Around 250 people gathered in Lewisham’s Hilly Fields park to protest against racism last Saturday. The event was designed to show solidarity with the family of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, following a wave of protests in London.
It was organised by the Lewisham Anti-Racist Action Group, in South-East London branch of Stand Up to Racism UK alongside other community leaders. The group was cautious about ensuring safety and adhered to social-distancing measures so that families with children could attend.
They marked out 2-metre distances from the assembly point in the lawn using small coloured cones. They also urged attendees to wear masks and provided some as well as gloves and hand sanitiser for those without.
Speakers included a nurse, local councillors, a folk singer, poets, youth campaigners, Shakeel Begg, Imam of the Lewisham Islamic Centre and Cheryl McLeod, the President of the Lewisham Trade Union Council.
McLeod called for further investment in Lewisham’s diverse communities and said more needed to be done about institutional racism in her speech at the demonstration.
Addressing the crowd, McLeod said: “We know that there have been 1,743 deaths in police custody since 1990. These affect black and ethnic minority groups more. We – Asian, Africans and Ethnic Minorities – make up only 14% of the population in the UK but our deaths account for over 30% of this total in London.”
Referring to the Grenfell Fire tragedy, McLeod said: “No doubt the Lewisham Town Hall will be lit green, we need fewer gestures and more action.”
Mark ‘MrT’ Thompson, a poet and from Brockley whose work has featured on BBC Radio London, was one of the organisers of the protest.
He told Eastlondonlines: “There are lots of reasons to have protests, it’s about getting your voice heard by those in power and making sure people are aware of how unhappy you are about something”.
He added: “Protesting is to do with feeling a part of something, a sense of community, comradery, being supported by like-minded people and making a statement”.
The organisers decided against publicising the event too widely, which could have compromised safety as there would not have been enough stewards or space in Hilly Fields Park.
Thompson also said that photographs can sometimes make it look like people are not properly social-distancing so it was better to “err on the side of caution” even if that meant a lower turnout.
Thompson introduced many of the speakers and read a selection of his own poems, including We Didn’t Wanna Watch and Only Criminal If which reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement and issues of racism.
Instead, Lynne Chamberlain, Secretary of Greenwich & Bexley TUC, read a statement by Patricia Coker, the mother of Paul Coker, who died in police custody in 2005. Chamberlain attended the inquest in 2010 and saw the footage and heard Paul Coker’s last words “I can’t breathe, you’re killing me”.
Relatives of others who had died in racist attacks were also present. Andre Adams, the brother of Rolan Adams who was murdered in Thamesmead 20 months prior to that of Stephen Lawrence in 1991, also gave a short speech.
Campaigners said there had been a number of deaths involving suspected racist motives during that time. The Institute of Race Relations recorded eight murders with a suspected or known racial element in South London alone and 39 murders across the UK from 1991-1999.
Jim Radford, a renowned 91-year-old folk-singer, war veteran and peace campaigner from Lewisham, performed his Song for Stephen Lawrence which he has frequently performed in pubs in the Eltham area, where Lawrence was murdered.
Thompson said the “most inspiring” speech of the protest was led by youth campaigners from Not A Trend. The two teenagers, Ava James and Simi Musa, said they were tired of BLM slipping into and out of people’s lives like a trend.