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I felt treated like a criminal, says tearful BLM advocate

Protest organiser tells of her distress at police caution on night before rally


Upset: SDLP councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr

Upset: SDLP councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr

Upset: SDLP councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr

An organiser of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in Northern Ireland said she felt “attacked” by the PSNI after officers cautioned her at her home the night before a planned demonstration.

Lilian Seenoi-Barr, an SDLP councillor and one of the founders of the North West Migrants Forum, broke down in tears recalling the build-up to the protests on UTV’s ‘Up Close’ series.

The current affairs programme — entitled ‘Minority Report’ — takes an in-depth look at the experiences of minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland and the increase in hate crime.

UTV’s Alison Fleming also speaks to the PSNI, Junior Ministers Gary Middleton and Declan Kearney, and other bodies to find out what they are doing to combat racism in Northern Ireland.

In June 2020, 70 Covid-19 penalty notices were handed out at Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Belfast and Londonderry but no fines were issued at a loyalist ‘Protect our Monuments’ rally less than a week later.

The PSNI was heavily criticised for its handling of the BLM demonstrations, which were held as part of a global movement following the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in America.

Chief Constable Simon Byrne later apologised after the Police Ombudsman found the handling of the protests unfair and discriminatory.

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However, the watchdog added that this was “not intentional and not based on race or ethnicity”.

All fines were rescinded and the Public Prosecution Service decided against prosecuting anyone over alleged Covid-19 rule breaches.

After being cautioned by police the night before the protest in Londonderry, Ms Seenoi-Barr said she felt those who were “supposed to protect me are seeing me as a criminal”.

She fled her native Kenya in 2011 after her work rescuing girls as young as nine from marriage and female genital mutilation led to her life being threatened.

“I worked with the police in Kenya so I saw the police as a protector, somebody who will always be there to give you the support that you need if you are ever under attack,” an emotional Ms Seenoi-Barr said.

“But I felt attacked by the police when they turned up to my house on June 5 before the protest to caution me.

“I actually hate thinking about that because I have so much trust and I never doubted in my life that I would be treated differently by a force that is supposed to protect me.”

Ms Seenoi-Barr added that she does not “believe for a second” that the PSNI’s decision to hand out fines at the BLM protests was not driven by racism.

“The way they handled the Black Lives Matter, they can use the coronavirus legislation as an excuse as much as they want, but it wasn’t an excuse to treat us differently,” she said.

“If it was about Covid-19 every public gathering would have been treated the same way we were treated.

“It was the only protest that was criminalised.”

Superintendent Gerry McGrath said it has been “really difficult to hear” the experiences of those in migrant communities regarding BLM rallies.

“Particularly when they label me as an institutional racist officer who has criminalised individuals because they went out to protest against the horrific incident that happened in America in relation to George Floyd’s death and that was a police officer involved and later convicted for that incident,” he stated.

Superintendent McGrath felt the PSNI has come a long way since the BLM rallies.

Up Close: Minority Report, which airs at 8pm tomorrow on UTV, also speaks to former Miss Northern Ireland Susan Tan, Belfast Multicultural Association’s Muhammad Atif, Syrian refugee Khawla Alfajer and Adekanmi Abayomi, who left Nigeria eight years ago after receiving death threats for taking the government to court.

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