Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal analyses BLM movement in Britain and argues for centring the politics of abolition and anti-imperialist solidarity. This article was originally published on 30 June 2020.
In the weeks since the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis policemen was filmed and broadcast via social media around the world, protests and riots have spread across the US and globally. In the US, despite an onslaught from a highly militarised police force and a narrative of ‘outside agitators’ pushed by many politicians and media outlets, the protests continued to grow in determination and numbers. A movement which initially sprang up in major cities spread well beyond, reaching into even predominately white sections of rural or small-town America. This advance demonstrates the significant and continuing gains of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement since it emerged in 2013 in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, and its further growth in 2014 after the shooting of Mike Brown.
This time around the movement has already achieved significant ‘wins’, beginning with the arrest and subsequent charge of the police officers responsible for Floyd’s death. The Minneapolis City Council have since voted to disband the police department and invest in community-led responses and services instead. Similar conversations are now taking place in councils in other cities such as Seattle and Oakland, where the city school board has voted to abolish its school district police force. Questions of prison and police abolition are now being discussed around the country while the protests, combined with an ongoing crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, represent a huge threat to Trump’s leadership and impending re-election campaign. After the collapse of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which allowed the Democrats to settle on the incredibly weak Joe Biden as candidate, Trump’s victory seemed assured. Now in the face of plummeting popularity, widespread unrest, and more than 42 million newly unemployed since the beginning of the pandemic, his re-election looks less and less likely.
The sudden spread of the protests and the gains of the movement are the result of several factors. First is the Covid-19 pandemic itself, with anger against police brutality erupting at a time of a general crisis in which poverty and precarity is being amplified for millions of already disadvantaged and oppressed citizens. Second is Trump’s presidency itself, which inspires widespread contempt and allows the movement opportunity to rally popular anger behind it much more readily than in the days of the Obama presidency, which brought with it a liberal camouflage for police and state racism. The third element is the steady gains BLM has been able to make in popular consciousness in the years since it first erupted.
The filming and sharing of videos of police brutality and killings against black people has become an all too common sight in the media and on our social media timelines. But this time, against the current political and economic backdrop, the murder of George Floyd was enough to ignite a bigger uprising than we have previously witnessed. It remains to be seen what will happen next. The Democratic establishment are already encouraging people to channel their newly unleashed anger into the upcoming election, which would have disastrous consequences for the movement. Elsewhere, huge brands and corporations are predictably scrambling to show their ‘solidarity’, offering statements of support, and pledging to increase diversity in a bid to save and maximise their own profits. Rejecting these avenues for resistance, or potential solutions, allows the rebellion to continue to develop a deeper anti-capitalist focus. On an optimistic note, the labour movement and organised working class has begun to play a role in supporting the movement, beginning with bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York City who refused to use their vehicles for transporting protestors. Most recently on Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery, thousands of dockworkers in Oakland shut down the ports for eight hours and joined protests in support of BLM.
BLM in the British context
In Britain, weekly protests have been taking place around the country in over 150 locations. Solidarity marches and rallies have been held in even small towns and cities that have seen little political mobilisation in the past decade, from Torquay to Tunbridge Wells. In the major cities, the backdrop of Covid-19 has meant smaller protests have sprung up in local neighbourhoods and communities, rather than the usual choreography of centralised city centre demonstrations. This has opened up the possibility for organising which is rooted in localities, with discussions taking place that centre on local campaigns and potentially winnable gains around school curriculums, existing campaigns around housing and gentrification, etc. In Bristol, the statue of slave trader of Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into the river in a glorious moment of mass, collective, reclaiming of the public space. Whilst the media’s framing of the debate around statues has attempted to divert and disorientate the movement, it has also had a number of positive repercussions. At Oxford University, the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes is finally within victory, five years after it began, and elsewhere conversations about the need to confront colonial and imperial histories are finally being given attention. The numbers of people taking place across the country have been huge, with protests in London still attracting as many as 10,000 people each week.
However, there are also problems which hamper the fledgling BLM movement in Britain, many of which are clearly visible in the capital, where several groups have been calling separate protests. A seeming lack of coordination has meant there is also a lack of emerging leadership or direction. BLM UK, a collective of activists who initially founded the group after the first wave of BLM protests in the US, but who have been largely inactive for the past few years, have opted to not call protests due to the health risks posed by the pandemic. They have focused instead on providing legal advice and support, publicising the movement, and some of their members have provided pieces for the Guardian, Novara Media and other outlets. This group has also raised over £1 million in contributions, leading to inevitable questions about transparency and agenda for a group with no visible leadership or manifesto. Sensitivities around this are high due to accusations of misused and missing funds by various organisations in the US, and now demands are being made for openness from BLM UK. However, this group is both small and until recently, relatively dormant. They are, of course, likely to be overwhelmed by the sudden rush of publicity and donations and have promised to provide clarity around the redistribution of funds in due course once they have time to regroup and organise their efforts. Elsewhere London BLM (recently renamed Tribe Named Athari), a group seemingly set up by young activists, has been able to mobilise huge crowds, and Stand Up to Racism have also been involved in coordinating many of the local protests we have seen. Other groups, including Justice for Black Lives, have also sprung up or began to mobilise.
Although signs of unity and coordination between these groups are beginning to emerge ‘behind the scenes’, this disconnected organising has created challenges. BLM UK, the biggest of these groups in terms of potential reach, have adopted an approach of supporting a ‘non-hierarchical and grassroots movement’ and maintain that they do not believe in ‘leaders’. The group has opted to not call physical protests, at least for now, and this combined with their limited activities since the protests began, suggests that they are unlikely or hesitant to take up a more prominent role in cohering the movement and offering it a direction. By offering little in the way of leadership (the decision to not mobilise physically is understandable, even if people disagree with it, but online events or other activities could have been launched) leaves a vacuum, with the protests in London at times seeming directionless, or proceedings unclear.
The threat from the right
Some of these issues have come to a head in the past few weeks, beginning when fascist groups announced their intention to travel to London on the same date as a planned BLM march, supposedly to protect the sanctity of various statues. BLM groups cancelled their protests, or re-organised them in local areas, although it is hard to tell who was responsible for these decisions given the disparate nature of the protests being called. Influential figures such as Akala also used their platforms to urge people not to attend, BLM UK issued the same advice (despite not organising the protests themselves) and, after facing pressure and intimidation from the state, anti-fascist groups also cancelled their mobilisations. Despite Tommy Robinson calling off his own participation in the protest, roughly 2,000 fascists still descended on Parliament square, immediately engaging in violent confrontation with the police and attacking people of colour they encountered in the streets. A few hundred anti-fascists and mostly younger, black protesters gathered nearby, and were left at huge risk due to the lack of broader support. Although the anti-fascist numbers grew throughout the day, and they were eventually able to force the fascists into Waterloo Station, some people were attacked and injured.
Debates will continue about whether this was the right decision and we should be mindful of this. The concerns of the BLM protesters and organisers were completely valid — fears about how the media would represent demonstrators, and the still relatively new movement, fears around state repression and a police clampdown on mostly young black people, and fears that emphasis would be redirected to the question of statues, or violence, rather than issues of police brutality and systemic oppression. Despite these very valid concerns, the decision to cancel ultimately left those who did attend unsupported and exposed. Cancelling the protests at such short notice meant it was always inevitable that many would still attend, but without the broader numbers to support them, those who did go to central London were extremely vulnerable to both fascists and the police. Furthermore, the cancellation of the protests was framed by some as a success against the fascists because it allowed them to ‘embarrass themselves’ in front of the media or public. Relying on media narratives is a dangerous route to take anti-fascist politics: we know that the media will turn on and attempt to demonise any militant movement (as is now happening to BLM UK, which I will return to). We also know that many of these fascist groups are not craving short term legitimacy, but rather they are appealing to anti-establishment sentiment. Being seen running rampant and enacting violence against people of colour in central London will not necessarily be detrimental to their immediate organising and recruitment aims.
The demobilisation also led to a loss of momentum, visible at the following weekend’s London protests which were significantly smaller. There was confusion and discontent at the Hyde Park protest the following Saturday, with reformist elements seemingly in control, and speakers who chided protesters for anti-Boris chants and insisted on instead pushing demands to ‘implement the Lammy Review’. The confusion between groups resulted in multiple statements being put out in the following days by BLM UK and LDN BLM, denouncing these speakers and distancing themselves from the organisers of the protests. This confusion and inter-campaign conflict could have been avoided if these groups had made their own political stances clearer from the outset, offered speakers for the rallies, or made clearer the demands they wished to see pushed to the fore. This is especially unfortunate because BLM UK is made up of activists with excellent politics on imperialism, racism, and solidarity. The group is becoming more vocal on social media and generating the inevitable backlash as they articulate their own politics more clearly. This week, in light of Israel’s impending annexation of the West Bank, and Keir Starmer’s sacking of Rebecca Long Bailey, the group issued a series of tweets committing to solidarity with the Palestinian people and drawing vital links between the BLM movement and the struggles of other oppressed people. They have been roundly attacked and denounced for this, by those who would wish to see BLM limited to symbolic gestures, or to a single-issue awareness campaign. We must firmly defend the movement in light of these attacks and support them in their refusal to back down for putting the politics of solidarity absolutely at the heart of the movement. Similarly, another positive element of the protests is the way LGBT rights have been so prominently raised, with thousands of people taking to the streets this weekend under the banner of Black Trans Lives Matter. At a time when transphobia is rampant in Britain (and unfortunately in sections of the left) this is another central focus to support.
Furthering the BLM movement in Britain
Across and outside of London there is a positive picture, with local BLM groups springing up and conversations about how to build on the protests taking place. Several key cases have become central to demands for justice across the country. Many protests have highlighted the cases of Belly Mujinga, a London station worker who died of Covid-19 who, despite being in a high risk category, was still sent into frontline work by her employer and was subsequently spat on by a passenger. Calls for further review and action against her bosses have been central to many of the protests, combining the BLM movement with demands for justice in the Covid-19 crisis, and highlighting the disproportionate numbers in which people of colour are being killed during the pandemic. The case of Shukri Abdi, a young refugee whose death by drowning in 2019 was ruled an accident despite clear evidence that she was facing racist bullying, has also been taken up, with many marches organised around the anniversary of her death. In Scotland, the case of Sheku Bayou, who died after being restrained by the police, has been given a renewed profile, and an inquiry into his death now announced.
Where the BLM protests in the US can be understood as mass uprisings against the police, with the politics of abolition and defunding becoming widespread, such demands are still receiving only limited airtime in Britain. At some protests in London, the names of those killed by police in the US were prominent, but less attention was given to instances of police violence here. Many of the protests have been framed around solidarity with the US, with the movement yet to cohere around concrete demands and aims for the British context. We also have to reckon with a left which has, for the past five years, been largely organised in defence of a Corbyn-led Labour Party explicitly committed to more police funding. Questions of abolition, already relatively sidelined by the left, thus struggled even more to get a hearing or make progress in this environment. We must reckon with this if we wish to push and further these demands now. Of course we are also now faced with a Labour leadership, under Starmer, which is openly dismissing the movement (as a mere ‘moment’) and denouncing the call to defund the police. Where the political establishment was paying lip service to BLM only weeks ago, we are now seeing a swift lurch to the right and a growing backlash, with Starmer giving legitimacy to racists and those who wish to either limit or destroy the movement. This further illustrates the dangers of trying to appeal to the media and political establishment to present BLM in a positive light, and underscores the need for the left to fiercely defence it’s radical aims and slogans.
Despite the risk of losing momentum there is still huge anger over police killings and racism, and with thousands of people becoming radicalised in this moment, or at the very least open to hearing more anti-racist politics. A focus that could give the movement local/national specificity, as well as the potential to broaden the scope of people’s anti-racist sentiment is needed. One set of concrete demands to cohere around is an end to stop and search, section 60, and other draconian police powers. As a clear anti-police initiative, this could be raised and supported in the context of the massively disproportionate racist policing we see in Britain. Another avenue is to push for more workplace initiatives. In Liverpool, dockers stopped work in solidarity with the protests. This was an important act of solidarity but remains an isolated example here in Britain. We should be trying to push for similar actions wherever we can, at whatever level we can achieve. That the dockers stopped in solidarity over the murder of George Floyd also demonstrates the possibility, and need, to argue for workplace solidarity over deaths in British custody as well.
Another possible focus for drawing more concrete links with the British context would be to highlight the government’s sale of rubber bullets to the US and mounting a campaign against this. Such a focus would be valuable for several reasons. Firstly, it can bring anti-capitalism to the fore by drawing the interconnections between states, capital and oppression — crucial at a time when both reformist and black nationalist responses will be inevitably gaining traction, and many people are looking for political direction. Secondly, it allows the movement to create a link between BLM protests and a broader politics of global anti-racism and anti-imperialism, evident in the discussions about Palestinian solidarity mentioned earlier. The spread of a liberal discourse around identity and race (exemplified by the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo becoming a best-seller during the BLM protests) over the past few years has weakened people’s understanding of solidarity and led to some believing that individual reflective work is the most that we can aspire to achieve. This had mitigated against shedding light on how movements against racist state repression are globally linked. Focusing on an area which allows these questions to be elevated and for us to ‘connect the dots’ between British weapons manufacturing, the broader militarisation of police, and the way these weapons are exported to oppress people globally, can help to address some of these pitfalls.