National Comment Comment

The truth about protesting

Bringing about change is never easy, and doing it without organisation is impossible.

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The death of George Floyd by the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin has ignited outrage in the hearts of people right across the globe, and the growth of organic protest movements in response to the tragedy has released dormant fury. At Hyde Park in central London last Wednesday, members of the UK arm of Black Lives Matter chanted “no justice, no peace”, while Star Wars actor John Boyega reminded the crowd of our national sins by evoking the name of Stephen Lawrence.

This is a name which still induces a fearful silence from me today. Murdered by thugs at 18 years old while waiting for a bus after school, Lawrence’s story highlights British institutional racism. As the backdrop to my childhood, it taught a generation the thinly veiled truth: no matter what you do, or how you see yourself, white people decide who you are.

It is very popular for feminists and Marxists to say, ‘we live in systems of oppression’ but what does that mean? Emotional Facebook posts or changing profile pictures and retreating into our isolated lives until the next crisis does nothing. Even demonstrations in Hyde Park do not force social change. Not alone.

To end oppressive power, we need to understand power. Participation in civic society is the root to empowerment for disadvantaged communities. Being able to shape the structures that surround you is power at its purest.

We know that black boys are six times more likely to be arrested for drug offences, and courts are 4.5 times more likely to inflict harsher sentences on black defendants than their white counterparts. The solution to institutional racism is to become the institution.

Change only exists when it is real, measurable, and felt. When the Metropolitan Police was labelled ‘institutionally racist’ by the Macpherson report, it also advised that ‘the police forces should reflect the cultural and ethnic mix of the communities they serve’. Similarly, the response to our culturally corrupt court system is to become the magistrates, the lawyers, the law enforcers. In a wider context we must ask ourselves, why are Asian key-workers at higher risk of suffering COVID-19? What are the systems which prevent effective minority representation? (Female minority representation being especially prejudiced). Systems aren’t sexy but they have the power to dictate your life.

The great political void of our time is that no politician can effectively channel our grief and despair into action. The only person able to cut through the uncertainty and sense of isolation is President Obama. His recent Twitter thread encourages activism and using protest in conjunction with politics.

Withdrawing into social media detaches us from the world as we retreat into our echo chambers. We retreat into the self. Social media is a type of isolated freedom where we can view the world as we wish. Reality at its most surreal. This shift in culture shields us from the real purpose of democracy, which is to exercise power. Unorganised campaigning embodied by social media is inaction. When the white heat of rage is coupled with a cold understanding of absolutist power, we gain results.

In response to the protests after the death of George Floyd, many people are decrying the killing but insist rioting is too far. These are the same pleas the 1960s civil rights movement encountered – ‘Slow down!’ – ‘Stop asking for so much’ – ‘don’t damage property’ yet underneath what I hear is ‘I care, but not if I have to risk anything’. That isn’t a choice for some of us. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail provides the best deconstruction.

“I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’ …justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

If you're surprised by chants of ‘White Lives Matter’ you need to understand the criticism Malcolm X had for ‘White Liberals’.  At the height of racial tensions liberals like the Kennedys or modern-day Clintons always had a tentative dedication to the equality.  President Kennedy never appointed a black man to his cabinet, like his Republican rival Richard Nixon guaranteed.  The Democratic Party only passed major civil rights legislation after gaining moral authority following Kennedy’s death.  President Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill imprisonment more black men than ever before, for longer sentences.  Clinton also built the infrastructure for the militarised police protestors want to defund today.  These actions often undermined the limited progress black movement had achieved.

Brother Malcolm understood liberals never delivered real change.  Their loyalty to the cause was always contingent on advancing their popularity in other ways.  We can see this today when black students do better than whites despite both falling behind academically.  White liberals panic about ‘the left-behind white working class’.  Malcolm X refused to be second place to white advancement.  Promises of action quickly turn to tokenism, false promises of integration, and continuing disproportionate poverty - sound familiar?

The solution is to cause conflict. With an objective. King engineered situations to shame the government into action. The political strategy of the civil rights movement was to keep the tension up. Peaceful protesting does not embarrass governments. Non-violent confrontations coupled with clear political objectives – do. Even better if the disadvantaged communities are participating in formalised structures to embed the debate further.

Rioting, like social media alone, is not the solution. Not because it’s wrong. The militarised police do the majority of property damage. Tear gas and rubber bullets beat the human body any day. Rioting fails because the true objective is to change to the criminal justice system. As with any structural issues, we need organised political movements. To create consistent tension with the police, so the public is made uncomfortable, and thereby force the government into reluctant action. For example, recent Extinction Rebellion protests have the potential to force change.

Social media has given us the tools for mass gatherings. We need the political leadership. We need the objectives we can demand from the government. We need to gain power by entering systems of formal authority. Together we can organise. A movement is not built on one person, but neither is it built on a day of protesting.

When we organise, we can understand our collective struggle and work to resolve it. When the members of parliament who shamed Prime Minister Theresa May over the Windrush Scandal stand with impassioned protesters, we will create a potent political force. The organisations who pushed the government to create a Race Disparity Audit to review governmental discrimination and those who promote young people from minority communities into civic life are here. Operation Black Vote and the Patchwork Foundation provide the intelligential support for change. They identify what we need to change in law and culture, while also providing Britain with young talented political leaders.

The current protests symbolise hopelessness; with racism, with lost opportunity; in the form of no jobs, expensive education, and the feeling that we can’t control our futures. We need to make our next actions meaningful. Then names like George Floyd and Stephen Lawrence will have contributed to change instead of being lost to anger.

For further reading about the impact of COVID-19 on minority communities
https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/coronavirus-diversity_uk_5ec40f03c5b6c7b429001471?ncid=tweetlnkukhpmg00000001&utm_campaign=share_twitter&guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly90LmNvL1hUV0cwY2x1UVg_YW1wPTE&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAABXvCZSsgwW0gf_D5enMbehQJx9vj6VOf24g4NGTdWLXPEUn9My8UQIhlqJuQSQ4gt71CYmTtILxoHdWofAOh6r6gS0Ha_myfEhCQuoDMj8ph3M7a1funzclsSmYUazSyCroF42q6lFSHV-I458Vs3W0zx-RZY8sq2hStTC2kA8w

Links to civic engagement non-profits:
The Patchwork Foundation - https://patchworkfoundation.org.uk/
Operation Black Vote - https://www.obv.org.uk/

For further reading on why the Metropolitan Police was found ‘institutionally racist’:
The Macpherson report 1999 -
https://www.theguardian.com/uk/1999/feb/24/lawrence.ukcrime12

For further reading about racial divisions in Britain:
The Cantle report 2001 - https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/dec/11/race.world5

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