Documentary

Black Lives Matter, in London

All images © Shane Vincent, courtesy the artist

Seven Americans were shot last week, their deaths creating a seismic effect across the world as videos and images rippled through social media. In London, hundreds of people attended the Black Lives Matter march along Oxford Street, in response to the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. Shane Vincent was there.

“The crowd was extremely diverse and unified in their passion for justice,” said London-based photographer Shane Vincent who shot Sunday’s peaceful protest.

“There were chants from Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ and of ‘hands up, don’t shoot’, addressing hope for change and a serious frustration as a result of the shocking police brutality in America and oppression worldwide. The atmosphere was amazing, very powerful in a positive way, especially seeing the care amongst the youth here.”

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Since the high-profile shootings of Castile and Sterling (both were recorded on phones and shared online), America has experienced a string of violence. At a protest held over the shootings, two days later, a sniper fatally shot officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa in Dallas, Texas.

Three days on, despite national and international outcry against the two police killings, another Black man was shot dead by Houston police on Saturday night. While the number of people killed by police in the UK is a fraction of that in the US, the tension has nonetheless become a global one.

The message at the forefront of the march in London was one of solidarity with the US, particularly with the victims’ families. As protestors this side of the Atlantic raised the megaphone, however, it was about much more than just being neighbourly.

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Londoners, in particular, were reminded of Mark Duggan, a black man whose death at the hands of police sparked the 2011 riots.

“People felt impassioned to come out and march in London because there is unjust oppression happening everywhere,” Vincent says. “It’s covered up or disguised too often.”

In one of Vincent’s photos, a young woman raises a fist in one hand and the words “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” in the other. It is a sad truth, to learn that a dead body is often required to bring people together in this way.

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Sadder still, when the death toll multiplies and the defining characteristic of protest is a reaction to a deeply-rooted problem. A historic prejudice. Vincent’s photos, however, capture many glimmers of hope. Fists raised in universal symbols of solidarity; children dancing in the street; a bus driver stuck in traffic, shaking hands with a passing protestor.

Yet, however peaceful the crowd, a bittersweet social structure emerges: as collective beliefs are further cemented; the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ must inevitably widen.

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“The Police were there to control the crowd,” Vincent says, “but the crowd were respectful and wanted to make a statement, not cause trouble. The police did try to stop the crowd moving down a particular road which I think led towards Buckingham Palace.

One police officer responded, ‘All lives matter.’” A sentiment that has been echoed in recent days across social media. “Although that statement is right,” Vincent adds, “it shows a lack of willingness to see the major unfairness placed on black people”.

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Civil rights activist and Black Lives Matter member DeRay Mckesson (one of 200 people arrested at a BLM protest in Baton Rouge, LA) responded similarly to the ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric. Prompted by a news anchor, McKesson replied: ‘If I go to a breast cancer rally I will not also go and say colon cancer matters.’”

“Not Born to be a Hashtag” was another message seen riding over the heads of protestors, in reaction to the #blacklivesmatter hashtag currently ricocheting around various social media platforms. Others, however, have praised the power of the hashtag.

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Seeing it as a tool for protest, people continue to postmark their opinions and tap into the collective debate. The repercussion of this kind of “digital” indignation, however, risks coming at the cost of inaction.

As an endless trail of tweets leads to a babel-effect, opinions become mere utterances. The image, on the other hand, has the habit of growing stronger with each “share”.

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The photos and videos that have gone viral over recent days have fuelled the debate on both sides. In many of these videos, armoured police resemble storm troopers. Civilians, victims.

The images are strong and no doubt breed further indignation amongst Black Lives Matter followers. When a black woman is seen hugging a white police officer, however, an olive branch is extended. When an image like this is shared, the branch connects to a wider tree – and humans become more than hashtags.

See more of Shane’s photography here.