UCL Debates: The #BlackLivesMatter Movement

UCL Debates: The #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Pi Media summarises the public debate on the motion ‘This House believes that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been ineffective at improving race relations.’

On Monday 17th of October, UCLU Debating Society held its first public debate of the year on the motion ‘This House believes that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been ineffective at improving race relations.’

The #BlackLivesMatter movement began in 2013 following the death of 17 year-old Travyon Martin, who was killed by a police officer named George Zimmerman, in Florida. Zimmerman was subsequently acquitted of murder and thus the movement was sparked to fight against the lack of justice. Police officers targeting and using excessive force against African Americans is a growing trend and the debate was intended to address the impact of the BLM movement on race relations since its conception within the United States, as well as the United Kingdom.

Before the debate began, the result of the audience vote was 23 in favor of the motion, 35 against, and 26 abstained.

First to the floor, in proposition was Daniel Berman, a very experienced debater originally from Boston, he is completing a PhD in International History at LSE. Daniel opens by highlighting that proposition is not denying the existence of racism in the United States. American history is plagued with issues surrounding attempts at successful integration of minorities into society, as have are the histories of many other nations. He argues that cultural and ethnic assimilation has been successful within some societies, and seems to also imply that other ethnicities have more successfully integrated with American society than African Americans.

He continues to explain that many police officers in the US are encouraged to make bookings which leads officers to target people whose arrests and convictions are less likely to be thrown into question. African Americans, as a minority group, are by default less protected by the legal system, he argues, as legislation and legislators spawn out of a political system that does not act as a mediator, but rather reflects the values of the majority. With it’s loud and forceful protests, he argues that the BLM movement is making demands and seemingly ordering anyone who is listening to empathize and agree. This approach by default places the unaffected majorities in opposition as said majorities automatically feel the legitimacy of the current state of things is being challenged. This prevents the merit of the message being prioritized.

First to speak in opposition is Zita Holbourne. Zita is an award-winning activist and campaigner, who works with many organizations aimed at improving race relations in Britain. She opens by arguing that the BLM movement has sent across the globe the message that people of African descent will speak out for their rights and refuse to remain silent while their loved ones suffer and are killed at the hands of racist systems and institutions.

She goes on to emphasise that visibility is essential and, because the movement has gained substantial media attention, this issue is now being forcibly documented, and this key. Her main message is a reminder that race equality does not yet exist, neither in the US nor in Britain, and thankfully young people are willing to fight for their rights, even if they shouldn’t have to. In her closing speech she said that people of color and 32 times more likely to be stopped in the street by police, and parents have to actively warn their teenagers against the targeting they will be subjected to by the police, which is unfathomable.

Second to speak in proposition was UCL’s own Surya Kumaravel. Surya is the current president of UCLU Debating Society, an accomplished debater, and a finalist lawyer. Surya re-situates the debate by pointing out that proposition and opposition both want the same thing. Both accept that racism is an extremely important issue that needs solving, but disagree on the best way to eradicate the problem.

He argues that the BLM movement is trying to reach two types of people. People who are unaware of the fact that racism is a prevalent issue, and people who think the BLM movement is mostly attacking and accusing people of non-African descent. He explains that the manner in which the movement attempts to make statements and demand change often compounds the problem because their interactions with the unaffected, or those responsible for perpetrating racism, are always confrontational. This approach creates hostility and encourages people to view the movement negatively from the outset. Protests that interfere with people’s every day lives are not going to command much sympathy. Confrontation does not breed collaboration, and collaboration is the only way to create a cohesive, integrated, non-racist society. This approach also compounds the problem as the people protesting are labelled violent and disruptive. This only serves as fuel to advocates of racism as it provides them with public and documented instances of said minorities engaging in disruptive activities.

Last to the floor, in opposition to the motion, was Marcia Rigg. Marcia campaigns in support of mental health issues and work to raise awareness of deaths in custody resulting from racism. She opens by asking the audience if all lives matter? Upon the majority agreeing, she then proclaims that then, by default, all lives matter. She reminds the audience that black people are being shot on the street and that our current institutions and systems accept this as normal. Her own brother was killed by police on the street. She gives a long list of names of people killed by the police in the UK, names no one has heard of, people whose deaths were not reported, nor labelled as the racist incidences that they were. It is clear from her passionate manner that the movement is taking the confrontational measures that it is because they see no other way. The system does not listen. They must force themselves to be heard. In her summary speech, she points out that we are now talking about these issues, and the BLM movement has very successfully achieved this.

Following the guest speakers, members of the audience were invited to give their own brief floor speeches which further colored the debate. One speaker in opposition mentioned that two warring gangs had come together to fight for the BLM movement, so the movement clearly has had tangible positive outcomes. The issue of prominent black people engaging in peaceful protests and subsequently being penalized for their actions was also raised, showing that peaceful protests in the name of racial equality are often ignore and met with hostility. Another mentioned that, despite not being of African descent but simply of color, he had been subjected to racial targeting by police officers in London.

After the debate ended, a vote was again taken to measure how opinion had been swayed by the discussion: 17 voted in favor of the motion, 35 against, and 30 abstained.

Overall, the debate made extremely clear that racism is still a significant issue within Western society. While the #BlackLivesMatter is successfully ensuring the issue is reported on and talked about, and hence is creating awareness, but much more must be done to establish what systems can be put in place to encourage the majority of society, in the UK, the US and beyond, to actively fight for equality.

This article includes summaries of arguments presented during the debate. The opinions presented should not however be taken to represent the personal views of the speakers. Often they do, but this is not always the case.

UCLU Debating Society holds public debates open to anyone every Monday. To find out more about the society and the debates each week, please visit their website at, or join the Facebook group at, UCLU Debating Society

Beatrix Willimont