Jess Hake reflects on her experience of BLM protests in her hometown, after being displaced from Brighton in the coronavirus pandemic. She’s left with a newfound sense of hope for Lincoln after chatting to some inspirational event organisers.

Words By Jessica Hake

Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Bonnie and Clyde, Hans Solo and Chewbacca. We have all heard of these dynamic duos; however, I think I have a partnership that can rival even that of Maverick and Goose. Leonard Chatonzwa and Josh Browne are two young men at the heart of the Black Lives Matter protests in Lincoln, and I was lucky enough to interview the two of them on Monday morning. 

Illustration by @sarahmedlock

I moved back to Lincoln to be with my family in March, a week or two before lockdown started in the UK. Part of the process of coming back home was refamiliarizing myself with Lincolnshire life. This was aided by attending the Black Lives Matter protest on Steep Hill, on June 4. After The Inbetweeners William McKenzie labelled Lincolnshire a ‘shithole’ back in 2009, it has often been a struggle to find things to be proud of in Lincoln; however, this first BLM protest did just that.  The sheer number of passionate, and socially distanced, protestors who showed up were “incredible” and “exceeded every expectation” according to Chatonzwa. “Just looking at the events page and seeing the numbers grow” Browne accredited to the amazing feeling the protest cultivated. Furthermore, he mentioned how it was “incredibly moving” to see Lincoln, a “predominately White city”, all “willing to stand with [the protestors]” and support Black Lives Matter.

After the success of the first protest and “number of messages from people saying they hadn’t been able to attend” they decided to have another on June 20, this Saturday. The poster for this protest is instructing all attendees to wear black and/or red. When asked about the symbolism of those two colours Chatonzwa responded, “black symbolises Black lives mattering and red symbolising the blood that has been split of the Black people due to racism”. He went on to explain his vision, imagining the crowd of black and single tears of blood (red) to suggest towards an extremely powerful and moving image, fitting for the BLM protest and movement as a whole.

There seems to be an awful lot of comments, captions and re-tweets that are centring around the social-distancing aspect of BLM protests in the UK. A quick google of Brighton’s own BLM protest last week will show that safety is a strong consideration, with people standing far apart from each other yet together to show solidarity for the cause. Chatonzwa and Browne also commented on the focus on safety at the protests. During the first protest I was happy to see not only individuals taking initiative and keeping a safe distance; however, the active action taken by the leaders and speakers, instructing the crowd to disperse, wear masks (of which they did provide a lot) and be safe. Coupled with this, they intentionally left a 15-day gap in-between the first and second protest to ensure that those infected would be aware and would self-isolate. Both mentioned how if they perceived the risk to be increased and if a large number of protestors were experiencing symptoms, they would seriously consider stopping the protest and postponing to a later date, “putting the publics’ safety before anything else”.

“I didn’t think so many people would be willing to come out, especially with [Coronavirus] going on, putting that aside and realising that racism is the bigger pandemic. Racism has, and will, kill more people than Coronavirus ever will”. When Chatonzwa said this, it was as if he was writing the article for me, delivering the best pull-out quote a writer could hope for. Racism is a pandemic. It historically exploited Black people and People of Colour, with it now being an institutionalised belief in the UK. It is why Black women are 5 times more likely to die in labour in comparison to White women, why ethnic minority groups earn 21.7% less than White employees and why from 2013/2014 there were, on average, 130 ‘racist incidents’ per day, recorded by police in England and Wales.

During the interview, Browne stressed the importance to “educate not humiliate” when it comes to the topic of BLM and addressing racist comments online. He went on to say that “members of both sides need to have an open mind” when talking about racial inequality. He recalled an incident where someone messaged the BLM-Lincoln page refuting that racism is rampant throughout the UK. Instead of getting annoyed, something myself and many others could easily do, Browne remained calm, welcomed him into a discussion and sent him some educational material on the subject. After this, the individual “massively back-tracked”, acknowledging the need and support for BLM. 

“Being a member of society is taking awareness and care for those around you, not just yourself. People need to be thinking is this society okay for a gay person? A black person? A trans person?” The BLM movement is now supported by Pride, with pride month directly focusing on the BLM movement. Both men expressed their gratitude and went on to reiterate the need for us all to be aware of injustice minorities face as together we can affect change, as being seen at the moment. Browne mentioned a fitting quote by Carlton in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “We’re both running the same race, so why are you trying to trip me up?”.

“If you are not willing to be treated as a black person in the UK then you need to ask yourself why that is” and, furthermore, need to address what you need, can and will do to change that.

BLM is a movement that has become a viral sensation, an acronym everyone knows the words to; however, both men’s humbleness throughout the interview acted as a wake-up call to me about what the movement is really about. After a lifetime of acts of aggression and repetitive injustice on a micro and macro scale, all because both Chatonzwa and Browne are Black, why on earth would mass participation and acceptance of BLM be expected? Why would there be an expectation that the very people who profit and succeed due to racism, would support BLM? The fact that we publicly identify racism, personally search ourselves for racial prejudice and address the privilege White people – on a global scale – have, is a revelation. It is 2020 and this shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

When I asked both Browne and Chatonzwa to summarise what, at the core, the Black Lives Matter movement was fighting for, they put it simply:

“Freedom. The freedom to be Black.”

Freedom to embrace Black culture without fear that you “won’t get a job”. Freedom to “have big hair” without the worry it “won’t look smart”. The freedom to “wear a hoodie up when it’s raining” and not have to “pull it down so [you] don’t frighten people the other side of the street”. The simple statement “the freedom to be Black” could be shrugged off, taken as some superficial over-simplistic thought. Yet, when actively read and not passively seen, “the freedom to be Black” makes your heart pause, skip a beat. It is not some scary want, an aggressive desire, a way to exploit something or someone in order to experience individual, selfish gain. That simple sentence can be used as a rallying cry, a birthday wish or a late night prayer. “The freedom to be Black”. Why does society continue to fight against that?

My conversation with Josh Browne and Leonard Chatonzwa was not only a lovely way to kick off my week, but a cornucopia of education, laughter and zeal. Together they have spread the message and the seed of change on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, evolving Lincoln into so much more than The Inbetweeners gave it credit for. “The freedom to be Black”- Leonard Chatonzwa and Josh Browne, a duo for the ages.

Photo Credit: Jess Hake

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