This weekend's protest in Doncaster was an important action in the battle against those who would misrepresent the town, argues Mick Wattam
Doncaster, once part of a thriving industrial South Yorkshire, has a proud tradition of trade union organisation which once involved many thousands of people who often found themselves at the cutting edge of successful industrial disputes in the 1970s and also, as a former mining town, at the centre of the bitter defeats of the 1980s and 90s which ushered in a steady decline in the towns fortunes.
Years of Tory austerity have cut deeply into council budgets and forced the Labour council into presiding over the privatisation and decline of social services and amenities. This actually led to a brief period where a right wing populist Mayor was elected and also saw UKIP come very close to winning in many council wards which threatened Labour’s hold on the town.
Nigel Farage has tried repeatedly to claim Doncaster as fertile ground for his divisive politics which he saw as justified when Doncaster delivered one of the highest leave votes in the EU referendum. The argument that racism was a decisive issue in the referendum, implying that Doncaster had turned its back on its tolerance to multiculturalism and the solidarity which was deeply ingrained in its communities, and was now moving in the opposite direction, has been debated over and over again in recent years.
The Tories actually took a seat off Labour in last December’s election for the first time, which on the face of it could be seen as evidence that Doncaster had moved to the right.
Sadly many on the left have accepted this right wing argument which has rendered them ineffective in a town where the respect for politicians of all persuasions has been on the decline for a long time. It is the lack of real democracy which led people to reject Europe and not a racist position as we were told, but they hung on to the idea that the EU is somehow progressive at their own peril.
The Black Lives Matter protests across the USA following the murder of George Floyd have seen solidarity action around the world, as the racism at the heart of the American system has been exposed once again in its full horror. Amidst the Covid 19 lockdown it could easily be presumed that working class communities in the UK would not respond to this shocking racism but no, anyone who thought that was mistaken.
In Doncaster a young woman, Olivia Jones, who had never been part of any protest movement was so angered by the blatant racist murder that she came forward and organised a protest in the town centre. I am not saying she acted alone as I am sure she had help from friends and I know that a few of our local Labour councillors did all they could to build the solidarity which resulted in messages of support from former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn MP, John McDonnell MP, Ken Loach the renowned film producer and national and local trade union leaders.
There were some who argued that it was inappropriate in the midst of the lockdown to call a protest, and I am sure that Olivia thought long and hard about that, and we should be grateful that she was not put off but pushed ahead and pulled off a massively successful demonstration involving over a thousand local people who respected social distancing and allowed us all to express our revulsion of racism both in the USA and here in the UK.
We heard moving speeches from speakers who had clearly suffered from acute racism which strengthened our resolve to continue the fight against this virus which has been seen as acceptable within society.
If that doesn’t undermine the attempt by right wing commentators to label Doncaster as a racist town then I don’t know what will, but I won’t hold my breath anyway. Predominantly made up of young people and a mixture of black white and Asian, it was a joy to be part of what was the youngest demonstration I have ever seen in our town.
This level of unity in a relatively small town in northern England, as part of a growing global resistance to injustice which is spreading like wildfire as far as I can see, cannot be ignored by those who think they can continue running the world in a way which deprives the majority of us any say.
Our youth are not racist yet by sowing seeds of division amongst us which has led to the persecution of whole races is how the rich have managed to control society for far too long. But now, around the world and even here in Donny we can see that those divisions are not holding up like our rulers would like.
Over a matter of a few days the outrage caused by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis turned Olivia Jones in Doncaster into someone who leads people into protest. She is not alone, there are many more like her amongst us who are likely to come to the fore as the contradictions in our rotten system become more and more exposed.
For a long time it has been difficult to imagine how our movement can transform itself into one which is capable of delivering the change we need so badly, but at last there are signs that it could actually happen. It’s not as if Doncaster has been devoid of protest in recent years. We have seen care workers and hospital canteen staff fight back against privatisation and drastic pay cuts amongst other actions, but I think we are in a whole new ball game when young people are protesting on our streets in their thousands.
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