Black Lives Matter student activists speak out about combatting racism and protesting for change.
By Kerry Power and Ryann Overbay
Photography: Damon Simms and Caleb Nelson
Katie Unnithan, 20, and Tyrek Morris, 21, share their experiences of anti-racism activism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how they got their start organising protests in the name of social change.
When Tyrek Morris was a child, the boy who sat next to him at school leaned over, grabbed his hand and cut it open. When asked why, the boy replied: ‘I just want to see a black man bleed.’ This is only one of many experiences Tyrek has faced relating to the color of his skin. He’s been locked in a shop and accused of stealing, pulled over for being black in the wrong neighbourhood, and had his reports of online hate speech ignored by the police.
Despite these incidents, and the countless others he chose not to share, Tyrek, a 21-year-old journalism student at Manchester Metropolitan University and the founder of All Black Lives UK, is proud to be Black British.
“Being black in Britain is unique,” says Tyrek. “It has its trials and tribulations, more than I can count. I could talk about how terrible it can be, but it’s also liberating being the black sheep of the country, being different.”
For many people of colour, being different is synonymous with danger. As the violence directed towards young black men and women, and other people of colour, has become increasingly publicised, more individuals are stepping up to raise their voices against discrimination.
Following 25th May, 2020, footage of the arrest and murder of George Floyd went viral. For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the world watched as arresting officer, Derek Chauvin, held his knee against George Floyd’s neck. They heard Floyd cry out, telling officers countless times that he could not breathe. In the months that followed, Floyd’s death sparked Black Lives Matter protests and antiracist movements across the world.
Tyrek’s move into activism came out of a fear of apathy in this moment. “I was numb,” he says. “It’s just the same thing over and over again. When it happened [Floyd’s death], I was like, it’s sad, but it’s just another black guy being killed. That’s when I said, ‘Okay, I need to do something.’ If I have a lack of emotion, if I’ve been so desensitized, I have to do something to combat that.”
Tyrek organized his first protest the following month. On Sunday 8th June, thousands of people gathered at St Peter’s Square, Manchester, in response to Tyrek’s call for action on social media.
“It just got to a point, where I was standing on this platform, just standing there and looking around. I remember someone was sitting on top of a bus stop, others were on top of cars. it was a sea of people. I remember feeling so overwhelmed. The gravity of what was going on just hit me,” says Tyrek.
Over 10,000 people attended the BLM protest in Manchester. “People were just looking at me and expecting me, a 21-year-old student to know what to do. I was given the mic, and I thought, ‘You know what? These people have come out here to hear me talk.’
“I started off with eight minutes of silence to represent the amount of time it took to kill George Floyd. Then I spoke about my experiences with racism and said, ‘If anyone wants to come up and talk you can do’. So many people came up and spoke. It was the most surreal experience,” says Tyrek.
Katie Unnithan, a 20-year-old student at the University of Birmingham, organized her own protest a month later in Sandbach, Cheshire on 4th July, 2020. She was inspired by BLM groups in America and their plans for a day of mourning and protest in honour of those who have died as a result of police brutality and been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Katie says: “I was frustrated. [BLM in America] were saying: ‘Don’t celebrate, protest, wear black.’ I just thought, ‘I’ve got a board in the house, I’ve got some markers. I’ll make a placard and just sit with it.’”
Katie’s protests caused a stir in rural Sandbach, garnering unwanted attention and a backlash against the movement. Sandbach is a small market town with a population of approximately 18,000 people, who, according to the latest data released by Cheshire East Council, are 96% white. Coming from a mixed-race family in a town that is predominantly white, Katie was no stranger to racism, but following the protests she saw new levels of bigotry directed her way.
“Neo-Nazi groups were putting flyers through people’s doors in the area around where I lived saying, ‘White Lives Matter’. A racist Facebook page actually published my home address, and then there was the thing with the KKK…” explains Katie. A meme featuring Katie was posted to Facebook following the protests, and an image of a Ku Klux Klan member was posted in response.
“It was quite dramatic over the last summer. I don’t think that people realized how crazy the behaviour online was. People in positions of responsibility were posting things about me online. Grown people, business owners in Sandbach, a town councillor, people’s parents and grandparents. It definitely wasn’t a situation where the power balance was equal,” says Katie.
Both Tyrek and Katie spoke about the value of free speech and public gatherings for spreading awareness on issues of race. Organising protests gave them the opportunity to see, first hand, how much weight the public voice carries. But the future of protest remains uncertain due to the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
According to the UK Parliament House of Commons Library, the bill would give police the power to ‘impose conditions on protests that are noisy enough to cause “intimidation or harassment” or “serious unease, alarm or distress” to bystanders,’ among other serious modifications to current laws surrounding protesting on public grounds in the UK.
“There are a lot of other ways to spread awareness without protesting. Although [the bill] has pissed us off, because it’s where we got our start, there’s a lot more we can do,” says Tyrek.
Both Katie and Tyrek have gone on to start their own organizations to further support the BLM movement and spread awareness about racism and inequality throughout the UK. Katie co-founded Cheshire Voices for Equality, a group aiming to actively promote diversity through education.
“We just want to prevent racism and stop it. We want to get educational resources out there, make it really accessible and involve as many marginalised groups in Sandbach as we can,” says Katie.
“When it comes to BLM, it’s so important to have a really good grasp on intersectional issues because black lives include all of the lives of black people. Our aim is to be a community orientated towards positive change.”
Cheshire Voices for Equality have already achieved success in their endeavor. Katie adds: “The council did start working on their inclusion and diversity policy after we were in the meetings and that’s great. But we are completely education focused. We want to reach people who don’t have social media or have never thought about racism before. I really think we’re doing that.”
All Black Lives UK has also gained significant attention. Co-founded by Tyrek, the organisation recently received a grant from Black Lives Matter UK.
“There are so many projects that we want to do. After the ‘GoFundMe’ dried up, a lot of the projects that we did came out of our own pockets. Everything costs money and it costs a whole damn lot. When we got the funding, it felt like we could breathe easier,” says Tyrek.
He adds: “We’ve had politicians like David Lammy and Prince Harry mention the issues we are raising. Things that we have campaigned for are getting more recognition. Black protesters and activists as a whole are making these things happen. It’s not just ABL UK.”
As ABL UK moves forward, they hope to also help spread awareness and educate people about black culture through events. Tyrek says he’s got big plans for the future of ABL UK. He says: “One of the projects that I’ve been pushing for is a black culture festival. I want to celebrate black culture, things like art, food, music, black businesses. I want to highlight everything that’s great within the black community.”
Since 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained global coverage. With Premiership footballers taking a knee, and the dance group, Diversity, paying homage to BLM in their Britain’s Got Talent performance, more people than ever are beginning to educate themselves and actively take a role in spreading awareness about inequality and descrimination.
Although both Tyrek and Katie have faced challenges in both their activism and their personal lives, they remain optimistic about the future of social equality, diversity, and inclusion.
Tyrek says that in order to help the black community it’s important to think about your actions. He asks: “Are you buying from black owned businesses? Are you actively being anti-racist? Are you sticking up for others? Are you educating others? What are you doing? That’s how you build up good allyship. You have to ask yourself what you are doing to be a good ally, because I could tell you to do a million and one things to help us, but part of it is how you help yourself.”
Katie believes that change is possible. “I have to believe it,” she says. “In order to make a difference, challenge things, be critical, educate yourself, read black authors, be more sustainable. Whatever your thing is, do it, do it well and do it towards helping marginalised groups.”