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Meet the 18-Year-Old Student Behind Black Lives Matter London

We spoke to 18-year-old Marayam Ali about fighting institutional racism in the UK and what it's like getting thrust into the media spotlight.

by Yasmin Jeffery; Photos: Ben Doyle
Jul 14 2016, 8:51pm

Protesters in London on Sunday, July 10

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. In a Groundhog Day–like cycle, news spreads of another black person's death during or after an encounter with the police. Another name becomes a hashtag. Tweet, rinse, repeat.

Last week, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Alva Braziel died after being shot by police officers before a brutal attack saw five Dallas cops killed, reportedly by a lone gunman. In the wake of this spate of killings, Black Lives Matter London was born last Thursday. It's grown in size since then, having already caught the attention of the mainstream media as Brits flocked to a series of protests last weekend, demonstrating against police brutality in the US.

To some, the idea of British people protesting "an American problem" is confusing. But for the people behind #BLM London and its expanding support network, the frequent killings of black people in the US are more than just horrific crimes; they're an opportunity to raise awareness and begin scrutinizing the UK's own rampant systems of inequality. To find out what #BLM London's next steps are, I tracked down Marayam Ali, the 18-year-old student driving the movement. We spoke about how it all started and why she feels raising awareness of systemic racism in the UK is necessary.

VICE: People are asking why Black Lives Matter is relevant in the UK—why should British people care about what's happening in America?
Marayam Ali: People seem to be forgetting that black lives are being lost everywhere. The injustice is everywhere, worldwide. I think the last case that got a big response in the UK was the 2011 riots when Mark Duggan was killed. People were really aware of that, but there's just been this big, empty space since then. The things happening in America now are making us want to stand in solidarity with the US, as well as acknowledge and fighting against our own problems.

What are some of the parallels you see here in the UK? As recently as last year, the Met police chief was quoted suggesting British society, and not just the police, is institutionally racist.
The list is endless—the only difference is that we don't have guns. Institutionalized racism still exists. People always seem to target young black people in particular, and there are negative stereotypes everywhere. You could see a young, black male, and some people would automatically fear them, without even knowing them, because they just exist as this negative stereotype.

Why do you think it's important for protesters to show solidarity with the US now?
There have been countless murders over the past week. Black people here have family over there, they have black cousins, black friends, and waking up and not knowing if you'll be able to speak to them on the phone the next morning, or knowing whether they're alive or not is terrifying. We need to show America that they're not alone; we feel, we're here, we know what's happening. We care, and we're fighting with them against these injustices.

Why did you decide to start #BLM London?
I want to demolish institutionalized racism and the system that targets black people everywhere.

But how did it come about, exactly?
It wasn't just myself. I was actually working with another 18-year-old, whose name is Caprese Willow, and she organized the protest on Sunday. From there, loads of people got onboard. I started the page #BLM London on Thursday, and it's just gotten a massive response with people asking how they can get involved, what they can do to help, and what's happening next. The number of people looking to help is just amazing. There are young people, even famous people like musician Kehlani—she got in touch with us asking how she can help—and it just goes to show how much people care. It's amazing.

You mentioned you founded #BLM London with another woman, Caprese. What do you think about women's central role in the BLM movement?
Emotionally, we just feel more. The people dying are the children we've raised and given our lives to. When they get killed in unfair circumstances, it's heartbreaking, and as a woman, you identify with other mothers who have had to go through such extreme loss.

Quite a few activists are using the momentum behind BLM to discuss other issues such as economic inequality and discrimination against black LGBTQ people, for example. What do you feel about that intersectional approach to activism?
It's not just about black lives and accepting different communities, but about one community for everything. Bringing about change by making the movement one huge thing is what we're about—changing everything, not just one cause. And I hope we can do it.

There's still a sense that we in the UK pay more attention to stories coming out of the US. Why do you think people don't seem to know about Kingsley Burrell, who died while under police restraint in 2011 at age 29, like they know about Alton Sterling, for example?
The media is very biased. They tend to show one side and forget the other, which is why I think there hasn't been much of a response to black lives being lost in the UK, because people didn't know about it. It's not because they don't care; they just don't know. Nowadays you see more on social media than you do on BBC News and the like. A lot of the time, if people aren't looking online, they don't see what's happening at all, which is what we're trying to change. We want the names of all of the people who have lost their lives known.

Do you think people in the UK should be focusing more on examining the UK's systems of inequality rather than only voicing these problems when awful things happen in the US?
We staged Sunday's protest to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, but mainly to raise awareness of black lives here. We had multiple people giving speeches about what's happening here in the UK because there's a level of systemic oppression and racism that people aren't fully aware of. So we're working toward building a voice for those suffering from that here as well. This time, obviously, we were fighting for the lives that were taken in America because anything that happens there resonates with the UK deeply and emotionally, but in the future, we're looking toward spreading awareness about what's happening in the UK, not just working in partnership with the US.

What are your plans for the movement?
Because we have so many people asking how they can get involved, we're going to take full advantage of that and bring all those people together. We're planning on holding discussions, workshops, and things like that to raise awareness of the cause. That's our next immediate step, but it will be going on for a while. We're not going away anytime soon.

Follow Yasmin Jeffery and Ben Doyle on Twitter.

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