Young Voices: In the Sticks: England and the Black Lives Matter Movement

Photo provided by Zain & taken by a friend
Young Voices: In the Sticks: England and the Black Lives Matter Movement
Zain on the BLM movement in Hertfordshire

The Black Lives Matter Hertfordshire group has often been received with shock by anyone living outside the Home Counties. Herts is usually seen as masses of green grass and farmers’ fields - not the first location brought to mind when you ask where a black liberation and social justice group is based. However, the resurgence of BLM saw protests taking place in small towns and big cities across the UK, shifting the narrative that change could only begin in the capital.

In Hertfordshire, the group has received mixed responses from the community. Here you can find towns or villages with little or no black people (or other people of colour), where you both feel and are aware of your blackness as something people have a problem with. Other towns where historically Black Caribbean and African people have arrived to build on the foundations of their family do not produce such feeling. I also believe that this experience must be different for each generation of black people growing up in Hertfordshire.

Herts BLM prove why local groups’ groundwork must be undertaken in suburban and rural areas as well as in the Capital. Back in June, a couple of weeks after the murder of George Floyd, BLM Hertfordshire was born. The group organised their first protest amidst a global pandemic in Hoddesdon an area known for its football hooligans and BNP politics.

People of all ages attended the protest, calling out racism in the UK as well as honouring the life of George Floyd. Disturbing anti-protesters showed up dressed in blue, which also included people in all age groups. I remember hearing a few people on the BLM side (there was a literal side drawn out by a line of policemen) and recognised a few faces of anti-protesters from their school, proving that racism won’t just die out and that we can’t afford to be passive in our activism.

Hoddesdon made headlines for having an anti-BLM protest, where members made Nazi salutes and screamed things like “all lives matter” and “go back to Africa” towards a predominantly teenage turnout of peaceful protesters. This experience highlighted not only to the group but throughout Hertfordshire why more work on race relations is needed.

The people opposing us constantly felt the need to mention that they were in fact not racist; just that all lives matter and we had no valid cause to protest. What I found most interesting from this experience was how later in the month, another group of young people organised a protest in St. Albans which was met with a peaceful turnout and no direct interference by racists. This duality is strong in Hertfordshire. Some towns are more apathetic to the topic of racism, some will stand in solidarity, like the huge turnout seen in Hitchin, whilst others mirror Hoddesdon’s response.

This leads me to question the root causes of such harmful ideologies. How do you even begin to communicate or alter racism that dwells in people unwilling to listen? Politically, across eleven MPs two are people of colour, one being black. This isn’t to say we demand that all our local MPs be black or people of colour; but it does act as a reminder that Hertfordshire’s population is around 87.6% White.

Though there have been negatives as local people reveal their deep racism, there have been some good outcomes influenced by the work BLM groups have been doing. For example, Stevenage passed a Black Lives Matter motion, promising more action against racial inequality (which we can hope will be a tangible aid to the community rather than a performative action). We have also been able to raise money, which we plan to use to help further education on black history (not just the enslavement of African people), raising awareness and providing and facilitating education through online platforms.

Though BNP members would like to continue a narrative that the BLM movement is causing more division than unity, we have seen members of community groups reach out with support and aid, whether financially donating or opening their platforms for us to speak on.

Hertfordshire BLM’s main focus has been education and how we can bring impactful/long lasting education to schools and local people. I believe there is a long way to go and a lot more work to be done, but I believe that if we do continue, we will be going in the right direction.