Hundreds of thousands of people in cities across the world marched in defiance of their governments and police to show their solidarity with the protest in the US against the police murder of George Floyd. His murder by the police was just one more in the long list of such killings in the US, in the UK and around the world but the response to this latest outrage has been a storm of protest which is inspiring. Black and white protesters, mostly young, have changed the political landscape. A killing, which in previous times might have led to local black protests in the US, lit a spark of multiple frustrations and discontent. The world is in lock down with the corona virus epidemic which has highlighted and deepened all the social inequalities. The virus is a killer but its victims, medically and financially are overwhelmingly the most deprived sections of society.
In the UK a government which came to power on its nationalistic, flag waving Brexit campaign has shown its incompetence and indifference to ordinary people’s lives, trying to push people back to work, push kids to school – all to try to get the profit making machine going again. The protesters in Bristol who pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston will be cheered by millions of people. The footage of the mass murderer, who has been worshipped by the Bristol elite for decades, being rolled and dropped in the river will be watched over and over again.
It is hilarious watching British politicians, academics, civic dignitaries and other worthies all now trying to play catch-up with their learned debate about whether to remove other statues. Sir Keir Starmer, Knight Commander and Leader of Her Majesty’s most Loyal Opposition (yes that is his actual title), leader of the Labour Party denounced the ‘vandalism’ but said the statue should have been removed earlier. Really? Well we’ve had years of Labour Governments and Labour Councils in Bristol so why wasn’t it? This is the Keir Starmer who used to be head of the Crown Prosecution Service, the organisation that helps send hundreds of young black kids to prison every year.
The pulling down of the statue by the crowd was an amazing act. The ‘learned debate’ about other statues is meaningless, tokenistic waffle. The problem is not the statues but the real legacy of the slave trade that exists both in the US and the UK. The whole of present British society is inseparable from the triangular slave trade that saw the growth of the UK textile production as cloth was taken to Africa to be swapped for slaves who were transported to the British colonies in the West Indies and the US to be swapped for cotton and sugar to be brought back in order to feed and clothe the growing urban poor as cheaply as possible. The fortunes made in this trade of black people go to the heart of the present British upper classes and it power. The racism that the supporters of the slave trade indoctrinated people with, the justification for slavery that these were not ‘human beings’ but animals underpinned the later colonial mentality and the idea of White British superiority that still holds sway over many people. The racism of the police, the unemployment figures for young black people, the endless discrimination and petty humiliations of everyday black life, the Windrush scandal – all of these things and more have their origins in the wealth and power that the British upper class gained from slavery. And these repulsive realities cannot be overcome by politely taking down a statue and moving it to a museum with a ‘more informed plaque’. If the Labour Mayor of Bristol was serious about overcoming the past he would make sure the statue stays where it is, where it belongs – in the mud at the bottom of the river.
The protesters in the US have sparked a global response. The people in Bristol toppled the statute. To make changes in society that go beyond the superficial we have to topple the whole society that continues to rest upon exploitation of human labour and relies upon divisions within the working class to maintain its domination. Politicians here and in the US will try to steer the anger and protests towards helping their own electoral prospects. The Labour Party and the Democratic Party in the US will hope to use their traditional support from black voters to get them into government with all kinds of promises of change. So there has to be a debate within all the circles that have come onto the streets or supported the protests about how real, lasting change can be made. Will changing the face of policing or anti-racist training for police actually change anything? Individual policemen and women can be this or that, black, white, racist, non-racist but police forces are not just the sum total of their officers – they are institutions created to defend the existing society, to defend the power and wealth of those who exploit others.
For years both here and the US black people have had to fight their battles with little or no support from the white working class people. There have been brief moments when black protest against injustice has spread but for the most part organisations like the Labour Party, the Trade Unions have just paid lip service to black protest. Left wing groups have constantly chanted the slogan ‘Black and white, unite and fight’ but made this an empty bit of rhetoric by refusing to actually throw their weight behind black campaigns or trying to hijack them for their own ends. Now things have changed. Young people made up the bulk of the protesters and white and black marched together both here and in the US. White kids are aware that its not just about ‘supporting’ black people or feeling sympathy for them. ‘Black lives matter’ is not just about black lives. Its also a poke in the eye for a society that doesn’t give a fuck about any lives – white or black.
There are a number of black MPs in the Boris Johnson government. They are part of a regime that organised the Windrush deportations. Even after this monstrous racist outrage was exposed they continue to be part of a regime that so far has failed to pay compensation to most of the victims. They are part of a regime that presided over the murder of the Grenfell Tower residents and that continues to force people to live in unsafe housing. They supported the years of austerity that left so many young black people without jobs and in poverty. They supported the US inspired ‘war on drugs’ that criminalises so many people. Their actions shine a light on the fact that the term ‘black community’ is as meaningless as ‘white community’. These black politicians have nothing in common with the black people who experience racism day in day out other than their skin colour. And beyond the politicians there are the black academics, business people, ‘community leaders’ etc etc who all have a vested interested in defending the notion of a ‘black community’, maintaining their privileged position in society, claiming to speak on behalf of the ‘community’.
The people who flooded the streets of cities across the world have found their own voice. Young people, especially young women, who have never spoken out publicly before have made themselves heard and older generations of radical activist must listen and learn from them. The society we all live in is one based on exploitation. To change that the exploited must work to overcome so many divisions and in Britain there is none deeper than that created by racism, between black and white, between the people born here and the immigrants. These divisions are deliberately and consciously created and utilised by the ruling class. Racism is an integral part of an oppressive, hierarchical society, not just an accidental add on that can be overcome and eradicated The wonderful marches and protests of recent days will not put a stop to this inherent racism of the machine and the ideological filth it puts out to maintain divisions. Huge numbers of white working class people living in shitty housing, doing shitty jobs, brought up on the myth of empire, will not simply drop their anger and resentment that politicians and the media skilfully direct against the black and immigrant community. But this uprising of young people is proof that its not going to be so easy for the ruling class to play the race hate card to divide people.
Black and white, unite and fight was not always an empty slogan. In the days of the slave trade, Sea Captains would sometimes bring one or two slaves back to Britain as ‘exotic trophies’ but the slaves would often run away and the white ‘mobs’ of London, Liverpool or Bristol would hide them and the slaves in turn would educate and politicise the people who hid them and this process so frightened the government that they passed a law prohibiting the import of these slaves.
In the tumult and discussion that is going on, now and in the months and years to come, this alliance, born of common oppression, can hopefully become a new threat to the ruling class. Without such an alliance the overthrow of capital is impossible. If people on the left want these new activists to join any discussion about class and the overthrow of capital they first of all have to take seriously the reasons for black people’s anger and let them decide the way forward for the movement.