December 24, 2014, by Guest blog

Race and Rights: Ferguson Part 8

Post by Zoe Trodd

Below is the last of a multi-part series responding to events in Ferguson – the protests and civil disorder that began the day after the fatal shooting of an African American man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, and continued after the decision on November 24, 2014 by a grand jury not to indict the police officer. Nottingham’s Race and Rights cluster and postgraduate reading group, based in the Department of American and Canadian Studies, examine Ferguson through the lens of their research. In this eighth and final posting, Zoe Trodd reflects on the Nottingham Can’t Breathe collective, a community response to recent and ongoing racial tensions in the US and UK.

This past Saturday, December 20, was ‘panic Saturday’ – the day when shoppers made a desperate rush for gifts before Christmas. But it was also protest Saturday, when a Nottingham collective joined thousands of protesters in cities around the world – including, in the UK, London, Liverpool, Oxford and Birmingham – to protest the loss of black lives to police brutality. At 2pm, around 150 people gathered in a pre-arranged place: the ground floor of the Victoria Centre in the open space near the entrance. Responding to the signal of a drum beat, around 40 people lay down on the ground. More than 100 people surrounded them in a circle, hands joined, facing outward to the shopping centre crowds. Both those engaged in the die-in and those protecting the ‘dead’ wore t-shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe” or “Black Lives Matter.” Group members also held banners and signs with messages like “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “#NottinghamCan’tBreathe,” and “Eric Garner 1970-2014.” For three minutes, while a watching crowd gathered and the Victoria Centre security guards stood back, the group lay and stood in silence. Passers-by stopped to read signs and take photographs of this peaceful protest and its racially-diverse members. Some called out encouragement. Others abandoned their shopping panic and joined the circle. Then at 2.04pm, when the sounds of a track written for the protest by young black Nottingham-based artists came to an end, the group dispersed and vanished. Kemet FM did a live report from the scene and BBC Radio Nottingham discussed the event the following day.

Organized by 10 different community groups and institutions, the protest was led by Nottingham’s black community and included white allies. The collective took as its slogan, “If one community can’t breathe, we all suffocate”, and named itself Nottingham Can’t Breathe, referencing the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed African American in New York killed on July 17, 2014 by a police officer. In the video of his death, Garner is held in a chokehold and repeats “I can’t breathe” 11 times. On December 3, 2014, a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, which stirred public protests. The U.S. Justice Department has announced an independent federal investigation. Along with #blacklivesmatter and #HandsUpDontShoot, #ICantBreathe has become the rallying call of a new movement – encompassing the protest response to the Ferguson and Garner police acquittals and to acts of brutality before and since; including the cases of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and Rodney King in the US; and Mark Duggan, Olaseni Lewis, Sean Rigg and Stephen Lawrence in the UK.

Here as in the US, the phrase “I can’t breathe” expresses a sense of being squeezed into a space of social and political invisibility; restrained by police stop-and-search; trapped at disproportionate levels in poverty, unemployment and underperforming schools. The Equality and Human Rights Commission says that in Britain, black people are six times as likely as white people to be stopped and searched. In Nottinghamshire they are 17 times more likely. The Ministry of Justice states that black British defendants are more likely to go to jail than their white counterparts when convicted of similar crimes. They also serve longer sentences. In the UK, black men and women are twice as likely to be not in employment, education or training as white people, black children are more than twice as likely as white children to be living in poverty, and black people detained under mental health legislation are 29 per cent more likely to be forcibly restrained than white patients. Black British professors make up just 0.4% of the British professoriate. Black judges are 0.7% of the judiciary. Black business leaders in the FTSE 100 are 1.3% of board members and main executive directors. Black politicians make up 1.4% of British MPs. The “I Can’t Breathe” slogan evokes the suffocating daily reality of all these statistics. As Nottingham resident Bettina Wallace, a protester on Saturday, put it: “What do you say to a mother or father or sister or brother who has lost a family member just because of the colour of their skin? I cannot breathe!” Further explaining the protest this past weekend, criminologist Dr Martin Glynn, who was born and raised in Nottingham, observed: “The death of Colin Roach on the steps of a police station, the 13 victims of the Deptford Fire, the shooting of Cherry Groce, the death of Cynthia Jarrett, and lately Mark Duggan, Smiley Culture, Kingsley Burrell and numerous other victims of ‘state intervention’, have revealed that any notion of anything ‘post racial’ is null and void. The right to protest is not only democratic as a practice, but demonstrative of the importance of expressing ‘moral outrage’ when ‘civil and human rights’ are violated.”

As the flash-mob-die-in unfolded in Nottingham, I remembered the previous seven columns in this series. Jasmine traced the origins of contemporary black protest movements back to the antislavery voices of 1820s. Andrea saw echoes of the antislavery riots of the 1850s. James saw parallels to the 1860s and America’s civil war over the rights and sheer humanity of African Americans. Hannah-Rose reminded us of the antilynching campaigns of late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hannah turned to the 1960s and the legacies of civil rights and Black Power. Patrick paused on the uprisings and resistance of the 1980s and 1990s. Timo brought us through to Ferguson today, 2014, where grassroots organisers are seeking a sustainable activism. All those decades of a centuries-long civil rights movement flashed by in the four minutes of silence as Nottingham residents stood hand-in-hand amid the Christmas-shopping crowds. “#DearFerguson, We Stand With You”, said one protester’s banner on Saturday. And on the day that Race & Rights embodied itself in a 150-person protest right here in Nottingham, it felt like the years and miles contracted; that the banner’s “we” included David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Fred Hampton, who along with the many unknown participants in the 200-year-long freedom struggle now stood with Ferguson too.

Zoe Trodd is Professor of American Literature in the American and Canadian Studies department, where she researches African American protest movements and their literature/visual culture. She leads the Race and Rights research cluster and hosts the PG reading group.

Photo: Nottingham Can’t Breathe protest in the Victoria Centre, Nottingham, December 20th, 2014. Courtesy Lisa Clarke.

Posted in American and Canadian Studies