The Black Lives Matter movement in the UK is coming under pressure from a number of directions, writes Alex Snowdon
In the last couple of days, there has been a major shift in the political climate around Black Lives Matter in Britain. The inspiring mass mobilisations last weekend, which pushed anti-racism up the political agenda in spectacular fashion, have given way to a more fraught and contested political situation.
Boris Johnson made comments yesterday that sought to criminalise elements of the movement, while the police have called for people to stay off the streets. Johnson’s line ‘The only responsible course of action is to stay away’ was an implicit warning.
Far-right groups have entered the arena, with threats to counter-protest BLM. Protest organisers cancelled a BLM demonstration that was planned for London today.
Meanwhile, a trivialisation of debate is underway. Regrettably, arguments about old sitcoms and Winston Churchill statues are to some extent replacing important topics like the legacy of slavery and the relationship between racism and capitalism as the focus of attention.
Protests and counter-protests
All of this is dangerous for the movement. Many protests have still taken place today, and there was a good London demonstration yesterday, but the high profile cancellation of today’s London protest has not helped. It reflects pressure from the police, but also an obvious faltering in the momentum of the protests.
The pretext for cancellation was the threat from the far right. It should be remembered, though, how relatively weak the far right has been recently - marginalised, fragmented, and lacking a focus. Its counter-protests would have been greatly outnumbered by the Black Lives Matter demonstration, demoralising the fascists and their hangers-on while emboldening the anti-racist movement.
The imbalance in numbers would have also undermined attempts to portray the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations as two sides of the same coin, as Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and much of the press wishes to do. The sheer scale of the protest movement over the last two weeks has been its most impressive and important feature.
The interventions by Johnson and police chiefs in the last day or two have indicated how the government and the state are seeking to reassert control. They want to stigmatise the BLM protests by association with violence and ‘extremist elements’, discouraging mass participation and derailing public sympathy with their aims.
This was impossible a week ago, as the wave of protests swept all before it, but they now feel more able to intervene in the situation. It prepares the ground ideologically for a potentially more authoritarian response, but also makes it more likely that no such thing will become necessary.
Symbols of racism
Something else has been happening in the battle of ideas too. As this week has progressed, there has been a growing preoccupation with ‘culture war’ debates.
The starting point was the extraordinary moment on Sunday when protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of a slave trader - a hated symbol of racist oppression in the area. It was the most iconic moment of a tremendous weekend of nationwide protests. It symbolised not only the confidence, unity, and resolve of the Bristol protesters but the spirit of the entire movement: militant and determined as well as capable of mobilising very large numbers.
This kind of symbolically powerful moment can lead in quite different directions. The top priority for the movement is using this as an opportunity to generate greater knowledge of what such statues represent historically and politically, and to heighten debate about the important issues (slavery’s legacy, the origins of modern racism in capitalism’s development, the racism of the British ruling class) brought to the fore by what happened in Bristol.
There has been a lot of this happening, with previously obscure aspects of history becoming the focus of media discussions and a major public debate unfolding about why these monuments, closely bound up with racism, are still standing in the twenty-first century. There has been a swelling demand for more anti-racist education, including from teachers who are inspired by not only the protests but the current sense, in the middle of the pandemic, that a ‘new normal’ is possible for schools instead of returning to the old ways.
But there has also been a push in a quite different direction. For some, especially much of the media, the symbols themselves are the substance. Instead of focusing on what these statues represent - in the present as well as the past - their attention remains at the surface level. Sadly there have been far more news stories in recent days about statues than there have been about actual incidents of racism.
This focus has also expanded to other cultural artifacts like old television comedy programmes. This trivialises an important set of political issues and enables the construction of a divisive ‘culture war’ narrative. It cuts against efforts to develop working-class unity against racism and is a gift to the far right, keen to present anti-racists and the left as censorious, freedom-hating, joyless and authoritarian.
Eyes on the prize
The trap must be avoided. Socialists and anti-racists need to keep our eyes on the prize, focusing on the big underlying issues (and not allow ephemera to distract us).
The movement catalysed by George Floyd’s killing is not about statues or sitcoms, but about the persistence of institutional and systemic racism. It is about inequality and discrimination. It is about the central role of the state in racism and the need for radical social change to address it.
The protests, here and in the US, have opened up new horizons for challenging racism. They have shifted the entire debate - over the police, institutional racism, and the history of racism - in a positive direction. This has happened with extraordinary speed.
This is an opening that needs to be taken as a necessary starting point. It should be expanded further, not closed down by a mixture of trivialisation and threats.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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