POLITICS
20/06/2020 4:08 PM IST | Updated 20/06/2020 4:08 PM IST

Could Wave Of Action Result In Meaningful Change For Black People?

Campaigners and writers hope Black Lives Matter protesters will push for police abolition – not just toppling of statues.

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Protesters pull down a statue of Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest rally in College Green, Bristol, in memory of George Floyd, who was killed on May 25 by a white police officer in Minneapolis

To those simply catching clips of masked protesters and statues toppling, the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK may seem unclear.

The issues protesters and supporters discuss are wide ranging: deaths in police custody, experiences within the criminal punishment system, Windrush, immigration policies, the curriculum, imperialist statues, the disproportionate number of Black people dying from coronavirus.

However, the movement’s unifying call is to eradicate racism, and the exposure of Black people to premature death. And with protests now entering their fourth week, many are speculating on how likely it is that they will see success – what would success even look like?

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The empty plinth where the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol once stood

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, author of Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, is sceptical of the British government’s ability to respond meaningfully to protests.

With Windrush Day – a commemoration of the scandal that saw British Caribbeans lose access to work, healthcare and citizenship – approaching, Charlie says: “I’m not sure we will ever get true justice for state injustices like Windrush. I have absolutely no faith in this government, and we’ve still got another four years to go.” 

Charlie points towards Boris Johnson’s appointment of Munira Mirza, an adviser who has described institutional racism as a “myth”, to lead the upcoming racial equality review in response to unrest. “They’re just playing us, and they’re going to be very tactical about it.”

But Nadine El-Nany – director of Birkbeck’s centre for research on race and law and author of (B)ordering Britain – says that, having closely followed anti-racist protest in previous years, this wave of action does feel like something special to her.

“These uprisings we’ve seen around the world have given me a feeling of hope and optimism that is generally very hard to come by,” she said.

She points out these protests are taking place in a different context from those of the movement’s first wave in 2014 to 2017.

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A demonstrator wearing a face mask at a Black Lives Matter protest in Trafalgar Square, London, on June 13

“We’ve seen rising far-right nationalism and authoritarianism in recent years,” she told HuffPost UK. “To see people rise up and push back against that has been uplifting.”

Meanwhile Sarah Lasoye, an organiser and postgraduate student, says the coronavirus pandemic has laid the foundations for these protests to roar on for longer, and for the demands to be more radical.

“I think coronavirus has exposed fragility – the fragility of societal orders,” she said.

“In so many ways, we now know that it is possible to change things.

“I feel like this has sparked a deeper interrogation of what the mainstream would consider a radical project – a reimagining of how we structure society, and where we invest money in order to keep us safe.”

For these reasons Sarah also sees this moment as a potential tipping point.  

But Nadine stresses that, to understand the protests, and to resist far-right rhetoric that frames them as criminal, we have to place them in context.

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Protesters throw the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest on May 25

“Even if we just think about the Colston statue action for a moment, we must remember Rhodes Must Fall started in South Africa. We have to remember that this is an anti-colonial movement at its heart – resistance against white supremacy there, and here, a system that subjugates Black lives.”

Much conversation has surrounded racist cultural artefacts; this week, Oxford’s Oriel College voted to remove its statue of imperialist politician Cecil Rhodes. Nadine sees these changes as positive, but also feels we shouldn’t lose sight of bigger goals.

“We risk the demands becoming about the removal of statues, rather than the dismantling of structural racism,” she said. “It’s been refreshing to see demands made around abolition because these are the sorts of radical demands we should be making – abolition of the police, borders and all forms of detention.” 

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Protesters wearing face masks and holding placards during a protest outside the University of Oxford's Oriel College. The statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes above one of its entrances will be removed, the college's governors have since confirmed

T*, a representative from Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE), tells us that police and prison abolitionists, who broadly advocate for the dissolution of police forces and the redirection of funding towards community groups and support services, are having their ideas heard more than ever before.

She said: “When this pandemic started we were still having conversations about whether or not the demands to free everyone in prison as a matter of public health were too radical.

“Now police abolition feels like a tangible goal.”

Sarah agrees. “I’ve seen people from school, and people who previously haven’t meaningfully engaged with issues like police brutality, sharing abolitionist posts and discussing why the police are not the necessary institution that they declare themselves to be,” she said.

“It seems that people are really coming to understand the systematic, institutional nature of the police’s racism.”

T said she also felt worried about abolitionists’ goals being co-opted – citing how the demand to “defund the police” has quickly been watered down to appease reformists.

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People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, on June 7

When it comes to the police, T says protesters shouldn’t settle for reforms – pointing towards Minneapolis City Council’s decision to disband its police service. “I don’t believe the state will have any problem sacrificing a few ‘bad officers’ or implementing liberal reforms like ‘8 can’t wait’ in order to quell protests.

“We need to focus and not get distracted by empty platitudes that do nothing to transform our material conditions.”

Charlie agrees it’s too soon to say whether there will be a meaningful government response to this month’s protests. But while this might not be a policy tipping point, she says, it seems to be a cultural one.

“That’s really exciting to me. For example, in the last few weeks I’ve seen many of the issues Black journalists cover finally being discussed in mainstream discourse. That feels very new, and very unique.”

Whilst some are more optimistic about the potential for change than others, Charlie, T, Nadine and Sarah all agree there are things we can do in the short-term to increase the movement’s likelihood of success.

Charlie said: “In the short term in the UK, we need to continue looking at and campaigning around deaths in police custody.

“I’ve also seen a lot of conversation on workers’ rights, the experiences of Black people within the workplace, instances of everyday racism, and taking steps to eradicate them. These perhaps aren’t revolutionary, but will really improve the lives of Black people in this country.”

In the last few weeks I’ve seen many of the issues Black journalists cover finally being discussed in mainstream discourse. That feels very new, and very unique.Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

But there is another urgent matter to address. Following the 2011 riots, which have frequently been used as a media reference point for recent Black Lives Matter protests, 1,292 people were jailed for a total of over 1,800 years. Following this month’s protests, said Nadine, supporters must vocally oppose the prosecution of demonstrators. 

For Sarah, change starts at home – looking around at your local community and the ways that racial injustice might be enacted within it: ″‘What is near me? Where is my closest prison? Where is my local police department? How can I contact my MP? How do I make the case for my own community to begin defunding the police?’

“It’s about distilling this big moment of realisation into something that’s applicable for you, in your community.” 

T agrees, encouraging supporters to find out about the campaigning local groups and communities are already doing around prison abolition, but also other issues that disproportionately affect Black people, like housing, poverty and the criminalisation of sex work and drugs.  

“Offer your help and support where you can,” she said. “Ultimately we need to keep listening and learning from ways communities are already keeping each other safe.”

*T’s name has been changed