It all started with toothpaste. In the days after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25 2020, Imarn Ayton, a 29-year-old actor and model from South London, went out to her local shop to buy toothpaste.
As she ventured from her home in Peckham, where she’s lived all her life, she didn’t know that she was about to become swept up in her first ever protest that was taking place in solidarity for Black Lives Matter (BLM) in the streets where she’d grown up, and that it would change the course of her life.
A week later, as BLM-focussed protests took place across the country, Imarn would be making speeches alongside Star Wars’ John Boyega and leading Madonna and her family through the streets of London, marching for Black equality.
So how did Imarn, a drama teacher and graduate of the Brit School, go on to lead crowds of 20,000 protesting people, speaking passionately about inequality and institutionalised racism, while images of her, fist clenched, megaphone in hand went viral around the world? And why would she then go on to distance herself from the very movement she had begun marching for?
On May 31 2020, London’s Trafalgar Square hosted the first, big BLM-inspired protest. Having met the organisers of the Peckham protest she’d joined just days before, Imarn had heard about this even bigger protest and wanted to make sure she was there.
Not only was she there, but she decided she needed to find out who and where the organisers were: ‘I stood on a pillar and everyone was chanting George Floyd’s name,’ she recalls. ‘I was chanting along with everyone and, as I’m doing it, someone walks through the crowd, taps me on my ankle and says, “Here you go” and hands me this megaphone.’ The crowds slowly began to turn towards Imarn who, with her flash of peroxide blonde hair, stood several feet above everyone else.
It was at that moment that something clicked: ‘This was exactly what was going through my mind: you now have two options – this random woman has passed you a megaphone and walked away. Do you get off the pillar, run after her and give her back the megaphone? Or do you stand up straight and use this megaphone? And I chose the latter, it was as simple as that. That one decision changed my life,’ she says, the emotion of the experience still raw after five months.
She ended up leading the crowds through the streets of London, and felt like she was part of something far bigger: ‘I remember thinking… three days before I’d been in my house, very lonely by myself watching the killing of George Floyd and then sitting in that depression…to go from loneliness to then standing in front of 20,000 people is very surreal.’
What struck her most in the early days of the protests, was how many different types of people were marching, coming to show their support against racism and police brutality. ‘It felt like the whole world was my family. I understand unity among the same types of people, but when there is unity among different types of people, that’s when you know you’ve made progress.’
Her impromptu leadership that day would soon grow to be more official, as she became one of the main organisers of the summer’s protests, using her training as an actor to stand in front of the crowds: ‘When you go to the Brits school, which is predominantly white, as a Black woman who has grown up in working class Peckham, you have to understand how to speak to different types of people,’ Imarn explains. ‘It’s a combination of being authentically you and representing your culture, but then being able to understand that you need to connect with different types of people.’
One of these people happened to be Madonna. ‘I had just finished a speech and someone in front of me asks, "Is that Madonna?" And in my head, I'm thinking, “No, don't be silly". I then look around to find it is Madonna.’
Imarn introduced herself and Madonna asked her to repeat her speech which had revolved around the following mantra: ‘Institutionalised Racism drives Poverty, Poverty drives crime and crime drives violence’. She then led Madonna and her family on the march and found herself on websites and front pages across the world.
‘LET’S BURN DOWN INSTITUTIONAL RACISM’
‘I am not an ignorant Black woman…if I was to be mugged, raped or burgled, the first people I would call would be the police. We are not here to condemn the police. We are here to condemn the ones that oppress us and we are here to condemn the ones who are racist…’
After six weeks of protesting, Imarn started to realise, like so many movements before, that not everyone had the same ideals or the same ways to achieve shared goals. It became clear to her that the BLM-focussed protests she was part of were made up of people who had different ideas about change, and how to achieve it. Some believed in the abolition of larger institutions, such as defunding the police and tearing down historic statues linked to racism. While other factions were more concerned with reformation, working with the government and leaders to change structures and institutions from within to achieve equality.
Imarn started to feel uneasy about calls from some protesters to burn things down; that approach didn’t sit well with her.
‘I wasn’t there to burn things down, I hadn’t come to get a criminal record…I was there to express how I feel about inequality,’ Imarn says, explaining that as some protestors wanted to set parts of London on fire, she adopted the phrase ‘Let’s burn down institutional racism’ as one of her chants.
After a summer spent out on the streets in protest, this divided notion of what to do next came to a head, especially as so many people began to recognise her as a face of the movement and started asking her outright: ‘What happens next?’ ‘At this point, having organised the whole of June’s protests, my stance was always very pragmatic in comparison to other’s that were more emotional.
‘My pragmatism led me to focus on law and legislation – if we live in the UK, we are governed by law then we should probably start talking about laws. If we’re going to talk about all the Black people who have died in police brutality, if we’re going to talk about Black inequality, let’s talk law because the government is going to understand that. Boris Johnson is going to understand that. What he’s not going to understand is “F*ck Boris”. He’s not going to connect with us or communicate with us if that’s what we continue shouting on the streets.’
A SPLIT FROM BLM UK
Something Imarn hasn’t spoken about until now has been the extent to which she believes there’s been a lack of transparency on the part of BLM UK. According to Imarn, the coalition, which was founded in 2016 in response to police brutality, had nothing to do with organising the summer’s protests, despite many people believing they were the main force behind them.
‘BLM UK had nothing to do with the protests,’ she claims. ‘To this day I’ve never spoken to anyone there, no one knows who heads it up.’
A spokesperson from BLM UK told ELLE UK that they ‘did not call for the summer protests due to concerns over safety given Covid-19. We worked with the organisers of the demonstrations to provide legal and practical support.’
When Imarn first spoke out about BLM UK this summer – with claims that ‘they are abolitionists’ who ‘believe in the removal of prisons, smashing capitalism and abolishing the police’ - she says she subsequently felt stigmatised.
‘I received a lot of heat…because I wanted it to be known that all these people who had contributed [over] £1 million had contributed to an organisation that didn’t actually organise the protests,’ she says.
According to Imarn, people weren’t ready to hear anything bad being said about the organisation that had attracted over £1 million in fundraising as people showed solidarity and support for Black equality: ‘You see my face leading 20,000 people on a BLM-inspired protest and then I stand up and say they’re Marxists, they’re far left…people at the time weren’t ready to hear what I had to say.’
The actor maintains that, after organising a peaceful protest in Hyde Park on June 20, during which she called for a meeting with Boris Johnson and the implementation of reviews including the 2017 Lammy Review which looks into the treatment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in the criminal justice system, she was the subject of social media posts put out by BLM UK to their 70,000 followers criticising the protest.
‘They saw people were listening to me and I was saying the opposite to what they wanted, so that’s when they wanted to shut me down.’
The statement Imarn refers to said that: ‘We DO NOT believe in “leaders” and none of us claim to be the figurehead of what is meant to be an inclusive, non-hierarchical and grassroots movement. Self appointed “leaders” who work with or for the police and state are not here for the furthering of Black liberation, just opportunism and to depoliticise the movement. Be mindful, not all skinfolk is kinfolk. [sic]’ The posts have since been deleted and BLM UK declined to comment.
BLM UK has since been registered as a community benefit society under the name Black Liberation Movement UK. Academic Adam Elliott Cooper recently told the Guardian that Black Liberation Movement UK was the group’s new official name, but said it would continue to organise under the name BLM and in collaboration with the wider BLM movement.
Factions within movements are common throughout history. Most recently, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke spoke out about how far the movement had strayed from its original intentions of supporting survivors of sexual violence.
Imarn puts the divisions that she’s witnessed around BLM down to a lack of unity: ‘Unity is key in order to keep momentum and build a solid foundation,’ she says.
Her activism this summer has inspired her to found the Black Reformist Movement: ‘Focus has to be on law’ she says. ‘I felt like there had to be a moral response presented to government and that was how the BRM was born.’
While focussing on immediate and tangible change for Black equality and justice in the UK, the movement’s key aims are to raise awareness and enlighten the country on institutional racism. This, Imarn says, will be done through a combination of corporate learning and resource packs, training and career development workshops and school PSHE institutionalised racism workshops.
‘In regards to education, I think the two main priorities should be working on decreasing the exclusion rates within schools, as we know that this is one of the contributing factors for future knife crime and gang violence,’ explains Imarn. ‘I also believe that schools must include colonialism and imperialism within the curriculum. This will further explain why Britain looks the way that it does and gives more clarity as to why we have the stigmas, stereotypes that we do.’
But most importantly she says, it’s about acknowledging and understanding how institutional racism affects the education system: ‘Stereotypes, stigmas, unconscious racial bias and racial prejudice, all play apart within the schooling environment and shapes and moulds the minds of the young.’
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