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We Asked Black Lives Matter UK Why They Blocked the Road to Heathrow Today

An interview with one of the organisers of today's politicised gridlock.

by Yasmin Jeffery
05 August 2016, 1:24pm

Activists block the road to Heathrow this morning (Photo via #BlackLivesMatterUK Twitter)

In memory of Mark Duggan and enraged by the stupidly high number of black lives lost in police custody, the UK chapter of Black Lives Matter organised a spate of demonstrations to protest systemic inequalities in the UK this morning. Cops arrested ten demonstrators for the role they played in causing a simultaneous gridlock on the M4 motorway at Heathrow and in Nottingham as part of action which has since been described as "a handful of extremists jumping on an AMERICAN bandwagon" by the great oracle that is the Daily Mail.

While #BlackLivesMatter may have disappeared from the trending section of Twitter in the past few weeks, the importance of raising awareness of ongoing police brutality and deaths hasn't expired. To find out why raising awareness of systemic racism in the UK is as important as ever, I called 23-year-old Black Lives Matter UK organiser Shanice Octavia. We spoke about the fifth anniversary of the 2011 London riots, and whether or not targeting Heathrow was the most effective way to get the message that Black Lives Matter across.

VICE: What did you guys want this series of protests to achieve?
Shanice Octavia: I think the main thing is awareness of the fact there have been 1,563 deaths in state custody in the UK since 1990. At the same time, there have been several unlawful killing verdicts, and zero convictions. It's so, so hard for the families who've lost loved ones in police custody to achieve justice, and that's one of the main points that we want to get out of this action. This problem of black people being overrepresented in police and state custody is not just an issue in the US; black people in the UK are overrepresented in police custody by a factor of two. So it's as much an issue for the UK as well as the US, and we want to make that very clear.

What do you feel this action has accomplished, or will go on to accomplish?
For us, it's about starting a conversation, because there's this narrative that the situation is not as bad in the UK as it is in the US, but even in the US they've convicted cops for similar crimes against black people. In the UK we haven't had a conviction since 1969, so there's this massive gap in terms of the justice system here, particularly with how it responds to black people, and we're hoping this protest can show that, actually, the racism still exists in our institutions. We're overrepresented in the prison system, and we get harsher sentences for the same crimes as white people.

We're hoping these protests can kick-start that narrative and start changing it, and I think this has already started. Yesterday we weren't talking about these issues; today we are. Today we're doing interviews, we're being asked to write articles, we're appearing on radio and television, so it's definitely helped start that dialogue. From here, it will be about continuing the discussion and building a movement that puts pressure on the institutions in question.

How are you going to keep this momentum going?
Well, on the one hand, by mobilising, getting people out and getting them active and energised, but on the other hand, by organising. There is a difference between just mobilising and organising, so today after the series of shutdowns that have happened across the UK, we're holding rallies in Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham and London to lay down the foundations within our communities by linking up with like-minded people, which we need to do to take these issues forward. So this morning was about raising awareness, and later on today will be about translating that conversation into long-term organisation.

Why Heathrow? Why choose to make people late for their flights?
It wasn't specifically about targeting Heathrow as an individual airport. I think the purpose is that throughout history we've seen that targeting the economic, political and social centres of a country through disruption gets you attention. This is a tactic that comes all the way back from the civil rights era, and goes all the way up until the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which shut down major highways and targeted major commercial institutions. So the purpose wasn't specifically to target Heathrow, but to disrupt the major economic, political and social centres within London that meant enough disruption was caused that our voices would be heard.

It can certainly be frustrating to experience delays, especially if you're going on holiday or trying to get to work. But what I'd say about that is that some families who lost their loved ones while they were in police custody have been waiting 23 years for answers as to what happened to them. So while I do understand that a few hours of delay to your journey or your holiday can be frustrating, there's a broader picture here. We wouldn't have to do this if the justice system was fit for purpose. We wouldn't be here shutting down roads, shutting down transport systems, if the system worked. It's a cry to be heard.

Why did you choose Birmingham, Nottingham and London?
There are reasons for those choices; we chose Birmingham in particular because the Kingsley Burrell justice campaign is still fighting for answers as to what happened years after he died in police custody. You can find similar stories in Nottingham, and of course London is full of such cases; Sarah Reed died in January in Holloway Prison, as did Jermaine Baker, so the reason we're targeting these specific places is because it's a national issue, and we wanted to reflect that nationally in all the action we organised.

What would you say to the people who feel the UK doesn't suffer from systemic racism in the same way as the States?
It's fine to say that, but if you do you're factually incorrect; black men are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with psychotic illness, and obviously we see that when it comes to cases of deaths in police custody it's often people with mental illnesses who are targeted. Black graduates in the UK are more likely to be unemployed six months after graduation than their white counterparts. Twelve percent of black men, for example, are in precarious part-time work compared with five percent of white men, and it's a similar situation with women as well. There are so many instances of every part of black people's lives in Britain that put us at a disadvantage. Whether it's walking down the street and being targeted by police, how long we're sentenced for minor crimes or how medical institutions like mental health organisations engage with us, we are at a disadvantage. We're shining a light on these injustices because they can't go on any longer.

@YasminAJeffery

More from VICE:

Sarah Reed's Death in Custody Shows How Britain Treats Vulnerable Black Prisoners

Britain Kills Black Britain's and Calls it 'Justice'

The Police Watchdog that Killed Mark Duggan's Killer Should Be Scrapped