A Struggle Without Borders

Adam Elliott-Cooper

The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining ground in the United Kingdom.

A Black Lives Matter demonstration in Oxford, England. Cathy Griffiths / Flickr

Interview by
Duncan Thomas

On August 5, the Black Lives Matter movement came to the United Kingdom, as activists blocked the main road to Heathrow Airport, gaining global media coverage. Members of the group undertook a similar action on September 6 at London City Airport to highlight the disparity between the freedom of movement afforded to some and the forced deportation of black and brown migrants, as well as protest the United Kingdom’s environmental impact on black lives locally and globally.

Jacobin’s Duncan Thomas talked to Adam Elliott-Cooper, a lecturer in sociology at Warwick University and activist with Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK), about the need for the movement to come to Britain, the history of black struggle in the country, and the roots of racial oppression.


DT

Much of the reaction to Black Lives Matter UK in the mainstream media has been one of condescension and dismissal. Comparisons are often made with the United States in order to shut down debate — British police are said to be benign compared to their American counterparts, or it is argued that black people in Britain lack the sort of historical grievance that African Americans have due to the legacy of slavery.

How would you respond to people who question the need for BLMUK in this way?

AEC

This impression is due to the fact that Britain’s racial oppression has primarily occurred elsewhere historically. Regarding slavery, for example, this was more or less abolished on the British mainland in Elizabethan times, but Britain continued to engage in the trade across the globe for many centuries.

This kind of geographical removal, allied to the still relatively positive image of the British Empire, means that while racism and “whiteness” is central to British identity, these components are far easier for British people to deny or ignore when compared to settler-colonial states such as the United States. The latter produced a far more visceral and overt manifestation of racial violence.

Nonetheless, Britain’s colonial past has left a legacy of racism that continues to affect the lives of racialized minorities in Britain today. Many of the repressive practices used against colonized peoples were imported to the center of empire when large-scale migration began in the 1940s and 1950s — decades that saw a huge expansion of the prison system. This had first been systematically developed in places like Jamaica and Kenya. Such methods of social control and violence were rooted in colonialism and then brought to Britain itself, where of course they were disproportionately directed against racialized minorities.

This continues today. While the British police don’t routinely carry guns and the intensity of violence isn’t as high as that in the United States, there is still an average of one death a week at the hands of the police in this country. Black people are disproportionately represented in those figures, and are also disproportionately incarcerated at a comparable level to African Americans.

Of course, people still migrate to Britain from former colonies and elsewhere. This pattern of migration takes place due to the fact that the resources and wealth originally extracted from the Global South continue to flow here. Indeed, companies listed on the London Stock Exchange control over $1 trillion worth of Africa’s resources. In response to the inevitable migration of people from the Global South to richer nations like Britain, we see the rise of detention centers and an increase in structural and overt violence directed against migrants, even before they reach Britain itself, with thousands dying each year in the Mediterranean Sea.

These factors — the British Empire’s legacy of racism, the disproportionate suffering of racialized minorities under punitive systems imported from the colonies, and the violence directed against migrants — mean that there could not be a more pertinent time for Black Lives Matter in the United Kingdom.

DT

A clear recent example of how crime is racialized in Britain would be the reaction to the civil unrest of 2011, which followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London. Could you talk about this and other ways in which race and criminality are commonly conflated?

AEC

Regarding the 2011 civil unrest, the news was full of mugshots of black and brown faces. This seemingly new form of punitive humiliation is comparable to how in colonial India the British tattooed the foreheads of people they had identified as being “predisposed” to theft or other forms of criminalized activity.

The punitive sentencing that followed these events was also disproportionately used against black and brown people — as it was in the civil unrest in the 1970s and 1980s. So there is historical continuity between the ways in which crime was racialized in the colonies and continues to be racialized in Britain today.

Stuart Hall highlighted this in his analysis of the “mugging epidemic” of the 1970s, which was a way of identifying African and Carribbean men as being particularly prone to violence and street crime. Today, we see this in the concern around gangs, against which David Cameron announced an all-out war in 2011. However, “gangs” and “gang culture” are really code words for black people and black communities.

This was shown by research conducted by Patrick Williams and Becky Clark of Manchester Metropolitan University. Manchester police said they had a big problem with gangs, and so the researchers asked them for the criteria by which gang membership and gang crime were supposedly identified — these included things like discharging a firearm, violent crime, and so on.

While over 80 percent of people involved in the kinds of crimes supposedly used to identify gang members were white, around 80 percent of people actually classified by the police as gang members were black or Asian. In quite a stark, empirical way, this shows that what is really used to measure gang membership is race.

These are just some of the examples of how crime is racialized in ways that allow politicians, the press, and various arms of the state, particularly the police, to avoid referring to race explicitly — what is sometimes called “dog-whistling.”

It is important to say, however, that many of the forms of policing and control that have been used on black and brown people in Britain have also been used on the white working class — just as white people were lynched in Alabama, or enslaved in the Caribbean, for example. While these systems of violence and control are heavily racialized, techniques developed on black and brown populations can also be applied to the working class as a whole, albeit in an uneven manner.

DT

The examples you use all link racism and racialization to institutional practices developed to maintain social control, rather than explaining these phenomena as the result of individuals’ prejudices. Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor talks about this a lot in the US context in her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. In the United Kingdom, the 1999 Macpherson Report, which investigated the police’s handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder, found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist. Do you think we’ve progressed since then?

AEC

The police tried to reject the findings of the Macpherson Report as soon as it was published. As time passed, they started to do this in a more open, regular, and systematic way, and now refer to institutional racism in the past tense, if they refer to it at all. Of the many recommendations in the report, to my knowledge none have been satisfactorily implemented.

On the contrary, as I have written elsewhere, police racial equality training seems to largely be focused on teaching officers what language to use if they are caught committing racial abuse. For example, police officers who compared black people to monkeys and Neanderthals were found not to have violated the Race Relations Act. Instead, it was claimed that they were having a debate on evolution. In 2012, a police officer knelt on the chest of a black man and told him “the problem with you is you will always be a n****r.” The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) found no grounds to prosecute, after hearing that the officers involved were attempting to boost the self-esteem of a young black man who apparently viewed his own ethnicity negatively.

We even saw a case recently when a black firefighter pulled over to try to assist some officers. They dragged him out of his car, tasered him, beat him, and verbally abused him. While they were being investigated for racism and assault by the Independent Police Complaint Commission (IPCC), one of them received a promotion.

A personal anecdote also shows how little the idea of institutional racism is understood. While monitoring police during the 2012 Olympics, I challenged an officer who had stopped and searched a young black guy in Stratford and told him that I was going to make a complaint. When I mentioned institutional racism, the officer angrily asked me if I was accusing him personally of being institutionally racist. I had to explain that that wasn’t possible, as he was an individual, not an institution. That was met with total confusion. So there is no understanding of the problem or any idea of what should be done about it.

These examples begin to show why justice cannot be achieved through the existing state-sanctioned channels. According to most mainstream reactions to BLMUK, we should operate through such channels in a “responsible,” non-disruptive fashion.

Such arguments imply that resistance to state violence began on August 5 2016, when BLMUK activists blocked the road to Heathrow Airport, apparently as a first, rather than a last, resort. This of course is nonsense. We have been using the “legitimate channels” for decades without achieving satisfactory results — we have tried the court system through inquiries and civil cases, we have tried the IPCC, we have tried different forms of education and community organizing. We have conducted non-disruptive marches, we have written articles, books, countless letters, and petitions.

But despite these efforts, and despite the fact that, as I mentioned, on average one person a week dies at the hands of the police in this country, there has not been a single conviction of a police officer for a death in custody since 1969.

There are only two possibilities: either the legitimized channels available to us are not fit for purpose and do not function in our interests; or there is a very unfortunate coincidence of people just dropping dead at the hands of the police and it simply isn’t their fault in a single case. Most people who are honest will recognize the former explanation as being correct.

DT

While police reform would obviously be positive, would you agree that there are limits to what this could achieve? If the police are agents of social control, and if society is structured by class division and racism, can we even imagine such a thing as a non-racist police force without far more fundamental change in this larger context?

AEC

No. The police are agents of the state, and the state is the centralized power within society concerned with the maintenance of capitalism. As part of this function, it is also the primary producer and reproducer of racism. Therefore, we cannot conceive of there ever being a non-racist police force while there is a racist state committed to facilitating capital accumulation.

The only way in which a non-racist manifestation of a somewhat police-like institution could ever be realized would be if the state as we know it is dismantled and a form of governance and social organization which is not fundamentally racist replaces it.

In the meantime, we can be guided by the Black Panthers’s slogan of “survival pending revolution.” Until there is systemic, fundamental social change, we have to live with as much dignity as we can.

This is important for bringing people into the movement and showing basic solidarity. If you’re not interested in the day-to-day existence of ordinary people, but only in some revolution somewhere on the horizon, then I think that’s quite an empty revolutionary philosophy. You’d be hard-pressed to find any serious revolutionary who has advanced that kind of detached notion.

So although a non-racist police force is impossible under the current form of social organization, we still struggle for a relatively less repressive and racist police system, as well as more equitable housing, access to wage labor (as problematic as that is), and other small, incremental reforms that allow people to live in more security and dignity. These advances, hopefully, are steps on the road to a different kind of society, and build people’s capacity to struggle towards that goal.

DT

While not denying the specificity and independence of movements for racial justice, to me such a far-reaching project implies a wider struggle of class solidarity across racial lines. We perhaps saw the outlines of what such a movement would look like in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, when a number of organizations articulated black as a “political color” encompassing a range of racialized minorities.

Links were built with sections the socialist British left, with activists from Jewish and Irish backgrounds often serving as conduits. What are the prospects of rebuilding that kind of solidarity today?

AEC

That’s a big question. It’s certainly true that black people in Britain have a rich tradition of trying to build class solidarity. C. L. R James is an obvious example of someone who produced work on the British working class and the domestic struggle against capitalism and linked this to anti-imperialist and antiracist movements.

Another example would be the Mangrove Nine, who were arrested while protesting police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, an important place for the local black community. The Mangrove Nine activists were part of the British manifestation of the Black Panther Party.

At their trial, they demanded a majority working-class jury, as they believed such a composition would show a greater degree of solidarity with them than a majority middle-class jury. Indeed, the trial returned the first-ever verdict that there was evidence of “racial hatred” in the police force. So there has been a fundamental attempt to draw upon and develop those links of solidarity.

As you say, this has happened in the other direction too. There was quite a significant anti-apartheid movement in this country, as well as forms of solidarity against the British Empire among sections of the British working class as well.

However, I think that because of Britain’s position as the historic center of empire, “whiteness” as an ideology is extremely powerful. This is the fundamental barrier preventing greater links between working-class people who are racialized differently. Indeed, there often isn’t even class solidarity among different groups of white working-class people — when one group of largely white workers go on strike, even when there is no racial barrier, they are usually not meaningfully supported, and many people buy into the demonization of unions by the media and politicians. So bridging both the class and the racial divide is even more difficult.

I’m trying not to be too pessimistic, but I struggle to envisage a broad-based movement of class solidarity in Britain that understands the fundamental fact that capitalism is the material way in which class, race, gender, and other forms of oppression are organized and entrenched. There is currently far more revolutionary potential in the Global South. If anything is going to drive change on a global scale, I believe it will be anticapitalist struggles for the socialization of resources in these countries.

However, BLMUK and migrant solidarity movements have an important role to play in this regard by highlighting unequal global power relations in the core capitalist countries in which they are based, and linking this to domestic struggles.

DT

Not to add to your pessimism, but to what degree is there even solidarity between and among various racialized minorities in Britain today? How did the state respond to the previous wave of struggle mentioned above, and how effective were its attempts to create cleavages between different “ethnic” categories?

AEC

You are correct that this was one of the aims of state and unfortunately it has been quite effective. Following the civil unrest in 1981 and 1985, “regeneration” and “investment” in different communities — in reality, an attempt to create a middle-class or petit-bourgeois element in black and other minority groups — became central to creating divisions between and within various racialized populations.

Through investment in black businesses, having more black people in boardrooms, in the army, the police, and so on, the state created far greater class stratification within these communities. This also put that small elite stratum in competition with one another for resources, whether that be black against Asian, or competition within these groups.

A similar approach was used to great effect in the United States after the Watts riots. In a way, these developments are similar to the creation of native bourgeoisies across the British Empire, usually based on skin complexion or caste among local populations. Just as this channeled anticolonial struggles into individual motivations to acquire personal success, notoriety, and wealth accumulation, so the limited creation of middle classes from racialized minorities in places like Britain and the United States is used to promote an individualizing, “aspirational” mentality – you might join that middle class one day, if you can compete successfully to become an individual “winner” in the capitalist market.

This kind of individualism replaces collective struggle, and indeed reinforces and re-articulates racism, often by deploying culturalist explanations to explain inequality — after all, if you don’t succeed in a meritocracy with a multiracial middle class, it must be your own fault.

DT

How important is it that this attempt to create minority middle-class strata occurred at roughly the same time as the turn to neoliberalism and the diminishing of the state’s role as a redistributive agent?

AEC

Very important. Instead of making resources available for self-help groups, youth clubs, supplementary schools or whatever, the role of the state under neoliberalism is simply to facilitate the market. Resources are instead expended through loans to set up black businesses, for example, or depoliticized projects that compete for funding on an ethnic basis.

Of course, the role of the state has always been to maintain capitalism, but under neoliberalism, this is no longer done by reforms and amelioration of the condition of the working class in order to conserve the overall system, but is achieved through putting the working class in competition with itself. Of course, this has an overall atomizing effect on the ability of the working class, of whatever racial background, to organize collectively.

However, neoliberal capitalism also creates points and sites of opposition, something evident in the fact that many BLM protests in both the United States and the United Kingdom focus on shopping malls or transit hubs. For example, there were protests against deaths in police custody at Westfield shopping center, the biggest shopping center in London, with hundreds of activists entering the building and staging a die-in to stop it from functioning.

Such protests, as well as the recent BLMUK actions blocking airports, are most immediately about shutting down “the every day.” Racism is the experience of black and brown people every day; these actions shut down the every day for the rest of society.

However, disrupting such sites also gives you leverage, because under neoliberalism, shopping centers are places of power due to their importance in facilitating the circulation of capital. With the mass outsourcing of industrial jobs from core capitalist economies under neoliberalism, actions in places like shopping centers and transport hubs give you the ability to disrupt the flow of capital at the point of consumption, rather than at the point of production as in a traditional strike. Rather than shutting down the factories where things are produced, we shut down the shopping centers where things are consumed.

So while neoliberalism and state strategies have been somewhat successful in opposing prior waves of struggle, they have also created new points and opportunities for disruption. Even if people don’t necessarily understand all the mechanisms of neoliberal capitalism, they do understand these places to be centers of power.

I think that’s why shopping centers and the like are such attractive targets for movements like Black Lives Matter, and perhaps with greater theorization we can begin to think more strategically about what this might mean.

DT

Finally, how can people sympathetic to BLMUK get involved and show solidarity?

AEC

There are many ways in which people can engage in solidarity with organizations like BLMUK, many of which are as straightforward as identifying local groups. There are many campaigns which challenge police violence locally, or pursue justice for a specific death at the hands of the state.

Secondly, as the state seeks to disperse migrants across the country, developing spaces that migrants rely on for social, legal, and other resources becomes increasingly necessary.

Finally and perhaps most important is understanding the role that Britain and other wealthy nations play in underdeveloping poorer nations. Activists can incorporate this perspective into campaigns they may already be involved in, such as those challenging domestic income inequality reproduced by the government and the financial system, or against big polluters such as the fossil fuel industry.

By developing an understanding of how capitalism, environmental degradation, and other injustices impact on black lives both in Britain and across the globe, people who may not be immediately connected to antiracist and anti-imperialist can show solidarity. In doing so, they can also raise awareness of the relevance of such issues, which many people would not necessarily see as closely connected to movements for black lives.