“Racism is small dick energy” said numerous handmade signs on Sunday’s (7 June) Black Lives Matter demo outside the US embassy in London. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. I was happy to see Bristol activists pull down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston. But it’s pulling up racism that’s going to be hard. Its roots are deep.
What’s happened in the past ten days is a big but multilayered mass event, made harder to understand by the media’s incomprehension and the lack of interface between politicians and the people on the streets.
As I knelt amid a crowd of at least 30,000 Londoners on Sunday it appeared three things were happening simultaneously. The first is an expression of power and solidarity by black Britons. Though the London demos have been multi-ethnic, when seen as black community events they are unparalleled in size. The university students, the taxi drivers, the cleaners, the church congregations, the football teams, the DJs and the civil servants of black London were drawn together in one place. These were not “activists” – they were families and friends mobilised together.
The second aspect of these events is they are a political project. They reflect the desire of multi-ethnic urban communities to decisively roll back the racism they see pervading their everyday experience: they have had enough, and a response has been coming for years.
When I marched to Kennington police station in 1995, after the death in custody of Brian Douglas, there was a maximum of 2,000 of us: the family, black activists and the white left. That was the era before the MacPherson report on the police response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999), the Human Rights Act (1998), Ken Livingstone’s London mayoralty (2000-08), and the invention of social media – and before most people had heard of intersectionality.
Twenty-five years on, the children of that generation are more confident, articulate and educated, and armed with knowledge of the law, of history and with a coherent theory of oppression. And if you think they were only out in solidarity with George Floyd, read the signs.
“The UK is not innocent,” read one. “None of us are equal until all of us are equal,” declared another. “Europe is the mother tree of racism – America is the branch,” one man scrawled on a small bit of cardboard. Another read: “Boris get out of Trump’s bleached arsehole and condemn his constant racist bullshit.”
The politics of the Black Lives Matter movement stands far ahead of the politics of resistance I took part in during the 1990s, and even of the rage following the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011. This is a sophisticated political reform movement, not – as Boris Johnson would have it – a protest hijacked by “thuggery”. And the removal of the statue of the slave trader Robert Milligan from outside the Museum of London in Docklands, as well as the BBC pulling the sketch show Little Britain from its streaming services, show that it is a movement making progress.
If you want to know what’s driving the anger, it is – from the conversations I’ve had – police stop and search tactics, constant low-level structural racism, and racialised poverty and inequality; the social cleansing of once stable communities through gentrification, property speculation and Airbnb; the feeling that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people have borne the brunt of the Covid epidemic and that nobody cares; unresolved historic injustices such as that of Brian Douglas; and finally – as all politics becomes focused on 60 largely white towns in the north of England – the sense that things are about to go backwards.
And that leads to the third characteristic of this moment. It is a major challenge to the Labour Party. While white, middle-class, pro-Remain voters were slamming the door in Labour activists’ faces during the European elections fiasco of May 2019, the BAME community remained rock-solid in its support. It was the same at the Peterborough by-election in June 2019 and at the December 2019 general election.
The black community, like everyone interested in politics, understands that there will not be a progressive government in this country unless Labour can take back its former northern heartlands. But the implicit question posed by the recent demonstrations was: “OK, but on what basis?”
Though it is understandable that many Labour MPs chose not to attend, or simply observed last weekend’s protests at a distance – on the grounds that the lockdown is still in force – their absence left a gaping hole in political leadership that will, unless this changes, be filled by others.
And there is an immediate problem. In Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, a Black Lives Matter (BLM) demo of around 300 people was confronted by a crowd of up to 150 white men who claimed they were “protecting the cenotaph”. They shouted racist abuse at the BLM protesters, with some throwing Nazi salutes and others urging the protesters to “go back to Africa”.
This Saturday (13 June), in response to a video rant by Tommy Robinson, far-right networks across Britain are planning similar, coordinated actions, focused around local war memorials and the Whitehall Cenotaph. “No White Guilt” is their slogan, while anonymous social media accounts abound with threats that they will “bring machetes”.
The immediate challenge this poses is for the authorities. If the Metropolitan Police continues its record of losing control of far-right marches – as it has done on every occasion Robinson’s supporters have hit Whitehall – the crisis will move to a new level. Unless there is an explicit call, now, for counter-demonstrators to stay away, then by Sunday morning the headlines could be a far-right wet dream.
For the British left this is a critical moment. The Democratic left in America plunged head first into the protest movement around George Floyd: perfectly mainstream liberal journalists were pepper-sprayed and battered in the course of truth-telling, and so did some city councillors and community leaders. That, in part, is because American progressives know they are in a culture war and are resigned to engaging in it.
But that’s not true here. Parts of the left have spent the months since Keir Starmer was elected leader attacking him for “losing the working-class base” through his social liberalism. Now he’s faced with attacks from the same corner for failing to support the destruction of the Colston statue.
We need to get serious – because moments like this have the power to dramatise and frame politics for years to come. Labour is a party based predominantly in multi-ethnic cities, composed of young, educated, socially liberal workers, and committed to anti-racism and anti-fascism. Around a million, older, white, working-class people switched from Labour to the Conservatives in December because they didn’t like its leader or its values.
Our strategic task is to convince them otherwise – but we will not do it by pandering to racism, or by ducking this moment and using coronavirus as an excuse. There must have been tens of thousands of Labour members on the streets this week but we were unorganised. As far as I could see, the Revolutionary Communist Group had a more visible public presence than either Labour or Momentum.
What the voters of the “Red Wall” have in common with the black populations of London and Bristol is powerlessness. Crafting a narrative to bridge the cultural divide is a task that eluded Jeremy Corbyn and has so far eluded Starmer.
But it’s possible. It has to be based on mutual respect and a shared understanding of social justice – what Starmer’s aide Claire Ainsley has called the “family, fairness, hard work and decency” agenda.
At this moment the networks of the right in Britain are spreading their fantasies of race war, using the imagery of the BLM protests to present the black population and their liberal allies as the Big Other. We can’t defeat this narrative by pretending it doesn’t exist. We need to state the arguments against it openly and publicly – and the job of politicians is to lead and coordinate that effort.
Racism in Britain is a lot more than “small dick energy”. It is the product of 350 years of colonial white supremacy, followed by 50 years of post-colonial economic power and military adventurism. Racism is woven into white people’s assumptions, just as the statues and plaques weave it into the fabric of our cities.
The far right – and their allies in the world of inflammatory radio talk shows and libertarian Twitter celebrities – spy an opportunity. They will frame the removal of statues and offensive TV shows, and any “take the knee” moments when the Premiership returns, as an attack on “our” culture.
We are past the point where the racist right can be defeated by counter-protests. We need a counter-movement and a counter-narrative that brings hope and pride to ex-industrial small towns, and which empowers the majority of white people who will look upon far-right gatherings such as that in Hoddesdon with disgust and shame.
The Covid-19 epidemic, which has brought about a rise in community connections and social solidarity, could still be the platform from which we mount this fightback – because a second wave and a second lockdown look likely. But to turn the potential into the actual the labour movement needs to get off Zoom and, in a legal and responsible way, back into the public space.