Since its establishment in 1987, Black History Month has been marked in the UK in October each year. In 2016, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, outlined that the month “recognises, rewards and celebrates the contribution made to our society over many years by the African and Caribbean communities”. However, in 2017, Mrs May also said that “we still have a long way to go […] to tackle the injustices that still hold people back”.

Tackling injustices is a theme of the recent emergence of a new movement for Black liberation in the US, Black Lives Matter. It describes itself as “a chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes”.

An affiliate of the US group, Black Lives Matter UK (BLM UK) was set up a few years after the US initiative. In 2016, it was reported that thousands of protestors marched in Manchester under the banner of Black Lives Matter. The protestors gathered to protest the deaths of young Black men in the US, but also spoke about UK-based issues, such as gang violence. Since this time, the phrase “black lives matter” has entered popular discourse in the UK. It has been used during parliamentary debates on UK-specific issues such as the Grenfell Tower fire; the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy; and the Windrush scheme.

In 2020, support for the Black Lives Matter movement grew to unprecedented levels following the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, whilst in police custody in the US. In the UK, BLM UK, alongside other similar organisations, held protests across the country to demand justice for Mr Floyd and to draw attention to racial injustice in the UK.

Parallels have been drawn between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Black Panthers in the 1960s. The California-based Black Panther Party formed in protest against the treatment of African-Americans by the police. However clear differences exist, for example, the Party was much more militant than Black Lives Matter in their actions. As reported by the New Yorker in 2015, by 1966 the Black Panthers had expanded, and chapters could be found in 68 cities across the US. During this time, an affiliate of the Black Panthers could also be found in Brixton, London.

Black Panther Party

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defence (later just the Black Panther Party) was established in 1966 by Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California. From the very start, the founders were clear about the aims of the Party and the beliefs that underpinned it.

In 1967, the Party released its Ten-Point Programme. It was published in the Party’s newspaper. The programme included points such as: “we want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people”; “we want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black communities”; and “we want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace”.

In 1960, California had relaxed gun laws, allowing citizens to openly carry loaded firearms in public. Members of the Party armed themselves according to these laws and went out on police patrols. On these patrols, members of the Party would follow the police and give advice to African-Americans who were stopped. The BBC, in 2015, said that the Black Panther Party were known for policing the police.

The Party’s visibility across the country increased after legally armed Black Panther members occupied California’s state Capitol building in 1967. The group were there to protest the passing of the Mulford Bill, which would greatly restrict the open carrying of guns in the state. The Huffington Post reported in 2016 that the bill, supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA), was introduced in part due to the activities of the Black Panther Party. The bill was passed in 1967.

The Party received much media attention following the occupation. This caused Party membership to expand to many major cities across America. In addition to their militant activities, the group established several community programmes. These initiatives included: tuberculosis testing; legal aid; and providing free shoes for poor people. The most successful programme by far was Free Breakfast for Children, which later became a government initiative.

In 1968, the FBI director classed the Black Panther Party as one of the greatest threats to the internal security of the United States. Accounts differ, but internal divisions over its future appear to have caused the decline of the Party throughout the late 1970s. The Party had left a legacy; its influence was felt internationally, including in the UK.

Black Panthers UK

The British Black Panther group, established in 1968, was only operational until 1972/73. The group, set up by Obi Egbuna, Darcus Howe, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Olive Morris, later changed its name to the British Black Panthers (BBP).

The British Black Panthers was not officially linked to the US Party. There were also critical differences between the two. The BBP were not militant; they disagreed with the US Party’s use of weapons. It was also not a party, but a movement. Its overarching aim was the education of its Black members on their history, whilst also encouraging members to take part in political activism within their community.

One such protest, at the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, led to what the Guardian has called “the start of Britain’s most influential black power trial”. The British Black Panther group took part in a protest at the Mangrove after the restaurant had been targeted a number of times for raids by police. The protest included about 150 protestors and 700 police officers. Nine protestors were arrested and went to trial for incitement to riot. At the conclusion of the trial, the nine were eventually acquitted and the judge stated there was “evidence of racial hatred on both sides”.

In a similar vein to the US, the British Black Panthers disbanded in the mid-1970s due to internal divisions. Many activists went on to work in similar organisations.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter was formed in 2013 by three Black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. Two distinct events sparked its establishment. The first was the acquittal of George Zimmerman. A jury found him to be acting in self-defence after he shot and killed a Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2012.

The outcome prompted Garza to write a post on Facebook which included the phrase “our lives matter”. This was shared widely, and Cullors added the comment “#BlackLivesMatter”, using the hashtag to link with others using the same phrase on social media.

These actions sparked a conversation on social media, but it has been documented by Wesley Lowery for the Guardian that the phrase did not catch on immediately. The death of a second Black man, Mike Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, launched the group onto the national and international stage.

The circumstances surrounding his death were widely circulated on social media and in the news. In the days and weeks following, Missouri was engulfed in unrest and protest. Members of Black Lives Matter organised a ‘freedom ride’ which transported hundreds of protestors from across the US to Ferguson for the weekend. Once there, they joined many other organisations with the same goal. According to volunteer accounts, Black Lives Matter planned marches as well as activist sessions, where volunteers came together to discuss actions that could be taken in their local areas.

These protests gave a physical presence to a movement that, up until this point, had largely been online. Following the weekend in Ferguson, chapters of Black Lives Matter were set up across the US in places such as Boston, Massachusetts; Long Beach, California; and Birmingham, Alabama. As of 2019, there were 24 such chapters.

In early 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement in the US saw a resurgence after an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, died whilst in police custody. His death sparked protests in every US state and in many cities worldwide. Protests in the US were further escalated by the shooting of another Black man, Jacob Blake, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020. 

Black Lives Matter UK

Black Lives Matter UK (BLM UK) held their first protest in 2016. According to reporting by the Guardian, protestors blocked main roads in south-west London, Birmingham and Nottingham. The action was called to mark five years since the death of Mark Duggan, who was fatally shot by police in Tottenham Hale, London, after it was suspected he was carrying a gun.

In September that year, BLM UK disrupted flights at London City Airport. The group of nine protestors held banners in support of Black Lives Matter and against climate change. This protest was met with some disapproval as all nine protestors were white. In 2016, Time suggested that the use of white protestors and the inclusion of climate change as a key issue confused BLM UK’s message at an early stage in their activism.

In June 2020, following the death of George Floyd in the US, protests were held across the UK. Marches were organised by various activist groups, such as BLM UK and All Black Lives UK, and held in cities such as Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield and London.

The focus of the UK protests evolved to encompass issues relevant to the UK. For example, activists prompted a debate about the role of statues in the UK after a statue of Edward Colston, a historical figure with known links to the slave trade, was forcibly removed by protestors in Bristol.

The protests were met with action by the Government and local leaders. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the establishment of a new Commission for Racial Equality whilst the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a review into London’s statues, street names and plaques to assess whether they reflect the diversity of the capital.

A UK-based group with similar aims to the US Black Lives Matter is the United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC) who support those who have been affected by a death in police custody. The group hold an annual march to protest the deaths and to highlight their demands for changes to the prosecution service. The march is held every October, during Black History Month.

Black Lives Matter Milestones

2013 Acquittal of George Zimmerman for second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin. #BlackLivesMatter trends on social media.
2014 Fatal shooting of Mike Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Riots and protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Black Lives Matter organise a ‘freedom ride’.
2015 Black Lives Matter chapters set up in several states across the US.

Black Lives Matter Global Network established.

2016 Protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in response to the shooting of Alton Sterling.

Black Lives Matter protestors interrupt rallies for prospective US presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The first and second Black Lives Matter protests are held in the UK.

2018 Pew Research Centre poll finds that #BlackLivesMatter has been used 30 million times on Twitter.
2019 Launch of campaign “What Matters in 2020?”, outlining the key issues of importance to Black Lives Matter in the upcoming US federal election.
2020 Death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Protests held across the world—in every US state and in many UK cities such as Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield and London.
UK Prime Minister announced a new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparity.
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a statues review in London. Shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin prompt further protests across US cities.

Black Panther Party and British Black Panther Milestones

1966 Black Panther Party for Self-Defence formed.

Establishment of police patrols by Party members.

1967 Ten-point programme released in Party newspaper.

Occupation of California state Capitol in protest of the Mulford Bill.

1969 Free Breakfast for Children initiative established.

FBI claims the Black Panther Party is “the greatest threat to national security”.

Five-hour police shoot-out in the Party headquarters in Southern California.

1970 Protest against frequent police raids on Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, London.

Nine protestors acquitted of charges related to the protest.

Mid-1970s Internal divisions cause activities to cease in the US and the UK.

Further reading

Image by Clay Banks at Unsplash.