Here's how you can organise for BLM in a majority white area

The young people behind marches in Cheltenham, Lydney and the Medway share the unique challenges of fighting racism in smaller towns.

by Elliot Hoste
17 July 2020, 8:30am

Photography Jon Bronxl

A unique set of challenges arise for those attempting to organise Black Lives Matter protests in smaller towns with majority white populations. Generally speaking, smaller towns are less diverse and have more conservative political leanings than big cities. Organisers can be met with a more coordinated degree of pushback from local residents and also have a less developed infrastructure when it comes to planning in the first place.

Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands have taken to the streets in cities across the globe to challenge police brutality, racism and the system of white supremacy that perpetuates them. Due to the far reaching nature of the movement, many smaller towns in the UK, with predominantly white populations, have also shown support for the movement with their own anti-racism protests.

If you’re considering attending or arranging something similar, we’ve put together some guidance, brought to you by the organisers behind Black Lives Matter protests in the Gloucestershire towns of Cheltenham and Lydney (88.3% white and 97.3% white, respectively), as well as Medway in Kent -- an area with an 89.6% white population.

Inform the authorities… and be prepared for push-back

The right to protest peacefully is enshrined in common law, so informing authorities of your intention is more of a formality than a legal necessity. For Shekinah Swamba, who organised the protest in Cheltenham, and Elizabeth Bernasko, who organised Medway’s event, the practice of notifying the local council and police force was straightforward -- a simple phone call with details of dates, times and locations.

However, Khady Gueye, the architect of Lydney’s BLM protest, encountered roadblocks from the start. Initially, Khady said, the council gave her the go-ahead for an event in Bathurst Park on 20th June, but things quickly turned sour. “We received permission from the council to go ahead”, she said, “then a local resident created a petition against the event. We received a lot of abuse from local residents and because of the opposition the council decided to reassess their decision to allow us to go ahead.”

The Mayor of Lydney, Walter Leach, then wrote an open letter in which he urged Khady and her fellow organisers to cancel the event to show ”due respect for Lydney” and that indeed “All Lives Matter”.

Khady admitted that within the letter, “there were genuine concerns regarding the current pandemic,” but that many of these concerns functioned as “a mask for racism”. The event was called off, but the mayor’s letter was met with a negative public response. “We officially cancelled the event”, Khady said, “then there was so much press coverage nationwide from their letter that the council decided to hold another meeting”. The letter was picked up by national broadcasters, including the BBC and ITV. One of Lydney’s councillors, Zac Arnold, even resigned in protest against the event’s cancellation, citing that all members had not been informed of the decision.

Eventually, the council's hand was forced, and they held a vote to determine the fate of the event. This resulted in an 8-2 split in favour of the protest going ahead, with two abstentions. Preparing for opposition like this is vital, as small town councils are much more likely to yield to public pressure.

Create a support network

Planning a protest is stressful, especially for first-time organisers. It’s important to establish a strong support system to help you pull this off. Elizabeth, a student who had previously organised socials at Warwick University, makes this clear. “Definitely have a team,” she says, “don’t try to plan things yourself”. This “team” will likely consist of close friends and family rather than any sort of official set-up.

Elizabeth knew that coming up with the idea was the easy part but “the most important steps afterwards were having friends alongside me planning and helping and supporting”. This can be as simple as reaching out on social media, like posting to your stories and asking friends to share. A truism about small towns is that ‘everybody knows everybody’ which, in this instance, can work in your favour. Having creative friends is also a bonus -- Elizabeth spoke to her graphic designer friend Toju who made posters that they shared on Instagram.

The infrastructure for organising these specific types of events in your town will likely be non-existent, so be prepared to reach out for help most of the time -- and be patient if things don’t go to plan straight away. Before organising the protest in Cheltenham, Shekinah created an event and shared it across her social media platforms, but progress was “very slow in the beginning”. Once it did pick up however, Shekinah admitted that “there were some days where I struggled”, and the days where she did not “were only easy to manage due to the aid I received from various people”.

Don’t obsess over turnout

When organising your protest, you will at some point envisage what your event may look like, and this image will likely include the size of the crowd in attendance. But it’s best not to think about that too much. The size of the protests will never compare to the larger cities, so it’s more important to focus on why you’re coming out.

The amount of people in attendance will vary from town to town, but most organisers have been pleasantly surprised. Medway’s protest saw approximately 150 march through the town centre, about 500 people came out in Lydney, and upwards of 5,000 showed support in Cheltenham. Of the Medway protest, Elizabeth said: “The turnout wasn’t something that was on my mind. If it had just been me and my two friends there we would’ve still walked around the town with a speaker and shouted.”

Beware of counter-protesters

Whether you’re protesting in a large city or small town, the threat of counter-protesters is very real. However, the dynamic for smaller towns is different: the size of the events means that it is much easier to target individual protestors.

This became a stark reality for Khady, who received several explicit threats on social media due to her involvement in organising the Lydney protest. “Personally I found it very difficult to combat all of the racially motivated opposition”, Khady said of the abuse, which included threats of physical violence directed at her on their local MP’s Facebook page. “I struggled quite severely trying to disengage and not let it drastically affect me”.

Afterwards, Khady was informed by police that, on the day of the event, she had been followed home by a counter-protester. “We received a lot of threats after the event and we’ve been dealing with the police ever since -- it’s been slightly concerning”.

Try to understand the whiteness of your town

Although their aims ultimately coincide, it’s important to acknowledge that protests in small towns are markedly different to their metropolitan counterparts. Key to understanding this difference is reckoning with the inherent “whiteness” of a space and how this affects the people in it.

Small, predominantly white towns are socialised in an entirely different way, meaning that, for the white people in these spaces, the effects of race play little to no part in their everyday lives. As a result, the necessity for movements such as Black Lives Matter is less obviously clear and can lead to opposition, whether that be from local residents or the authorities themselves, often misunderstanding the reasons that they are planned in the first place.

Much like the organisers of these protests, it is essential that we remain strong in the face of this opposition, and fight to deliver our message, especially in those spaces where we are made to feel that we do not belong. A tough fight it may be, but a hugely necessary one nonetheless.

Black Lives Matter