It Feels Like There is No Right Way to Protest
Written by Fatima Serghini
A personal essay about what it means to me to see people protest for my rights.
Photo credit: Wallpaper Access
I grew up in a poor West London Council estate, a fifteen-minute walk from Grenfell Tower. I didn’t know how poor I was until I got older. My childhood was filled with Filipino, Somali, Ethiopian, Kurdish, Russian, Pakistani, Nigerian, and Jamaican dinners from the families in my neighbourhood. The estate was as colourful as Michaela Coel's Chewing Gum.
I remember lining up in the rain at secondary school waiting for my lunchtime food token for free school meals; there were a lot of us. Half of my break would be spent lining up with my year group. My friends who had a few quid given to them by their parents would have their lunch right away and enjoy a full lunch break while I waited to be called up to receive my token.
When Marcus Rashford shed light on the appalling government policy for stopping free school meals during the 2020 school holidays, I was horrified, but not surprised.
Then following England’s defeat at the Euro 2020 final (played in July 2021), Rashford was criticised for spending too much time on politics and not enough time on the game. So, to those critics I want to ask, when is the right time to protest? Should Rashford have waited until after the championship to stand up for what he believes in? And how should we protest? If he is not allowed to take the knee before a match, how should he stand up for Black lives?
When we marched for BLM during Covid there was outrage among the public and politicians. So, when should we peacefully protest for black lives? After the pandemic? And just ignore the relentless denial of our right to be heard?
When the privileged say to the underprivileged, “That is not the correct approach,” how do you think that makes us feel? Belittling our judgement when it’s you who can’t see a world that is different from yours.
Recently my friend from Palestine urged her friends living in the West to attend the protests happening in their countries calling for the end of Israeli occupation. When we marched during the pandemic, the backlash continued. If we cannot march for what the UN has described as “a high level of civilian fatalities and injuries as well as the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure,” then when can we march? How do we make our voices heard?
New York City
I remember as a child learning about WWII and the persecution of the Jews. I lost weeks of sleep. I couldn't believe there could exist a body of people, a force, a leader, who could inflict such horrific atrocities on a religious group. In my teens, I learned Roma (Gypsies), Black people, LGBT people, people with disabilities, and many more marginalised groups were also persecuted in terrifying numbers.
In 2017, Trump announced a travel ban, also famously known as the Muslim ban. I’m no politician, but I quickly realised that Trump and his supporters did not want people like me entering the country. Footage of American Muslim citizens being held at the border was filling news and social media feeds, confusion swept across the entire country. And, oh my gosh, there I was, living and working in New York City, living out my best Carrie Bradshaw and Rachel Green dreams as a Muslim woman.
That same week, I sat on a panel for a women's health magazine to discuss body positivity. The only two people of colour were me and a journalist in the audience. One of the questions asked of the panel was, “How do you wake up in the morning and not worry about your body image?” When my turn came round to answer I said, “I don’t have time, I’m a Muslim woman living in Trump’s America.”
Later that night I went back to my apartment bemused and a bit shocked. I never thought I would freely and willingly live in a country where the head of state would literally try to "ban" Muslim people. I naively thought this type of thing wouldn't happen to me. This was America. AMERICA. And what a sad penny-dropping moment that was. When I mentioned my revelation to my Muslim American friends, they laughed and comforted me.
When my local masjid organised a peaceful protest in Washington Park, we prayed Jummah prayer. The local Jewish community circled us, holding hands as we prayed, to protect us. The solidarity was profoundly moving.
A close friend of mine at the time was dismayed at why Kaepernick would take the knee, risk his career, and upset the fans. It made sense to me, he arrived at his job that day and could not stand for the anthem because of what was happening to his community.
When I was confronted with xenophobia at work, I temporarily broke down. That same friend told me to keep a low profile. She had seen BPOC stand up for themselves and not get booked. “It’s not the right way,” they said.
Islamophobia exists in Britain too. It’s just more subtle and, most of the time, I manage to ignore it. But the vitriol unleashed by those missed penalties at the Euro 2020 revealed the most egregious racism. And let's not forget the policing taken too far at the Sarah Everard vigil in March 2021.
So, who has the right to tell me what to protest? Or when? Or how?