Thousands join anti-racism protests across Scotland in defiance of government pleas and warnings

Thousands of anti-racism campaigners descended on parks across Scotland’s major cities today to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and defy government warnings about mass gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Demonstrators at the Black Lives Matter event in Edinburgh. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/GettyDemonstrators at the Black Lives Matter event in Edinburgh. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Demonstrators at the Black Lives Matter event in Edinburgh. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Despite appeals from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for people to avoid mass gatherings, and cautions from justice secretary Humza Yousaf that those attending the large-scale events were “risking the very lives of those we are expressing solidarity with,” vast crowds assembled in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old African American who died in Minnesota after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

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In the fortnight since, one of the most widespread and sustained protests in US history has seen hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, take to the streets.

Crowds at the Glasgow Green protest. Picture: SNSCrowds at the Glasgow Green protest. Picture: SNS
Crowds at the Glasgow Green protest. Picture: SNS

With the movement’s momentum spreading around the world, organisers of the demonstrations in Scotland stressed that the physical gatherings were a crucial means of “emphasising and reinforcing” the movement’s messages.

But with lockdown restrictions still in place, the Scottish Government urged people to protest in another way.

Ms Sturgeon called on people to “make your voice heard” in support of Black Lives Matter, but to do so safely, warning that “mass gatherings risk spreading Covid-19.”

Mr Yousaf went further, stating that he had a “great degree of concern” about such crowds of people gathering together.

A minute's silence was held at the Glasgow rally for Sheku Bayoh, who died in police custody in 2015.A minute's silence was held at the Glasgow rally for Sheku Bayoh, who died in police custody in 2015.
A minute's silence was held at the Glasgow rally for Sheku Bayoh, who died in police custody in 2015.

“I am angry too, I understand the desire to be taking to the streets,” he explained. “But there's enough evidence to show ethnic minorities [are] disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

“If you participate in mass gatherings you are risking the very lives of those we are expressing solidarity with.”

While Police Scotland officers were in attendance at today’s gatherings, there was no reported unrest, with the vast majority of those in attendance observing social distancing rules and wearing masks or face coverings.

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The largest event was held in Glasgow Green, where several people joined in chants of ‘No justice, no peace’, with attendees dropping to one knee in a show of solidarity.

Barrington Reeves, one of the organisers, said: “We are trying to amplify black and minority ethnic voices, inviting young people to share their views and experiences.”

A simultaneous gathering in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park also drew a four-figure crowd, but was more sparsely populated thanks to the location, with some people sitting at the foothills of Salisbury Crags to maintain social distancing.

Cynthia Gentle, a blues singer who helped co-ordinate the event in the capital, said: “This is as important as the coronavirus. People have come out of their houses to express the same.

“Racism doesn’t just affect us physically, like George Floyd. The impacts are also mental.”

“Of course we want to survive the coronavirus, but we want more than just to survive, we want to live without fear - without fear of racism, without fear of always having to justify our existence here in Scotland without persecution.”

Another of the event’s organisers, Benitha Iradukunda, said stewards were in place to help maintain social distancing, and stressed the importance of the physical gathering to the protest’s message.

“Racism has been around for centuries and doing it physically is a way of emphasising and reinforcing that we need change,” she explained.

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The second day of anti-racism protests across the UK also saw smaller events held elsewhere in Scotland. In Aberdeen, protesters gathered in batches at Duthie Park and Victoria Park, fixing posters and placards to railings.

‘If you think your mask makes it hard to breathe,’ one sign stated, ‘imagine being black in America’

Many of those protesting across Scotland also highlighted the plight of Sheku Bayoh, who died in 2015 after being restrained by police officers in Kirkcaldy. His family has long maintained that the 31-year-old’s race played a part in his death.

Numerous people in Glasgow Green held placards demanding justice for his relatives, and also held a minute’s silence in his memory.

Five years to the day she buried her brother, Kadi Johnson, Mr Bayoh’s sister, drew parallels between his death and that of Mr Floyd.

In a powerful video message released ahead of the protests, she said: “George Floyd died at the hands of the police, who are supposed to be our protectors - same like my brother, Sheku Bayoh.

“George Floyd died of asphyxia, which is depriving the body of oxygen to travel to the brain and the rest of the body - same like my brother, Sheku Bayoh.

“George Floyd cried out, ‘Get off me, I can’t breathe’ - same like by brother, Sheku Bayoh.”

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She added: “For how long are we going to suffer like this? For how long? Black lives do matter.”

Ms Johnson, a staff nurse, was among those due to speak at an online anti-racism event this evening. It was organised by the Scottish Trade Unions Congress to mark the fifth anniversary of Mr Bayoh’s funeral,

Elsewhere, demonstrators in Bristol used ropes to pull down the bronze statue of Edward Colston, a prominent 17th Century slave trader and MP who transported an estimated 80,000 men, women, and children from Africa to the Americas.

In London, several thousand people joined an anti-racism rally outside the US embassy.

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