Global protests offer hope in time of fear
Why has the murder of George Floyd been the catalyst for an international radical wave of youth protests asks Andy Stowe?
Killings of black people by racist cops in the United States have been happening for decades and there has been an abundance of easily accessible video evidence around for many years. George Floyd was unknown to virtually all the protestors until they saw the video of his murder – and yet his was the death which, according to home secretary Priti Patel, led to more than 200 protests with more than 137,500 people taking part.
On top of the more than 700 protests in the United States there have been mobilisations in Scotland, Portugal, Ireland, Germany, Italy, France, Australia, Brazil and innumerable other places.
A global movement emerged virtually overnight across a planet which is locked down. It has many common features. It lacks a central leadership; people turned up with homemade placards; they are mostly young; they police themselves and usually insisting on face covering and trying to keep some social distance; their slogans often go beyond solidarity and opposition to racism; they are racially mixed.
In Bristol they threw a statue of a slave trader into the harbour provoking a major debate about the British state’s racist history and its extreme reluctance to tell the truth about it. Labour leader Keir Starmer essentially made the same points as the Tories when he said it was “completely wrong” to have trashed the effigy of Edward Colston and publicly rebuked Labour MP Barry Gardiner for attending a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Patel and Johnson also say people shouldn’t attend them.
Say what you want about the new Labour leadership, but it’s determined to resist following the zeitgeist. Dawn Butler was right to publicly criticise Starmer – as she was right to address a local BLM gathering on Saturday.
Bristol poet Vanessa Kisuule understands what happened. “Kids will write raps to that syncopated splash.” History was made and an example was set. A couple of days later statues of King Leopold, an imperialist butcher with the blood of millions on his hands, were defaced and brought down in Belgium.
The Trump effect
What seems to be happening is that across the world young people who’ve been cooped up in their homes during the pandemic lockdown have drawn pretty much the same political conclusions.
They see Donald Trump nearing the end of a presidential term which has mainstreamed racism and hatred of foreigners into the politics of the world’s largest imperial power. Young people in the British state have seen its equivalent in the pro-Brexit movement and virtually every country offers something similar. An economic future which was looking bleak before the pandemic now seems much bleaker as many of them will have lost their jobs, their plans for future education look fragile and they are being told that a huge depression is imminent.
Add to this the knowledge of an ecological disaster created by capitalism and they have a lot to be angry about. Lots of things are “completely wrong”, to borrow Starmer’s phrase, but throwing the statue of a man responsible for mass murder isn’t one of them.
In the United States Black Lives Matter has severely damaged Trump. The movement made the connection between the racism of American society and the staggeringly disproportionate death toll of Black Americans in the pandemic. By bringing hundreds of thousands onto the streets, in a way the Democrats would never dream of doing – Biden has suggested shooting demonstrators in the legs instead of the heart, thanks for nothing – it has transformed American politics, even inciting several very senior military figures to effectively side with them against Trump. These commanders, who refer back to the experience of the Vietnam War, know that they can’t do without their black troops, sailors and airmen. They can do without Trump.
The movement has begun putting forward element of a political programme. The idea of defunding local police forces and setting up new organisations which emphasise public safety rather than law enforcement has moved from the margins to mainstream debate. Racism in jobs and healthcare are now themes of major debate.
We are living through a period of resurgent and insurgent mass movements. Corbynism, Sanders, Extinction Rebellion, protests against Bolsonaro and the Chinese bureaucracy are all part of the same phenomenon. Ordinary people, led by new, unknown young activists are throwing down a challenge to a capitalist order that is offering them nothing but racism, ecological catastrophe and lifelong financial insecurity. Socialists, including those in the Labour Party, must come out loudly on their side and contribute to the victory of this movement which offers hope to humanity
I have a couple of comments:
Firstly, we need to consider the possibility that the Labour Party will not only completely miss the boat regarding the BLM mass movement, but that it will emerge diminished and shorn of a large layer of its most active members because of its attitude. The question is raised of what forms of permanent political organisation – if any – are going to emerge from the movement.
The second one is in answer to those who make excuses for the slavers, racists an imperialists whose effigies dot our cityscape. This is usually of the form that they just “reflected the attitudes of their times”. Well, I’ve news for them: the overwhelming majority of those involved in the slave trade opposed it (YouGov poll of Jamaican slaves on plantations, 1750). Same is true of the “colonial subjects”.