What way forward for organising the BLM movement? A contribution to the debate
Statement from Socialist Alternative
The Black Lives Matter movement has spanned the world faster than Covid-19. Huge demonstrations, far larger than anything seen in recent years, have taken place in big cities from Minneapolis to Sao Paulo, from London to Johannesburg to Sydney – and not just once but often repeated over a number of days. The movement has reached into smaller towns and villages largely untouched by demonstrations in recent years, with the Guardian reporting: “St. Albans has never seen anything like this”. By 12 June, according to police estimates, in the UK alone 155,000 people had taken part in over 200 events. Massive mobilisations have taken place, with overwhelmingly – but not exclusively – young people of all ethnic backgrounds, notwithstanding their real concerns about the continued spread of the virus given the government’s incompetence.
The movement has had an extremely radical feel to it, with such large numbers involved in what are essentially illegal gatherings under lockdown but that the police have often been powerless to suppress. BLM’s magnificent action in Bristol to remove the Colston statue, which was well-coordinated, disciplined and non-violent, has opened up a debate about public spaces and what should be on display in them. More and more people are developing an awareness of how British imperialism emerged, steeped in blood with the lives lost in the slave trade.
This was always going to prompt a reaction from Tommy Robinson, along with various far-right groupings, who hide hypocritically behind the slogan ‘All Lives Matter’ and purport to be the patriots defending ‘British values’, in the same way that white supremacists in the US have rallied around statues of Civil War generals who fought for the right to enslave others. Vile threats by football hooligans and neo-Nazis were made about ‘doing whatever it takes to protect our statues’.
In response, Black Lives Matter called off the planned protests due to take place on 13 June, in order to avoid a clash with the far right. While it is understandable that there would be fear and confusion, Socialist Alternative believes this was a mistake.
How do we tackle the racist far-right?
In recent years the small resurgence of the far right, in various guises (EDL, FLA/DFLA, Britain First, etc), has been a matter of concern. Corbyn’s Labour failed to cut through with a clear socialist answer on jobs, public services and housing, and adopted a confused and compromised position on Brexit, which gave an opening to the right to pose as friends of the working class. The trade unions have failed to mobilise their members against far-right forces, opting instead to ‘franchise out’ the struggle by giving money to organisations such as Hope Not Hate and Stand Up To Racism, rather than taking the steps to directly mobilise the anti-racist struggle themselves and to demonstrate the opposition of the organised working class to racist division.
In many of the confrontations with the far right in recent years, the left has been in a minority, or not sufficiently strong to sweep them off our streets. This would be very possible were the full force of the labour and trade union movement – over 6 million people – to be combined with the hundreds of thousands of anti-racist young people showing their willingness to fight in the current movement. Despite a majority of the population supporting the aims of BLM, in a time of crisis where polarisation can develop – whipped up by the likes of Boris Johnson as well as Tommy Robinson – it is important to make sure that the far-right can be defeated on the streets as well as ideologically and in the court of public opinion.
Why did BLM call off the demonstrations for the weekend of 13/14 June? Was the decision made due to public pressure? Priti Patel and Matt Hancock were prominent among Tory voices urging people not to take part, ostensibly on the grounds that the virus might spread, but in reality because they feared the power of an insurgent mass movement on the streets. Keir Starmer also attempted to undermine the demonstrations in a bid to emphasise his support for ‘law and order’, but hedged his bets by saying the Colston statue should have been taken down years ago. Clearly (and unsurprisingly), no establishment party or politician is offering assistance or meaningful support to this movement.
An independent political voice for the BLM movement and the role of trade unions
This highlights the need for an independent political voice for the BLM movement. The organised working class, in the form of the trade unions, can offer not just numerical strength on the protests, but also an opportunity to fight for the demands of BLM in the workplaces as well as on the streets. Issues that are being raised in the movement such as how BAME people are more likely to be in low-paid jobs and on the frontline of battling Covid-19 can be addressed by organising in the workplaces for a pay rise, an end to casualised working such as zero-hours contracts and access to sufficient PPE. Many have noted the widespread discrimination in workplaces directed at BAME and migrant workers, particularly on the issue of recruitment and discipline. A fighting trade union movement would have the power to fight for an end to these practices and for workers’ control and oversight over hiring, firing, promotions and disciplinary cases.
Demands around decolonising education can also be fought for alongside education workers who are organised in trade unions with recent experience of pushing back the government on reopening schools, along with university strikes over inequality in workers’ pay and conditions. The task of decolonising the curriculum could be addressed democratically by students, BLM activists and the unions, in order to transform our education system from the bottom up. The potential power of BLM linking up with millions of organised workers, in a united show of strength for the movement’s demands, would mean that the actions of the far right would pale into insignificance.
The reason given for the cancellation was the threat of violence from the far-right: “We want the protests to be a safe space for people to attend,” a post from the BLM LDN organisers said. “However, we don’t think it will be possible with people like them present.” The BLM movement has enormous authority and other organisations, such as ‘Antifascists support BLM’, backed by Momentum, wished to follow their lead.
Defending the protests – and the right to protest
Unfortunately we cannot wait for the far right to disappear or retreat, or not be violent. The question is then, how do we ensure that the protests can be both as safe and and as impactful as possible? The effect of calling for people not to attend was that the BLM protest In London on 13 June was a fraction of the size of previous ones, and those who attended were left much less safe, and much more vulnerable to violence from the far right. It’s true that the far-right have exposed themselves as not truly being concerned – by making Nazi salutes and urinating on memorials – but unfortunately this will not prevent them from returning to the streets and doesn’t lessen their threat. Neither will future protests be protected by this approach, as the far right will have been emboldened by a feeling that they successfully scared off the huge crowds who took part the previous week. Had the call instead gone out for an even bigger mobilisation, the far right would have been dwarfed and it would have been a major success for the anti-racist movement.
We have to prepare to defend ourselves and our right to march. It’s clear that we can’t rely on the police to defend us, indicated by the use of horses charging crowds and kettling and now calls for bans on all demonstrations. We can’t support state bans on even protests of the far right, as they will at the same time be used to ban BLM and trade union protests. Therefore, stewarding – democratically choosing representatives of the movement to defend protests from both the police and the far right – is an essential requirement when organising BLM events. Decisions about stewarding – how many, who, ground-rules etc – should be discussed and agreed democratically. This is something the trade union movement has considerable experience of, with many activists being seasoned stewards and unions providing training for their members.
Socialist ideas for organising
Socialist Alternative believes that the trade union movement needs to urgently and seriously engage with the BLM movement and offer political assistance and material resources. It is not enough for trade unions to ‘outsource’ their anti-racist work to other campaigns. The full potential strength of the trade union movement needs to be brought into action. That’s why we have stressed the importance of trade union solidarity action, by bus drivers, postal workers and others in Minneapolis. That’s also why we have called for the trade union movement to discuss plans for a 9 minute protest strike in remembrance of George Floyd and in solidarity with BLM.
For any of these actions – effective stewarding, linking with other groups in the labour movement, developing a political programme demands and strategy – to come to fruition requires discussion, debate and a way for the movement to make decisions democratically. Could BLM assemblies be organised in each area involving protesters, trade unions, community organisations, etc? Could there even be the development of a structure of membership, chapters or branches that are enabled to make decisions that members can take part in and ‘own’, also to elect leaderships which are tried and tested in the heat of the campaign? Such democratic bodies would also facilitate debate on what demands the movement should be putting forward. Socialist Alternative believes this type of democratic approach could unite all those enraged by systemic racism and the killing of George Floyd, and channel the anger and dynamism of the movement in a way that can win real change. Ultimately, this must mean engaging the organised working class in the struggle and challenging the capitalist system that cultivates racism.