We have been in lockdown for 83 days when my son interrupts all our afternoon routines with the suggestion that we take part in today’s Black Lives Matter protest in Oxford. I am shocked. This is the son who has wanted to become an epidemiologist since he was a teenager. He’s been following the political and scientific developments of Covid-19 in fine detail and making sure we have all been fastidious in social distancing, not easy for a family of eight. He’s the last one I would have expected to encourage us to join a demonstration under the current restrictions.
I am nervous. I have seen how coronavirus spreads and destroys lives. I have also witnessed the violence erupt on the streets with protestors, police men and women and even horses getting injured in London. But my six children are already tearing up cardboard boxes and creating placards for us: “Black Lives Matter” and “We Demand Justice”. That’s when my oldest daughter announces she is coming too. She should have been sitting A-Level exams this week but instead she has been sewing face masks and posting them to friends and relatives.
After 83 days I am surprised the car even starts, but we arrive in Oxford within the hour. Still nervous, I also now feel like a criminal in a heist movie, masking up as I walk towards the agreed meeting point. At 5pm we arrive at the controversial statue of colonist Cecil John Rhodes who overlooks one of the UK’s busiest high streets from his perch high on the front of one Oxford University’s most prestigious colleges. This city with its world-renowned institutions and global influence should not be endorsing his white supremacist attitudes. Like the toppling of the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol earlier in the week, it is time for him to go. We need better heroes. I catch sight of four mounted police officers on horseback: they smile as we walk by.
A helicopter hovers ominously overhead. The cyclists and buses now can’t get down the street as the crowd is swelling. Despite most of Oxford’s student population being long gone it is a very diverse and young turn out. On the evidence of banners and overheard snippets of conversation, they are well-informed. Everyone is calm and polite, keeping space between each other as best they can. I get a text from home. My other children are watching on a live feed. If they can do school and birthday parties and P.E. virtually, why shouldn’t they protest this way too?
The organisers start up their PA system. The activists are skilled speakers and for the next hour there is no pause for breath, not even a stutter or a mispronunciation. They have chants ready that are instant earworms: “De-colonise. De-De-De-Colonise”. They speak with passion and insight, gauging and engaging the crowd well enough to intersperse their speeches with call and response: “No Justice” they say. “No Peace” we shout back. My introvert children standing beside me don’t even hesitate. Back home my youngest children are joining in equally enthusiastically.
Racial identity, inequality and injustice is a common topic of discussion around our dinner table. We are a mixed-race family with birth, adopted and fostered children: between us we can claim a variety of heritages including Indian, Jamaican, Irish, French and Sri Lankan. The 30 other once-fostered children that we have looked after over the years join us from their treasured photo frames on the bookshelf and add to the diversity. The murder of George Floyd has incensed all of us. Hearing him beg for his life, explain that he couldn’t breath and then call out to his dead mother, while onlookers begged for his life, has rightly shocked the world.
On this occasion it doesn’t feel enough just to be angry over a bowl of spaghetti at dinnertime. We have to do more than simply adapt our home to embrace the vulnerable and marginalised. We need to shout louder. We need to make a public statement. We want the US authorities to hear that our family takes personally and seriously the issue of racial injustice. We want the UK government to listen to our plea to confront institutional racism. We want the world to acknowledge that black lives matter.
We protest by shouting. Then we protest in silence. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the exact length of time the white police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck, we sit on the ground with arm raised in a show of solidarity with his death.
It is an incredibly long time. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds I think of others doing the same around the world. I am relieved to see that even the few protesters who have come to cause trouble are taking the knee. I wonder if the man in front of us wearing the denim jacket sporting the words “Vandalism: beautiful as a rock in a cop’s face” printed neatly in white letters on his back is considering the words he can see staring him in the face on another placard: “Silence is Violence”. I begin to hope this display of public feeling will make a difference beyond this street this day. Then I remember George Floyd’s family in the wake of his funeral. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds I think of the man gasping for breath and pray that something good can come out of something so tragic.
The Black Lives Matter protests around the world have to change things. Not just the removal of statues or the withdrawing of programmes from iPlayer or Netflix, or the influencing of an election result across the Atlantic, but the global conversation towards racial equality. Football players are taking the knee. Tea companies are joining the fight. I want my family to be part of this. I believe it is an opportunity for us to demonstrate the radical grace of God that offers love, mercy and compassion to all. I believe one day that gathered around the throne of God will people from every tribe and tongue and so making sure we speak up for Black lives should matter to us because they matter to God. I have taken my children to the protest, not because I want them to witness history but because I want them to be involved in changing it.