UK charges pro-Palestine protester behind divisive ‘coconut’ placard

Marieha Hussain, 37, has been charged with a racially aggravated public order offence after mocking PM Rishi Sunak and ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

Demonstrators join a rally to support the people of Gaza, in central London August 9, 2014. Israel launched more than 30 aerial attacks in Gaza on Saturday, killing five Palestinians, and militants fired rockets at Israel as the conflict entered a second month, defying international efforts to negotiate an agreement for an extended ceasefire. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT)
Thousands have regularly taken to London's streets to demonstrate against Israel's war on Gaza since October 7 [File: Luke MacGregor/Reuters]

This article contains references to racialised language that some readers may find distressing.

On November 11, 37-year-old teacher Marieha Hussain joined thousands of pro-Palestine protesters in London to call for an end to Israel’s war in Gaza.

During the rally, she raised her placard depicting the faces of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, alongside coconuts under a tree on a beach.

Her message was clear, especially to Britons who have grown up in ethnic minority communities where the word is sometimes used.

Coconut is a divisive term which, as it is brown outside and white inside, suggests a Black or brown individual is akin to a traitor who has betrayed their heritage by indulging white opinion.

Some find it racist and offensive, while others believe it can be used in the spirit of free speech as a valid, albeit pejorative, critique.

At the time, Braverman, a prominent right-wing figure, had described pro-Palestine demonstrations in the UK as “hate marches”. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the march “disrespectful.” Both politicians have Indian ancestry.

Days later, the Metropolitan Police posted a photograph of Hussain and her placard to X on its official account, announcing she was being sought in relation to a hate crime. The post went viral.

Hussain was suddenly embroiled in a thorny debate around the use of the term in the context of hate crime laws often invoked in support of ethnic minority communities.

She has now been charged with a racially aggravated public order offence and is due in court next month, Al Jazeera can exclusively reveal.

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson confirmed the charge to Al Jazeera and said Hussain had been informed by post. Hussain said she has not received any written correspondence.

“I had no idea that our word, ‘coconut’, would be hijacked by a demographic that doesn’t use these words and then used against me to criminalise me,” Hussain told Al Jazeera in an interview before she was charged.

“Being a woman of colour and a Muslim coupled with my deep criticism of our government aiding and abetting a genocide against the Palestinian people, these factors combined have made me the perfect scapegoat for far-right ideologies.”

“I was under the belief, and still am, that I have full ownership of that word, as each culture has their own language used to hold to account people of ethnic origins who use their positions of power to push white supremacy ideals, narratives and policies.”

According to the Metropolitan Police, hate can be considered a crime if it is “motivated by hostility or prejudice” based on race, sexual orientation, disability, or transgenderism.

The definition emphasises that someone does not need to “personally perceive” the incident for it to be seen as hate-related.

Until the recent fallout, many seemed unaware that the use of “coconut” is considered a hate crime. Not all public uses of the word have led to prosecution.

“There is an entire history of terms such as ‘coconut’ used as a means of politically critiquing those who internalise the narratives of white supremacy in undermining communities they traditionally hail from,” said Asim Qureshi, research director at CAGE, a UK-based campaign group.

“South African satirist Lesego Tlhabi created the character of Coconut Kelz as a white woman trapped inside a Black woman’s body specifically to critique a specific institutionalised racism that has become normalised.”

But others believe the term amounts to a racial slur.

‘No way to make a political argument’

Sunder Katwala, head of the British Future think tank, said in November, that the word is “deplorable” and “no way to make a political argument”.

“It is unlawful racist abuse, that can be prosecuted and has been prosecuted.

“There are a million ways to criticise Sunak or Braverman on their language or conduct that don’t use racial slurs, nor depend on their protected characteristics,” he posted on X, drawing hundreds of fiery replies.

Idrees Ahmed, an author and magazine editor, responded, saying coconut is part of “intra-POC humour”.

“There is no power dynamic involved which would make it racist … It’s actually meant to mock people who align themselves with the prevailing power dynamic to punch down,” Ahmed posted.

Hussain’s case, while prominent, is not the first of its kind.

In 2010, a Black councillor in Bristol was found guilty of racial harassment after calling an Asian political opponent a coconut during a debate.

“These intra-communal terms are not designed to be polite, they are designed to protect the community, hold to account and demand better behaviour,” said Nels Abbey, broadcaster and author of: Think Like A White Man – A Satirical Guide to Conquering the World, While Black.

“The purpose of this language is often to caution against or highlight behaviours or attitudes that mirrors the threat posed to the collective by yesteryear’s oppressor.”

The case against Hussain comes as the UK grapples with racial tensions that sometimes involve politicians.

Earlier this year, a Black man was acquitted of hate crime charges after posting a raccoon emoji on X in September 2022 to Ben Obese-Jecty, a prospective Conservative legislator, who is of mixed heritage. The raccoon emoji is associated with a highly offensive racist word, but some argue it is another intra-communal insult among Black and Asian people to describe those who pander to white supremacist agendas.

In March, the Guardian newspaper reported that the biggest donor to the governing, right-wing Conservative Party had told colleagues in 2019 that Diane Abbott, a veteran politician, made him “want to hate all Black women”.

And in recent months, community frictions have risen as the war in Gaza rages, with growing reports of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

“It is interesting when it comes to protests against the war in Gaza, every placard and word is highlighted and closely scrutinised,” said Zarif Khan, a British criminal barrister for more than 20 years, of the case against Hussein. “The question has to be asked: Is it really the word which is offensive?”

Source: Al Jazeera