Since the murder of George Floyd, people have taken to the streets across the world to protest against racist police brutality. This weekend we also saw a number of protests in the UK. Whilst there has been a large outpouring of support and sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement, there are some voices who seek to detract from the issues of systemic racism and police brutality by turning it into a conversation about the ‘respectability’ of political action.
Some Conservative MPs, for example, could be seen posting on social media condemning protests as “violent” and “shocking”. Videos from US Twitter circulated of people cleaning up graffiti from a bank building. It reminds of the #riotcleanup campaign after the London riots in 2011, where people organised for ‘community clean-ups’. This seeks to paint those protesting as outsiders in society whose actions are having a negative impact on their neighbourhoods.
It is almost as if those critical of protests think that, if we make sure the facades of our buildings are nice and clean, maybe these tensions in our communities will go away. But confrontations can’t be brushed aside with broomsticks. When we see protestors take to the street, we see a social conflict visualised. It is not an expression of something new, something that was triggered by just one particular event. Rather, it pushes into the open conflicts that have been brewing under the surface for much longer.
Most of the time, these conflicts are not immediately visible for those of us who enjoy certain privileges. A specific event that triggers mass protests is needed to elevate our consciousness. What we have to understand is that just because these conflicts are not immediately visible for us – as white people or middle-class people – it doesn’t mean they do not impact the everyday lives of others. Damage to private property is the worst thing that some people can imagine because an encounter with the police is not usually a question of life or death for them.
It is impossible to argue that police violence against black communities comes down to a few bad apples when it is so abundantly clear that the tree is rotten from its roots. The economic system on which our society is built, which determines our social relations, is at the core of it all. If we want to be true allies, it is time to lift the blinkers and understand the roles we play and the benefits we reap from a political system that upholds these structures.
It is not in the interest of those who benefit from the system to reveal these fundamental contradictions. That is why establishment media and politicians seek to distract from systemic critique. One tactic is to appeal to a general sense of ‘respectability’. Another is to appeal to protesters to articulate their demands through other means. Then there is an attempt to focus on ‘bad individuals’ rather than question the role and function of the police or the state. And lastly, if nothing else works, there is the smearing of protesters.
We can observe some of these mechanisms of distraction now around the Black Lives Matter protests. Some might question whether protesting is the sensible thing to do during a global pandemic. We see police officers or politicians like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take the knee like ordinary citizens, deflecting from their complicity.
Unfortunately, Labour is not immune to this either. During an LBC phone-in on Monday, Keir Starmer said that it was “completely wrong” for protesters to tear down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. He argued that, instead of direct action, activists should have tried to remove the statue “with consent”. The question of consent in this context throws up an important contradiction. There was never consent obtained from the black community to erect a monument to a man who is symbolic of so much pain and suffering. It implies that society accepts that black communities have to live in spaces that reproduce trauma, and still need to obtain consent from the oppressor to ease it. And that consent is rarely given. Locals have called for the removal of the statue for many years without success.
Whenever oppressed communities take to the street to make their voices heard, there is a ‘respectable citizen’ waiting around the corner who wants to sign them up to vote for a centre-left party. It is implied that it is the responsibility of the oppressed to vote and get rid of the likes of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. It is often the case that the majority of these communities did not vote for them in the first place. But somehow the ‘respectable citizen’, instead of interrogating why their peers propelled right-wing politicians into government, demands that the victims of oppression now correct that mistake.
This also obscures the fact that many centre-left parties have championed policies that have harmed oppressed communities. New Labour did not only have a shameful record on immigration and refugee policy, their ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ approach to criminal justice reform also increased police powers. Aside from dog-whistle rhetoric about ‘hoodies’ and ‘yobs’, Tony Blair blamed knife crime on ‘black culture’: he claimed ‘political correctness’ was responsible for a failure to understand that knife crime was not a general crime issue, but specific to young black people.
New Labour also brought in new stop-and-search powers via the Terrorism Act 2000. It saw a trebling of searches carried out, mainly affecting London’s Muslim community. The powers in the Act were later declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights. Even under the leadership of Labour left veteran Jeremy Corbyn, the party put pledges to increase police funding at the centre of its 2017 election campaign.
As time goes on, the mood in the mainstream may swing against Black Lives Matter activists. Over the weekend, we saw police charging their horses into protesters in Whitehall. If things escalate further, it is likely that the movement – rather than the police – will be portrayed as the agitator to erode support for their cause. As socialists, we must stand firm in our defence of them against police violence. We must not falter in our unconditional support of the movement’s demands.
In the meantime, Labour members who want to show solidarity with the movement are encouraged to donate money to bail funds that give financial support to those arrested. In the UK, Black Lives Matter is also looking for donations to support their work. Campaigns like United Families & Friends, Community Action on Prison Expansion and the Network for Police Monitoring are also worthwhile causes to support.