Abdullah Mohamed organises with Sheffield Black Lives Matter. He spoke to Sacha Ismail.
I’m the only organiser remaining from Sheffield Black Lives Matter back in 2016, when we previously had a demonstration. This time round we held a demonstration on 6 June – a peaceful protest with a range of speakers, some organisations and some individuals. We were united by anger at the killings of black people in the US, the UK and elsewhere. In the UK one black person a week dies at the hands of the police or in prison. We’re now doing broader work challenging various organisations and the authorities about what they’re doing for black people.
For instance, Sheffield has one of the highest school exclusion rates in England. Some of our activists have experience in organising around the curriculum in their universities and we are going to pursue that struggle in schools too. Protests are important but to get meaningful change we need a range of ongoing projects.
We’re working with a few councillors to set up a Race Commission that will be independent of the council and push on these issues. In terms of the council itself, there is only one councillor from an African or Caribbean background – and she’s a Green, so none from the Labour Party! In terms of what the council funds, we need to look at where the money goes and how it’s used. Not all organisations that say they’re working with and representing black communities really are.
We need an end to tickbox exercises and tokenism. Certain councillors had a plan for a statue commemorating a white 19th century anti-slavery activist, Mary Anne Rawson, and we said firstly there has been no consultation with black communities about if they want another statue of a white person. But more generally, even if it was a black activist, a statute doesn’t achieve anything, it’s just performative.
Beyond the immediate fact of George Floyd’s murder, why do you think this movement has exploded on such a scale now?
It’s undoubtedly the case that seeing the video of George Flloyd had a massive impact on many people, particularly black people – and brown people too – for whom it is so distressing to see such things. I spoke to some of the key activists from 2016 and we agreed we weren’t quite sure why it was so different this time, but we’re glad it is. In Sheffield, for sure, people are far more awake than they were four years ago. We had about 5,000 on a our demonstration this time.
On reflection, I think it’s obviously about the murder of black people but not just that. It’s about the fact that so many people’s lives are really difficult, about the situation after ten years of austerity under this government, about how they’ve dealt with Covid-19. George Floyd was the trigger point but there’s a lot more to it too.
What demands should we be raising about the police?
In Sheffield we’re focusing on racial profiling by the police, particularly of young black men. We’re pushing for the council to create an official task force that will focus on that along with police violence and brutality, one with real teeth. Beyond that, I agree with defunding the police – all this money is going to the police when we lack youth centres, when we lack decent funding for the NHS, for social care, for education. I’m 22 and these things, like community centres and youth centres, have disappeared in the time I’ve grown up. We’re funding the police to stop and search young people rather than investing in young people’s future.
More generally, too, we need to fight for more resources. I’m involved in my Labour Party branch and we’re constantly hearing from the councillors about cuts to their funding – but I’ve not heard anything about a serious fight to get it back.
What support have you had from Labour and the unions?
Sheffield TUC helped with organising and stewarding our 6 June protest and has been supportive. However, there’s a lot more the labour movement can do. Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner taking the knee on the floor of their office is all very well – but what are they doing about the bullying and racism against Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler and other black and brown MPs? Is the party going to seriously investigate the racism that was revealed in the leaked report? A lot of people are very concerned about this and not buying what the leadership is saying.
On a local level, labour movement organisations are often not very accessible spaces – you can go to a meeting and you’ll be the only young person there and the only black or brown person. This needs a lot of work.
What discussions are taking place among activists you work with about bigger questions of how society is structured?
Society needs to be educated. All kinds of different people in society face all kinds of different problems and frustrations and racists work to find someone to blame. There’s an area of Sheffield called Page Hall with a big population of European migrants, Romanians and Slovakians, and they’re treated appallingly; before that it was Pakistanis and Asians getting the same treatment. It’s entrenched because governments and rich people encourage this to play divide and conquer. It’s this person’s fault, it’s that person’s fault, when companies like Amazon aren’t even paying tax.
So the big picture is society should not be run for the one percent – we need to find ways to challenge and change that. But our more immediate focus is how do we challenge racism, including in very urgent ways that will make life easier and give breathing space people who are suffering.
We need to educate white allies and beyond that educate people who are racist, but it also starts with educating ourselves. At school all I learnt about was Henry the 8th and how many wives he had. It was a very top-down version of European history, and forget about learning African history, or the Haitian revolution or anything else. If we can change that people can learn about different versions of history they may come to see society now differently too.
There is obviously a lot to be pessimistic about, but there’s things to be optimistic about too. Who would have thought that [the Green Party’s] Magid Magid, who came here as a refugee when he was a child would become the youngest Lord Mayor of Sheffield and our MEP? Role models are important, people who are doing well but also people who are leading struggles.
What’s your response to the government saying we shouldn’t protest in the pandemic?
There’s two crises, the Coronavirus crisis, which has also hit ethnic minorities hardest, but the other crisis is black people being killed by the police and in prison. We shouldn’t have to choose which do we tackle. At our Sheffield demo I’d say 95% of people were wearing facemasks and gloves. Afterwards some of those who took part held an inpromptu march; we as the organisers didn’t take part but I completely understand why people felt the need to march.
That’s before you get to the hypocrisy of telling people not to protest but saying nothing about people going to the beach, and positively encouraging celebrations on VE Day.
The reality is this government doesn’t care about the deaths of black and brown people. Look at how the case of Belly Mujinga was quickly brushed past. It’s no coincidence there are no black people in the cabinet. People like Priti Patel and Sajid Javid don’t represent Asian communities; they are not living anything like the experiences working-class Asian people are living.
More broadly the government doesn’t want to be held to account for its failings, whether it’s on Grenfell or Windrush or Covid-19. That’s why they don’t want people to demonstrate.