Liza Bilal Co-Led Bristol’s BLM Protest That Sparked a Global Push for Change

For our latest BRICKS Voices digital cover, meet an organiser behind Bristol’s history-making BLM demonstration, Liza Bilal, as she discusses racism in the UK, Black Lives Matter and mental health.

WORDS Emily Phillips
PHOTOGRAPHY Hanifah Mohammad

Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, a tsunami of Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the globe. Driven by a rush of cascading sadness, anger and pain, a group of five perfect strangers came together. At the forefront of the movement in the UK, they organised the BLM demonstrations in Bristol.

Liza Bilal is the 21-year-old activist who co-led the monumental BLM protest in Bristol on the 7th of June – recall the legendary toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue. The event mobilised thousands of enraged protesters to take a stand against the hundreds of years of injustice faced by the Black community. The direct action of dumping Colston’s monument into the harbour kickstarted an international debate on the notably racist figures wrongfully honoured by history. This saw dozens of statues severed from their plinths on a global scale.  

Born in South Sudan, Bilal immigrated to the UK as an infant and spent her youth near Bristol Harbour where the event culminated. Now a final year Anthropology and Sociology student at Goldsmiths University in London, she was named on Vogue‘s ‘25 Women Shaping 2020 list earlier this year. Her dedication to the Black Lives Matter movement is the result of a built-up brokenness taking over following George Floyd’s murder in combination with her own traumatic experiences of racism. 

BRICKS catches up with the activist to talk about racism in the UK, how to maintain the fire of the BLM movement nearly 6 months later, and its effect on the mental health of the Black community. 

Liza wears Martine Rose

What was it like for you growing up and immigrating from South Sudan to the UK?

I probably had an easier experience than my older brother, sister and my parents. I moved really young, when I was just a couple of months old. I’ve grown up here. But it did come with its difficulties. I think people’s attitudes toward immigrants, especially those who come from Africa, Asia or Latin America, are often racist. People had negative things to say about the food I would bring for packed lunch in Primary school, or the accent that my parents had. It was difficult, but I still think I had it easier than a lot of first-generation immigrants. 

How have you experienced racism in your life?

Kind of piggy backing off what I just said about people’s attitude toward immigrants, I experienced racism particularly when going through the immigration process and trying to get a passport. I think that the way it’s set up in this country is to favour white Europeans that come, and to disenfranchise Black Africans that are trying to come. That was really present while we were fighting this long battle against the UK home office to try to secure Citizenship here. 

Another way was being in school. The school I went to was luckily fairly mixed in terms of ethnic groups, but even there you could see the way that teachers would respond to Black students or students of colour that were maybe disruptive or had signs present of things like maybe ADHD. The way they would treat Black students in comparison to white students was clear. [They had] much less patience; it felt like Black students were always in-and-out of behaviour management. And then there were racist people saying stuff to me on the bus. And I’ve been walking with my mum and have had people throw stuff, trash, out of their car at us. 

The murder of George Floyd was a breaking point for you. How did this amalgamation of frustrations impact you personally, and then push you to organize what turned out to be one of the most influential BLM events in the UK?

I think that what happened with the death of George Floyd, and the reason why I’ve said that it was a breaking point, was not because I haven’t witnessed that type of radicalised violence before, particularly perpetuated by the state, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t aware that these things are happening in the US. It was more because the response of the people here in the UK has been different to the response in 2016 when there was a wave of BLM protests. This time it was put in your face constantly. UK brands started to acknowledge systemic racism; it was nice to see but it was also a bit suffocating, and I think that’s what broke me. It was that fact that it felt like this racism was so very pervasive even during Coronavirus; how in that first lockdown people weren’t even allowed to go outside and yet Black people were still being brutalised on the streets. It felt like at this point sharing something online isn’t enough; at this point, I’m having conversations with my friends and family, but the family and friends I surround myself with are the kind of people that are already on my wave of thinking. I think that’s what spurred me into action. It felt like a responsibility. 

It felt like at this point sharing something online wasn’t enough; at this point, I’m having conversations with my friends and family, but the family and friends I surround myself with are the kind of people that are already on my wave of thinking. I think that’s what spurred me into action. It felt like a responsibility. 

Tell us about what the process of organising the BLM protests in Bristol was like? What challenges did you face amidst that?

The process of it was quite interesting actually because the people that I was, and am, organising protests and working with are people that I didn’t know. We all just came together with this common goal to plan the protest. Luckily, because of the fact that other protests were going on across the country and in the US as well, there were a lot of people that already knew why we were protesting. So, loads of people volunteered and the community ran it along with us. People dropped off loads of PPE and hand sanitiser – which is super important if you’re planning anything at the moment. But, in terms of planning for numbers we hadn’t ever thought that it would reach the double digits of thousands. We even had a worry that we were going to show up and it was gonna be like five people there. It was more trying to find people that wanted to speak, trying to figure out where to march, and having to liaison with people in the community. At the very beginning people didn’t know who we were; we’re students; we’re young people; and there’s an issue with certain things being co-opted by student groups who are joining the revolution while they’re young, but then when they go on to their ‘real’ lives they move on. So there was an issue with people not being able to trust whether we had the credentials to be able to try and do something that was community driven, but also global because we were joining in with protests around the world. 

The BLM protests received a lot of backlash due to the fact that they took place during the pandemic. How have you responded to that? Did you receive any push back from the Black community?

We were very cognoscitive to the fact that planning a protest during a pandemic was gonna be something that was difficult, and we knew we were going to get pushback from the police. Our response to it was to say that there are two pandemics going on; one of them is Coronavirus the other one is racism. Racism hasn’t stopped or taken a break during this time, it’s in fact been exacerbated. If we sit and do nothing or wait until it’s the right time, we’re gonna be waiting around forever. We’re in a second lockdown now, if we had waited it would have been a seven, eight, nine months wait. So we thought ‘no we have to go ahead with it and be as safe as possible’. 

In terms of Black people, we encouraged at every point that BIPoC that felt they were going to be affected by coming, in terms of the coronavirus, stayed at home, because of course the preservation of Black lives is the most important thing. Otherwise, it was mainly white people that got upset and pushy. It was funny because it was like, ‘Well you’re white; you don’t experience racism; us Black people? We don’t have a choice. We either die from racism or we die from the virus’. 

The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue sparked a global debate, so how did you feel about some of the protesters pulling down the statue of Edward Colston?

I was ecstatic. I was so, so happy about it. I think at the time the statue was being pulled down we had started the march and were all in different locations; so, I didn’t get to see it unfortunately, but when I heard about it, I had to have a silent, inward scream of happiness and then immediately after, address a crowd. 

What is the most powerful sign you’ve seen at the protests?

It’s difficult for me to remember the signs because oftentimes when we’re doing protests, I’m at the front trying to shout so I don’t really have time to look at them. But I saw one sign online. It wasn’t from our particular protest, but it’s become a meme, which I find kind of funny. It says, ‘Ban All white People Until We Figure Out What’s Going On.’ That’s one that certainly makes me laugh above anything else. 

How does the situation in the UK compare to that in the US – in regard to police brutality and the effect COVID-19 has had on the Black community?

In terms of COVID-19 in comparison to the US, we’re seeing a very similar thing going on, just on a smaller scale. This relates to the grip that capitalism has on us which is obviously leading the government to make terrible decisions in terms of opening up businesses and pubs and keeping schools and universities open, for the purpose of keeping the economy stable. The issue that comes along with that is that Black people are disproportionately clustered into essential work in comparison to white people – whether that be nursing, being a shopkeeper, a postal service person, or a delivery driver – all of these jobs lead you to be in direct contact with coronavirus. And much less so than white middle-class people who have the luxury of working from home; or have the luxury of being able to fly to different countries to work remotely; or have not as many people living with them in their home so they can isolate properly. 

With police brutality I think the difference comes in the fact that police in the US carry guns, and police in the UK don’t. The way the police operate with this gang mentality makes their tactics to intimidate Black people, to come into Black spaces Black communities and create tension. The Stop and Search law here is extremely racialised, and so we’re seeing Black bodies still being brutalised by police – still being targeted. This violence is still being perpetuated. I suppose the difference in the UK is that we’re not seeing Black people being shot dead by the state in front of our eyes. But we are seeing Black people being sent to prison at much higher rates, particularly young Black men; there are lots of similarities. 

You have been seen as crucial in leading the charge. So many people look up to you. So then with that in mind, who do you look up to –  who inspires you?

I think the people that inspire me most are Black women, particularly Black queer women. When we look at Black liberation movements, and movements that have been centred around feminism, Black women and particularly Black queer women are the ones at the forefront. I look up to the Black women out there who are just being wholly themselves. I find support in it; I find inspiration in it.

In terms of academia, I suppose I look up to Bell Hooks a lot; to her practices in being an academic and in being an activist. She tried to tear down racism and was active in her community by creating support networks and groups for Black women.

When we look at Black liberation movements, and movements that have been centred around feminism, Black women and particularly Black queer women are the ones at the forefront.

So, you study Anthropology and Sociology at Goldsmiths is that correct? What is the reality of racism at your uni and what has your experience there been like?

Personally, the amazing people I’ve met have really shaped my experience. However, the course I do as it pertains to racism is a really tricky one because anthropology specifically has its basis in colonization and British imperialism. At the same time what it’s attempting to transform into in the 21st century is a practice and discipline of change and activism. It feels like that frustrating thing similar to when in school the teacher would be reading a book and the N word came up. Everybody then turned around to look at you because you were the only Black person in the classroom. It made you feel isolated. Now at the university as well, we’re reading these texts that have racist undertones and are extremely outdated in the way that they refer to people of colour and the way they refer to women. You feel unable to say anything because the response from white lecturers and students is usually, ‘Well we can’t white-wash history, it’s important to learn’. And I’m like, ‘Okay; history is important to learn so we don’t make the same mistakes, but when it becomes the centre of everything that we’re learning, are we actually moving forward or are we still just centring racists?’ 

At Goldsmiths, the board itself is racist. I hate them. They have perpetually and consistently proven that they don’t care about Black students. First of all, the town hall used to be a place where they would trade enslaved people, now they’ve turned it into a place where they have classes. Then in 2019, there was an incident of racism that took place on campus and the university did nothing; in fact, I think they went to the extreme of almost suing a bunch of predominantly Black students that were occupying the town hall in response to Goldsmiths complete lack of care or acknowledgement of the situation. So then they came out with a kind of manifesto of ways in which the university board is gonna try to be better to students of colour. But I don’t believe they’ll do any better. And furthermore, statistics from last year showed that nearly 50 per cent or just over 50 per cent of BIPoC felt unsafe on campus. I doubt that much has changed in a year. So yeah, fuck Goldsmiths. The university literally pedals itself as this progressive, artistic, liberal university. That’s its public ethos, but in its actual practice it’s the complete opposite. If anybody wants to believe that lie, then I’m here to tell you that that is wrong; that is false; it is a lie. 

How do you think the BLM movement and the publicity of the events following the murder of George Floyd have affected the mental health of Black people? How has it affected you?

I feel broken. I think it’s so detrimental to the mental health of Black people to consistently see people that look like us being brutalised by the state, and it then being shared on every social media platform for months on end. It can feel suffocating. We’re left with this feeling of exhaustion, of hopelessness, but also anger and resentment. On the one hand it spurs me on to continue doing work but at the same time when you carry that around with you it can tear you apart from the inside. I think a lot of Black people are feeling empty and are almost numb toward this topic and this discussion. It’s debilitating really. 

For me, one thing that I find difficult is trying my hardest not to become desensitised and to give myself a break; but then to still have the motivation to come back into it just as strong, so that I can support the people around me who are also fighting. 

Every time things like this happen in terms of George Floyd’s death, when you have to actually acknowledge the video, when you finally watch it – I didn’t watch it – you have to reckon with your Blackness all over again. My Blackness is such a huge part of who I am, but it also makes me more inclined to receive violence. You have to grapple with that. You have to tell yourself, ‘I do still love myself fiercely; I do still love my Blackness fiercely; I am still worthy; I am still somebody that deserves to be protected, even if the media and the state would say that I’m not.’ 

Liza wears Comme Des Garcons Girl

There are two pandemics going on; one of them is coronavirus and the other one is racism. Racism hasn’t stopped or taken a break during this time, it’s in fact been exacerbated… We either die from racism or we die from the virus.

What part can white and non-Black PoC’s play in contributing to systemic change?

I think THE most important thing that white people and non-Black people can do is educate themselves first and foremost. Make sure that you are acutely aware of how you and your identity intersects or affects other people who have a different race and identity. It’s so important to acknowledge intersectionality and to acknowledge your own privileges and how your unconscious behaviours are riddled with bias and affect other people. 

Furthering on from that it’s making sure that you assert that information in situations where racism occurs. I think one of the most difficult things, especially with this generation, is how we might have loads of white friends who are not racist and acknowledge their privilege and work in their life to be actively anti-racist, but then those white people don’t then go and speak to their parents about it or speak to their other white friends or their grandparents or their bosses and call them out. Unfortunately, white people don’t tend to listen to Black people when we talk about our experiences of racism. Often we are gaslit, told that our experiences aren’t real, or that they’re not as bad as we think. In those situations, it’s so important for white people to check other white people. When it’s time to step up and utilise your privilege for good I feel like people get scared; of course, you would when you’re fighting something like racism, but it’s so, so important for white and non-Black people to assert their privilege in spaces where it’s going to actively help Black people.

Some white or non-Black people might not wanna hear this but if you go for a job and there’s a Black person there that is more suited for the job and you acknowledge that, give up your job. Give up your job and give it to a Black person. And I know people hear that and think, ‘oh my god!’ but that’s the practical reality of being anti-racist sometimes. So often white people or non-Black people get just a little bit too comfortable in attending a protest and that being it, but there have to be consequences. 

Over the past five months, the discussion about BLM seems to have faded out quite a bit since the initial protests across the globe. But what impact have you seen the march have so far, and what do you think we can do to make sure the fire doesn’t die out?

I think the impact that the marches have had has been to continuously remind people that Black Lives Matter. Even though the turn out hasn’t been as high as the 7th of June, we’re still stopping traffic; we’re still going into public shopping centres and giving speeches; people are still reminded and that’s how we can keep the fire going. It’s understanding that doing work online is important but doing active work on the ground is even more important. People who genuinely care about systemic racism are never going to stop caring; they’re never going to clock out of the conversation. 

Concretely, how do you plan to keep activism in your life over the years?

I think the main thing is continuing to involve myself with the community and being a part of the organisation I’m with now, All Black Lives Bristol, but then continuing to work with other brass roots organisations in Bristol and across the country. Then just continuing to be present for myself because preservation is extremely important and part of preservation is self-care. One of the next best things I can do is create support systems specifically for Black women, to make sure that I’m taking care of the Black people in my life. Shouting and screaming in the street with a megaphone is important, signing petitions is important, but what’s even more important is me being alive and active for other Black people. 

Bilal has helped to organize seven additional protests in association with All Black Lives Bristol. Their next event will be a virtual candle vigil held on the 27th of November at 8pm GMT. 

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