"How George Floyd's murder turned me into an accidental activist"

Today marks two years since George Floyd's murder by the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin. As we mark the tragic anniversary, Imarn Ayton writes about the Black Lives Matter movement that followed and how she became an accidental activist as a result.

(Image credit: Misan Harriman)

Words by Imarn Ayton

Unless you were living in a cave in May 2020, you would have seen the video of the gruesome cold blooded murder of George Floyd circulating on social media and across news channels. Thousands of people took to the streets in support of anti-racism and race equality under the Banner of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The day I received the video of George Floyd’s Murder, I cried like a baby!

As a Black person born in the UK I have always had the sense of being an "other" in spite of the fact that my mum was born here and my grandparents arrived in the fifties to help "build back" Britain after the devastating second World War.

Although I did not have to deal with overt forms of racism frequently, I was subjected to another form of racism on a daily basis. One which felt more psychological, maddening and discreet. Insults disguised as compliments; racial prejudice disguised as flattery. It was only as I got older that I knew to call it by its real name – Covert racism.

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As a young black adult, I knew racial prejudice was found everywhere, from schools, workplaces to Institutions like the police, but I, like many, was not aware of ‘Institutionalised Racism’. It was only as I got older and was exposed to the Stephen Lawrence case that I learned about this form of racism. Its definition really hit home when George Floyd was horrendously murdered.

His murder galvanised communities and businesses/corporations alike and resulted in an outpouring of collective grief along with an increased awareness of racism and discrimination. But the real driving force were the protests that were held across the world as a result of his murder.

As protests broke out in America, I was stuck at home unable to continue as a drama and debating teacher due to lockdown. I was in a place in my life where I felt somewhat lost and confused about my life and decided to focus my time and energy working on my personal development and Spirituality. In truth, I was searching for meaning and purpose.

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When I received the video of George Floyd I felt sick. I couldn't stop crying. I remember feeling like my entire race had just been portrayed as worthless. I sank into a dark depression and the following day I decided to: get some air, shake off my mood, take a walk.

As I walked downPeckham high street, I noticed a large crowd walking towards me, chanting, "Black Lives Matter". A voice in my head said, “jump over these road works and join this protest”. Instinctively, I did, jumped over the roadworks and joined the protest. Little did I know that one decision would lead to an amazing sequence of events.

(Image credit: Misan Harriman)

I was told about a forthcoming protest due to be held on the 31st of May in Trafalgar Square and so I decided to go along. (This was the first Big BLM protest in London). When I arrived, the energy was electric with thousands of people chanting. Eager to see what was happening, I stood on a pillar to see where the speakers/organisers were and suddenly the entire crowd stopped and looked straight back at me. Suddenly I felt a tap on my ankle and a woman handed me a large megaphone and then swiftly disappeared into the crowds. I never saw her again. As the crowd stared at me waiting in anticipation, I had a decision to make. I could get off of the pillar, run after the woman and give her back her megaphone or I could use it? I chose the latter. I had no plan, I was not prepared and completely out of my depths however I began to shout, "Black Lives Matter" and the crowd in unison roared back at me - "Black Lives Matter". That was the first protest I accidentally lead and it wasn’t the last.

A few days later, megaphone in hand, I attended another protest in Hyde Park (Wednesday 3rd of June), organised by some of the women I had met at the Peckham one. Very few organisers had megaphones so I was delighted to be of some use. Purely by chance I found myself at the front of the protest as the organisers had got lost in the burgeoning crowds. It was at this point that I found myself accidentally leading the protest. As we arrived at Parliament Square, (all eyes on me and the megaphone,) I made an impassioned speech about Institutionalised Racism outside The Houses of Parliament.

Mid-way through my off the cuff speech, I noticed someone confidently walking towards me, making their way through the crowd. Suddenly I looked to my left and John Boyega (Star Wars movie star and South London native) was stood next to me shoulder to shoulder, listening to me speak. The crowd roared, cameras began to furiously click and journalists flew towards us. John Boyega made a rousing speech, we hugged and then off he went disappearing into the crowd.

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The day I became an official anti-racism Activist and an organiser of the Black Lives Matter Protests was when I organised my first protest on Saturday 6th June 2020. It was absolutely magnificent and a whopping 20,000 people were in attendance, (largest BLM protest of 2020 UK). As I left home that morning, little did I know that within a matter of hours I would make a speech in front of mega pop icon Madonna (who later added me to her Insta Story), meet her family, dance with them in the middle of the protest and lead them on the March. Yes I did speak to her and no I’m not telling you what we spoke about.

I later found out a photographer took my photo on the 31st of May when I stood on that fateful pillar, a photo that ended up on the Instagram Page of Vogue's Editor Edward Enninful. This led to me being featured in the Activism September Edition of British Vogue 2020.

(Image credit: Misan Harriman)

Not only was my journey unexpectedly amazing, but it was also spiritual and by far the most salient part of my personal development. As much as I grew tremendously as a person, there were also many pitfalls. As I continued to organise BLM protests throughout the summer of 2020, trying to collaborate with other groups was no easy task! The BLM movement in the UK consists of several ideologies. Just like UK politics you have those that are on the right, those in the centre, and you have those like me, who are on the left and believe in reforming institutions. This was not always welcomed by those who held more right-leaning BLM views. Unfortunately since the 2020 protests, the debate about racism and BLM became increasingly more polarised and has left a legacy of mistrust and tribalism in its wake.

Since the Black Lives Matter Movement of 2020: racists continue to steadily flock to unregulated platforms online and Politicians and the media now use ‘racism’ as click bait in their divisive culture-wars, which have fostered a climate of ‘racism denying/gaslighting’ and anti-woke vitriol. Priti Patel has permanently lifted restrictions on police stop and search powers (an already contentious issue due to the disproportionate use against the Black and Brown community) and will be allowing police volunteers to use tasers. Meanwhile the UK government continues to perpetuate covert racism through discriminatory asylum policies.

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The continued refusal to accept the fact that racism comes in many forms is at the heart of the "Culture Wars" which deliberately sets out to conflate and confuse the complexities of racism. The only way to counter this is to ensure that we have a much broader understanding of racism and how it manifests. Simply hiring more black people or reading a book or two isn’t going to cut it.

I decided to form the Black Reformist Movement (BRM) in July 2020. I felt that there was insufficient emphasis on Institutionalised racism and covert racism and its impact on the Black Community and the UK as a whole. BRM collaboratively works with organisations, Schools and Sixth form Colleges and educates people about the various forms of racism and how they manifest within society. Racial prejudice is firmly rooted within our society and the sooner we all accept that the better.

Today I still cant believe I popped out for a walk to get some toothpaste and it culminated in me being featured in some of the biggest British magazines, Debating on live news/Breakfast TV and becoming an official Anti-racism Activist.

I think one of the greatest lessons I’ve learnt during my time as an Activist, is to refuse to let others (who are not Black or Brown) spoon feed their definition of racism to us.

Which reminds me of the following quote: “You are not responsible for your first thought, society is! You are however responsible for your second and the action that comes afterwards!”

Imarn Ayton

Imarn is a writer, presenter and activist from South London who came to prominence during a Black Lives Matter protest in May 2020. She went on to organise several protests including one in London with 20,000 people on Saturday 6th June.

Ayton has become a motivational speaker and diversity thought leader. Images of her during the protests captured by British Vogue photographer (Misan Harriman) have been featured in media across the world. She has written for British Vogue, UK GQ and The Face magazine.