Cazembe Murphy Jackson, a Black Lives Matter organizer from Atlanta, Georgia, recently took his group’s message of activism abroad to London. While there, he learned about some surprising parallels between organizing in the U.K. and in the U.S. — as well as why some Londoners are using Donald Trump’s presidency as a galvanizing force to get people out in the streets across the pond. MTV News writer Marcus Ellsworth spoke with Jackson about his trip, activism in London, and what building international solidarity means for black people.
Why was it important for an organizer out of Atlanta to go work with activists in London?
Cazembe Murphy Jackson: BLM is a global network. We are working with folks in different countries, and have been for a while, to help develop their own resistance against racism. It’s really important for us to be able to understand how anti-blackness happens in different contexts and different places in the world so that we can actively build strategies to fight it in different places. The strategy can’t be the same if the way that anti-blackness is experienced is not the same.
Black Lives Matter and the National Union of Students, which is the student union in London that brought me over there, have already been in a relationship for the past couple of years. [Both organizations have] had folks go over to London and they’ve also brought people from London to the States.
Before you went, did you have any expectations about what this journey might be like?
Jackson: The biggest thing that I thought would happen is that I wouldn’t be understood or accepted fully as a trans man. Because the people who know me and love me would not be around me, I thought that I would have to face a lot of transphobia. It ended up not being true. I learned that even black people in different places in the world have this thing that bonds us together; we have such a similar experience. Even though the context of the way that racism works is different [in different countries], it still produces the same result in us, which allows us to be able to relate to other black people. Once we started talking to each other, it’s like we’d all been friends our whole lives. And I found that you can definitely find community in other countries just as quickly as you can in the place [where] you’re from.
What are some major concerns black organizers have in the U.K.?
Jackson: A recurring theme was that it’s really hard for them to get a good turnout for their events unless they mention something about what’s going on in the United States in their outreach. If someone died in police custody in the U.K., and [organizers] want to have a rally or an action to bring people out, they would also [reference] something that happened in the United States. The summit that I came over to speak at was called “Trump, Brexit, and Beyond” [even though] the summit was about the way that new acts of Islamophobia [are manifesting] against immigrants in the U.K. It could have just been [called] “Brexit and Beyond,” but in order to get people in, they also had to talk about Trump.
Folks really want to be able to say, “Oh, Trump is a bad guy, but we’re the U.K. and we’re not like that.” Everyone wants to talk about how bad Trump is, but the reality is that Trump and Theresa May are two peas in a pod. Now that the U.K. is out of the E.U., she’s got to find other people to make trade partnerships with. It’s a very important thing for folks in the U.K. to pay attention to Theresa May [in] the same way that they’re paying attention to Trump.
There was a rally in front of Parliament when [members of Parliament] were voting on whether they were going to let E.U. immigrants stay in the U.K. That was a huge rally. It was an opportunity to push Parliament to make the right decision. But when [organizers of the rally] came out, they also had to talk about Trump and his Muslim ban in order to draw people out, and it wasn’t even about that.
It reminds me of living in small [American] towns, even like Chattanooga. There are over 60 people who’ve been killed by police in the city of Chattanooga since the 1970s. But in order for us to get a big turnout to fight against police brutality and police murder, we had to talk about Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown. I don’t know what the science is around what moves people to come out, but it does seem like there’s something that has to do with what is popular in America in the larger context to bring people out in smaller and more distant places.
Are there other issues that BLM focuses on in the U.S. that you also saw reflected in the U.K.?
Jackson: I don’t think that I did enough talking and digging to be able to accurately say all of the things that black folks are working on in the U.K. But a lot of black people I met who are organizing are also Muslim. They’re also either immigrants to the U.K. or their parents are immigrants. That makes for a really great environment for international solidarity, because they actually have family in other countries. The immigration fight and the fight against Islamophobia is really big in [those] black communities, because they live at that intersection.
I think they do a lot of organizing around police brutality and murder in police custody. There’s a group called United Families & Friends, a campaign that is led by friends and family of people who have died in police custody. They help others learn what the process is for trying to get justice for your family through the state. I thought it was interesting that while there have been over, I believe, 2,000 deaths in police custody in the U.K. [on record], no police officer has ever been convicted of any wrongdoing. The majority of police in the U.K. don’t carry guns, so they don’t have the police-murder epidemic the way we have it here. But the people who do die in police custody, a lot of them die from the use of the batons. So people are getting beat to death. In the U.S. it’s still bad, but there have been some officers who have been convicted of some things.
Another thing that’s different is that they skew the numbers [of] how many people are incarcerated. We often say the U.S. incarcerates black people so much that there’s more black people in jail now than there were during slavery. We think of these really large numbers to show how disproportionate the amount of black people in jail in the U.S. is. That’s skewed for the U.K. because half of the people are not in jail: They’re being forced to stay in mental institutions and they treat them like they’re in jail. You can be arrested and be forced to go. That’s used for asylum seekers, immigrants, and folks who are citizens in the U.K. When you combine the numbers [of people in jails and mental institutions], it would put the U.K. closer to the U.S.
How can people in America find ways to stand in solidarity with black folks in other countries and the issues they’re organizing around?
Jackson: I think the simplest thing that can be done to start building international solidarity is to find out what’s happening in other places. I think the way we are able to care about what’s happening somewhere else is [by] actually reading about it. Then, after we learn about what’s happening and its context, the next step is to talk about it. We use Facebook for a lot of stuff. We use Twitter and all of these other social media platforms to talk about important ideas and theories.
I think once we start understanding what is happening, and make sure that the people around [us] also know it’s important, then those who are able need to build relationships with people in other places. Of course, some of that is going to require travel. That can get tricky. It can get pricey and some folks will need passports.
I got my passport through a trans passport workshop. When I was asked to take a companion with me, I ended up taking my friend Prentis Hemphill because they have a passport and are the director of healing justice for BLM. No one [else in my Atlanta chapter] could go because they didn’t have a passport. We need to have passport clinics, and not just for trans people, [but also] for young black people. Because black people need to be able to see other black people thriving and surviving in other places in the diaspora other than the U.S. They need to know how magical our people are everywhere, and to know that we are everywhere.
The way that you start knowing that is by going and seeing. One of the other things I thought when I found out I was going to London was, Yo, are there black people there? And there’s SO many black people there. All different kinds of black people. When we can see people in different places and we understand the context [in which] they are actually living, then it makes it possible for us to build some kind of genuine solidarity based on a real relationship and a real understanding of each other’s experiences. To be able to say that we’re in solidarity with people around the world, I just think we have to go deeper.