Report by Cllr Brian Smedley Leader Bridgwater Town Council
The rain started then stopped then started again. So, we gave up noticing. It was 2.30pm in the UK and 0930 across the Atlantic. Just over 100 socially distanced Black Lives Matters campaigners had gathered on the Brewery Field, Bridgwater whilst a similar number assembled on the Town Square of Bridgwater Massachusetts all eager to hear the first contacts between the transatlantic townships for many a year. In 1846 the people of Bridgwater, proud in the knowledge that we were the first town in Britain to petition the Government to end the Slave Trade, sent a letter to their descendants in the New England town of the same name calling on them to campaign to abolish slavery, which was then still a major issue in the USA and would only be ended 20 years later after a civil war. Now in 2020 both communities were united in the global campaign to end racism ‘Black Lives Matter’. I picked up the phone and dialed US Historian Stephen Rogan asking “Is that Massachussetts?” to be greeted by a tremendous “Whooo!!!!” down the end of the line. Yep, I’d reached America.
Stephen Rogan is Bridgewater Historical Commissioner and Chair of the Bridgewater Cultural Council and in researching the 1846 link had posted about it on Bridgwater facebook sites thereby rekindling communications. Following that both him himself and me myself appeared on radio interviews. But not yet ‘us ourselves’. Last week he did an interview on BBC world service -not forgetting to name check us. So it was right that Stephen spoke first. He declared “Thank you to the people of Bridgwater in England for standing with us for Black Lives Matter. We’re proud of our connection with you and looking for more communication with you so that justice is done. So thank you, thank you, thank you for supporting Black Lives Matters” (more cheers)
I passed the phone to Amilee Jobin, our host for the day and she took up the message of solidarity “Hello Bridgwater with an E this is Bridgwater without the E. On behalf of the Bridgwater Solidarity Group we’d like to let you know that we stand with you in opposition to police violence and racism in the USA and around the world. To quote Malcolm X, “when ‘I’ is replaced by ‘We’ illness becomes wellness”. It is such a pleasure to be here with you and to have you here with us today. Black Lives Matter!”
110 people on either side of the Atlantic then ‘took the knee’ at the same time. A peaceful protest symbol now sweeping the world following the death in Police custody of black American George Floyd, originally adopted by US athletes but now a regular sight that even starts off every football match in the UK showing there’s no place for racism and a new will to stamp it out.
This was the second Black Lives Matter protest in Bridgwater but the 5th in Bridgewater, where they hold theirs weekly.
Transatlantic Speakers of Hope
On both sides of the Atlantic speakers stood up to deliver messages of hope, struggle and unity. In Bridgwater, Simon Bale, so active in the Foodbank and the Covid response teams, spoke of the importance of listening when black people tell us what’s happening while Jayden Marsden, a young black actor, told us of racism in the arts and growing up black . Vienna Watt told of levels of racism around mixed race people and dealing with racist parents. Lucy and Indy Bidwell mentioned white privilege and being able to walk away from difficult conversations echoing student Gemma Shanahan’s passionate speech saying why this is the fight of British white people as well. Dylan Tippets talked of the struggle of black trans lives protestors and Glen Burrows read a poem ‘I too have a Dream’. I contributed a letter from an anti-Apartheid activist Ken Keable and made the point that struggles don’t have to last for ever but have a start, a fight and an outcome, as indeed did the anti apartheid struggle for which international solidarity was crucial. But it was Amilee who held the event together speaking through the rain bursts calling for action today and pushing for change.
Over in America speeches were led by Pastor Beth Stotts of the central square congregational church and pastor Alicia Velez Stewart of the Bridgewater United Methodist church followed by Deja McCottrell aka ‘Queen Dej’ a young black queen fighting for change and Sea Officall a young Haitian woman that has ‘weaponised her voice for change’.
Pastor Stotts declared “I don’t want to be part of the problem I want to be part of the solution. We have a moral duty to not only speak up but to act for change. When one is oppressed we are all oppressed.”
Reverend Stewart described racism as “America’s original sin being built on the backs of black bodies”
In 1785 Bridgwater was the first town to petition against the Slave Trade -it was finally abolished in 1833 , yet with compensation disgracefully paid out to the slave owners for their ‘loss of property’. In 1846 the escaped American slave Frederick Douglass toured the UK and spoke in Bridgwater to a packed audience saying “What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity yet with 3 million of its people in slavery….” And famously “What to a slave is the 4th of July?”
As we approach the 4th of July 2020 racism is in the spotlight once again. And this time the people are not going to take it for much longer……..