Black Lives Matter protests: How focus differs between US and UK

Kathleen Burk, a history professor at University College London, says there is an important difference between anti-racism protests in the UK and America – and explains why images of policemen kneeling could be a significant moment:

What is the point of pulling down a statue? What does it accomplish?

The immediate answer is that the statue itself symbolises whomever it is meant to commemorate – and the pulling down is a symbol of the movement against it.

The statue, theoretically, is now dead. But the symbolic act is alive and becomes a new symbol.

The pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol is an example.

The statue comes down in Bristol. Pic: Artemis D Bear

Cheering Bristol protesters pull down slave trader statue

It is striking, however, that in the US, in the period since the death of George Floyd, no statues have been pulled down – no groups of protesters in the US have done what the British have done.

Quite likely it is because the death of George Floyd was such a tragedy, and has become such a symbol in itself, that the destruction of a statue at this point would seem almost an irrelevance.

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  • Play at Colonial Country Club halted for a minute’s silence in honour of George Floyd

  • Eight out of 10 councils considering future of contentious statues after Black Lives Matter protests

  • Priti Patel says she will ‘not be silenced’ after Labour MPs accuse her of ‘gaslighting’ in bitter race row

  • Derrick Scott: Footage released of black man who died last year after saying ‘I can’t breathe’ as officer said ‘I don’t care’

Kathleen Burk is professor emerita of modern and contemporary history at University College London
Image:Kathleen Burk is professor emerita of modern and contemporary history at UCL

The nature of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and the UK differ markedly.

Those in the US are focused on two crises: institutional racism and police brutality. Indeed, they can seem inseparable.

What is notably different from the anti-racism protests in the 1960s, such as the Long Hot Summer of 1967 which saw 159 riots, is that now they are multicultural and multiracial, more inclusive.

A memorial honouring George Floyd in Houston's Third Ward where he grew up
Image:The fact that George Floyd’s brutal death was caught on camera and went viral was crucial in sparking the protests
Protesters hold placards as they attend a demonstration in Parliament Square in central London on June 6, 2020, to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis. - Taking a knee, chanting and ignoring social distancing measures, outraged protesters from Sydney to London kicked off a weekend of global rallies Saturday against racism and police brutality. (Photo
Image:Police brutality has not been a central focus for UK protesters

The real driver is social media. George Floyd was but one black man among thousands killed by the police; the fact that the whole appalling video of a man dying was uploaded and rapidly went viral was crucial to the immediate explosion of widespread protest.

The Black Lives Matter protests in the UK have had a slightly different focus from those in the US.

Yes, people have demonstrated against institutional racism, but the instances of police brutality are so relatively few compared with the US that it is not a central part of the UK protests.

Police officers kneel during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, outside LAPD headquarters in Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Image:The killing of George Floyd may change the view of US police on where their duty lies

American police are always armed, are frequently seen in combat gear, and are instructed that their first duty is to protect fellow officers, not to protect the public.

Conversely, most policemen in the UK are not normally armed and are trained to police with the consent of the population: their main role is to protect the public.

Yet there is a dawning hope in the US that the events will not only have changed the views of a population which had been rather unconcerned about racism, but that they will have changed the views of the police as to where their duty lies.

Policemen kneeling with protesters is a visual beginning.

Race and Revolution: Is Change Going to Come?

Sky News will broadcast a global debate show on Tuesday night at 8pm – looking at the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests, and examining institutional racism and how we fix it.

If you would like to be part of our virtual audience, and have a chance of putting a question to our panel, please send your name, location and question to newsdebates@sky.uk

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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