By Charlie Buckley – Contributor and Host of Yorcast
Only a few weeks ago, protesters amassed in the hundreds of thousands across America to clash with police, burn their cars and police stations, loot Targets and destroy statues that celebrated the Confederacy. The impact this had on the authorities in America was laid bare when the Minneapolis City Council pledged to abolish the local police force, something totally unprecedented in a country that seems to celebrate its law enforcement as if it were a religion. Now, as protesters have gone home, police have packed up their riot gear, and numerous victims of police brutality have been buried, the discourse is almost unrecognisable compared to its former self; talks of radical change have been replaced by pedantic ‘culture war’ debates over if we should capitalise the B in ‘black’, or if the term ‘master bedroom’ is problematic. Large corporations who were undoubtedly on the receiving end of protesters’ anger have now been tweeting black squares and hashtags in support, as if they have the same interests as those who were looting their stores a month ago.
Simply put, in the past month we’ve witnessed the watering down of the BlackLivesMatter movement. It’s being reduced from something which could’ve potentially led to the dismantling of the police state and prison-industrial complex in America, to a mere Hashtag whose legacy largely consists of some food companies rebranding, Netflix removing some old films, and the House Democrats having a photo-op wearing Kente cloth.
This isn’t to say that the ‘soft’ aspects of the movement are entirely ineffective; petitions and crowdfunds have given certain causes the attention and financial backing they needed to be successful (raising awareness for incidences of police violence, bailing protesters out of jail and paying their legal fees, paying the medical bills of people wounded by rubber bullets and batons, etc). The power of social media as a tool for organising effective protest has been made clear once again in America, as it was in the Arab Spring, in Hong Kong, France and so on. The passive, persuasive element of the BlackLivesMatter message is not the problem, but without the threat of violent protest and disorder alongside it, the overall movement becomes toothless. At the height of the protests a few weeks ago, the authorities were on the verge of accepting protesters’ demands because they had to, so to avoid erupting a civil war in their own state. Now, without people on the streets throwing bricks and starting fires, BLM has been relegated to the power of persuasion. But if racism in America could be solved with just dialogue and education, it would have ended years ago. As demonstrated by the behaviour of the police and the state at almost every level during these protests, racism in America is more than an issue of individuals’ prejudices; it’s institutional, and it’s systemic.
Convincing people that black lives do matter will not, unfortunately, be enough to stop the unjust treatment of black people by law enforcement. In America, racism is (and always has been) motivated by profit as much as it is by individuals’ prejudices. The remnants of segregated neighbourhoods, racial profiling by the police, mass incarceration thanks to the war on drugs, and the institutionalisation and repeated reincarceration of black men as a result of this, has created a gravy train of profit for private prisons and detention centres, firms which exploit cheap prison labour, and companies who have been arming police forces to the teeth with surplus military equipment. The marginalisation and oppression of African Americans and other minority groups is deeply entrenched in the American economy and society, and so tackling it requires pulling it up from the roots, not applying band-aid solutions that have become trendy since the protests have died down: empty gestures from mega-corporations, books on ‘white fragility’, and voting Democrat in November.
Removing Trump from office and electing Joe Biden would perhaps serve to alleviate the explicitly racist rhetoric coming from the White House, but it’s naïve to assume a Democrat like Biden would exhibit any real courage and leadership to address systemic racism in America. The former VP wrote the 1994 Crime Bill, which has put hundreds of thousands of African Americans in prison, and he has a history of being chummy with segregationist representatives in Congress. Furthermore, being a black man didn’t stop Obama sending in the national guard to Ferguson in 2014, so why should we expect an orthodox white Democrat like Biden to act any differently? Ultimately, the state is always going to support its own laws and law enforcement, so we cannot count on any establishment figure to change that – even if that person is less racist than Trump. Similarly, despite how quick large corporations like Netflix and Nike were to scrub their product lines of potentially racist material, we can’t rely on them as arbiters of racial justice. No company illustrated this more clearly than Amazon, who pledged to not sell their facial recognition software to US police forces for a year, by which time they’re probably hoping nobody will notice or care. If the horrifically exploitative practices of firms like Nike in the Global South weren’t already enough to convince you that they’re not interested in justice and wellbeing for the downtrodden, then these transparently empty gestures from the likes of Amazon should be.
In a system where dominance is institutionalised and legitimised, you cannot expect to fight this domination through channels condoned by the system. The situation in the UK is no different; in Bristol, there had been legitimate, civil-democratic pushes to take down the Edward Colston statue for years now to no avail; the power these actions have against the threat of racist millionaire donors taking, say, a university out of their will is just not enough. When the game is rigged, taking matters into your own hands is the only way you can hope to get anything done, and in Bristol we got a glimpse of what can be achieved by circumventing the institutions that only serve to frustrate and demoralise attempts at progressive change.
This was why the protests in June felt so momentous; the power of collective anger had never before been realised on the scale that it was on the streets. The achievements of BlackLivesMatter in the courts or the ballot box pale in significance to what it’s mobs of disillusioned people across the country could do – such a shock to the system hasn’t been seen in America for since the Civil Rights movement. I ask what felt more tangibly threatening to the status quo: enormous riots across the country that showed how weak the state is when faced with masses of pissed-off people, or the possibility that some of those people will go on to vote Blue in November? We may be one more scandalous murder by a policeman away from a serious readjustment of the relationship between black people, the state, and the police – but to seize this opportunity we need, more than anything else, collective action on the streets.