Daniel Lawrence and Daniel Ostberg are rising sophomores at Northeastern University in Boston. As part of the school’sUniversity Scholars Program, they are spending the summer in Europe researching what Europeans think of American politics. Lawrence is currently undeclared. Ostberg is a chemical engineering and mathematics major.
Beneath an overcast sky flew the American flag at half-staff. Further below, the eagle that watched over the US embassy in London. On the ground, before the backdrop of the fifty state flags, a mostly black, mostly British crowd of protesters chanted, “BlackLives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” Declared one speaker, “We are protesting police brutality everywhere!”
As the United States continued to grapple with the deaths of African-Americans Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers, thousands of protesters took to the streets of London, and across the United Kingdom, over the weekend.
In Brixton, a southern borough of London, what began as a meeting of a few dozen people quickly swelled into a protest of hundreds,catching police off guard and backing up traffic for miles. The marchers staged a sit-down, refusing to move from the center of Wellington Square until midnight. On the following day, Sunday, protesters congregated and chanted in front of the American Embassy before shutting down Oxford Street,the popular shopping center in London. Along the street, bus drivers, unable to move, honked their support and raised single fists in an expression of solidarity with the movement, while shoppers streamed into the street to watch the protests.
While most of the protesters said that a major purpose of the marches was to express solidarity for black people killed by police in the United States, some talked about similar problems in Great Britain.
Speakers at these gatherings talked about deaths at the hands of British police, including Ricky Bishop, who died in a hospital in 2001 after being detained, but not arrested, by Brixton police. He had unexplained injuries to his body.
In contrast to the United States, none of the officers present at the rally appeared to be armed with more than batons, nor did any have visible riot equipment.One officer got into a discussion with a protester.“I work with many guys, and I believe they don’t see color. We treat everyone the same.”
“Maybe us blacks,” she replied, “But I’ve heard the rhetoric. Can you say the same about the Muslims?”
The officer declined to be interviewed.
“It’s not just a black thing. It’s black,white, Asian,” said Rashad Smith Fullham. The British refer to people of South Asia (the area surrounding India, Bangladesh, and Pakistani) as”Asian”; rarely is the term used to refer to people of East Asian descent.
Toj, who worked in marketing and declined to give her full name or other information, said British police weren’t innocent.“In the US they just kill you. Here, [the police] mess with your head.” This Sentiment was echoed by many black protesters, but the majority said American police were more racist, or at least more likely to kill due to weapon availability.
Jake, a recruitment consultant watching the protests when we interviewed him, before later joining, suggested there was more to it. “[In America] shootings happen to a certain type of person… a poorer person. [American police] would be okay with me because of my accent.”
A focus on, and fear of,gun violence in America was echoed in almost every interview about the protests, across age, racial, religious, and gender lines, from British citizens and tourists alike. Patricia Biggins, a retired woman from EastYorkshire who was sitting on Oxford Street on Sunday, felt that the rally was misguided. Part of this was because she didn’t believe there was a problem with police brutality towards blacks, but also because she felt it didn’t address gums. “These demonstrations do nothing. They have to get to the root of the problem, which is guns.”
Afra, a Muslim Londoner watching the protests from in front of one of the Oxford Street department stores, expressed widely-shared pessimism about America’s prospects for changing things. “I would say there’s no hope[for America]. Everybody has a gun, so they can easily kill each other for no reason.”
Additional protests took place in the U.K. including a small protest in Birmingham and a large one with 3000 people in Manchester. In addition, there was a protest of about 500 people in Berlin, Germany, along with another with about 400 people in Amsterdam, Netherlands.