Comment Writer Eleanor Jeffrey discusses her home town’s response to Black Lives Matter, arguing that the movement faces an uphill battle in rural Britain
Black Lives Matter. Scream it from the rooftops, yell it as you push the statues into the harbour. We’re living in the middle of a revolution right now, and the best place to see it is on the ground, in the throng, where people of every age, gender and race come together to protest the systemic degradation and oppression of black people throughout history.
Even though the movement’s momentum started in Minneapolis, with the tragic murder of George Floyd, it has swept across the pond to the UK and Europe. Peaceful protests have occurred across the country from London to Manchester, showing the world that British people believe that Black Lives Matter.
One of the most surprising hotbeds of activity for this movement, perhaps, is none other than my home county of Herefordshire. It’s mostly rural, with one small city and a handful of sparsely populated towns and villages. Not much to speak of in terms of multiculturalism, as a place where people still seem to think the proclivities and attitudes of the 1970s reign.
This is a place where agriculture is still the biggest industry, and some of the postal areas are amongst the most deprived in the whole country. The ward of Newton Farm in the county town of Hereford is among the 10% most deprived areas in the UK, according to the 2019 Indices of Deprivation survey.
But maybe surprisingly, this was also the scene for Black Lives Matter protests, just like the rest of the country. On 4th June 2020, a peaceful protest was organised and staged in Hereford High Town, with multiple black people sharing their stories of racism and ignorance. Jessica Deebank said that ‘I was brought up, told to go back to my own country, that my hair was ugly, that my features were ugly.’ This speech and more were all held next to the Hereford Bull statue, a poignant symbol of the county, showing that even this tiny rural city was not free from systemic racism.
Then my town, the rurally situated, medieval Ledbury, decided to hold a Black Lives Matter protest. This was organised by a group of teenagers who saw the racism apparent in the local community and decided to make a stand. Some condemned the protestors from the start. For instance, some white middle-aged men heckled the supporters and threatened to egg them, whilst elderly residents sought to bypass the demonstration to reach the local shops. The original plan to hold a socially distanced march was vetoed by the people of the town, citing NHS difficulties. The Town Council also made the decision to disallow the movement to be held under the historic Market House structure on the High Street.
Despite some mocking by the local community, it was eventually held at the local park. Everyone was wearing masks and carrying signs, including families with small children and elderly members of the public. At least 150 people from a town of less than 10,000 appeared in support of Black Lives Matter.
Anna McAteer stated the importance of holding a protest in small, majority white towns like Ledbury: ‘we have the right to protest and we want to be heard.’ Although the atmosphere was revolutionary, the protesters’ signs were poignant, and the speeches were powerful, there was still unrest.
A group of white middle aged men stood at the top of the path, watching the protesters throughout the event. As people took the knee, they watched and waited, with an almost mocking eye. Sheets of paper saying ‘all lives matter’ had been attached to fences and lampposts, right in the middle of the protest. People yelled out the same sentiment whilst we knelt for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the amount of time Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck.
An apparently well-meaning elderly gentlemen, after kneeling for the same length as time as everyone else did, made a statement that he thought ‘all lives matter’ was a better turn of phrase. Whilst I believe he meant no harm, this moment sums up the feelings of many in my community as they fail to understand the true meaning of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The comments made online, and the hostility of the onlookers, betrays Ledbury for what I believe it really is. A town full of young people waiting and ready to make a change for the better, but still in the shadow of those who fear progressive, modern attitudes.
A petition was recently set up by an anonymous person to get the blackface tradition of Border Morris dancing banned, and after initially gaining momentum, it has been hailed as ‘the wrong thing’. Despite the evident controversy of the act, the importance of tradition lives on in Herefordshire. It would seem that tradition is worth more than the lives of black people in the eyes of some. Even though blackface is an overtly racist image it lives on in rural communities like mine for the sake of tradition.
Nevertheless, the younger generation continue to demonstrate compassion through petitions and protests despite the disapproval and criticism of some. We have a long way to go to reach equality in the UK, but in rural pockets like my town, activists fighting for positive change are a minority.
We will never stop, not until black lives truly matter and race, sexuality and gender inequality is eradicated. But the fight is all the more tough when many in rural communities subscribe to dangerous right-leaning ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric. If I can be targeted for verbal abuse, as a white woman, for speaking out about my left wing politics, then the situation for others must be dire. We must not only acknowledge but actively aim to change attitudes of those living in rural communities around the country who think this behaviour is still acceptable in 2020.