August the fifth saw the Black lives Matter movement cross the Atlantic, expanding its activism into the UK by blocking the main road to Heathrow airport, gaining global media coverage and according reactions of shock and support from those who cared enough to pay attention to the protest. Members of Black Lives Matter UK undertook a similar action on September 6th at London city airport in order to call attention to the disparity between the freedom of movement afforded to some and the forced deportation of black and brown migrants, and to protest the United Kingdom’s environmental impact on black lives locally and globally. Reading this, some may be inclined to question why black lives matter is needed in the UK. Surely America with its overtly liberal gun laws and history of Segregation is the only place where racism truly still exists, right? This is an extremely misguided view of UK justice however. To try and dismiss the struggle of Black Lives in the UK on the grounds that you hear about racist attacks in the US more often is not only intellectually dishonest but on par with the ‘but don’t all lives matter’ excuse. This blog post will look at the need for radical Black activism in the UK, and explain why these protests have come about.
Dismissing Black Activism.
As mentioned previously, much of the reaction to Black lives matter in the UK by the mainstream media has been one of condescension and dismissal. All too often, comparisons are made with the United States, purely in order to silence the voices of Black activists and shut down debate. British police are said to be benign and moderate compared to their American, gun wielding counterparts, or it is dishonestly argued that Black people in Britain lack the same sort of historical grievances of African Americans, that they have due to the legacy of slavery.
This impression is due to the fact that, from a historical standpoint, Britain’s racial oppression has primarily occurred elsewhere. It is not that we were necessarily less racist, just that racism did not occur on our shores as often, abdicating us from a few stark historical reminders. Slavery, for example, was abolished on the British mainland in Elizabethan times, but Britain continued to engage in the trade across the globe for many centuries after. This kind of geographical removal, allied to the positive view of the British empire (about 40 percent of the British public have a positive attitude towards imperialism) means that while ‘whiteness’ is central to the British identity, this is far easier to ignore when compared to settler colonial nations like the United States. Nevertheless, Britain’s colonial past has left a legacy of racism that continues to affect the lives of racialized minorities in the UK. Many of the repressive practices used against colonized peoples were imported to the centre of the empire in the 1940s and 1950s – decades that saw a huge expansion of the prison system. This had first been systemically developed in Jamaica and Kenya. Such methods of social control were rooted in colonialism and disproportionately resulted in racism. Moreover, while other countries may have produced a more overt version of racial violence, that does not abdicate us from responsibility.
Perhaps more importantly, these methods of violence continue today. While the British police do not routinely carry guns and the intensity of violence is not quite as high as it is in the US, there is still an average of one death a week at the hands of police officers in this country. Black people are disproportionately included in these statistics, and are also incarcerated at a rate similar to that of African Americans. Furthermore, people still migrate to Britain from former colonies and elsewhere. This migration takes place largely because the resources and wealth extracted from the global south continue to flow to the UK. Companies listed on the London Stock Exchange control over $1 trillion worth of Africa’s resources. In spite of the inevitability of migration from the global south, we rarely see aid and refuge for these migrants. Instead, we see the growth of detention centres and an increase in violence directed against migrants, even before they reach Britain itself, with thousands dying every year in the Mediterranean Sea. These factors, combined with the British empires legacy of racism and the disproportionate suffering of minorities under punitive systems, mean that this could not be a better time for Black Lives Matter in the UK.
An example of the criminal justice systems connection to race is the reaction to the civil unrest of 2011, which followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London. News reports constantly showed mugshots of black and brown faces. This seemingly new form of humiliation is similar to how, in colonial India, the British tattooed the faces of those they believed to be predisposed to theft or other criminal activity. The sentencing that followed these events was widely used against Black and brown people – as it was in the civil unrest in the 70s and 80s. Even today, we see this racism in the concern around ‘gang culture’, a term that – In spite of the real issues surrounding gangs and their relation to social exclusion – is often used as a synonym for black and brown communities. This was shown by research conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University. Manchester police said they had a problem with gangs so the researchers asked them for the criteria by which they identified gang members and gang crime – these included things like violent crime and discharging a firearm. While over 80 percent of people involved in the kinds of crimes supposedly used to identify gang members were white, around 80 percent of the people classified by the police as gang members were black or Asian. These forms of policing are particularly useful in allowing the state to avoid referring to race explicitly, in a tactic that can be best described as ‘dog whistle’ politics.
It is important to point out that these examples all link racism to practices developed to maintain social control, rather than the result of individual prejudices. Indeed, in 1999 the Macpherson report, which investigated the handling of Stephen Lawrence murder, found the police to be institutionally racist. Unsurprisingly, the police quickly tried to bury the findings of the report, as soon as it was published. As time passed, police officers started to refer to institutional racism in the past tense if they referred to it at all. Of the many recommendations in the report, none have been put in place. On the contrary, police racial equality training seems to be largely focused on teaching officers what language to use if they are caught committing racial abuse. In one case, police officers who compared black people to monkeys and Neanderthals were found not to have violated the race relations act. Instead, it was absurdly claimed that they were having a debate on evolution. In 2012, a police officer knelt on the chest of a black man and told him ‘the problem with you is that you will always be a n****r’. The crown prosecution service refused to prosecute the officer, after hearing that he was trying to boost the self-esteem of the young black man. We even saw an example of this recently when a black firefighter pulled over to try to assist some officers. They pulled him out of the car, tasered him and beat him. However, while they were being investigated by the Independent police complaints commission, one of them received a promotion.
In my opinion, these examples show why justice cannot be achieved through the existing state sanctioned channels. According to the most mainstream reactions to Black Lives Matter, we should operate through such channels in a traditional, non-disruptive fashion. The problem with such arguments is that they imply that resistance to state violence began on August the fifth 2016, when Black Lives Matter activists blockaded the road to Heathrow Airport, in an action that was apparently motivated by no reason, other than wanting to get on the news. This is complete nonsense. Activists have been using ‘legitimate’ channels for decades without achieving satisfactory results – they have tried the court system, organised marchers and even signed petitions. Despite these efforts, as mentioned earlier, one person a week dies at the hands of police in this country and that officers are rarely prosecuted for their crimes. We can only reach two conclusions from this: either the ‘legitimate’ channels available to us are not fit for purpose, or there is a very unfortunate coincidence of people just dropping dead at the hands of police. Most people who are honest will recognise the former explanation as the case.
Racism and Neoliberalism
Unfortunately, many of the people I see making the argument that BLM is not relevant in the UK are left wing people who see the movement in the UK as detracting from the ‘real struggle’ for black liberation in the US. However, this view is deeply flawed. Firstly, just because black power movements have historically existed mainly in the US, this does not mean that their message is not relevant in the UK. Secondly, to hold such a view is to completely disregard the connection racism has to unbridled capitalism.
Instead of making resources available for self-help such as public services and welfare, the role of the state under neoliberalism is simply to facilitate the market. Of course, the role of the state has always been to maintain capitalism. Under neoliberalism however, this is no longer done through reforms and improvements in working conditions in order to preserve the whole system. Rather, it is achieved through putting sections of the working class, of all different races and backgrounds, in direct competition with one another. Of course, this has a wider effect on the ability of the working class to organise collectively. However, neoliberal capitalism also creates sites of opposition. This is why Black lives Matter activists in the UK and the US tend to focus on staging their protests on shopping centres or roads. One BLM protest that is perhaps less talked about is the mass ‘Die in’ of activists at Westfield Shopping Centre in London, In order to protest deaths in police custody. Such protests begin to help activists to shut down the ‘every day’, thus shutting down the everyday racism faced by black and brown people.
Disrupting such sites also gives social movements advantage, because under neoliberalism, shopping centres are places of power due to their role in facilitating the circulation of capital. With the mass outsourcing of industrial jobs from core capitalist countries, actions in places like shopping centres and roads give activists the ability to disrupt the flow of capital at the point of consumption, rather than the point of production, as in a traditional strike. Rather than shutting down the places where things are produced, we shut down the centres of capital circulation. Overall, while neoliberalism has been somewhat successful in disrupting working class organisation, it has unintentionally created new opportunities for disruption. Even if people do not understand the mechanisms of neoliberal capitalism, they do understand these places to be centres of power.
People can engage in solidarity with organisations like BLM UK in many ways. Many of these are as straightforward as simply identifying local groups. Many organisations challenge police violence locally, or pursue justice for a specific death at the hands of the state. Secondly, as the government seeks to disperse migrants across the country, developing spaces where migrants can rely on social and legal resources is as necceary as ever. Finally, it is important to understand the role that Britain and other wealthy nations play in under developing poorer nations. Activists can incorporate these perspectives into actions that they are already involved in such as challenging income inequality or the fossil fuel industry. By developing an understanding of how capitalism, environmental degradation, and other injustices affects black lives not just in the US but across the globe, people who may not be immediately connected to anti-racist campaigns can show solidarity.