In the third of our new series of interviews, we move to Bristol, the English port which was one of the principal hubs of the transatlantic slave trade. Safia Sangster, a graduate at the University of Bristol, interviews the award-winning poet Lawrence Hoo who lives in the city and is known for his activism in favour of disadvantaged communities.
Black Lives Matter went global in 2016. What is different about this time around?
In 2016 people’s engagement disappeared after a couple of weeks. That was painful, because of course the racism and racialized violence never stopped. This is what Black Lives Matter should have addressed four years ago: the environments that children grow up in believing there is no chance for them in this world. A world so violent that they feel the need to protect themselves, so they carry weapons. People being so marginalized that children end up killing each other. Look at police and incarceration statistics: 3 per cent of the UK population is black and yet 13 per cent of the prison population is black. Someone is responsible for this and it is not black boys.
Because of this frustration, I did not pay attention at the start of this Black Lives Matter movement. But then a statue [of the wealthy slaver-trader Edward Colston] fell that nobody expected to fall. There was this huge energy and all of it was focused on Bristol that day. Many people found out that day that Bristol was instrumental in the creation of the transatlantic slave trade. Maybe the beginning of it all falling will be the place where it all started, and that itself is poetic.
This time it feels different. The fear around Brexit and COVID-19 has travelled into Black Lives Matter. I thought they would be happy with the world they live in. But no, they want change
What has been the result of this for the Black Lives Matter movement so far?
The curious thing is that no new laws are needed. In the UK, every law exists to protect all of us. The issue is that these laws are not actioned for black people. This has to be addressed. We simply want the protections that people fought and died for, that have passed through parliaments and been put into legislation, to be applied to everyone.
In the past protests would result in government representatives offering to talk and proposing small changes. Now, the youth and the Black Lives Matter movement have the energy and the strength to demand systemic change. Instead of asking questions they can use this moment to make governments deal with the mess. I am not here to tell you what type of future the movement should be demanding. I see the young people and their energy, and I think we should believe in and support the future and the solutions they see.
What is the role of artists in Black Lives Matter activism?
I grew up in very marginalized communities around St Pauls and Easton in Bristol. We did not have access or permission to be in the places where art and music are created, so we made our own spaces. We put sound systems on the street and created art on the walls. I learnt then that art is supposed to spark a conversation and now if my work does not get a reaction, I do not know why I wrote it.
This creative activism is threatened by the monetization of art. When applying for funding to create art, you need to put your ideas through other people and it can reduce your political message. This is a significant problem in Bristol as funding tends to be allocated to work promoting a particular idea or voice from the city. Instead, art should be a platform to challenge society and highlight its problems. In my work, I never aim to attack people, but I do want to make people uncomfortable. I enjoy shaking the tree. I think my work has shown that you can speak your truth.
As a result of Black Lives matter there is a much wider discussion of racial justice issues, but to what extent does this lead to real change?
There is a real problem with councils, governments and companies putting Black Lives Matter all over their social media. But where are you? Why have you not said or done anything? I think many people are seeing that one thing is being promoted and another being actioned. I hope this means that people will start to be caught out.
This type of performative action is most painful when it comes from people who look like you. In Bristol we now have Mayor Marvin Rees, the first mayor of a major European city who is of black African descent. However, when it comes to decisions like the statue of Edward Colston coming down, the sculpture of Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid going up, or selling the Rastafarian Culture Centre, he seems to be taking the wrong side. While the violence on our streets preceded his election, it has not improved during his term.
When politicians run on a ticket of improving the lives of Black people, their silence cuts deeper than anything and our community hurts more than ever. Governments and councils seem to be continuing to do what they have always done. It is up to young people and Black Lives Matter movements to make them listen and push for change.
What is Bristol’s place in the (international) Black Lives Matter movement and what changes do we need to see in the city going forward?
I think all people need to come together. In our society, black people are so marginalized that they are being murdered and nothing is being done. That should scare everyone. Humanity needs to really start caring instead of pretending to care. The people who can make a change should do so, because the current situation is untenable. We are heading to a scenario, if we are not there already, of safe pockets of wealth and everyone else living in abject poverty. I think capitalism is a failed state.
We need to leverage the fear everyone is feeling because of COVID-19, the concern everyone feels for their grandparents today, this is how we need to encourage them to feel about everyone else. The pandemic has also reaffirmed the key role of technology in driving change. Now, a laptop does everything you previously needed from a media studio, you can all be your own producers and directors. And you need to have fun with it. You have to think ‘how do we make mischief’ or ‘how do we tickle these people’.
Lawrence Hoo’s work focuses on the inspiring but generally overlooked experiences of people living in Bristol’s immigrant communities.