Editor’s Note: This story is part of CNN’s commitment to covering issues around identity, including race, gender, sexuality, religion, class and caste.
Aima, 19, is one of Britain’s most prominent Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists, but at a protest in London she is nervous. She has her hood up and, while a pandemic-mandated mask covers most of her face, she keeps her head down for fear of being recognized. Her eyes constantly dart to check the location of the police.
She has reason to be scared. Campaigners say that standing up for the rights of Black people in the UK comes at a high price. They say they’ve seen an angry backlash and have even received death threats.
Attending a march last month against a proposed bill to increase police powers at demonstrations, Aima was flanked by two White allies. Assigned by a trusted volunteer group, they are there to help keep her safe.
“If you are constantly getting people saying they want to kill you and they want you dead, then you don’t feel safe anymore, you don’t feel safe at all,” she says.
She says the allies also help deflect unwanted attention from her detractors and from the authorities, whom she does not trust.
Speaking to CNN at the march, Aima, who uses only one name for security reasons, says some of the Twitter messages she has received in recent months have left her fearing for her life.
“People were bragging about the types of guns that should be used against us,” she says, recalling another tweet which read: “Go die, I’d do better if you weren’t breathing.”
“I am getting quite a lot of threats online, but not just me – other Black activists too,” says Aima, adding: “This is just a normal daily thing for us to have to witness.”
But her lack of trust in the police means these threats go unreported.
She is not alone. In the UK, public trust in the police and other institutions has been eroded by examples of systemic racism over decades.
A government report on race and ethnic disparities, which concluded that the UK “should be regarded as a model for other White-majority countries,” sparked outrage.
Activists say the government commission’s statement that it, “no longer see(s) a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities,” means that race relations are effectively going backwards.
Anti-racists blamed for racism
When Britain’s first female Black Member of Parliament, Diane Abbott, tweeted a message of support for another Black activist recently, she was accused of stoking racial tensions.
Blaming anti-racism campaigners for racism appears to be a mind-boggling but growing trend in the UK.
Outside London and other large cities, where there is less diversity, the vitriol is even more direct, said Sarah Chevolleau, founder of the Stoke-on-Trent chapter of BLM.
Chevolleau says she received a death threat just 30 minutes after calling for the first BLM rally in the central English city last June, from the influential head of a football supporters’ group.
“It’s not shocking for people to be so open with their racism here,” she explains, “It was really frightening. I took extra security precautions at home, but I had to keep talking. I had to keep speaking out. I feel I didn’t have a choice.”
A year on, Chevolleau is proud to have built up a group with more than 1,300 members. The mother-of-four says she even has supporters who were once members of the English Defence League, a far-right organization.
“What kept me going was the amazing show of support from our White allies and non-Black allies,” she told CNN. “The fact that so many people saw the humanity in me and in our calls. This movement is changing the world because it’s changing lives.”
Both Aima and Chevolleau say the constant barrage of threats is part of a wider backlash against the anti-racism movement by an increasingly vocal corner of the British population.
And mistrust of the police means there is nowhere for them to turn.
And despite some changes in the decades since, Black people and those from other ethnic minorities are still disproportionately represented when it comes to police checks, imprisonment, and deaths in custody.
A 2020 survey by the charity HOPE not hate revealed that 65% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK felt that the police were biased against their community.
Sympathy and defensiveness
The murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last year sparked massive protests across the globe. In the UK, those demonstrations were led by a new generation of activists demanding that the country address its racial divide.
At first, the campaigners were met with curiosity and sympathy, but that quickly turned into defensiveness and outright denial from Britain’s ruling class, campaigners say.
In one particularly divisive episode, a controversial statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century merchant and slave trader was torn down and dumped into Bristol harbor by a crowd of protesters. Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned its removal as “utterly disgraceful.”
In the wake of the BLM protests last June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a commission to investigate racial and ethnic disparities in the country.
The report, published in late March, concluded that there was no evidence of institutional racism across a broad range of public sectors from education to healthcare.
A day after it was published, the administration’s most senior Black aide, Samuel Kasumu, quit.
The report’s controversial findings prompted swift condemnation from the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“This attempt to normalize white supremacy despite considerable research and evidence of institutional racism is an unfortunate sidestepping of the opportunity to acknowledge the atrocities of the past and the contributions of all in order to move forward,” the UNHRC’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said in a statement.
Johnson’s office rejected the UN’s criticism and said the commission’s findings had been “misrepresented.”
David Lammy, a Labour party Member of Parliament, told CNN the government’s report was “a huge slap in the face” to those advocating for systemic change, and that it “weaponizes race and divides communities and frankly takes the country back to the 1950s.”
“Britain is taking massive steps backwards in the fight for racial equality because it’s dialing up the populist rhetoric and dialing down the progressive need for change,” said Lammy, a vocal anti-racism campaigner and the author of a review into the treatment of Black and Asian people and those from other ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system.
Backlash to anti-racism movement
The controversy around the race report came while Britain was still reeling from another divisive racial moment.
In their tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, had made allegations of racism against one of Europe’s most elite White institutions – the Royal family – and accused the British press of bigotry.
The fallout from the revelations exposed a divided Britain. Among others in mainstream politics and media, one of the country’s most popular TV hosts, Piers Morgan, sparked outrage as he blindly defended Queen and country.
Meanwhile, journalists from underrepresented backgrounds, who had been fighting for fairer coverage and greater representation, scrambled to call out the tone-deafness of colleagues who denied there was a problem.
The Society of Editors, a UK media industry body, claimed that racism played no part in the coverage of Meghan. The head of the group resigned after more than 160 journalists of color signed an open letter rebuking the claim.
The backlash to the anti-racism movement has also been seen on Britain’s streets.
A spike in hate crimes was reported in June and July 2020 with levels of racially- or religiously-aggravated offences up by as much as a third on the previous year, according to Britain’s Home Office.
This coincided with a period of increased activity from far-right groups and counter-protests at Black Lives Matter demonstrations, according to HOPE not hate.
Calls to confront colonial history
Rights groups and campaigners are calling for wide-ranging reforms, from de-colonizing school curriculums to ending stop and search powers for the police to addressing well-documented healthcare disparities. But they say that progress must start with acknowledging that there is a problem.
“This country has an ambivalence to its colonial history,” explains MP Lammy. “This period of enslavement and of colonizing the world is not really taught in UK schools, even to this day.”
“Unless you really confront your history and understand where that structural racism comes from, it is very difficult to fashion a genuine modernity and to truly reconcile across communities,” he says.
But the Johnson administration remains either woefully ignorant or intentionally obstructive to a racial reckoning past or present, according to its critics.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sparked controversy last year when he described athletes taking a knee – an act of resistance popularized by former NFL player Colin Kaepernick – as something “taken from the Game of Thrones” and “a symbol of subjugation and subordination.” He later clarified, “If people wish to take a knee, that’s their choice and I respect it.”
More recently, England’s footballers were booed by some fans for kneeling at two warm-up matches earlier this month, ahead of the European Championships.
But manager Gareth Southgate insisted his team would continue with the gesture as a united front against racism; the players have done so during the ongoing European Championship. In recent matches, a majority of fans have either cheered or applauded as the team kneeled.
Off the pitch, when protesters scrawled “was a racist” on the statue of Britain’s former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Parliament Square last year, Downing Street responded by temporarily boxing up the statue, another way that in which monuments have become part of the UK’s culture wars.
Activists say the message was clear: We will not redress the past, we will only protect it.
Aima says BLM activists are often blamed for the country’s increased racial tensions, something she explains with a single word: “gaslighting.”
“It feels like you are talking to a brick wall, but the people on the other side of that wall [are] the majority of the population in this country,” she says. “We must keep fighting actively against the government because the government refuses to listen to us, so we will make them listen to us.”