When the Home Secretary called for people to stay away from #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations on Saturday, she almost certainly gave many the final arm-twist they needed to stand up and be counted. For that we should be grateful to her. Every little helps.

Another pull-factor, perhaps, in Hastings at least, was that Sunday’s Alexandra Park event was announced with the caveat that “Social distancing rules apply at all times”. After all, any gathering of more than six people would surely be a police matter these days, unless presumably, they were in Alexandra Park to get their eyes tested. In the end, I suppose we have to use our own judgement…

As it turned out, social distancing was easier here than it is on London Road in St Leonards; helpful stewards were on hand to gently nudge people towards empty spaces, most people wore masks, and the microphone was sanitised between speakers.

There was a variety of speakers. The young woman whose job it was to clean the mike stand, cleaned the mike stand and then started up with a speech about the invisibility (to white people) of white privilege, and ending with the rather pertinent “All lives matter when black lives matter.”

Another speaker decried the education system, caricaturing Black History teaching as “the Roots documentary, Coach Carter and Martin Luther King”. As a teacher, I sympathise. In my experience, the curriculum is open to interpretation and schools can, if they want, pay no more than lip service to celebrating the cultural history of many of their pupils.

The event culminated in the participants ‘taking a knee’ in emulation of the actions of the American footballer Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality. It felt humbling, and then rather chilling. It was hard not to dwell on another knee during these long eight minutes and 46 seconds, that of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who held his knee down on George Floyd’s neck until he died. Eight minutes and 46 seconds is a long time.

This, of course, was the context, the act that triggered protests across the USA and around the world. The police can end black lives with impunity. This is not news. With impunity, though; that’s the key. Older readers may remember the Rodney King riots of 1992 in Los Angeles. The riots did not take place after film was released showing a group of police officers brutally beating Rodney King. They occurred once they were acquitted of all charges, despite the fact that everyone in the USA had seen the evidence with their own eyes. Mobile phones are ubiquitous these days, but what was perhaps all the more shocking about the killing of George Floyd was that the police appear unconcerned that they were being filmed, so great was their confidence in what they were doing.

Here in the UK, BAME people are more than twice as likely to die in police custody as whites, and this more than two decades since the Macpherson Report (commissioned after the Metropolitan Police’s failure to secure convictions for the murder of the teenager Stephen Lawrence) identified the force’s institutional racism. So yes, it seems we do need to assert that black lives matter, simply because there are those with power who still appear to believe otherwise.

Amongst the various people thanked at the end of the event by the MC Claudine Ecclestone were eight members of the local constabulary who had turned up and were “marvellous” and also, more bizarrely, Lidl. The latter had supplied the bottled water. Perhaps every Lidl helps, too.

Ken Towl is ordinarily a writer and blogger for Inside Croydon but is currently locked down in St Leonards on Sea. 

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