'We've never been here': Veteran black British activists on George Floyd's death

Leila Hassan Howe at Black Lives Matter march last summer (left); Alex Pascall (right) Credit: Leila Hassan Howe/Alex Pascall/Twitter

By ITV News Multimedia Producer Wedaeli Chibelushi

Decades before the murder of George Floyd and last summer's Black Lives Matter protests, black Brits were campaigning in a UK civil rights movement.

In 1965, the Bristol Bus Boycott overturned a discriminatory hiring process and paved the way for the first Race Relations Act. In 1971, the trial of the Mangrove Nine saw the first judicial acknowledgement of racism in the police force.

Similar to these events, George Floyd's murder is deemed by many to have been a landmark moment for racial justice in the UK.

The death prompted statues to be pulled down, companies to overhaul diversity strategies and the government to commission a race report.

But for those who've contributed to decades of such landmark moments, have the changes made in the past year truly been significant?

"The level of debate about race and racism certainly has been raised in the UK," says 72-year-old Leila Hassan Howe.

"I mean, the discussion about the Rhodes statute in Oxford. That debate was going on in my time, but something happened, that you would actually pull down statues of slave owners."

In 1981, Ms Hassan Howe led an eight-hour, 20,000-strong protest through London. The protest was in response to the New Cross Fire, an blaze at a house party in which 13 black people died.

Many believed it was a racist arson attack (the area was known for far-right activity). No one was ever charged - a response interpreted as a societal indifference towards black Britons.

"Until now, I think black people felt they had to get on in society and therefore had an accommodation to racism. I think Back Lives Matter shattered through that," Ms Hassan Howe says.

Demonstrators outside an inquest into the deaths of the thirteen killed in the New Cross house fire. Credit: PA

To Alex Pascall, 84, George Floyd's death was significant, but "if we've come into the 20th century, why should we be talking about race as a British people?"

In 1974, Mr Pascall began presenting 'Black Londoners', a groundbreaking BBC Radio London show that ran for over a decade. He interviewed community figures alongside the likes of Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley.

Mr Pascall went on to co-found The Voice, Britain's first black newspaper, and has been awarded an OBE.

Despite continuing to push for black representation, Mr Pascall wasn't one of those who poured on to Britain's streets last summer.

He says: "In recent times, I asked myself, 'does protest really change anything? What am I going there for?'"

Muhammad Ali was one of many stars Alex Pascall interviewed on his 'Black Londoners' show. Credit: AP

Mr Pascall believes his work with trade unions and educational institutions is a better way for him to effect change.

Ms Hassan Howe, on the other hand, attended a BLM march last June. To her, the ability for organisers to promote protests via social media meant the numbers were "totally different" to the demonstrations of her past.

"The big standout for me though, was the number of white people there," she says.

"When we demonstrated throughout the early 70s to mid-80s, the only white people you got were left-wing organisations… there's now an acknowledgment by lots of young, white people that racism divides us."

One way of building on the BLM protests, she believes, is through education. Ms Hassan Howe taught as part of the community-built black supplementary school movement, which educated black children when parents felt institutional racism was at play.

Today, Ms Hassan Howe is in talks with younger black activists attempting to diversify the national curriculum.

"Do something about what's taught in schools - that's really important, but I think equally important is the number of young black boys who are being excluded," she says.

A protesting Leila Hassan Howe in Time Out in the 70s Credit: Time Out

To Mr Pascall, these issues have been raised because unlike other instances of black struggle, George Floyd's death was captured on camera.

He said: "When something is in your face, you cannot run away from it. The world knows that this man was killed by the knees of a policeman on his neck."

The fallout from the murder has also had a unique visibility, Ms Hassan Howe adds.

"The response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence can't compare to the international outcry of what happened to George Floyd and raising the issue of race," she says.

"We've never been here before."