People across the UK have “taken the knee” at their doorsteps in solidarity with the vast numbers of demonstrators in the US protesting systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
While many performed the gesture of solidarity outside their homes at 6pm due to coronavirus fears, tens of thousands have also gathered to protest in cities across the UK, including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh.
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It is part of a day of action organised by Stand Up to Racism to demand justice for George Floyd and highlight racism and racial inequalities in the UK, underscored by the disproportionate toll Covid-19 is taking on BAME communities.
Protests have engulfed the US in the wake of the 46-year-old African American’s death in Minneapolis police custody, after white officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into his neck for eight minutes, despite Floyd’s pleas that “I can’t breathe”.
Donald Trump has vowed to send in the military to “dominate” his citizens unless the unrest ends, after threatening anyone who breached a makeshift wall erected around the White House with “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons I have ever seen”.
Chief constables from across the UK have issued a joint statement saying they “stand alongside all those across the globe who are appalled and horrified”, while Boris Johnson said his message to Donald Trump is that racism and “racist violence has no place in our society”.
While the prime minister acknowledged the right to protest, he added: “I would urge people to protest peacefully and in accordance with the rules on social distancing. Everybody’s lives matter. Black lives matter but we must fight this virus as well.”
Asked if he would review the sale of rubber bullets and tear gas to the US, where the weapons are being unleashed upon protesters, he insisted “the UK is possibly the most scrupulous country” in the world regarding arms exports, adding he was “happy to look into any complaints”.
The UK police has previously faced accusations of racism, with the 1999 MacPherson report published after the murder of Stephen Lawrence concluding the police response was “institutionally racist”.
Former Equality and Human Rights Commission chair Trevor Philips said a decade later that this was no longer true. Black people in the UK continue to face disproportionately high rates of stop and search, arrests and use of force.
Several police forces and fire brigades joined the thousands taking the knee at 6pm on Wednesday, many of whom held placards reading “I can’t breathe”, “black lives matter” and “I stand with you”.
Protesters outside Downing Street also took the stance, chanting “I can’t breathe”. The police officers, with whom there had been a brief and minor confrontation earlier, reportedly did not join the protesters in kneeling, however several officers had earlier in the day.
Tens of thousands had amassed in Hyde Park hours previously, where they were addressed by speakers including Star Wars actor John Boyega, who gave an emotional and powerful speech “from the heart”.
“Today is about innocent people who were halfway through their process,” he told the crowd. “We don’t know what George Floyd could have achieved, we don’t know what Sandra Bland could have achieved, but today we’re going to make sure that won’t be an alien thought to our young ones.”
At the Hyde Park event, organisers provided masks and gloves to protesters who were asked to sit two metres apart unless they were from the same household. They were also told to keep their arms stretched out to ensure social distancing.
With the organisers having made clear that the problem of systemic racism is far from exclusive to the US, many protesters paid tribute to Belly Mujinga, a UK rail worker who died with Covid-19 after reportedly being spat at by a man who said he was infected with the virus.
British Transport Police had launched an investigation into her death but has since said it will not take any further action. Thousands of demonstrators, including members of Ms Mujinga’s family, took to Victoria Station – where Ms Mujinga was working at the time of the incident.
“I think that is my main reason for this, because she’s black she doesn’t have a voice right now,” 21-year-old Naomi Smith said.
“This is our story, this is a UK story, this is what’s going on right now with us. George Floyd is in America, and we’re here for him as well.”
It comes after the publication of a Public Health England review, which confirmed that Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting ethnic minorities – but stopped short of offering any measures to change this.
The leading health publication reported the alleged removal of a section containing responses from individuals and organisations who suggested that that discrimination and poorer life chances were a key factor in the increased Covid-19 risk to BAME communities.
After being accused of “empty rhetoric” for failing to set out how government would prevent further BAME deaths, Mr Hancock said that equalities minister Kemi Badenoch was working on a response which he hopes will “get to the bottom” of the crisis, adding: “Black lives matter.”
Additional reporting by PA