The anger over the police killing of black American teenager Michael Brown made its way across the Atlantic to London last night. A vigil and demonstration organised by political group the London Black Revolutionaries turned into a flare wielding walk through the West End.
As I arrived outside the American Embassy at Grosvenor Square, several hundred people had gathered. Many were holding placards or candles. They mimicked the chants heard at Ferguson protests in the US: "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!"; "No Justice, No Peace!" and "Black Lives Matter!"
It's pretty horrifying that the last one in particular is a political demand that needs to be shouted on protests. As people spilled out of the pre-made, police-approved play-pen, the cops seemed in no mood to hassle anyone.
On the way to the protest, I had to delete some files from my dictaphone to make room for new recordings. Browsing back through the folders, I found myself listening to interviews from Tottenham the day that the police killing of Mark Duggan was declared lawful. It was a portent of things to come, with many of the speeches drawing links between the two shootings, which both sparked major rioting.
As the speeches began, the atmosphere was charged. Pretty much every speaker was able to toss another name from the bewilderingly long list of people killed by cops on both sides of the Atlantic into the mix. Nearly all had to repeat themselves at some point because they were being drowned out by people cheering their point, or shouting "shame" or "murderers". At one point people noticed somebody peering out of a window in the embassy and people started flipping the bird and shouting things like "Fuck you!" at whoever it was, and the speaker had to wait for them to finish. Most speeches came book-ended by load chants of "No Justice, No Peace!"
The person who rammed the comparison with Mark Duggan home was Carol Duggan, Mark's aunt. In a particularly affecting speech, she said, "Mark's death mirrored the death of Mike Brown in America, in the fact that they were both innocent, both posing no threat, both unarmed, both raising their hands in surrender, both shot dead and then: character assassination. And then a smear campaign against then and their families. So you see the pattern. It's not just an American problem, it's not just a British problem, it's a problem from the institutional racism from these big organisations, these agencies.
"Should we have to do this?" she continued. "No. But we do. Why? We're working class, we're black, we're not important. The police here that you see are to protect the rich against the poor, so we are persecuted and kept down. There is a time though when enough is enough.
"We've got to send a solidarity message to Ferguson," Duggan said. "They are very, very brave people and they've got to a point now where they can't turn back. They have to carry on this fight in order for change. We're with them."
Then an organiser who didn't introduce himself took to the mic. "It's down to sisters and mothers and aunties of the dead to come forward and say I'm not having it any more. Is it?" he asked. "Or is it down to the people who came out and saw it on Facebook and saw it on TV and said, 'You know what? This is fucked up. Why the fuck are we sitting around here, watching our TVs, watching other cities burn?'"
"Fuck all of them," he continued. "No justice, no peace!"
Eddie Dempsey, a trade unionist from the RMT said, "I grew up on a council estate in South London. I haven't always been on the right side of the law, but I learned pretty quickly that I could walk around with things in my pockets that my black friends couldn't. The London Metropolitan Police move around this city like an occupying force and I see the demonisation of my black brothers and my black friends, how they treat them." He went on to call all policemen traitors to the working class. As for America? "These murders, you cannot understand them as individual cases of racist police officers... we're talking about a state that was founded on the genocide of one people and the enslavement of another. This isn't single instances of racism. This is the symptoms of a system that is predicated on the oppression of black people – institutionalised racism."
When the speeches were over, a member of the Black Revs suggested that everyone should make their anger known by marching to Oxford Street.
And they did just that. By now, it was hard to tell how many people were there – the organisers later claimed 2,500. And a lot of them cascaded past traffic through the West End with flares burning and arms in the air, chanting: "Hands up, don't shoot!"
The march reached the high street and people kept chanting, past Selfridges, past the Perfume Shop, past concerned looking shop workers under the Christmas lights and drizzle.
Tourists looked confused, taxi drivers looked bored as they were held up and bus drivers honked in support. I saw a guy working in a café pop his head out of the door, read out the words on a sign – "Justice for Michael Brown?" – and start applauding. "For real!" he said.
The march circled the block several times, with the police slowly walking behind. They looked pretty panicked but presumably thought that it would be dreadful PR to come down too heavily on a protest about police brutality, so kept their distance even when someone got the graffiti cans out.
The marchers continued to Charing Cross police station, where they stood outside and chanted for a bit.
With all the crowds, the chanting, the marching around and the fairy lights, the whole thing had a kind of hopey-changey vibe, a bit like a Christmas film, as if the grouchy Chief of Police was about to look out of the window, have his heart melted by the fresh-faced rabble, and get on the phone to his counterpart in America to arrest Darren Wilson personally.
Of course that didn't happen and the protest went off, marching further around London, past Trafalgar Square, Downing Street, Parliament Square, New Scotland Yard and so on until they were eventually dispersed.
Unfortunately, there will be no fairytale ending here. Just continued campaigning against institutionalised police racism and violence.
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