Today marks the first year anniversary of George Floyd’s death. A moment in history that gave birth to a surge of racial inequality protests. It shouldn’t take such a sickening event to bring racial injustice to the headlines and forefront of public discourse—but sadly, it does.
Sasha Johnson, a prominent back activist in the UK, is just another example of this. On 23 May 2021, she was shot in the head in Peckham, London and, as of 25 May, remains in hospital in critical condition. There is reason to believe that this wasn’t a racially motivated attack, however, the fact that this is even brought into question highlights the horrible reality of the racial injustice that still plagues this country. Here’s everything you need to know about the fearless black political campaigner who fought for a more equal country for us all.
Johnson studied a degree in social care from Oxford Brookes University, graduating first-class and self-identifying as “Oxford’s Black Panther.” And she lives up to the title—the 27-year-old mother has been invaluable to her community, volunteering for food insecurity initiatives and working in community support as a youth worker. She was also a prominent figure in a number of campaigns such as the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist, from the Oxford University campus.
Reported to be “at the forefront of many BLM protests,” Black Lives Matter UK called Johnson “a fearless political campaigner.” When faced with backlash from far-right counter-protesters, Johnson told The Guardian, “We’re painted as thugs when the real thugs are disguised as protecting those memorials. And when they’re drunk, they piss on those memorials.” Johnson has been the victim of “numerous death threats as a result of her activism” according to the political party she was involved with, Taking The Initiative Party. Yet still, she stands strong, bravely speaking out against racial inequality.
Johnson, along with fellow political activists, was involved in the founding stages of the Taking The Initiative Party—a party that supports the decentralised BLM movement but is unaffiliated with any Black Lives Matter organisations. Its website states the party was founded by people from “working-class backgrounds who felt, like many others across the country, that we had become politically homeless.” The political party is groundbreaking, as Johnson told supporters that the party “will be the first black-led political party in the UK.”
The activist also continued to fight for black lives on a political and grassroots level. She organised the Million People March in August 2020, an anti-racist demonstration in London. In March 2021, she co-signed a statement alleging the police deliberately targeted black protesters who participated in the 2020 BLM protests—warning specific individuals not to engage in the Kill the Bill protests to avoid being targeted.
Johnson was shot at a party on 23 May in Peckham, London—police were notified of the incident at 3 a.m. that night. As of writing this, Johnson remains in critical care for wounds to the head. Despite the numerous death threats, it is not believed this was a racially aggravated attack. According to the BBC, a friend reported Johnson was not the intended target of the shooting. Metropolitan Police have made a statement today saying men had “entered the garden of the property and discharged a firearm.”
We all wish Johnson a speedy recovery. Our thoughts are with her friends and family at this time. The death of a prominent political activist would be a loss, not just for the BLM movement, but for the nation as a whole. In a politically turbulent decade, where racial inequality runs rife, we need brave figures like Johnson now more than ever.
It has been just over two weeks since I attended my first peaceful protest in Hyde Park to show support for the black community in the light of George Floyd’s death. Although some media outlets were quick to depict them as violent, the protests I took part in were incredibly visceral and moving experiences, fostering no violence or aggression, only compassion and understanding felt by all of those who considered it their moral duty to be there. Now, as public demonstrations start slowing down, it’s important we carry on having discussion about systemic racism and injustice. Here’s where we should start.
The discussions regarding racism in the UK I’ve had prior to and in the wake of this global movement have been nothing short of eye-opening. Many people seem to be giving the impression that they are willing to do the work needed to educate themselves on this subject. The response we have seen across social media, in theory, suggest potential change as people are continuing to share useful resources and as books on institutional racism fly off the shelves. This is a start.
However, after speaking at length with a lot of my POC friends, I’ve noticed that while sharing articles and showing support online is important, it must not slip our minds that initiating the real-life conversations on how black people are treated in society is crucial. Listening to a podcast with your favourite celebrities discussing the topic is great, but are enough people going further in questioning their personal behaviours and deeply ingrained prejudices? Spoiler: probably not.
This process isn’t supposed to be easy. Accepting that you are part of a system and throughout your life have contributed consciously or subconsciously in promoting racial injustice is uncomfortable. These feelings and realisations are necessary to invoke a mindset which accepts responsibility and is committed to changing habitual beliefs.
I recall a conversation I had about a month ago with my friend Lutanga, who is both Zambian and English. I had asked him his thoughts on what he thinks white people need to be aware of: “Friends either fear what to say, so they don’t speak their mind, or it goes the other way where they feel too comfortable and think they can say whatever they want or do whatever they want because they have a black friend. Being black or mixed-race has now been qualified as ‘cool’ by some but there are so many everyday racist scenarios that people don’t understand.”
“People make assumptions like ‘oh you’re black, you must be good at this’ or ‘you’re black, you must be not very good at this’. People need to understand that they can’t just say one thing if they’re going to act the opposite of what they actually mean. You might be all buddy-buddy with me until you go home to your parents and then you start making different comments,” he added.
I asked him a question that had been on my mind for some time, one which I think many people will resonate with. How can someone who undoubtedly benefits from white privilege initiate and explore the topic of racism without seeming disrespectful or inauthentic?
“It’s really just knowledge, learn what is acceptable to say and what isn’t so that you understand the boundary and never have to cross it. Understand that mixed-race people come from two cultures; just because I have white attributes that doesn’t mean I’m not black at all. There is no need to assume that everything you’re going to say might offend us, it’s the way you go about saying it. If you’re defensive, I’m gonna be defensive. People only think stereotypes are true through a lack of understanding. If you have a black friend or a friend from another culture, ask loads of questions, in the correct way.”
That’s exactly why alongside signing petitions, educating yourself on the history of white supremacy and attending protests, one of the most useful resources available to us right now might just be our voices. By both speaking up when you hear a racist comment, having constructive conversations and being confident in confronting people’s views, you might be able to further change. As a placard at the protest rightfully stated; understanding that black lives matter more than your white friends’ feelings.
I had to explain to my best friend of ten year’s mum that racism is far more of an issue in the UK than she believed it to be—this is an example of the work that needs to be done behind closed doors. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen by itself. The excuse of ignorance in different generations is not a valid one. It is in these moments which are not shared on Instagram that our dedication to this movement is truly challenged as we must push aside the presence of our ego in order to rip the roots of systemic racism from under the ground.
Are you willing to take part or will you watch from the sidelines?