Lindsey German on fighting oppression and the continuing Covid crisis
The everyday reality of racism which is part of life for millions of black Americans has been brought centre stage by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The brutal nature of his killing, filmed and watched with outrage by millions across the world, has triggered a mass movement of the sort not seen since the 1960s. It is motivated by this particular killing but also represents an explosive revolt against a system which time and again leads to vicious attacks on black people from police and racists alike, which sees them criminalised and incarcerated on a massive scale, and which decrees that their jobs, housing, education and conditions of life are among the worst.
The scale of the Black Lives Matter movement which has grown up following the killing of Floyd is simply astonishing. It would be in any time but during the coronavirus pandemic and when there are many restrictions on movement, the demonstrations are huge and the sentiment against this brutal police racism very widespread.
The movement in the US itself is massive, with protests in every state in the union. These protests are young, very mixed in terms of race, and working class. They represent a visceral revolt against everything Donald Trump stands for and against the priorities of US capitalism – the growing inequality, built-in racism, the systematic worsening of working conditions, and the callous disregard for human life which marks the response to coronavirus there.
This is also a worldwide movement. Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and the surrounding streets were crammed on Saturday, following huge demos in Paris, Amsterdam and many other capitals. Here in London, we have seen several central London demos numbering many tens of thousands, as well as lots of local ones. There have been protests in towns and cities right across Britain, on a scale that we haven’t seen since the anti-war movement in 2002/3.
This is a huge spontaneous movement which has erupted now not just because of its central cause – racism – but because it has taken place against a background of growing awareness of inequality on a range of issues, and of course against the background of the coronavirus crisis. This has highlighted a range of issues, including the disproportionate effect of the virus on BAME people, the role of essential workers such as hospital workers, cleaners and transport workers, many of whom also are from ethnic minorities, and the sense throughout the lockdown that there are one set of rules for the rich and another for the poor.
So the ugly reality of the George Floyd case is overlaid on a society already in crisis and with its divisions becoming ever more obvious. This is creating a movement overwhelmingly of the working class against racism, involving black and Asian people in huge numbers but also involving white people. One very important aspect of the current situation is that it comes at a time when working class people are also becoming more aware of their value and their power as a result of the virus.
The movement has already marked a turning point, and because there is a high level of political awareness within it, will not easily be satisfied. The demands put forward suggest fundamental change and that is not compatible with a system based on profit which uses racism as a central means of divide and rule. Trump has responded to the movement in the US with violence and repression and has threatened to use the army to quell the protests. This has however led to major divisions in the US ruling class, with even the Defence Secretary distancing himself from the president. Trump will want to create a backlash among whites which will enable him easier to crush the movement, but so far the multiracial nature of the protests and the general sympathy for the case has not made that easy for him, and his popularity has fallen.
Here in Britain, we have had Priti Patel warning that the demos will help spread the virus – something that worried her not in the slightest when she welcomed VE day parties, the opening of garden centres and crowds on beaches. The government has, however, avoided major confrontation so far – a sign of its overall weakness. However, it is prepared to use force to crack down if it feels that it can.
The movement is still very new and will develop its demands over the coming days and weeks. Its strengths are the levels of self-activity, the very high levels of awareness and history which characterise many of the protesters, and the way in which it has raised more general issues of racism throughout society. But fighting racism isn’t just a moral question. Because it is about a deeply racist society, to be fully successful it also has to challenge and eventually overthrow that system. Anti-racism is part of fighting against a society divided by class.
It therefore is also part of the wider struggle for working class people to take control of their lives, and to fight the system of exploitation which leads to the inequality and poverty which affects black people disproportionately, but which also affects many white people. Its ideas therefore have to go beyond identity politics and beyond privilege theory, which suggests that a major focus has to be the extent to which whites have privileges denied to blacks. The demand to check your privilege suggests that this is just an individual question of how we see ourselves and how we understand racism.
The vast majority of people in society are not privileged. They share the common experience of exploitation. All black people suffer particular oppression because of their race, but for the vast majority this oppression is also intertwined with their class location, which they share with white working-class people. Privilege theory does not challenge the class division in society. Indeed, it posits the division in society not between rich and poor but within the working class itself. This serves not to strengthen or to clarify the struggle against racism, but to weaken it by failing to see it as an issue of social transformation, but just of individual change.
The history of racism has also been a history of people standing up against racism. Generations of black people have fought for their rights from the campaigns against slavery to civil rights to black power. There have always been white people who have fought against racism as well, seeing it as an injustice but also as a means of maintaining capitalist class rule by dividing working people. One of the great strengths of the present movement is that it is led by black people, but it involves white people in considerable numbers. This can be a very powerful force in challenging the system, as long as we focus on the main enemy.
Failing on every front
There is the very real danger of a second wave of coronavirus infections and deaths here in Britain. And there is only one group of people to blame for it: the government and its apologists who have racked up a spectacular number of fails in dealing with the virus. Entering lockdown too late, emerging too early, privately run testing and tracing hardly taking place, a health service still rundown and underfunded, care homes hiking fees to pay for PPE.
There has been a conscious effort to ease the lockdown for the past month. The promotion of VE day parties, the encouragement to return to work, the increased talk about balance of risk, the insistence on sending children back to school, have all created an atmosphere where many consider the lockdown over. From next week, non-essential shops will open for no good reason. The government intends to suspend the Sunday trading laws to allow supermarkets and other major stores to open longer.
An article in yesterday’s Sunday Times shows that Johnson is opening up pubs, theme parks, and easing restrictions on holidays in order to ensure the smooth flow of profit over the summer. This includes looking to change social distancing from 2 metres to 1 to cram more people into venues, and suspending planning restrictions for outside eating and drinking.
There is still remarkable resistance to this deadly free for all – with levels of travel on public transport still very low and many people understandably reluctant to return to work or send their children to school. Easing the lockdown too early will have very serious consequences, but the government seems incapable of dealing with this. Its main motivation is getting business back up and running and to restore profits. So it is truly a government incapable of protecting its people. And - as has happened throughout this crisis - that protection will only come from us organising collectively for our own safety and to change the priorities of this system.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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