Black Lives Matter protest, 7 June. Photo: Lucy Nichols Black Lives Matter protest, 7 June. Photo: Lucy Nichols

Johnson’s attempt to demonise protesters in Bristol reveals his true colours, argues Lucy Nichols

Yesterday, protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of the slave master Edward Colston and threw it into Bristol docks. The fact that this act of rebellion against Britain’s imperial past has caused so much controversy, and is being used as an excuse to brand protesters as ‘violent thugs’ tells you everything you need to know about racism in Britain.

From the get-go, the right have been hopping on every possible opportunity to criticise the Black Lives Matter movement. At first, the protests let the media completely forget about the government’s awful response to the Coronavirus. Now any second wave can be blamed on protesters rather than the delayed lockdown, early reopening of schools or televised VE Day conga lines (which the government welcomed).

This week, we are using the protesters’ hatred of slavery to attack them. Yes, we are now finding a way to blur the lines of right and wrong on the issue of slavery. Some very weak attempts to paint Colston as a troubled philanthropist have been made, though in reality he was a member of the elite who grew fabulously rich off the backs of slaves stolen from their native land. The toppling of Colston marks the end of a years-long campaign in Bristol to stop commemorating slavers, and has been cause for massive celebration around the country.

As we probably could have predicted, the government views this act of rebellion as a disgusting afront on some of the ideological standpoints Conservatives hold so dear; private property, authority and ignoring human rights abuses. Instead of agreeing that slavery was quite bad and shouldn’t be celebrated with massive bronze statues, the government is hijacking the fantastic work of Bristolians and labelling them as ‘thugs’ for destroying the effigy of a mass murderer.

People have a right to protest peacefully & while observing social distancing but they have no right to attack the police. These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery – and they are a betrayal of the cause they purport to serve. Those responsible will be held to account.

— Boris Johnson #StayAlert (@BorisJohnson) June 7, 2020

According to Johnson, black people demanding an end to murderous state racism is no more than ‘thuggery’.  This alone is revealing.

The original Thugs were a group of professional thieves who operated in India from the 14th-19th Centuries, before they were halted by the mighty British Empire – this is where the idea that a ‘thug’ is part of an organised criminal collective comes from. The word is now almost exclusively used to describe young black men, and often implies some sort of criminal activity. It has historically been used to describe black people protesting for basic human rights. The term was frequently used to describe those who took to the streets after the murder of Mark Duggan in 2011, or those who protested after the murder of Freddie Grey in Baltimore in 2015.

Labelling protests as ‘thuggery’ is a political choice from Johnson. It suggests that the very legitimate anger held by black people in this country (or by protesters in general) is no more than disobedience and criminality. He is reducing black protesters to caricatures: they are nothing more than narrow-minded, violent members of some sort of criminal underclass that do not deserve to be listened to, or even respected as righteously enraged citizens. Calling black people thugs is just another method of dehumanising them and downplaying their struggle.

Johnson is reinforcing the now widespread idea that there are good protesters and bad protesters. Peaceful protesters are reluctantly accepted, but anything that does not fall into this vague category is a betrayal of ‘the cause [it] purports to serve’.

The reality is that the Black Lives Matter protests have been almost entirely non-violent; the only reported violence has been at the hands of the Metropolitan police, who have repeatedly kettled protesters and even charged them with horses.

The ruling class, for very obvious reasons, does not want the public to protest. The government is now unleashing every possible tactic to try and put an end to the nationwide demonstrations. They will continue to threaten protesters with legal action and aggressive police forces (and horses). They will continue with their attempts to pin a second wave of coronavirus on the protests, and they will continue to peddle racism as a way of dividing protesters into ‘good’ and ‘bad’: ‘thugs’ and ‘peaceful protesters’.

Despite this, the aim of the movement is unambiguous. We must put an end to the horrific racism of the British state, that pervades even our memory of our violent history. It is unlikely that the Black Lives Matter movement will be hindered by the disapproval of the government, but it is crucial that protesters see through the government’s petty attempts to divide and conquer.

More protests are expected over the coming week. There is a planned protest in Hyde Park this Saturday, watch out for #BLMLDN on social media for more updates.

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.