Streetscapes of Black Lives Matter

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A raised fist is one of the most identifiable symbols of Black Lives Matter (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 by three women: Alicia Garcia, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, following the killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida on 26th February 2012.  In July 2013 his killer was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Trayvon was by no means the first African-American unjustly killed in the US, and he would sadly not be the last, but the injustice of his killer’s acquittal inspired a movement that is still going strong seven years later.

On 25th May 2020, George Floyd was killed when police officers knelt on his neck for almost 8 minutes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His was not even the first violent and unpunished death of an African-American that hit the headlines this year; the killings of Ahmaud Arbery on 23rd February in South Georgia, and Breonna Taylor on 13th of March in Louisville, Kentucky also caused disbelief and anger. But it was the killing of George Floyd that sparked a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, leading to protests around the world. Protests and rallies leave traces on the environments they take place in; they alter streetscapes, even if only for a little while. A few days after a BLM protest in Brighton in the UK on 13th June 2020, I photographed some of those traces. Regular readers of my blog will know that I normally write captions describing and explaining the photos I take documenting protest and resistance, but this time I decided to let the photos speak for themselves.

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Understanding Conflict: Protest and Political Violence

Provide tea and biscuits, and you're sure to get a good turnout!

Provide tea and biscuits, and you’re sure to get a good turnout! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

This Monday, I attended the annual symposium of the University of Brighton’s conflict research group (or to give it it’s full name, Understanding Conflict: Forms and Legacies of Violence Research Cluster). With members from disciplines across the arts and humanities, the group seeks to understand violent conflict and its legacies. The annual symposium was organised by postgraduates from the research cluster, and featured a range of presentations by staff and students on themes that ranged from Belfast’s ‘peace walls’ to the aesthetics of AK-47s.

The first question asked by Professor Bob Brecher during his introduction to the symposium was ‘what is political violence?’ It may be a question that the research cluster never fully answers to their satisfaction, but I wonder if protest will be included in any definition that they do come up with. Certainly some members of the research group are working on protest or protest-related topics; Tim Huzar presented at the symposium on the topic of ‘Black Lives Matter and the Question of Non-Violence’, and Zeina Maasri talked about the aesthetics of the AK-47 rifle, and its symbolic role for anti-imperialist struggles during the Cold War. I have often thought about the role of violence in protest movements, and I was hoping that attending this symposium might crystallise some of my ideas.

At the very least, I was about to draw lots of connections between the papers presented at the symposium and my own work on the historical geographies of protest in London. One interesting idea that came out of a lively discussion about drone warfare was the idea of the threat of violence as a controlling force. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and the intense surveillance they enable can give the appearance of God-like omnipotence. The threat of a drone strike can have as much as an impact on people, if not more, than a strike itself. In a similar way, the threat of violent and excessive policing can be used to alter the behaviour of protesters and potential protesters. The threat of being arrested, kettled, or manhandled by police can prevent people protesting; I know it has factored into decisions I have made about whether or not to attend protests.

A police officer in riot gear pepper-spraying seated protesters at U.C Davis in 2011 (Source: www.theatlantic.com)

A police officer in riot gear pepper-spraying seated protesters at U.C Davis in 2011 (Source: www.theatlantic.com).

A recurring theme during the symposium was the ways in which violence is remembered and memorialised. Ian Cantoni presented a paper about the new memorial museum at Camp Joffre in southern France, used as an internment camp for much of the 20th Century. Dr. Eugene Michael talked about the use of the Holocaust metaphor to interpret the conflicts in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Just like conflicts, protests can often have difficult and contested legacies. I am currently working on the Battle Cable Street, which is memorialised in the mural shown below. It is a contentious site, and has been vandalised several times since the project began in 1976. As the name suggests, the Battle of Cable Street was a violent protest, and there are multiple conflicting narratives that surround it. The legacies of violent pasts are difficult to process, yet we continue to try, whether that violence took the form of a protest, a riot, or a war.

The Battle of Cable Street memorial in Cable Street, in Tower Hamlets in East London.

The Battle of Cable Street memorial in Cable Street, in Tower Hamlets in East London (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There is clearly a lot of overlap between conflict and protest, especially violent protest. Protest has an uneasy relationship with violence; violence is a frequent part of unrest, but many activists reject it, for a whole variety of reasons. Nevertheless, I think that any study of protest (even those about deliberately non-violent protest) would be improved by at least a passing consideration of the causes, characteristics, and impacts of political violence.

Thank you to the Conflict research cluster at the University of Brighton for organising such an interesting day and giving me so much to think about!

Rebellious New York: A Radical Guide to NYC

Last week I went on a second year undergraduate field trip in New York as a member of staff. I was running a project group on protests and riots in the city, so I spent the week immersing myself in the radical past and present of the big apple. There are loads of things you can do to learn about New York’s radical side, and I had a great week getting to know them all.

New York's iconic skyline from the top of the Rockefeller Centre.

New York’s iconic skyline from the top of the Rockefeller Centre.

With my group of students, I visited the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Centre in Washington Heights. The Centre aims to honour Malcolm X and his wife by continuing their legacy, supporting campaigns that fight for social justice and human rights. It is in the building in which Malcolm X was assassinated; the very spot where it happened is sectioned off, and some of the original floorboards remain. It is a very interesting space, and I think it is a much better memorial than a statue or mural (although the centre does have both of these) because it continues their campaign work rather than just passively existing as a reminder.

My students with a statue of Malcolm X at the Shabazz Centre.

My students with a statue of Malcolm X at the Shabazz Centre.

We also went on an Occupy Wall St. walking tour with founding member of Occupy and qualified tour guide, Michael Pellagatti. Pellagatti uses his extensive knowledge of the history of New York to put the Occupy movement into the context of other protests in the city, and his experience as one of the original members of Occupy Wall St. to give fascinating details about exactly what happened where in Zucotti Park and the surrounding areas.

Michael Pellagatti, the Radikal Tour Guide.

Michael Pellagatti, the Radikal Tour Guide.

The Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition Activist New York is another way to learn about the radical side of the city. It details various protest movements, from resistance to religious intolerance in New Amsterdam to the recent controversy over plans to build a mosque at 51 Park Street near Ground Zero. It is a fantastic introduction to the city’s radical history, particularly if, like me, you have little prior knowledge. Unfortunately it is not a permanent exhibition, so won’t be around forever. The Museum also has a 20 minute video about the history of New York, which is a brilliant introduction to how the city developed.

The Activist New York Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

The Activist New York Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

If you are interested in doing your own research about protest in New York, then the Interference Archive in Brooklyn is an ideal place to go. The archive’s collection houses ephemera (leaflets, posters, t-shirts, badges, banners, zines etc.) from a wide variety of protests across the world. The aim of the archive is to explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements, and it does this through a whole range of events and exhibitions, as well as its collections.

The Interference Archive.

The Interference Archive.

As with other cities, there are also sign of contention and controversy all over the streets of New York. Graffiti is common, as are protest stickers, although I did not spot as many stickers in New York as I have done in London. Some of my students witnessed a Black Lives Matter protest in a clothes store whilst they were out shopping. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and shows how protest can occur in every aspect of urban life.

A protest sticker referring to the recent controversy over the police treatment of black people.

A protest sticker referring to the recent controversy over the police treatment of black people.

Although not as old as London, New York still has a vibrant and fascinating history, and protest and contentious politics are a big part of that history. Obviously there is any number of things to see and do in New York, but if you do go, perhaps consider getting to know its radical side, as it is such an integral part of the city.