Yesterday, Keir Starmer made an important distinction during an interview with BBC Breakfast. While he acknowledged that the Black Lives Movement had been about “reflecting” on the dreadful events in America, he regretted that it had become “tangled up… with the organisation Black Lives Matter”, a statement that he received equal doses of praise and backlash for.
What Starmer highlighted is that there’s a crucial difference between the statement “black lives matter” – which any decent human being agrees with – to “Black Lives Matter”, an organisation that has clear goals.
But here it gets slightly more complicated, as the movement is largely “non-hierarchical”, making it harder for Starmer, and other leaders, to engage with its UK representatives.
What British groups do have in common is their inspiration: the American BLM movement, which was prompted by the acquittal of George Zimmerman after he fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager walking to a family member’s house, in February 2012.
This shocking event prompted Twitter users to form the hashtag – #BlackLivesMatter – to highlight racial inequalities in the judicial and policing system – and it increasingly gained traction with the help of three activists, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, who encouraged the growth of networks and calls to action.
Despite the fact that the organisation is decentralised with no formal hierarchy, everyone knows who these founders are. They regularly give interviews, with their biographies listed on the Black Lives Matter website, and people know their political views.
Cullors once described her and Garza as “trained Marxists” and said she would not sit at the table with President Trump who is “literally the epitome of evil, all the evils of this country”, singling out “capitalism” as one of them.
Given this level of political openness, people in the UK might want to hear from BLM leaders about their aims for this country, but it’s tricky as the movement is divided into many groups, such as Tribe Named Athari, Black Lives Matter Leeds, All Black Lives UK, and Black Lives Matter UK, the latter of which Tribe Named Athari has said it has no direct affiliation with.
Black Lives Matter UK, set up in 2016, is arguably the most famous branch here, with 72.1k followers on Twitter (at the time of writing). In recent days, it gained prominence for criticising Israel on social media, and posting “FREE PALESTINE”, as well as attacking Starmer for his comments on defunding the police (a goal of BLM US).
Though the group doesn’t have a website, Black Lives Matter UK has a Go Fund Me page, where it has raised £1 million. Organisers state their aims are “to dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white-supremacy, patriarchy and the state structures that disproportionately and systematically harm Black people in Britain and around the world.”
Although the group says it is endorsed by Patrisse Cullors, it refuses to name anyone else, posting: “Amongst calls for transparency and demands to reveal the leadership behind BLM UK, we are currently dealing with emergency legal matters following last week’s protests in addition to the hostility of far-right groups. This is a genuine threat to our safety”. So this appears to be the rationale for hidden identities.
Then there’s the website blacklivesmatter.uk (BLMUK on Twitter – where it has 1,500 followers). On its front page, it tells visitors that it is not connected to “the activist coalition using: Twitter @ukblm” (the branch mentioned above) or the Instagram account @blmuk, even going so far as to point out “The UKBLM coalition do not have an official website”.
Furthermore, in its “About us” section, it writes: “There are many independent activist groups across the UK who do and will not publicly identify themselves, nor having leadership or declare leadership, no office base or website to go to, preferring a small or for some a huge interest and following from profile statuses on social media platforms and some raise funds via gofundme, crowdfunding pages and alike.”
Another website is called the Black Lives Matter Movement, which explicitly states that it’s “not connected to BLMUK” (above). It is founded by Gary McFarlane, an author on its site, who is a prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party.
On Russia Today, he said “In all revolutionary situations statues are toppled and that’s a good sign for the future because we do need a revolution in this country and many others.” The SWP has been accused before of trying to infiltrate Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the Labour Party, and some BLM representatives released a statement distancing itself from it.
Clearly there is a socialist undercurrent to some of these movements; indeed, Natalie Jeffers, founder of BLMUK, was quoted saying that we must fight “capitalism with socialism” and “dedicate ourselves to revolutionary politic power”. But it’s hard to know the extent of this sentiment, due to how spread out the movement is.
Although all of these groups are fighting for the same broad cause – to end racism – the decentralised system could cause confusion around what policies they are proposing.
Whereas XR also favours a dencentralised system, which led to protesters doing their own thing – such as jumping on tube carriages, it arguably has more practical demands for the Government (citizens’ assemblies), compared to BLM’s (US) desire to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure”.
XR has also fielded representatives onto television, such as Skeena Rathor, the “co-leader”, as well as Zion Lights, a spokesperson. The Hong Kong protests, too, though “decentralised”, have had Joshua Wong as their figurehead. As far as ConservativeHome is aware, there has not been an equivalent spokesperson for BLM UK in this way.
Perhaps the closest is Imarn Ayton, an activist, who has demanded a meeting with Boris Johnson and called for the statue of Winston Churchill to be removed on Radio 4. Whether she is accepted as overall leader of the movement is less known, though.
Either way, with the movement growing in power in recent weeks, politicians – and TV producers – will increasingly want to know what’s being proposed for the UK. Perhaps Andrew Neil is already gearing up for an interview. But with no clear BLM UK leader, different funding levels for each group, and separate manifestos, it’s not obvious who will answer questions.