As Black Lives Matter protests take place across Britain and Ireland we asked Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana, one of the organisers of today’s solidarity vigil (see details below), why Belfast needs Black Lives Matter.
The Belfast #BlackLivesMatter solidarity vigil, featuring poets, singers and social justice activists, will take place at 7pm on Tuesday 26th July 2016 in front of the Belfast City Hall.
In 2013, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was created by Alicia Garcia, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of African American teenager Trayvon Martin. Today, #BlackLivesMatter (or #BLM) is a global movement for racial, gender and social justice. The central focus of #BLM activism is to highlight and campaign against multiple forms of injustice that especially affect black people. #BLM is also an inclusive movement, which strongly emphasises intersectional issues affecting racial and gender minorities. Indeed, in many cities in North America and as of late elsewhere, #BLM campaigns, protests, vigils, sit-ins and marches have been largely led by LGBTQI people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. In North America, Black Lives Matter increasingly works in partnership with First Nations lobbies.
What makes BLM an international movement is the universal relevance of the issues it addresses. All over the world, black people and other peoples of colour continue to face high levels of prejudice in all aspects of life. The toxic legacies of enslavement and colonisation are such that in world politics today, ‘white’ lives still continue to be regarded as more important, if not more precious than black and other non-white lives. As British artist Akala noted in a TV show in 2015, the international refugee crisis and related key challenges in world affairs today cannot be separated from racial bias.
BLM campaigns take an intersectional approach to highlighting injustice, especially police brutality against black people. Indeed, the numbers of black people killed by police in the USA are at an all-time high. As observers have noted, racial profiling and race-related harassment takes place in Western Europe and elsewhere, where black skin is associated with negative connotations. As BLM activists have repeatedly emphasised, black trans and queer people, especially black trans women, are among the worst hit victims of anti-black [trans]misogynist violence. Black feminism has intersectional politics at its core, and BLM is very much a movement imbued in intersectional feminist and transfeminist perspectives.
In organising a BLM event in Belfast, our focus was on bringing people together, zooming in on the city’s vibrant diversity. The black and ethnic minority communities in Belfast, and indeed in Northern Ireland, make valuable contributions to society in all sectors. Belfast has also experienced repeated racial assaults and damage to properties of black and minority communities. Despite fair employment legislation, glass ceilings often prevent qualified black and minority candidates from accessing career development opportunities. There is a very lively scene of multicultural engagement, which celebrates diversity, but this sector does not seem to reach out to the broader community. In some spheres, there is very little inclination to actively engage with the fast growing diversity in society. The local LGB and trans lobbies for instance, remains exclusively white, and avoids addressing intersectional issues and meaningful interactions with black and ethnic minority communities. Some people with reputations in community work use people from black and ethnic minority communities as tokens to promote their own agendas and careerist interests.
#BLMBelfast is intended as a platform that helps to develop an inclusive and consistent conversation on these and related issues. By holding a BLM vigil on the 150th death anniversary of Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866), one of Belfast’s foremost advocates of anti-slavery activism, workers’ rights and women’s empowerment, we also zoom in on the rich history of inclusive politics in late 18th century Belfast. Mary Ann was a powerful figure with a deep interest in working towards a more equitable society, fighting injustice wherever she saw it.
Mary Ann carries special significance also as someone from an Ulster-Scots/French Huguenot background, who supported the United Irish movement. In other words, Mary Ann is an historical figure people can relate to irrespective of their faith or political positions. Besides, the women’s movement in Ireland (North and South), has always been one that brought together women from all political and religious backgrounds. They were united by the common objective of challenging patriarchal dictates and standing for their rights to live as equal citizens. It is heartening to note that this ‘inclusive’ dimension persists in the present-day women’s movement/s, with pro-choice activists, for example, coming from across the political spectrum, representing different traditions of faith, and indeed a multitude of nationalities. This broad-mindedness and inclusive approach has led to a considerably trans/queer and ethnic minority-inclusive women’s movement, one of its core strengths in its present-day struggles.
Black Lives Matter appeals to a very broad range of like-minded groups, and fits in with historical legacies of people who fearlessly fought against injustice. BLM is intending to give a voice to people to whom a voice is more often than not denied. BLM’s values are those of equality, equity and justice, which can tremendously benefit every society. In the specific context of Belfast, today’s BLM mobilisation is reminiscent of anti-slavery activism of the past, and resonates with struggles of women and other marginalised groups.
It is our hope that BLM will provide an opening for people to gain insights into cycles of systemic oppression, and to understand ways in which everyone can contribute to the causes of racial, gender and social justice.
Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.