism actually seeks to divide people, including through racism: ‘One example might be in the Caribbean: indigenous workers were essentially worked to death, the enslaved Africans were worked as slaves, and then indentured people from the Indian subcontinent were brought as indentured labour.
“The liberation of black people is bound up to the liberation of all people oppressed by capitalism.”
‘So you have different workers exploited in different kinds of ways, based upon which racial category they’d been put into.’
Adam went on: ‘Capitalism is what makes racism tangible; it’s what makes racism real, it’s what takes racism from simply a prejudiced option or a bigoted remark and turns it into a system of exploitation, a system of violence, a system of control.
‘We have to understand that relationship between racism and capitalism if we want to overthrow racism.’
I asked Adam to say a little bit more about what he meant by the word ‘capitalism’, as it is used in so many different ways.
He answered: ‘For me, capitalism is a system in which a small number of people control not simply the resources, but also what we call “the means of production”, the ways of making – producing – things.
‘Whether it be factories or farmland or whether it be office buildings or digital and IT technology, some people can own the infrastructure to generate wealth.’
Capitalism is when ‘that’s the property of a small number of people who dictate how that power is used, and who control the profits made through that power.’
The alternative would be ‘the people who work in these factories – or on these platforms or on that land – collectively owning the produce that comes out of it and the wealth that is generated.’
One of the big changes for UKBLM since May 2020 has been ‘the money’. Adam told the story like this: ‘In the summer of 2020, a lot of people were getting in contact with UKBLM and asking how they could donate to the group.
‘We were doing things like arrestee support, printing “bust cards”, and we were doing this more-or-less out of our own pockets, or out of bits of money we might have collected along the way.
“We’re building upon struggles of anti-racism that have had radical visions, international visions, that have been part of a global movement as well as grassroots struggles.”
‘So we decided to put up a GoFundMe [online fundraising] page, where we listed our politics, our commitment to abolition and other things like that, and we were really overwhelmed by the response.
‘Despite the fact that we’d never really generated significant funds before, we generated over a million pounds.
‘We spoke to some lawyers, accountants and other people who said it would take about three to six months to have the necessary infrastructure in place to manage those kinds of funds.
‘It took about six months in total, so from July until November, when we were actually able to receive the funds [from GoFundMe] and register as an organisation [a ‘community benefit society’] and do all that kind of stuff.
‘From there, it took us another six weeks to arrange the first round of donations, giving away, I think between 12 and 15 percent of the money, as quickly as we could.
‘So, it took six weeks to work out which organisations to donate to, a list of organisations people can find on the UKBLM website, and then another six weeks to do the kind of admin and prep for those organisations to the final announcements, which was in February of 2021.
‘In the second round of funding, I think a further 40 percent of the funds will be donated, just given away, but this will be through a more formalised application process and then the rest of the money will be used to build a more kind of long-term black organising infrastructure across the country.’
UKBLM is here to stay!