An Interview with Maia Thomas: The Activist Behind the Black Lives Matter Protest in Exeter
Online Editor, Maddie Baker, speaks to Maia Thomas, a Politics student at Exeter and the co-organiser of the Black Lives Matter Protest in Exeter – discussing the protest itself and her experiences.
Maia organised the protests despite ‘backlash, death threats and people saying that racism doesn’t really happen in Devon’. The protest began, like many of its Black Lives Matter counterparts across the UK, through the BLM Exeter Movement Facebook group that ‘exploded overnight’.
On the day of the protest itself, there were about a thousand attendees who gathered. Maia ‘never expected it to be that big…’ and admitted she ‘never knew that there were that many Black People in Exeter to be able to come.’ Prior to the protest, Maia had scheduled speakers to talk about their experiences of racism and discrimination in Devon, but found that more people than anticipated gained the strength to talk about their experiences to the crowd – with queues forming on the day. Through giving a platform to these first-hand experiences, Maia believes it is possible to educate the wider community about what racism is and why it affects Devon as much as anywhere else. It is true that people can be ‘close-minded’, but by speaking about daily life as a Person of Colour (P.O.C), the people who spoke out were able to demonstrate why Black Lives Matter is so necessary.
Another consideration that went into the protests was the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. They had a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) stand with hundreds of masks and gloves – supplemented by donations from LUSH and other sources. As well as providing PPE for those who did not have access to it, the organisers posted on the Facebook group that people needed to come to the protests with PPE if they had it. There were also signs that reminded people to maintain social distancing. By being aware and taking steps to reduce the risk of Coronavirus, Maia wanted to ensure that commentary on the Black Lives Matter protest could remain on racism – rather than the pandemic.
Devon Police, as well as Princesshay Security, were also on hand during the protests to assist with any safety risks. Even now, the Police have said they would assist with any further protests, as long as the organisers let them know the details of the event. The security forces involved made clear that they did not want to distract from the protests, but could provide escorts and keep the protests safe in Exeter – and in other parts of the county where Maia organised protests. Maia has also been invited to discuss her thoughts with the Police about race-related issues in Devon. The University meanwhile responded to Black Lives Matter on its website also.
The main motivation behind Maia organising the Black Lives Matter Protest in Exeter was that she ‘did not want people to go through the same things I have experienced and not feel they could have their voice heard.’
The Black Lives Matter Protest in nearby Bristol has received coverage for removing statue of slave-owner Edward Colston – as well as the counter-statue of protester Jen Reid being removed the day after it was put up on July 16. In regards to Sir Redvers Buller – an Army general – and his statue in Exeter, Maia said that the statue is less widely known and fought against than Colston’s in Bristol and, of the people she has spoken to, they were not offended by it. For Maia and those involved in the Black Lives Matter Protests in Exeter, there was a feeling that ‘If they replaced the statue, it wouldn’t change peoples’ attitudes in Devon, in general, and that is what the actual problem is. Even if you took down the statue, our lives would still be the same every day.’
The main motivation behind Maia organising the Black Lives Matter Protest in Exeter was that she ‘did not want people to go through the same things I have experienced and not feel they could have their voice heard.’ She also wanted to inform people about challenges she and her brother have faced growing up in the Devon area and knew that she could put her Instagram following to good use. Maia found that there was ‘no scope for minorities within the rules’ when she was at school – being told that her natural hair could not be worn in braids, despite this being ‘absolutely natural’. As a result, she feels strongly that ‘Devon needs to be educated on the issue’ and that it can be ‘brought to life’. She added that ‘Devon does have a close community, but if you’re not part of it, then you can’t feel that.’
Discussing Maia’s experiences at Exeter University, she has felt comfortable as a Politics student in terms of being treated equally by lecturers. But, an area of concern is that some spaces do not feel completely welcoming – which is because of students themselves, as much as anyone else. Maia was glad to see that the University have, as of now, taken a ‘hard line’ against racism which should highlight the action that will be taken against any future racist incidents in Exeter. At the same time, Maia has taken the decision to remove herself from any society involvement. She did not want to go through any comments that could be made and has decided to focus on her education.
Meanwhile, she does feel that her white friends have not had to think about that and it is a common part of the University experience for many. She does believe, however, that by making steps and encouraging people individually, societies could become more open. In regards to students making a difference, Maia said that students should keep educating themselves, but should also be sure to call people and your friends out – if and when they have said something that is racist. Summing this up, Maia added ‘Having open conversations, understanding difference is okay, not looking at people differently because they are different, and treating people the same are what we need to focus on.’
‘Having open conversations, understanding difference is okay, not looking at people differently because they are different, and treating people the same are what we need to focus on.’
Following the Unlearn Collective and its Open Letter, Maia was glad that the University had taken the decision to publicly publish its response for any student or staff member to read. Sometimes universities and other institutions, like schools, have responded only to individual students or not published the response for everyone to read. At the same time, she believes ‘It is worrying that it is has taken Black Lives Matter, this time around, for the University to say this.’ She added ‘At Exeter University, people know racism does exist, so it is a shame that it has taken this long for a response like this to be produced.’
Maia also said that there is an apparent diversity issue and that it is important to make an effort to firstly, ensure People of Colour feel welcome at the University and secondly, that there is greater representation of P.O.C in Exeter. Most importantly, with the response being publicly available, along with a list of tangible points that the University is working to put in place, it is possible for student and staff to check up on the University and see what stage the progress is at.
Over the coming year, Maia is keeping the Black Lives Matter Facebook group, with over three thousand members, active to ensure positive changes for Black People and People of Colour. She also appears on the Devon Discussion Podcast with Radio Exe to discuss Black Lives Matter and issues around Devon. Before graduating next year, Maia also wants to be part of the change at Exeter University. Beyond that, Maia is keen to get involved further than schools and speak with those in government across the country.