When #BlackLivesMatter crossed the Atlantic

When #BlackLivesMatter crossed the Atlantic
Comment: There is much binding the experience of Black and Muslim communities, writes Nargess Moballeghi.
6 min read
18 Aug, 2016
The #BlackLivesMatter movement is acknowledging the discrimination faced by Muslims globally [Getty]

Three years ago, three activists were among many who watched as George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watchman who had shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin dead, was acquitted of murder.

By that point, it had already taken mass protest - and sometimes high profile protest - and the biggest ever change.org petition just to get Zimmerman arrested. So to watch him walk free had left Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tomet deflated and angry.

They took to social media, and at the end of every tweet they wrote a hashtag; #BlackLivesMatter.

A movement was born. In the three years since it has evolved beyond its hashtag activism roots, as well as the borders of the United States.

The rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is rooted in tragedy and spurred on by every subsequent death. It is also a reflection of the changing times in which we live. The deaths of young, black men at the hands of American police are not new, but the cameras are.

The stark and raw footage unavoidably asks the questions that have long needed to be answered

Many of these police altercations were captured on a mobile phone, and shared on social media. Previously, the media could easily divert attention from the police officer's conduct to the victim's record of petty crime, accusations of gang involvement, or anything else that could justify their death.

We were told we couldn't judge because "we weren't there to see what really happened". But now the stark and raw footage unavoidably asks the questions that have long needed to be answered.

These deaths did not become high-profile because the news told people to become outraged, but because the news had no choice but to report on what was, ultimately, being reported without them. Today, those searching for justification are finding it increasingly difficult to avoid the obvious fact; that whatever the background of the victim, no one deserves to be killed in this way.

It is the breakdown of this façade that has facilitated #BlackLivesMatter and it is #BlackLivesMatter that has facilitated the breakdown of this façade. It is a movement with momentum.

In April 2015 another American black man was killed by police. This time, 25-year-old Freddie Grey died after a heavy-handed arrest by six police officers left him in a coma. There were subsequent riots in his hometown of Baltimore. It was around this time, that I first heard the term "Black Spring" comparing the "uprisings" in America with the Arab Spring of the Middle East and North Africa.

"What we know is that there is a Black Spring that is emerging where communities that have been under the boot of police terrorism, communities that have been attacked by poverty and unemployment are rising up, coming together and advancing new solutions and new visions and new demands to create a new world where Black peoples' lives matter," said movement co-founder Garza at one Baltimore protest. 

Then this July, within a few days of each other, Alton Sterling and Phiando Castile were shot dead by police. The videos went viral as Castile's girlfriend used the newest medium available - Facebook live. For the first time, we could all see the horrific events unfolding in real time.

In the US, protest erupted again, but something was different this time, because in the UK too, people took to the streets. Not just one small pre-organised protest outside the US embassy like before. This time it was spontaneous, instant and completely facilitated by social media.

Every day for more than a week, thousands turned out. They were from all walks of life, and they weren't just "the usual protesting type". Friends from the black community here in the UK told me they felt compelled to take part, despite never having attended a demo before in their lives.

On the Saturday, I went to a #BlackLivesMatter protest in Brixton.

Brixton is in many ways the heart of the Black community in Britain, and the suburb of south London in many ways symbolises so much of their struggle and their contribution to British life; despite all the difficulties they have created a vibrant and cultural hub. Despite all the progress, racism and disadvantage still exists.

There was an open mic and as I listened in, it struck me how frequently protesters were mentioning discrimination against Muslims interchangeably with the discrimination of the black community. And as I looked around, I realised how many posters mentioned #BlackLivesMatter and #MuslimLivesMatter. In fact it was two Muslim girls in hijab that were leading the chants of the protest.

"Look to a woman right now, and tell her that her future child will be shot for being Black, for being Muslim, tell her that is natural. Tell her that, that gun is worth it?" the powerful words of one woman who emotionally took to the stand.

I walked away from that protest thinking about the phrase "Black Spring" I had heard a year before, and about the similarities between the institutional discrimination faced by Muslims and the Black communities, both in Britain and the US.

Of course, these are two overlapping communities, especially in the United States where one in four Muslims, and 64 percent of converts, are African-American. In the UK that figure is one in ten, but whether Muslim or not, black or not, the two communities today face similar struggles.

From the double standards in media coverage, to disparity in economic opportunity, there is much binding the experience of both communities

Black and Muslim communities both have higher rates of unemployment, poverty and imprisonment comparative to the general population. Both communities face discrimination for the way that they look; Black men are more likely to be stopped and searched in Britain; in some areas up to 17 times more likely.

Meanwhile, Muslim women, especially those who wear the veil, are often discriminated against. Figures suggest that Muslim women are the most economically disadvantaged group in British society. They are three times more likely to be unemployed - facing a "triple penalty" of being women, being from an ethnic minority and being Muslim.

From the double standards in media coverage, to disparity in economic opportunity, there is much binding the experience of both communities. It is a commonality now clearly being picked up on as the #BlackLivesMatter movement goes global.

In the weeks following Sterling and Castile's deaths, on both sides of the Atlantic, the Black Lives Matter movements made strong statements on what would more typically be seen as "Muslim" issues. Stateside, the official manifesto for "The Movement for Black Lives" was launched. In it, they called Israel an apartheid state, and said "the US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people".  

A group from the movement has already visited the occupied Palestinian territories.

Around the same time, the UK movement officially launched and called for protest again British infrastructure. In its video, the group directly mentioned "state-sanctioned Islamophobia, through Prevent", the controversial government counter-terrorism measure accused of unfairly targeting Muslims from the school playground through to the workplace.

It is clear that as it continues to organise and expand, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is acknowledging the discrimination faced by Muslims not only at home but abroad too. This is important, but must also be reciprocated.

Muslim communities too, must recognise, and stand with the struggle for #BlackLivesMatter, and acknowledge the longer-standing institutional discrimination faced by this community. For either side to ignore the profiling, incarceration and discrimination that they collectively face, would be to only partly fix the problem of inequality, here in the UK and abroad.

Nargess Moballeghi is an independent journalist and director of Merging Media. She has spent a decade as a news reporter in the Middle East and Europe and has a special interest in UK and Middle East politics as well as global social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter: @journonargess

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.