The outcry began in Minnesota, but campaigners spread the spark of the movement to towns around the world. In the UK, even as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in the streets of its major cities.
Yet the movement also spread outside Britain’s big urban centers, as anti-racist campaigners challenged institutional racism in smaller towns and cities which have less ethnic diversity and are less known for their activism. The tragedy of Floyd’s death inspired ordinary people, thousands of miles away in the UK, to fight for institutional change in their communities under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” (BLM).
Six months later, here are some of the voices of those continuing to fight for racial equality outside of the global spotlight.
Maia Thomas, 21, is an activist who campaigns for Black history and anti-racism to be taught in English schools.
In June, Thomas used social media to organize a peaceful protest and vigil for Floyd in Exeter, a small, historic city in the English county of Devon, around 170 miles southwest of London.
“People were shouting at me in the street ‘you’re pretty for a Black girl, you should use your looks instead of your voice,’ and ‘White supremacy will always win.’ I was threatened online by people saying they were going to attack, kill me and come after my family,” she told CNN.
Thomas said she was physically assaulted by a man in Exeter. After the protest she said she required security patrols in the city’s shopping center where she worked.
“I was given a key card to go through the back-exit doors just in case I was being followed,” she said. “At times my manager escorted me. It was serious.”
Despite the violence Thomas says she experienced, she regards the march as a success.
“There were more Black people at the protest than I’ve ever seen in the whole time that I’ve lived in Devon,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ views on education had an immediate impact. Scores of schools and other educational institutions have asked for the 21-year-old’s help to run equality workshops.
Thomas is also a part of “Black Lives Matter Somerset,” helping to produce Black History packs for schools and working to increase diversity within her local council. Next year she will attend a conference in Berlin as a UK delegate to speak about Britain’s BLM movement.
She has no intention of stopping anytime soon, but says campaigning can feel overwhelming: “Every organization, business, school and individual does not realize how draining it is to constantly relive trauma because no one has actually wanted to listen until now.
“I realized in Zoom calls, assemblies and talks if it was any other subject, the school or council would pay for a speaker,” she added. “So why should we as activists and educators be doing this for free?”
Liza Bilal is a 21-year-old student and one of the most prominent faces in Britain’s BLM movement. In June, Bilal and five young activists arranged a protest in Bristol, a port city in southwest England that has strong historic links to the UK slave trade. Britain enslaved 3.1 million Africans between 1640 and 1807, transporting them to colonies around the globe, according to Historic England, a public body. Many of them left on ships from Bristol.
The protests were a call to be heard, said Bilal. “People have been petitioning for the statue to come down for decades and were routinely ignored by the council.”
Bilal believes Floyd’s death forced people outside the US to reflect on their own issues with racism. She said the brutality of his death awakened “a lot of people that hadn’t really thought about systemic racism before.”
“Black and Brown people have been disproportionately affected. We know that’s nothing to do with biology and everything to do with systemic racism,” she said.
Yet the surge of protests has also had unintended consequences. Bilal fears the summer’s demonstrations have emboldened Britain’s far-right groups.
“In the summer I saw a group of White supremacists. I think there were maybe around 200-300 guarding the Cenotaph [war memorial] which is next to the plinth from which Edward Colston was torn down,” she told CNN.
The backlash hasn’t halted the All Black Lives campaign’s mission. They continue to hold monthly protests and weekly panels.
“We have to have a resilience that is unbreakable in the face of something as pervasive as White supremacy,” said Bilal.
“They’re not getting interviewed. They’re not getting the breaks. There’s been a lack of awareness that something structural [has] to adjust,” Campbell told CNN.
In June, hundreds of people staged anti-racism rallies in the center of Glasgow. Campbell said the protests were the Black community’s demand for change.
“This generation has decided that the racism, daily microaggressions, and experiences of exclusion from a job market — they’re no longer prepared to tolerate it. They felt the George Floyd moment. They said no more,” Campbell said.
Campbell helped create an employment working group that monitors diversity in council departments. He worries that without enforcing inclusive hiring initiatives, equality would remain a pipe dream.
According to Campbell, changing place names and removing statues isn’t enough to fight racism in Britain. Instead, he believes consciously challenging racism is necessary.
“People in Scotland too often presumed that you are anti-racist by default. In a racist society, especially one with a colonial history like Britain, you have to be actively anti-racist,” said Campbell.
“It’s the unconscious biases, that translate into institutional practices, that discriminate against non-White people.”
Robert Walcott, a director of SADACCA, believes BLM should primarily help Black people in their day-to-day lives, rather than educating White audiences.
“I want to focus on what we are doing after the protests. I’d like to see more of what we’re doing to support ourselves as opposed to trying to raise the issue to a White audience,” he told CNN.
Walcott’s mother is a part of the Windrush generation, the Caribbean immigrants who moved to the UK from the late 1940s at the invitation of the government.
The cruel consequences of tougher immigration policies implemented from 2012 were revealed five years later, in what came to be known as the Windrush scandal.
Those who had arrived decades earlier, without papers to prove their legal status as citizens as such documentation wasn’t needed before, had been denied government services, wrongly detained or even deported.
“I think there is a slight disconnect between the Windrush elders because they don’t fully understand why there is such hostility from young people towards the situation,” he said.
Walcott said that “racism was a fact of life” for the Windrush generation, who see younger Black people as currently having more opportunities than they did. “There have been more opportunities for Black people [created] in their lifetime,” he added.
“There is a fragility of people who are still refusing to accept that racism is the world’s number one pandemic. Still people don’t even know what racism is or about England’s major role in the slave trade,” said Robert Cotterell, SADACCA chairman.
Before the protests “there were no conversations at all from institutions and key players in the city,” said Cotterell.
SADACCA has continued discussions with authorities and institutions in Sheffield that “traditionally have had, and still have, issues around institutional structural racism.”
Despite the growing interest in hearing Black voices, Cotterell says anti-racism activists aren’t fairly compensated for their time and work.
“They can’t keep using us as the experts because if we were White, we’d be getting paid for our knowledge,” Cotterell told CNN. “If we were White, we would become consultants, we’d be getting paid… £1,500 a day.”
Nadia Thomas, 25, says she was forced to cut ties with a close family member after receiving relentless offensive messages due to her supporting BLM.
“My relative sent me a meme from the film ‘Zulu’ where all the British soldiers took over South Africa and knelt, about to go into battle. It said, ‘me and the boys, hashtag taking the knee,'” Thomas told CNN.
With a mixed-race background and having both White and Black parents, Thomas was shocked by her White relative’s insensitivity. The relative had worked for her Antiguan father for many years.
“It’s an awakening and it goes beyond ignorance,” she said.
In June this year Thomas and a group of friends organized a BLM protest. “At first, I couldn’t take part, I didn’t even want to turn on the TV,” she said.
As Thomas watched the cause spread globally she became less skeptical.
She felt responsible for confronting the racism within her own town — no matter how small or rural. “Since Brexit, [Donald] Trump and Boris [Johnson]… people aren’t afraid to be racist. I always thought it was a passive ignorance in this country and now I see blatant racism. It’s clearly always been here and it’s now allowed by people in power,” Thomas told CNN.
Thomas is working on ways to tackle racism in Chepstow. “I’ve got a meeting with the Labour Party and my constituency to do with Black history and diversity workshops in school curriculums,” she told CNN.
“Nationally, this needs to be addressed. I don’t want to just protest. I want to shake up the world.”
“We were followed home. We were threatened. We were told people were coming to find us. I moved out of my house for a few weeks just because someone followed me home,” said Gueye who is mixed-race Senegalese-British.
In response to the backlash, she co-founded the Local Equality Commission, a racial equality group that runs workshops to challenge racism in rural areas.
“The main aim of that was to try and suture some of the divides that occurred because of the protests that we organized,” Gueye told CNN. “We wanted to reaffirm to people that this isn’t a problem that’s going away.”
According to Gueye, education on racism is needed most in rural areas: “The UK doesn’t seem to understand how the BLM movement in the US resonates with the UK. In rural areas we don’t have the exposure to diversity. There is no exposure to this knowledge.”
The voices of Gueye and others in small towns demonstrate the power of protest, education and allyship. As the national focus on BLM dies down, Gueye aims to keep the conversation alive in Gloucestershire.
“George Floyd’s murder is the perfect example of the police brutality that happens frequently throughout the world, throughout the US, throughout the UK. We are in a system that is failing Black people,” said Gueye.
“Everything that has happened over the past six months has been a trajectory towards change,” she added. “It’s about trying to engage with people who don’t necessarily understand or empathize with what we’re trying to fight for.”