“I can't breathe. They're going to kill me.”
While he called out for his mother, George Floyd shouted these words with a police officer's knee pressed against his neck. He was going to be yet another unarmed black man killed at the hands of police on US streets. This case has reminded millions of the murder of Eric Garner – a black man who was suffocated to death for the 'punishable offence' of selling loose cigarettes. Garner’s similar refrain of ‘I can’t breathe’ became a rallying cry for the previous wave of anti-racist police violence protests.
The craven murder of Floyd has led to an explosive reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. More and more, multiracial crowds of workers and youth are getting together to demand justice and indict the system of US capitalism, which was founded on the systemic oppression of people of colour.
Tens of thousands of BLM activists have also taken to the streets in Britain to express their solidarity with the movement. #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd has become a slogan of international resonance, hitting out at not just police violence and racism but the overall deep inequality in modern capitalist society laid bare by the Covid-19 crisis. While expressing its solidarity with BLM in the US, protests in Britain have honed in on the shared history of racism and police brutality against people of colour on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the new slogans on the protests has been “The UK is not innocent”.
Racist police in the US are granted their right to harass black youth at will in American cities, but the situation here is not entirely different. One key decision of the Blair government was to introduce, in its 2000 Terrorism Act, the legal right for police to stop and search anybody they want on just a “hunch”. This permanent ability to search without any particular suspicion has laid the basis for the pathological harassment of black youth on our streets. BAME people are four times more likely to be stopped under the Terrorism Act than white people.
This shameful pattern of harassment and terrorising of BAME communities is woven through history. In 1981, inner-city areas like Moss Side (Manchester), Toxteth (Liverpool) and Brixton (London) erupted in anger at decades of police racism and terror. Sadly, we also have our own list of BAME deaths at the hands of the police. While the US has Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin, we have Mark Duggan. While they have Breonna Taylor and Armaud Arbery, we have Rashan Charles, Sean Rigg and Jean-Charles de Menezes.
Racism and British capitalism
Where does racism come from? For many people of colour, their first exposure to it will be by witnessing the bigoted attitudes among some sections of society, which must be challenged. But socialists also analyse the roots of racism in the capitalist system.
Industrial capitalism in Britain, from its birth was bound up with the craven disregard for black lives. Central to the development of British industry was the mass enslavement of millions of African people, who were to be crammed into ships off the coast of West Africa to live lives as slaves in the Americas or die during the journey. Indeed, many of our major cities today (Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow) would not exist in the way they do were it not for the capitalists’ slave trade.
In the 1940s, the desire of the British capitalists to find workers to underpay, so that they could boost profits, meant the arrival of thousands of black and Asian workers from the Caribbean and elsewhere. This drive to super-exploit BAME workers has been challenged many times, particularly by organised migrant workers, historically but also recently – for instance by outsourced migrant cleaners at the University of London. Nonetheless, BAME workers still face some of the worst conditions under capitalism.
It has long been the motivation of big business politicians to try to divide us along racial, national and ethnic lines. Indeed, February of this year saw a number of high-profile protests over the forced deportation of 17 British Jamaicans, most of whom had lived in this country for the majority of their lives. The actions of successive Tory and Blairite New Labour governments have attacked the status of migrant workers over time, building a regime of racist repression in violation of the right to work and settle here with dignity (read Socialist Alternative’s analysis of the Tories’ immigration laws here).
Covid-19 and the trade unions
This has had devastating effects on the BAME workers battling Covid-19 on the front line. Recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that British black Africans and British Pakistanis were 2.5 times more likely to die in hospital of Covid-19 than the white population. And while the right would like to reduce this to questions of genetics and 'culture', it has much more to do with class. A third of all working-age Black Africans are employed as key workers – 50% higher than the rest of the population - and those from BAME backgrounds are more likely to live in overcrowded housing in built-up areas where socially distancing is much harder
Crucially, the task of challenging racism and oppression means ensuring that our workplaces are well organised. If our trade unions were democratic, member-led and fighting ones, prepared to demand PPE and decent pay and conditions, they would be able to address the daily reality of the virus for BAME workers. It would mean that the lives of those like Belly Mujinga – the rail worker who died of Covid-19 after being spat at – could have been saved. It could have allowed her to defend her right to stay home due to an underlying health condition. Organising in the unions will be a matter of life and death for BAME workers.
The potential role that fighting trade unions can play has been shown by the Amalgamated Transit Union in Minneapolis. There, bus drivers have refused to be used by the police and authorities against the protesters. Socialist Alternative members active in the union have been key to winning support for the movement. As SA member and ATU activist Adam Burch stated to Time magazine
“As a transit worker and union member I refuse to transport my class and radical youth to jail. An injury to one is an injury to all. The police murdered George Floyd and the protest against it is completely justified and should continue until their demands are met.”
It is this sort of solidarity that can be an effective weapon against the brutality of the police and those that seek to divide working class people.
The fight against racism and police violence cannot stop here. We must build a movement that can also challenge the capitalist system and the prejudice and division it breeds on a day-to-day basis. On the basis of a democratically planned socialist economy, a real basis would be laid for the elimination of economic and racial inequality, allowing us to move towards a system that genuinely values the lives of BAME people and workers alike.
Solidarity with Minneapolis – all out to win the fight for black freedom!
Build BLM globally - organise protests in each city. Trade unions must mobilise to support the fight!
Jail all killer police and stop racist policing, including the “stop and search” policy. For democratic community control and oversight over police bodies. We need police that are from our communities and serve ordinary people – not the ruling elites!
Workers must organise - unionise and fight under Covid-19 for a living wage, full PPE and pay rises for all key workers.
Housing for all - build militant tenants unions to organise for rent controls. For the mass building of widely available, good quality council housing under tenants’ control, funded by taxing the rich and nationalisation of key sectors of the economy.
Build a mass movement to end capitalism – organise to fight for a socialist plan that would lay the basis for the eradication of racism and state violence.