The murder of George Floyd in May last year sparked anti-racism protests across the world.
In England, many reacted by asking questions about the country’s own racist legacy, some seeing the racist underbelly of an old nations colonial and slave trade past, while others saw the complaints of unnecessarily divisive identity politics.
By June 6, 2020, Cambridge witnessed a microcosm of the people-powered movement that had been happening across the world. Cambridgeshire Live looks back on a moment that changed the city and one resident for good.
Safiya Mawusi chose the June 6 protest to be the first protest she had ever attended. Safiya, who is mixed-race from Cambridge, didn’t know it was going to be the first of many she would organise throughout the pandemic, with the goal to change how her city thinks about race.
Safiya, a 27-year-old criminologist, said: “Watching [the video of George Floyd’s murder] triggered something inside me. Living in a place like Cambridge, where racism isn’t addressed or even acknowledged as existing, it’s easy to go about your life.
“You go with the flow, not seeing people get shot in England. We don’t have guns, so the racism doesn’t have the same shock factor as in the US.
“Since that video, I realised talking about it and having conversations isn’t enough. I need to put some other action behind the campaign.”
Safiya joined an estimated 6000 people who attended a socially distanced protest in the torrential rain to chant the last words of George Floyd, ‘I can’t breathe’ and support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Protestors were instructed to wear masks and sit three metres apart, organised by group Cambridge Black Lives. Powerful speeches were made, including one from Munya Jiri, 23, who spoke of the racism and slurs he endured from age seven. He was recorded saying: “I’m really proud of everyone in Cambridge for the way we’ve come and done this in a respectful manner.
“We’re out in our numbers, social distancing, but I think it’s important for us all to remember this isn’t just an American problem. This is rife in our own city.”
Though the speeches were moving, Safiya wanted to do more: “The protest was nice but there was something incomplete. We had come here to hear stories, make a statement for everyone to see, stand for those unable to attend the protest, as well as be able to let that emotion out. A march is an incredible way to do that. We thought that was important, so we marched.”
According to Safiya, the Cambridge Black Lives group were instructed not to march. It was three months into the first UK-wide Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions were still tight.
Safiya said: “Three other girls and I decided it was our right to be able to march. We gathered people, asked who wanted to march and they said yes.”
Since then, ‘the girls’- Safiya, her sister Makeda, as well as friends Claudette and Lorenza, organised a march every two weeks throughout the summer, starting two weeks after June 6.
They protested every two weeks until the winter when it became monthly: “As it got to December we made the protest stationary and had people stand two metres apart. We adapted so we were still able to have a physical presence outside because that’s really important. We did Zoom and Facebook Lives for those who couldn’t attend.”
When asked why her and Cambridge Black Lives group have continued this long, Safiya replied: “When people think of Rosa Parks bus boycott people often think she did that once and then the entire system was changed. People don’t know she and others boycotted the bus system for an entire year in 1955 at great personal expense.
“With any issue in the world, it’s easiest just to get on with your life. People have their own problems, lives, distractions. It doesn’t mean they don’t care, but if you’re not seeing something, it’s easy to forget. Being there, people driving past and seeing our physical presence is very powerful and stands as a reminder.
“We hold signs, people come and ask us about it. I witnessed a father explaining to his daughter what was happening as we marched. It sparks conversation. Having these issues there in your face allows these things to happen.”
What have these protests achieved?
For Safiya, she said a lot has changed: “I believe and have seen the awareness level and understanding increase ten-fold. People who didn’t have any full understanding of the severity of racism in the UK are now able to grasp it and stand with us.
“Multiple people have told me they didn’t notice when peers were experiencing racism, but since attending a march or hearing about us on Facebook, are now able to notice these small things.
“I’ve learnt so much on these marches, the feedback is so enormously positive and the learning is getting passed on. Young people are attending by themselves then returning with friends, taking the knowledge back to college.”
Rather than simply being shocked by the racist slurs, she said the understanding comes from looking beyond the action: “What racism (in the UK) does to people like us as a whole means we’re more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to live in impoverished areas, more likely to go to worse schools with less funding.
“All these things means we have less opportunity and more likely to get into criminalised situations. These outcomes are reflective of the level of racism in the country.”
Despite the relatively low proportion of BAME students across Cambridge, disproportionate numbers of Black Caribbean and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children were given fixed-term exclusions in 2018/19 in Cambridgeshire, which was slammed as a “devastating failure of local authorities.”
Cambridge University has been criticised in recent years for its admission rates for Black and minority ethnic (BAME) undergraduate students.
The Lammy Review 2017 found Black people across the country were 53 per cent more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence. However, Cambridgeshire Police force became one of 12 forces named in 2021 to not uphold a single complaint of racially motivated misconduct, after receiving allegations against 132 police officers and staff over five years.