Growing up, Khady Gueye was one of just a handful of black pupils at her school in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. By the time she was a teenager, she was desperate to fit in and conform. And so when her nickname became “Nigs” – short for the N-word – Gueye didn’t challenge it.
Here, in the rural west of England, where she had been fed racist stereotypes of black people her whole life, she didn’t want to be labelled “the angry black girl” or the self-pitying minority who “couldn’t take a joke” or what was considered a “bit of light banter”.
And so it was, that on the last day of school where it is tradition for year 11s to scrawl goodbye messages on one another’s school shirts, Gueye took home a shirt covered with the N-word in giant block capital letters across the front. “Gonna Miss You Nigs” was written on the back next to jokes about golliwogs and messages of good luck.
Gueye was supposed to consider it an affectionate send-off; it was written by her own friends. It was 2012, the year Britain proudly celebrated its optimistic and diverse Olympic Games opening ceremony, or as Conservative MP Aidan Burley would call it, “multicultural crap”.
“I became complicit in allowing it to continue, by being ‘Ha ha! Good joke guys,’” says Gueye, flatly. “But when you grow up in an area that is so predominantly white and are already made to feel different, you just do your best to fit in. The ideal is don’t call out racism. Let it slide. You become so accustomed to it, it becomes your norm.”
Now 25 and on the verge of finishing her English degree at Manchester University, Gueye has become a local community organiser and is more visible than ever in the town where she was born and grew up.
“I don’t want my daughter to grow up with the same experience I did,” she says emphatically, over lunch at her local pub. “This is my home and it’s a lovely area to bring up a family in. I want my daughter to have a life where she is celebrated for who she is, not feel attacked or unwelcome because of her skin colour.”
But Gueye’s attempts to hold a small “celebration of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) culture” sparked a furious backlash that, one year on, still reverberates throughout the small Gloucestershire town of Lydney.
When they first spoke to the Observer last year, Gueye and her friend Eleni Eldridge-Tull, also 25 and a PhD student, were organising a Black Lives Matter event in Lydney due to take place on Sunday 20 June.
On 8 June, a day after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down in Bristol, the pair secured permission from the police and local and district councils to host an event – a celebration, not a protest – in the grounds of Bathurst Park, a site once owned by a family with direct involvement in the slave trade. “Language is coded and we didn’t want to fuel hostile sentiment by calling it a protest,” says Eldridge-Tull, recalling the drama that followed.
The country was in lockdown but hundreds of peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations had taken place in the days immediately following George Floyd’s murder, as more than 155,000 protesters gathered by word of mouth and using social media to protest against racial injustice.
But away from the big cities and the displays of solidarity in more diverse towns, Gueye and Eldridge-Tull were aware that conversation in rural areas required a different approach.
Still, on 10 June, an online petition was set up to stop the event going ahead on the grounds that it was unsafe and high risk in the middle of a pandemic. Organiser Natasha Saunders wrote: “A mass gathering is a slap in the face to people who have been tirelessly shielding themselves, the elderly and loved ones from this virus.”
Anger, tension and outright abuse boiled over online as a counter-petition to support the event was organised. It got twice the number of signatures, leading Saunders to say that hers was more valid by claiming “90% of [signatories] are from Lydney, can you say yours was?” Later, she would make Eldridge-Tull gasp by posting: “He couldn’t breathe, now we can’t speak”, in a reference to Floyd’s murder by a police officer.
In the Forest of Dean, where only 1.5% of the population is black, Asian or from an ethnic minority, there is a sense among some locals that racism doesn’t exist in the district.
“We’re a happy community, we don’t really have an issue with racism,” said one middle-aged man, who didn’t want his name published, as he nursed a pint outside a local pub. “Outsiders bring their problems, but there’s not a lot of them here,” he said, echoing in politer terms a point that was made repeatedly to the Observer last week.
Last year, Gueye and Eldridge-Tull spent hours patiently replying to comments online in an attempt to explain the event and reassure people about it, but still received threats. Hundreds of screenshots of the abuse have been shared with the Observer. A typical missive read: “Fuck off. Not everyone agrees with black lives. I can’t say what I want on here coz I’ll be reported for racism. But I would bring back black slavery.” Gueye was repeatedly told to go back to where she came from if she didn’t like it and that she would be responsible for bringing harm to Lydney residents.
The pair’s standard response to those with genuine concerns about mass gatherings in a health pandemic, during a lockdown, was to keep explaining that social distancing was being strictly adhered to – two-metre grids were hand-chalked by Gueye and Eldridge-Tull on the site – and that PPE was being provided to anyone who didn’t have any.
“I think it speaks volumes that BAME people are still willing to protest for their human rights even though they are disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” wrote Gueye. “Maybe this should highlight the severity of the inequality in our society”.
Tensions spiralled. By 11 June Lydney town council withdrew its support for the event, forcing it to be cancelled. A letter from the then mayor, Walter Leach, underlined its point three times that “All Lives Matter”, apparently unaware that it is a slogan malevolently used by the far right to denigrate anti-racism movements. A circus ensued. Councillor Zac Arnold resigned, objecting that the council had “ripped away the human right of everyone to peacefully protest”. Lydney town council faced an immediate backlash.
An emergency meeting was held for councillors, many of whom were also trustees of Bathurst Park. Eight votes were in favour of allowing the event to go ahead, with two abstentions and two against. The event was back on; deputy mayor Tess Tremlett resigned in protest. She told the Observer: “Residents were very frightened at the time. I was elected to be a mouthpiece for these residents and the event was simply unlawful at the time. There could be no gatherings of more than six people at the time and we should not have endorsed it.”
When asked if she accepted there were a lot of racist aspects to the abuse the organisers had endured, Tremlett replied: “I think some of the comments coming from supporters of the event were actually racist in themselves. They were called ‘white trash’, they were called Nazis and all sorts.”
But as anti-racist activists have spent the last year explaining, racism isn’t simply prejudice based on how one looks, but a system, much like capitalism, communism, and socialism, put in place by those in power around a specific set of ideas – in this case, racist ones.
It is useful to explain why it is possible for white people to experience individual prejudice and unpleasant behaviour simply based on the colour of their skin but why it is inaccurate to call that “racism”. Being white does not mean one is more likely to be criminalised by the police, or that one is more likely to work in lower-paid frontline work or that one is more likely to be exposed to and die of Covid as a result.
In Gloucestershire, for instance, police statistics show that being black means you are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than you would if you were white.
The numbers are blankly disproportionate; there are just over 5,000 black people resident in the county compared with 570,000 white people. Last year, Gloucestershire council published evidence that jobseekers from minority ethnic groups had to send an average of 60% more applications to receive the same level of interest as white candidates. It’s not a conversation that Lydney, like much of the country, appears to have much interest in yet.
Tremlett, who has two decades of experience working in community engagement, explained that her sole reason for opposing the event was to be lawful. “Racism is the biggest insult anyone can say to me and I was called a racist by Khady’s team, whoever they are.” Was being called a racist worse than the actual racism that Gueye was continually facing in her everyday life? At this, Tremlett began to cry.
”You don’t understand,” she said, explaining that her daughter had been to three Indian weddings, that her builder was black, and that she had run an equalities panel for years as a councillor. Her experience – being called a racist, being abused online – when she felt she was doing the right thing, understandably made her defensive and upset. But it’s a difficult position for Gueye and Eldridge-Tull to deal with. Especially as she described Gueye as “aggressive and confrontational”.
Last year, Tremlett took the matter of the Forest of Dean’s BLM movement to local Conservative MP Mark Harper, who raised the matter in the House of Commons.
On 17 June, Harper, who may be best known as the immigration minister responsible for sending vans encouraging illegal immigrants to “go home” around parts of London, appeared to encourage an online pile-on against Eldridge-Tull, who had a tenth of his 30,000 followers, and demanded she apologise to the local community for tweeting: “The reaction to the BLM protest in Lydney has brought to light so much support, but so much hate. I love where I live, but I’m ashamed of my neighbours, and ashamed to be part of a community that has so widely endorsed and exacerbated racial hatred.”
Counter-protesters said they would be attending Bathurst Park by the coachload. Despite being riddled with anxiety the night before, Gueye and Eldridge-Tull went ahead with their plans; in the end, their event was a calm and peaceful success attended by some 300 people of all ages, and no litter was left behind. People spoke about their experiences as minorities in the Forest of Dean. A black seven-year-old girl delivered a poem on stage. Everyone dispersed after about three hours.
The counter-protesters, all white and all male, numbered about 20. Later one of the men let Gueye and Eldridge-Tull know that they were followed home. He was reported to the police, “but it seems there is little they can do unless he actually came knocking on my door”, says Gueye. It is one of half a dozen reports she has made to the police in the last year for harassment and racial abuse.
Things didn’t die down. District councillor Di Martin said she was forced to quit her cabinet role after receiving abuse for speaking at the Lydney event. Arguments raged online. But Gueye and Eldridge-Tull were determined not to give up. Within weeks, they had set up a local equality commission to ensure that work would be done in the long term through projects with schools, local charities, the police and the council.
“We want tangible change,” says Gueye, “and doing that with our community happens at a grassroots level.” The organisation is funded for the next 18 months by independent foundation Thirty Percy. Earlier this month, Gueye and Eldridge-Tull ran for Labour in district and local council elections respectively, determined to make change through local policy. Neither won. “But we realise that if we want to make real, systemic change, we have to do it through policy,” said Gueye. “And that involves being part of the council to push for equality.”
Yet the racial justice debate became so sore locally that even now, a year later, interviewees bristle at the mention of BLM. Some become deeply uncomfortable and are unwilling to give voice to their feelings on the subject. Even those who declare themselves as anti-racist allies later withdraw their consent for being mentioned, for fear of “any negative association”. One woman messaged: “We are a positive [business] and positive people and have found our community to be the same”, as if discussion on achieving racial and social justice might not actually be a positive thing.
“The Forest of Dean is a strange place, stuck in its ways and – largely – quite tribal and old fashioned in its beliefs and actions,” says Zac Arnold, the councillor who resigned in support of the protest. “The fact that there was going to be a demonstration in town was more surprising than anything, a glimpse of hope in an otherwise completely disengaged and left-behind rural community.”
But it’s not all gloomy. There is still plenty of support and goodwill in the Forest of Dean for positive action on equality. People are largely kind to one another; community spirit is cited as one of the many positive factors by those asked about the best part of living there. Many say they are on a journey with what can be difficult and uncomfortable work.
When Gueye posted a picture of her school-leaver’s shirt on Instagram last year, one of her schoolfriends wrote that it was outrageous, and that she was impressed with everything Gueye was doing. “I was really happy she felt that but it was awkward,” says Gueye. “I messaged her back to say that she was one of the people who wrote those messages.” An embarrassed silence followed, but Gueye is hopeful and optimistic. “It’s still a positive sign.”
This content was originally published here.