“This is an extraordinary moment…I am just so happy that I have lived long enough to witness this moment.”
This was how African-American activist, author and academic Angela Davis summed up the wave of protests that erupted across the US this summer. That day, 19 June, known as Juneteenth, is a public holiday commemorating the final emancipation of the country’s slaves. Davis chose to mark it by joining striking dockworkers and Amazon staff sacked for protesting about unsafe working conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is a remarkable and characteristically considered intervention.
Davis is not simply a casual observer. Rather, she is someone who played a dramatic role in the uprisings with which the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are being compared. Now aged 76, she remains steeped in struggle and is well placed to consider the potential of today’s movement.
Other veterans of those Civil Rights and Black Power struggles concur that the 2020 protests have been far more widespread and inclusive than those of the 1960s. Back in the day, a primary concern of Black protesters was the real risk that white people who showed up were there to attack them.
By contrast, a significant feature of recent gatherings has been the diversity of those demonstrating. Buoyed by the brutal example set by the police, racists would readily kick, punch or even shoot Civil Rights activists. Donald Trump is desperately trying to foment similar extremism but is currently isolated.
Research by the Pew Center noted that 31 percent of white respondents “strongly supported” the BLM movement, with a further 30 percent “somewhat supporting” it. More tangibly, white people have turned up, linked arms and even placed themselves on the frontline in order to protect Black demonstrators from the tender mercies of the police.
There has also been an important international dimension. Right across the world, people have defied curfews and their own anxieties about coronavirus and poured onto the streets in solidarity. This in turn has reverberated back across the Atlantic and further enriched the protests over there. Speaking at George Floyd’s funeral, Rev Al Sharpton referred to the demonstrators who hurled into Bristol Harbour the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, sparking similar developments in American towns and cities.
These haven’t simply been token gestures. African-Americans know that the roots of their oppression lie in slavery. It is their nation’s original sin. Thus, the toppling of Confederate general Albert Pike’s Washington statue is part of a demand to account for the history of those who sought to reinforce racism.
These developments have revived campaigns to decolonise education here. For many years activists and students have demanded a broader and more inclusive curriculum in schools and colleges. There have been calls for a warts and all discussion about figures such as Winston Churchill and Thomas Jefferson. Meanwhile, the presence and perspectives of white, European men continue to dominate the faculties of universities.
Oxford University has been a particular focus of attention. It is there that a statue of Cecil Rhodes looks down imperiously from a perch high up on the facade of Oriel College. It is there too that 250 “exceptional people from across the world” are sponsored to study by the Rhodes Trust.
There has been a long-running campaign to remove the statue and expose the brutal truth about how Rhodes made his fortune.
Back in 2016 the college governors loftily declared that there was “overwhelming support for keeping it”. They vehemently denied the widespread rumour that a primary concern was the threat that bequests of up to £100 million would be lost if Rhodes was removed. Fast forward to June 2020 and a mass BLM sit down prompted a swift change of mind.
These events highlight the fact that George Floyd’s killing has been the catalyst for an explosion of anger about a whole range of grievances. The casual, criminal contempt with which the desperate gasping man was treated was so harrowing and graphic that it drove people to act. Most of those that protested will have done so with a much sharper understanding of the sentiment behind the phrase Black Lives Matter.
The pandemic has exposed a number of things, perhaps most notably the fact that disproportionate numbers of people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are on the frontline as key workers. This is one of the primary reasons why so many are falling critically ill and dying.
Living in lockdown for months on end has left people with time to reflect upon the implications of this. Lazy stereotypes about BAME people stealing jobs, jumping the queue for homes and freeloading off the NHS, while simultaneously scrounging benefits, have been shattered as people have seen the toll that Covid-19 has taken on doctors, nurses, care and transport workers.
Despite the difficulties of campaigning during lockdown, Stand Up To Racism has had considerable success in Britain in organising online forums and socially distanced protests which draw the links between the demands of BLM and the structural racism exposed by the pandemic.
A highlight of one of the first gatherings in Windrush Square Brixton was the presence of local firefighters taking a knee. The sight of professional footballers taking a knee and sporting Black Lives Matter on their shirts is an indication of how widespread the protests’ impact has been.
Eventually however such displays will come to an end. Meanwhile as the curfew lifts, corporate bosses will pray that they have “protest-proofed their bottom lines” and seek to return to business as usual. The critical issue for activists is how to seize the time and ensure that unity remains and action continues once #BLM stops trending on Twitter.
In so doing, we should take inspiration from great activists such as Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. The sheer audacity of the movements they led forced real concessions from the US ruling class. There was a realisation that some space needed to be created for a layer of respectable role models to move into positions of authority.
It was these struggles that created the opportunities for entertainment moguls such as Oprah, the now disgraced Bill Cosby, Beyoncé and Jay Z, a cohort of middle class BAME people and thousands of elected officials.
A key political strategy among BAME campaigners involved orientating upon the Democratic Party with the aim of getting “Black faces into high places”. Rev Jesse Jackson, the man who cradled the dying Dr King in 1968, was central to this. Jackson appeared on TV the following day wearing the same bloodstained sweater and declaring his intention to carry the torch forward. His own journey culminated in two presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 respectively.
Two decades later there was no more poignant sight than that of him in tears among the Chicago crowd that lapped up Barack Obama’s victory speech in November 2008. And yet Black Lives Matter first emerged on Obama’s watch. Black police chiefs oppressing their brethren, and eloquently evasive and toothless political leaders, is not the Black Power for which those giants sacrificed so much.
The future lies in harnessing the solidarity of today’s protests and forging a movement for radical change.
Police brutality and the devastating impact of Covid-19 does disproportionately affect those from BAME communities; the ethnic penalty that afflicts us is very real. Nevertheless, the majority of those that suffer exclusion and impoverishment in countries such as Britain and the US are white. Far from being privileged, white workers’ interests lies in uniting with their BAME counterparts and fighting for a better world.
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