The brutal killing of George Floyd on 25th May 2020 by police renewed protests by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US and globally, calling for an end to systemic and institutionalised racism against black people.
Soraya Bauwens, Alex Bennie, Geeta Koska and Bernadette Smith of 1MCB Chambers joined an open call from Black Protest Legal Support UK – a grassroots network of lawyers and legal advisers founded by Ife Thompson – to provide BLM protesters in London with pro-bono legal support, by attending the Black Lives Matter protests in London held on 3rd, 6th and 7th June 2020, as Legal Observers.
Their role as Legal Observers on 6th June 2020 at Parliament Square and on 7th June 2020 at the US Embassy was as independent observers, monitoring and recording police behaviour and actions during protests while BLM protesters exercised their fundamental and internationally protected right to protest and free assembly. The presence of Legal Observers was even more important following the Met police’s use of kettling (a crowd containment practice) over several hours on both Saturday and Sunday evening. Legal Observers provide a vital function in supporting the right to protest, by holding police accountable through contemporaneous note taking or recording of police action on the day and by ensuring protesters and activists know where to get legal support, what to do if they are arrested or subject to kettling.
It is critical that police are held accountable for their actions both in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests and more broadly in addressing police brutality against black people in the UK, who are overly policed, disproportionately affected by police violence and have a higher chance of receiving a custodial sentence. Those politicians who suggested, over the weekend, that the BLM protests in the UK are only about calling for justice for George Floyd are somehow ignorant or unwilling to engage with widely publicised reports of ongoing discrimination and institutional racism in the UK.
This is a time for reflection. The government must examine the extensive data that already exists revealing the toxic reach of racism and discrimination in the UK, and look for new and better ways to police, to educate, and to improve access, equality and representation. The government must engage not only with Britain’s colonial legacy and role in the slave trade, but with the voices of generations of black people in this country that have, for too long, gone unheard.
So too must the Bar actively address and combat racism, open up conversations, listen to and increase efforts to end discrimination against black barristers and other minorities and enable further access to and continued professional development in our profession.
1MCB Chambers was founded as a radical set, dedicated to upholding equal access to justice. It owes its dedication to anti-racism and discrimination to its first head of chambers Len Woodley QC, the first Afro-Caribbean barrister in Britain to become Queen’s counsel, a recorder (part-time judge, 1989-2000) of the Crown court and a bencher of the Inner Temple. Our members have dedicated their careers to the furtherance of anti-racism and accountability. That is reflected in our diverse practice areas including actions against the police, representing protesters in criminal and civil matters, and representing the Commission for Racial Equality in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.
We will not stop there. 1MCB Chambers is committed to our founding principles and stands in solidarity with the global community condemning violence and discrimination against black and minority communities. We will continue to support all those fighting for accountability and justice, and will continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and internationally in whatever ways we can.
We are extremely grateful to Black Protest Legal Support UK for galvanising the legal community into action through training and supporting the presence of Legal Observers at the London protests.
Headline quote by Cynthia McFarlane.