“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Those were US man George Floyd’s final words last month, a white police officer’s knee on his neck.

Those three words - just 13 letters – have travelled the world over, growing to a crescendo that has been heard in the White House, in Downing Street and in countless parliaments across the world.

And now those words have been heard in Swindon too. A crowd of hundreds shouted them as they marched down Commercial Road to gather in Wharf Green.

They shouted the words loudly because George Floyd died quietly, after calling for his mother. And the crowd shouted “black lives matter”. Because they do.

But as they chanted the words there were other voices that sought to shout – and shut – them down.

Swindon Advertiser:

Protesters march down Commercial Road on Saturday Picture: DAVE COX

Spend any time as a reporter and you’ll know the internet is a fairly horrible place. Social media is like a pond: teeming with life, but with murky depths where the scavengers and predators lie in wait.

But even a newsroom stocked with reporters well-used to the social media bullies and trolls was shocked by some of the comments reacting to a well-organised protest that aimed to raise what for thousands of people in our town is a daily problem: racism.

“Not really that impressive,” replied one Twitter troll after seeing footage of demonstrators kneeling as an act of commemoration for George Floyd. “When I tell my dog to sit it sits because it’s a dumb ass. Not because I am an amazing master.” Another, whose Twitter profile boasts of being a history buff, said: “Morons marching and morons bending their knees.” On Instagram, one user posted: “It looks like a Jahova [sic] Witness freaks [sic] cult meeting to me except as usual no one is listening to their brainwashing rubbish.”

Swindon Advertiser:

Composite picture of replies to a tweet shared to the Swindon Adver feed Picture: TWITTER

Over on Facebook, hundreds of people commented beneath a video on the Adver’s page of organisers speaking to protesters before the march down Commercial Road.

The comments ranged from the supportive, to the gently critical to the downright bizarre.

One woman slurred: “Shut up black woman.” She went on to post no fewer than 138 thumbs down emojis in nine comments, 10 crying cat face emojis, four thumbs up characters and – inexplicably – 19 v-sign emojis.

Swindon Advertiser:

Composite of replies to an Adver live feed of the protest on Facebook Picture: FACEBOOK/ADVER

“The police should be clearing this and arresting people that won’t move !! It’s also about time WHITE people stood up for racism against them !!” wrote one woman.

Another felt only capital letters were appropriate. “WOULD THEY PROTEST IF HE WAS A PAEDOPHILE AND RAPIST?” he asked. “NO COURSE NOT, THIS HAS GONE ON LONG ENOUGH NOW!!”

Another man penned: “Another racist protest by black people.” Challenged by others, he countered: “If it wasn’t a racial protest it would be ALM [All Lives Matters] not BLM [Black Lives Matters].”

Swindon Advertiser:

Composite of replies to an Adver live feed of the protest on Facebook Picture: FACEBOOK/ADVER

A similar argument was advanced by scores of others. “All lives matter” one said. A reply read: “They don’t. In this world of equality you can’t say that because you will be called a privileged white racist by the bigots.”

Do all lives matter? Of course they do, we say.

But the fact that everybody’s life matters does not mean it is racist to say that black lives matter.

It’s not racist to point out perceived injustices. Nor is it racist to call for change – to ensure that you are treated the same as anyone else in this town.


Speaking to those on the march, the injustices were raw.

For some it was splits within the family. One man, 32, told an Adver reporter his grandmother had turned her back on her black grandson before he was born: “Before I’ve taken my first breath I was already hated. How can all lives matter when my life doesn’t matter.”

A teenager spoke of her eyes being opened to racism when she noticed she was being followed around a store by a security guard. A man, 18, told of the names he had been called by school bullies. A 17-year-old girl said she and her mum worried about her brother, living in London: “It’s a fear that a black mother has.”

On older woman, 25, talked of being unable to find make up that matched her complexion – almost in the same breath as difficulties she faced on public transport.

Is it racist to say these things are wrong? No. Is it racist to want to raise them as concerns? No.

Proportionally, black people are more likely to die in police custody. In the 10 years to 2018/19 black people accounted for eight per cent of deaths – but three per cent of the population. (BBC report based on this IOPC report).

Proportionally, black people are also more likely to be stopped and searched by Wiltshire Police. In the third quarter of 2019/20, black, Asian and ethnic minority people were 1.98 times more likely to be stopped by the county’s cops. Black people were 3.75 times more likely to be stopped.

And proportionally people from ethnic minorities are more likely to die from coronavirus.