By 8AM on Friday, it had begun. Protesters from Black Lives Matter UK started to block the road leading to Heathrow airport, laying themselves across the tarmac on the M4 at the start of what became a full day of "shutdown" actions around England. "We wouldn't be here shutting down roads, shutting down transport systems, if the system worked," said protester Shanice Octavia, speaking to VICE on Friday afternoon. "It's a cry to be heard."
By the evening, the focus had shifted towards rallies held in London, Nottingham and Manchester where protesters socialised and strategised, banners at the ready. Photographer Chris Bethell headed to east London's Altab Ali park – a location named in memory of a Bangladeshi garment worker killed by three teens in a racist attack in 1978 – to check things out.
Given how recent protest movements have failed to inspire the government to reverse unpopular decisions – first on UK military intervention in the Iraq War and then on the introduction of university tuition fees – Chris asked some of those gathered whether they think disruptive protest can work in the UK today.
I think it depends on your definition of disruption, first and foremost. And if people don't listen, then you speak the language that they listen to. So whatever protest creates an answer, that's a protest that works. I think it's more than worth it if anybody feels disturbed. If somebody dies at the hands of racism, someone's one-hour delay is pretty insignificant.
The whole idea is to make noise and to represent that we won't stand for this treatment. It's not just about the person who is an hour late in getting home, it's about us standing up and saying that we refuse for these things to happen. It's a demonstration of the way we feel. It's not just a disruption.
Bethany, Antony and Sahnah
Sahnah: To a point.
Bethany: Yeah, to some degree.
Antony: It gets the message out, doesn't it? But then it's also about the people you bring into that protest. Because it's not just about shutting stuff down – it's about changing perceptions of who has the power.
Bethany: It's not like they're being violent towards one another either. It's just us trying to get our voice heard. No one will listen otherwise; unfortunately that's how it is.
Antony: It's like how the slogan goes: "If they don't give us justice, then we won't give them peace."
Yes – people have to pay attention. If you're getting in their way then they have to. People have to be brought to a halt in the middle of everyday life to take notice.
I'm a miscarriage of justice – I spent a long time in prison because of police corruption. I'm one of two cases, where I spent eight years in prison and I haven't been told why. I think this is the only way; we haven't got any other way of making our voice heard but to create road blocks. They're peaceful – we're not about aggression. We're about change for the society we're living in. Unfortunately the people at the top do not give a shit about the people at the bottom. So if the people at the bottom don't have anything to eat, then they're going to eat the people at the top.
It works everywhere – not only in the UK – and there's a reason it's called disruptive. It's meant to disrupt your daily life, to bring attention to an injustice. To get voices heard and bring about change.
I think what happened today was quite interesting. Those that were calling it disruptive were the ones held up in traffic, on their way to work or to travel. I don't speak for Black Lives Matter, I only speak for myself, and my personal opinion is that what we did today was basically to shut it down. But is that a form of disruption or is it a form of raising awareness? A way to highlight deaths in custody, inequality in housing, lack of social services.
So when you tell people what is actually happening – and you are truthful with them – is this disruption? Because no one can say we are lying. Is learning the truth considered disruption? I don't think it is.
Completely. I think that we have to shut things down. We have to disrupt, to make things abnormal. I think it's a way of making ourselves heard and drawing attention to the movement. Unfortunately we have to mess things up. We have to make ourselves known. The way that we can do that is by disrupting the system.
Here are some more photos from the evening, where the peaceful rally continued, with people breaking off into groups based on their respective London neighbourhoods to talk about future plans. A splinter group split off from the main rally, to blockade the Aldgate East junction in east London. That direct action wasn't connected to the main congregation.