Something of an echo of the establishment panic of the late 1960s is reverberating around the seats of power in Britain and the US.
The calamitous end of the long war in Afghanistan—and the huge political crisis it has created—is one of those sounds. Our rulers’ continuing attempts to win back ground lost last summer to the
Black Lives Matter uprising is another.
The last time the powerful faced such a pincer was in the combination of the Vietnam anti-war movement and Black Power.
A report last week by the US Movement for Black Lives showed how the ruling class is prepared to fight dirty to fend off such a threat. The Struggle for Power report analyses forensically the ways the state has tried to use repression to drive back the threat of anti-racism.
It shows that the government in Washington manipulated the legal system to ensure protesters’ alleged crimes were turned from state prosecutions to federal ones.
That meant the FBI rather than local police conducted investigations, and offences were routinely classified as a form of “domestic terrorism”.
The result was a higher rate of convictions and longer sentences to be served in prisons further away from family and friends.
The aim was to disrupt the movement by spreading fear.
Clearly, the thinking of the right in the US has influenced Priti Patel’s draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill still making its way through parliament.
Many fighting back against repression will also start to hear echoes. During the 1950s and 60s the FBI characterised first the Civil Rights Movement, and later Black Power, as the country’s main internal security threat.
The Cointelpro counterintelligence programme was developed by the FBI to “Expose, disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of the black nationalists”.
The state was only too willing to use violent repression.
When the Watts area of Los Angeles exploded in riots in August 1965, it sent in thousands of
National Guard troops to seal off black ghettos. Meanwhile an extra 14,000 police officers ran amok.
The aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King saw the biggest mobilisation of paramilitaries for a civilian purpose since the American Civil War. Some 34,000 National Guard, 21,000 federal troops and thousands of extra local police surrounded areas considered “militant”.
These attempts to intimidate continued through a succession of governments, both Republican and Democrat.
State repression, then and now, poses sharp questions to movements for justice.
Some people will inevitably draw the conclusion that the state is too powerful an enemy to confront on the streets. Therefore, they argue, we should look to safer ways to influence those in power.
But this almost always leads to some form of incorporation into the system, and the blunting of meaningful demands.
Others will argue that we have to continue militant resistance. They think instead of using the tactic of mass movements, we should instead rely on actions by small groups of highly trained and committed activists.
This approach at least has the virtue of continuing the fight against oppression. Unfortunately, the record for groups who travelled this path is that the state found it relatively easy to defeat them.
There is another option—to try and maintain mass protests by widening the movement’s appeal.
In every era, huge confrontations over the issue of oppression are inevitably bound up with other injustices.
So during the Black Lives Matter movement millions of people in the US were confronted with a raging pandemic. And they suffered a pitiful response from the private medicine and public health system alike.
More people were losing their jobs as firms shut down, and many more were having their wages cut.
If the Black Lives Matter movement found a way to connect the growing anger in society to the rage against oppression it could have defied repression. And, no state forces would have been strong enough to contain it.