22 May 2022

‘Racism is not an American issue, it exists in Derry’, says organiser of local Black Lives Matter rally

Campaigner calls for more action to tackle the problem

Lilian Seenoi-Barr

Lilian Seenoi-Barr speaking at the weekend rally in Derry.

A woman who supports migrants living in Derry has spoken of the 'systematic racism' that exists in Northern Ireland and claimed that ‘silence at this time is criminal’.

Director of Programmes at North West Migrant’s Forum (NWMF), Lilian Seenoi-Barr, claimed that racism is not a 'distant enemy, but one that exists in Derry which must be challenged immediately'.

She said that to realise that change, will mean overhauling society from top to bottom.

On a community level, Mrs Seenoi-Barr believes people must have 'tough conversations around the dinner table' and confront racism when they see or hear it.

She said the video of George Floyd being killed by a US police officer provoked emotions in people from BAME communities in Derry about their own experiences of racism.

NWMF provides advice and support services to BAME communities living in the city.

The group aims to promote diversity and good community relations and runs youth clubs.

NWMF organised the Black Lives Matters rally in Derry on Saturday.

Political leaders and police had appealed for the protest to be cancelled due to public safety concerns over the Coronavirus pandemic.

Mrs Seenoi-Barr told the Derry News that there was ‘great demand’ from within BAME communities to express their feelings.

Meetings were held to discuss how the event could go ahead safely with public health at the forefront of their minds.

“We wanted people to feel comfortable about attending a public rally, we gave advice about social distancing, to come with your own PPE, but if you couldn’t access any we had plenty,” she said.

“It was a collective community response to what happened, and our community wanted to raise awareness of what is happening here, and make clear that this is not just an American issue.

“It’s an issue that also affects us here in the North, here in this city, so let’s not be side-tracked by people who say this is an American issue or ‘all life matters’.

“Absolutely, all life matters but the truth is that black lives are in danger, it’s like a house on fire.

“It’s like ignoring the fire that is burning in someone’s house and yours is not burning but you say ‘all lives matter’.”

Prior to Saturday’s event, the police called to Mrs Seenoi-Barr’s home where, she said, a caution was issued for ‘incitement and encouragement’ of an illegal rally.

“How can the right to hold a peaceful protest and the freedom of expression, which is a fundamental human right, be an illegal gathering,” she said.

“How was it that the event held prior to that on Friday wasn’t illegal? How is that when everyone went to beaches, where hundreds of people gathered, not illegal?

“Even if it was not organised those people pre-meditated going to the beach.”

The rally faced opposition from many people in the city who feel that during the current pandemic is not the right time to hold a march.

In response, Mrs Seenoi-Barr,said: “There is no right time to fight a pandemic, you fight the pandemic when it exists.

“I accept the coronavirus pandemic is the biggest health crisis this country has ever faced in this generation and it is posing a risk to each and every one of us.

“But what I would like to say is that racism is a health pandemic that has been in existence for centuries, it is deeply enshrined in our society and it is right for us to respond to racism.

“Because in our communities, there is no bigger threat than the other, coronavirus is killing our people, so is racism.”

In 2018, Mrs Seenoi-Barr told the Derry News that migrant children and their parents were being subjected to racist abuse in the city.

She claimed that Saturday’s rally proves that it still exists.

“The overwhelming text messages that I’m receiving from parents who say that the event made their children feel like they have support because over the years they have been attacked, racially abused in school and the schools are not helping.

“They felt that was their moment and now they see that the community stands behind them.

“People who were not able to come out of their houses. Parents have told me, ‘my children don’t leave the bedroom after school, they don’t go anywhere because they’re petrified of being called names on the street or being racially bullied’.

“But when they heard that we were going to be protesting, 9-year-olds were getting their parents to come out because they felt they had hope.

“Those are people who have been traumatised, living with the pain of racism and injustices that exist within our society.

“Let’s not kid ourselves that racism is only an American issue, it is here, and the event on Saturday demonstrated that.”

She said the frustration and anger of migrants who have felt the ‘profound racial inequalities’ that exist in this country made them come out.

“And honestly, I would be failing in my job as someone entrusted by those people to represent them, support them, and provide them a platform, if I did not respond to their cause.

“At the moment the wrong thing to say is to say nothing, and the wrong thing to do is to do nothing.

“Silence in this time is criminal,” Mrs Barr added.

The number of people living in Derry from BAME communities is unknown because there is no ethnic monitoring in Northern Ireland, which Mrs Barr said is part of ‘systematic racism’.

“Racism is not only about a man being killed on camera.

“It is also the fact that we cannot access services, the fact that we are told we are very few in this community and maybe that is why we have no representation.

“It is the unconscious biases that exist within the education system, the housing system and the civil service were there is only 0.3% representation.

“We have a majority of people who work in the NHS but how many of them are decision makers. They are entrusted with lives but are not entrusted with making decisions.”

Hate crime legislation that exists is not fit for purpose, Mrs Barr believes, and should be brought in line with that in England and Wales.

She said that the education system must be reformed so that the curriculum includes racism, equality, diversity and inclusion.

“Knowledge is our weapon, and it is also our protection,” she added.

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