It has been just over five months since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked protests against police brutality and systemic racism, not just in the US, but worldwide. In August, the name ‘Jacob Blake’ came to the fore. Blake was a 29-year old black man shot seven times in the back by police in front of his three children after trying to break up a fight. The mass outpouring of grief and anger against the injustice of the killing has seen sustained campaigns around the world, demanding an end to the oppression of black people.
We are seeing a significant shift in attitudes amongst many of the protestors; from the idea that the issue of racism is an individual one, to seeing it as systemic. At the height of the Minneapolis uprising, we saw a sharp move away from a liberal anti-racism to something more radical – the acknowledgement that representation alone – ‘black faces in high places’ – isn’t enough to fight racism. Importantly, we’ve also seen BLM support other issues, such as the fight for trans rights. Building solidarity between these movements is crucial to creating a force capable of changing society.
The UK is not innocent
In the UK we saw many cities across the country having marches of thousands and tens of thousands of people. One of the key slogans that was used here was “The UK is not innocent”, with placards showing lists of names of BAME Britons who have been killed in police custody, making the point that the fight against black oppression is not confined to the US, but an international struggle.
Covid is once again giving more proof that BAME communities – particularly BAME workers – are severely disadvantaged. Black men have a mortality rate due to Covid 4 times higher than the usual rate. Asian men had a 3 times higher mortality, and white men 2 times higher. BAME people are much more likely to live in urban and deprived areas, more likely to be in overcrowded housing and also work in high risk jobs meaning a higher risk of contraction. Leicester went into a local lockdown in July, largely due to outbreaks in sweatshops for the garment industry, to a significant extent staffed by highly exploited migrant labour who were forced to continue working in very unsafe conditions.
Although the movement has died down considerably in this country this doesn’t mean there haven’t been protests about issues related to oppression – as we saw with the fight against the government’s GCSE and A level marking algorithm, where many BAME students were downgraded at a higher rate as a result of the ‘postcode lottery system’ and blatant class discrimination – but the BLM movement has not been as visible.
A key issue that needs to be taken up is that of policing. We have seen evidence of the racist nature of UK police stop and search policies, with two black women Labour MPs, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler, being stopped by police. The end of stop and search needs to be fought for; especially bringing to an end Section 60 notices, which allow police to detain anyone to be searched for any reason in a defined time and area. Whilst the official justification for Section 60 orders is to prevent things such as football hooligan activity, we have seen that they are overwhelmingly used to target young black men, especially in the inner-city areas of London, Manchester and Birmingham.
The need for the trade unions to support BLM
Another major issue in Britain is that whilst the turnout has been extremely diverse, with people from many ethnic backgrounds (especially from younger generations) participating, the workers movement has not been as actively involved as it should be. We believe the unions need to play an active role, linking movements against oppression with other working class struggles including mobilising for protests. In the US there have been positive examples of solidarity, such as in Minneapolis where Socialist Alternative members who are bus drivers refused to drive police to protest sites. In the UK however, the trade unions were notably absent.
This lack of leadership and solidarity from the organised trade union movement was starkly demonstrated in the aborted BLM demo that was originally due to take place on the 13 June, in London. After threats of a far right counterprotest taking place, the organisers of the BLM demo decided to call it off, leaving the far right to have the streets mostly to themselves, attacking police officers and bystanders, as well as small sections of BLM supporters who still turned up on the day. This move gave the far right the impression that calling a counter demo would allow them to cow the protestors into not turning up, as well as endangering the groups of protestors who attended. Whilst we believe this was an error, we need to ask where was the solidarity from the leaders of the trade unions? Where was the offer of practical support and organisation to provide self-defence for BLM activists against the racist thugs? This also raises a key issue of the need for the movement to be democratically organised in order to discuss and agree on tactics and the programme to be fought for.
Liberation through socialism
The unions must now put active struggle against the bosses on the agenda, both in the workplace and in the streets. They need to be linking the crucial movements, like BLM, to other struggles, fighting for demands that can transform the lives of BAME people, and all workers.
The BLM movement in many towns and cities has already shown the desire to work with other organisations and build links between different movements. The ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ protests are an excellent example. We see the people involved beginning to draw radical conclusions, including that issues such as racism are inherent in the capitalist system that creates these divisions. Through linking the struggles, more and more will see the need to also fight for a socialist society.