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'Sweden doesn't acknowledge that it has a huge problem with racism'

Friday June 5, 2020

Activist Aysha Jones shows her solidarity with the global Black Lives Matter movement. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Activist and artist Aysha Jones organised an online demonstration at the US Embassy in Stockholm last Tuesday together with the organisation Stop Afrophobia, Afro-Swedes Forum for Justice and the Afro-Swedes Association.

According to Jones, between 60,000 and 70,000 showed up – digitally rather than in person, due to the current coronavirus restrictions, by checking in at the embassy. Participants uploaded the illustration of clenched fist, accompanied by the text "Sweden in solidarity with Black Lives Matter".

The event had an estimated reach of over one million people. "I honestly don't think that a demonstration anywhere had this type of impact. It was the first ever digital Black Lives Matter protest, and it became huge," Jones told The Local.

"With the ongoing pandemic, it didn't seem like a good idea to organise an actual demonstration," Jones said. 

In Sweden there is a ban on all public gatherings over 50 people, because of the ongoing risk of the spread of the coronavirus.

Jones created a Facebook event only days before the Tuesday on which it took place. It was part of a wave of protests where hundreds of thousands of people across the world showed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, in response to the recent killing of black American George Floyd in police custody, the latest such victim in a series of many.

The event was also intended to shine a spotlight on racism here in Sweden.

"I wasn't inspired to organise this event as much as I was frustrated. I'm frustrated with the way the system works, with how black people are always targeted, not only in the US but also in Sweden and everywhere else. It was only the most recent happenings in America that made me tip over. Something has to be done, I thought. The world is just standing by passively," Jones said.

So how does a digital demonstration compare to a physical one – can it have a similar impact?

"Yes", she said. "I think it really can. The digital protest sparked something unforeseen. Even Wednesday's physical protests in Stockholm were inspired by the digital initiative [though these were not organised by Jones]. There's been such a big outreach, and we've received a lot of coverage, both from the media that usually cover these types of events, but also those who generally don't. We've been asked for comments by the Swedish mainstream media, and a range of international outlets. The initiative spread spontaneously to our Nordic neighbors, and even reached countries like Germany and Spain."

In-person protests on Wednesday, not organised by Jones, drew crowds of thousands despite the ban on large gatherings. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Jones also said that she thought the online protest was a way of getting people involved in the protest movement in an accessible way, even if a simple digital check-in might not in itself seem like a way of enacting change.

"The action in itself is extremely lazy, yes," Jones acknowledged. "But it is what comes afterwards that counts. Once you've been part of it, you have to continue to take the day. You have an obligation to speak up against racism or you risk being exposed as a hypocrite."

Everyone has a responsibility to put pressure on the government, on authorities, on big companies, Jones said. On everybody with the slightest power, in order for them to change discriminatory policies and to become more diverse. And this starts with recognising where the problems are.

"The biggest problem in Sweden is that the country doesn't acknowledge that it has a huge problem with racism. In certain respects Sweden is just a very hypocritical country. It wants to be the friend that everybody likes. But Sweden has in fact participated in slavery. Sweden portrays itself as anti-war yet sells a large amount of war-weapons," she noted.

Jones herself experiences racism every day. "The question is just how I face it in any given moment, and in which form it comes. Will it be the old lady next to me on the subway? Will it be the security guard who is supposed to protect me?"

She felt an overwhelming sense of gladness that such numbers of people participated in her digital demonstration and that it has started a conversation.

"But have we made any actual change yet?" she wondered. "I am not so certain. Maybe if you ask me the same question in a week from now. I really encourage our prime minister to speak up and ask our government: how are we going forward from here? Thousands of people in Sweden have sent a clear message: we're not okay with the situation as it is. We're not okay with racism."

Black Lives Matter Sweden, Jones said, will protest every Tuesday until they see some actual change. "The shape of the protests will vary, depending on our mood. Most activists and black people are exhausted. But we'll have some type of live broadcasting. We'll take it from there."

The protests are open to all who support the cause of anti-racism, and Jones also shared advice on how non-black people could best show their support.

"You can listen and participate by not taking over. You can allow space to others. You can help by not claiming space where you're not supposed to. You can allow yourself to be uncomfortable in situations where your brothers and sisters may not be able to be comfortable."


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