BLM UK and the possibilites of solidarity
Just ten days before Dalian Atkinson was murdered in Telford, Black Lives Matter movement announced itself in the UK with a series of coordinated actions in a number of British cities, causing major disruption that embarrassed the state, the police and corporations.
Their demands are bold and well presented. Like Occupy, another US import with its inspirations in ‘third-world’ struggles, the model has been copied and made relevant for a British context.
It has produced the usual and highly predictable backlash: sneering racism on internet comment boards and patronising dismissal in the serious newspapers.
What Occupy had was tactics, but no clear mission. An early 2000s’ fetish for horizontalism led to an interesting and bold experiment in new ways of running politics but blunted itself as a weapon.
“What do we want?”
“Demands are hierarchical impositions.”
“When do we want it?”
“After the next consensus meeting.”
Technical point: We had a year of consensus decision making meetings and never once came up with a demand. Yet, there was a spirit about the place that has left an impact on politics ever since.
Within the first few days of the Occupy London camp at St. Paul’s, we had set up a newspaper called The Occupied Times (another lasting legacy), and on its behalf I interviewed a man called Mark, a former policeman and British army soldier, now switched over to the other side:
“People who question the democratic process at the camp, ask, “‘Are they prepared to listen to every single member?’” he told me. “Guess what? They literally are! … No one’s comments are treated as something to be ignored.”
Occupy, with its ‘We are the 99%’ slogan helped redefine an outdated notion of class struggle, normalised certain anti-capitalist ideas in its anti-bankerism, and gave ‘democratic process’ paramount importance in the organisation of resistance.
BLM is in some ways the other side of the coin. The movement, says the website, is “leaderfull”. The actions on the 5th August were well-prepared and organised. In the endless debate of means vs ends, for BLM the means are not so agonised over. As Natasha Nkonde put it in a statement for The Guardian: “Other forms of protests have been exhausted and so the disruption today is bringing back to the mainstream discussions around black lives and the racist structures and inequalities we know about.” For people whose lives are being daily disrupted, it was time to bring this disruption to public consciousness:
“If it requires shut downs to draw things to people’s attentions, then shut downs it will be”, said a speaker at Aftab Ali park in Whitechapel.
These are shock tactics to wake up a dozing white population and a public victory for the morale and dignity of black people, particularly young black people, who have borne the brunt of Stop and Search on suspicion (deny it if you can, skin colour influences such suspicions), school exclusions, ASBOs, tags and all the petty disciplines that Blair’s government brought in on top of a legacy of fifty years of racist social, legal and employment structures.
For black people in the UK facing racism every day in all its subtle and not-so-subtle forms from police, from teachers and college lecturers, from social workers, housing officers, health workers, job centre officials and within the media, a visible anti-racist stand is necessary to say to society that you cannot deny what we must put up with from the institutions that were meant to protect, to educate, to inform, to treat, to house and to help us. People would not be putting their bodies so literally on the line if this was not a common and everyday experience for black people.
Of course, the broadsheets took up the question of how appropriate is a US movement to a British context. As of yet, the horrendous brutality of almost random murders of black people in the streets is thankfully nowhere near US levels. However, to say that the deaths of 1,500 people in the last twenty-five years is ‘nothing’ or that the over-representation of BAME people within those numbers is not worthy of protest is utilitarianism at its most callous. According to Minister for Policing Brandon Lewis quoted on the Sky news website, “The figures show at the moment that the number of black people dying following police contact is in proportion to the number that are being arrested.” It is the kind of thinking satirised by Charles Dickens in Hard Times, where Sissy Jupe is set a maths problems by Mr M’Choakumchild who, as she reports to Louisa, tells her that:
“’in a given time a hundred thousand persons went to sea on long voyages, and only five hundred of them were drowned or burnt to death. What is the percentage?’ And I said, ‘Miss;’ here Sissy fairly sobbed as confessing with extreme contrition to her greatest error; ‘I said it was nothing.’
‘Nothing, Miss — to the relations and friends of the people who were killed. I shall never learn,’ said Sissy.”
To the families and friends of Cynthia Jarrett, Joy Gardner, Smiley Culture, Roger Sylvester, etc. the fact that these murders are in ‘proportion’ or that they happen much less than in the United States, is indeed nothing of importance.
Reading the details of each seemingly more incredible police murder in the US, it is worth asking the question that Stafford Scott posed, “How can I not be in solidarity with that?” But BLM UK is not just a movement of solidarity with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner and etc. nor just a copycat version mourning our own victims of police and state violence but as its video at the start of August made clear, it was a call to stand up against Islamophobia, the incarceration and forced deportation of those claiming refugee status, the post-Brexit street-level violent nationalism and against British institutionalised racism resulting in racialised discrepencies in levels of poverty, mental illness and disproportionate sentencing within the criminal justice system. And how can I not be in solidarity with that?
Stafford Scott asked that question at a less publicised rally for black lives in the UK: the annual march from Broadwater Farm estate to Tottenham police station on the 5th anniversary of Mark Duggan’s murder.
That the myth of Duggan being a ‘gangster’ pervades British discourse shows how little much of the country understands the lives of black working class youth. It also shows how restricted is our access in this ‘age of information’ to facts. It is recorded on video that Duggan stepped out, unarmed, from the mini-cab that the police had ‘hard-stopped’ with his hands in the air, and was shot dead. Is there any way you can justify the police pulling the trigger in such circumstances, other than ‘he was a gangster anyway so he probably deserved it’? This is a way of thinking not too far from the infamous National Front line, “one down, a million to go”.
I listened to the family of Jermaine Baker speak and I was ashamed at how media lies had affected my thinking about him too. No doubt, I was influenced by such ‘objective’ headlines as this from the Daily Mirror: “Gangster-tattooed young dad shot dead in Wood Green by police ‘had links to notorious Mark Duggan firm’” You would be hard-pressed to find more prejudices packed into one sentence than that.
To see the hurt and anger as the family asked the journalists why their brother/son/cousin, had been portrayed in this way was moving in the extreme. Baker was shot dead in December 2015 while sitting outside Wood Green Crown Court unarmed in a car, in which the police-installed bugging devices had picked up clear information that the men had no intention of ‘busting’ out the men who were due to be sentenced. One firearms officer has been quietly suspended while the IPCC (still not, unfortunately, very ‘I’) remains engrossed in its typically long-winded enquiry. If you are in any doubt about the bias involved, go back to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Terry’s statement: “All of the officers involved in Friday’s operation continue to receive our fullest possible support.” Families of victims and their campaigns, as was made clear in the case of Stephen Lawrence, find themselves infiltrated, spied upon and smeared.
The news of Baker’s death was kept as quiet as possible, as Duggan’s would have been had not things got a little out hand following the police’s refusal to address those who demanded an explanation. It is good to see Marcia Rigg speak on the BLM ‘Shut Down’ video. Her family’s tireless campaigning has kept alive the hope of justice for her brother Sean Rigg, and her presence marks a continuity between the new BLM UK movement and the previous years of activity by the likes of Inquest, London Campaign Against Police and State Violence (LCAPSV), Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary (MFJ), and Right to Remain, all of which have worked to hold the state, police and security services to account for acts of violence or murder.
The police are a hierarchical institution, a tool of the state, which, despite the ‘good apples’ (and no doubt there are many) in the rotten barrel, will never lose its institutionalised racism until it is radically restructured. They serve the orders of their bosses within a top-down culture of macho, trigger happy enforcement and mutual collusion and cover-up. They do not serve the wishes of the public. Of course we want them there in some form, but not as they are now, nor as they ever have been in their short but inglorious 200 years of existence. For me, not ‘ACAB’, but ACW4B: ‘all coppers work for bastards’.
I will be interested to see how BLM’s tactics develop. Shutting down major roads brought them otherwise unavailable widespread media attention at the expense of the annoyance of a few hundred people delayed in traffic jams (and there is little British people hate more than traffic jams). They have announced themselves as here to stay and white people better get used to their presence and forget the whining ‘All Lives Matter’ excuse. Indeed it is because this is statement is so obviously true, that those who regularly suffer from prejudice, oppression, harassment, intimidation, suspicion and murder are saying to those who do not, ‘yes, like you, our lives should matter too.’
It is human that sometimes we do not feel the same empathy for strangers as for those we know. Racism ‘others’ whole groups and makes them seem ‘strange’ simply by virtue of their constructed ‘otherness’. Collective action, public solidarity and the chance to listen to the voices of the marginalised can create the opposite effect. After the rally in Tottenham, having marched together, chanted with and listened to the speeches of ‘strangers’, I walked back home down the streets of my adopted area and felt a real love and connection for the people out and about that Saturday afternoon.
Dalian Atkinson was another black man with mental illness whose blackness counted against him in the minds of the police, who, said neighbour Paula Quinn, “were shouting and kicking so much all I could hear were the boots hitting him.” The ex-cop-turned-protestor, Mark faced the same problem as police tried to stop Occupy setting up at St Paul’s. He told me, “Police officers were willing to make up lies in order to try to harass me just because, and I quote, I’m a ‘big, black guy’, trying to tell me that ‘you’re a subversive and you’re going around spreading extreme views’. It’s the adage of the old, school bully-gang: find the biggest guy there and take him down and everybody else will get frightened. They could have tried to take me down … but it was the amount of people who were here who weren’t having it. When people jumped up with their high-definition cameras and started filming, police officers had to back down.” Solidarity can be effective.
I have little truck with white people taking up Black Lives Matter protests and placards as their own and BLM UK may be in danger of being hijacked by sympathetic but imperialist white liberals or certain Trotsky-inspired ‘socialist’ movements (and I’m not talking about the Labour Party). But for now, white people better listen to the demands of the movement and instead of finding ways to prove it wrong, ask themselves in good conscience, ‘How can I not stand in solidarity with that?’
 Inquest’s figures for the total number of deaths that occurred ‘while the individual is in contact with police, whether or not they have been arrested, or that happen shortly after that contact.’ http://www.inquest.org.uk/statistics/deaths-in-police-custody
 See the IRR’s report ‘Dying for Justice’ about the “509 people (an average of twenty-two per year) from BAME, refugee and migrant communities who have died between 1991-2014 in suspicious circumstances in which the police, prison authorities or immigration detention officers have been implicated.” http://www.irr.org.uk/news/dying-for-justice/
 Hard Times, Charles Dickens, Chapter 9, 1854. http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/hardtimes/10/
 National Front chairman, John Kingsley Read’s opinion on the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall, 1976. He was charged but acquitted of incitement to racial violence.