What anti-racist action do we need?
I have faced racism my entire life.
I grew up as a mixed race kid feeling like I never belonged to any particular group of people, I have been stopped by police, hidden on trains to avoid being spotted by fascists and had people avoid sitting next to me on public transport.
I know for a lot of people these situations are all too common and become just another part of your life. You can try to become hardened to it and laugh it off, pretend that it doesn’t really matter. I tried to make it through situations that made me feel tiny for fear of speaking out in case it ruined a relationship or made the situation awkward. But it grinds you down and you can break down without any warning, because there’s this sense of powerlessness that comes with accepting racism.
It’s a learned helplessness from generations of systematic abuse and the only way we can shake it off is by coming together to fight for something better.
We deserve more.
I’ve been an activist for around 10 years and I’ve heard a lot of stories. Some are very similar to mine, others are much more harrowing. They’re not my stories to share but there are those which are so blatant, so brutal and so visible that they can take the world by storm.
George Floyd is one of those
Mark Duggan is one of those
Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor...the list goes on...and on.
Trevor Noah recently described the outpouring of support for George Floyd as a domino effect. He connected the attitude of Amy Cooper understanding what calling the police means to a black man, with the way a white police officer can kneel on George Floyd's neck and murder him without batting an eyelid. I completely agree with this analysis.
Every element of racism is connected to one another because the problem isn’t individual, it’s not a psychological anomaly which can be taught out of us one at a time. It’s a systemic cancer which runs rampant through every element of capitalism, not by mistake, but because it has been there from the birth of this vastly unequal society.
Slavery produced the wealth to create the handful of billionaires who dominate today's society. In order to keep hold of this wealth, racism was born into every institution in order to protect the idea of their natural superiority. It was created in order to justify a brutal system of oppression slavery and violence.
This means it can also be dismantled.
The problem with the police
In the last week the melting pot of the US erupted. Under the Trump administration racism has been on the steady increase. Trump’s inflammatory rants, late night tweets, travel bans, conspiracy theories and racist language has fed the far right with limitless confidence.
Division and hatred is a language that Trump understands.
On May 29th 2020 Donald Trump tweeted to his 80 million followers “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He has previously called Mexicans crossing the border ‘rapists’ and told 4 Democratic congresswomen of colour to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came".
He has made his position very clear, time and time again, that the lives of people of colour do not matter in the United States and this sentiment is echoed by many in organisations like the KKK but also in the police force and the national guard. It has to be noted that the police and national guard both have a large crossover into white supremicist and fascist groups. Any quick google search will reveal a multitude of articles from military links to an FBI investigation which stated “historical” interest in “infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel.”
The police and national guard are breeding grounds for the far right. Because they patrol black neighbourhoods hunting potential criminals, this means racial stereotypes play a huge role in who will be arrested. These are institutions which have been made militarily stronger under the Trump administration with more access to “surplus military equipment like grenade launchers, tactical vehicles, and bayonets either for free or with the use of federal dollars.”
This racial profiling happens all over the world, the US is no exception. In the UK, where I lived until recently, the police have targets of arrests that they must meet otherwise they face repercussions.
Even if you believe the idea that a nice person can enter the police to protect their local community, they will be forced to look for ‘suspicious’ people who might be criminals in order to reach their 'arrest targets'. Of course this means looking to harass and charge young black kids for possession, breaking up peaceful protests or smashing picket lines. The police are a force, not a service, they are an institution which crushes the individual. Even the FBI have admitted that the culture of the police makes it impossible to serve the community.
Police officers have spoken about the difficulties of standing up to racism within the force. There is a "protect your own" mentality, and we see this in the actions of the police in response to the murder of George Floyd. The police came out into the streets enraged, firing on protestors with tear gas, running them down in armoured vehicles, trampling them with horses and attacking at will because one of their own was caught murdering a man in broad daylight.
Just like Donald Trump, the language of the police is violence.
Non-violence and riots
It’s difficult to be non-violent in a violent society.
Trump’s reckless arrogance and throw-away tweets will cause more bloodshed but people say that this time it “feels different.”
It’s impossible to ignore the numerous news outlets and social media news feeds full of rioting, looting and destruction of cities across the states centering in Minneapolis and people are understandably frustrated by it. From the outside it seems reckless and wasteful. In fact that feeling is encouraged by the mainstream media who choose to focus on fear and destruction rather than hope and justice.
It’s easy to dismiss something you don’t understand, especially if people in positions of authority are telling you it makes no sense. However, the anger and frustration which has been built up in the US population has been unleashed and we must understand it.
Before he was assassinated, Dr Martin Luther King Jr said “a riot is the language of the unheard” and right now it’s clear America hasn’t been listening.
The peaceful protests have been happening. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee his name was dragged through the dirt. He was blackballed from the NFL but other sporting figures such as LeBron James and Steph Curry have come out in support. They highlight the irony of the knee which Kaepernick took during the national anthem, compared with the knee of the officer on George Floyd’s neck.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has always pushed to be non-violent, aiming to raise awareness and demand justice for the people killed and their families, yet they have also been ignored and vilified.
The riots we see now are the last expression of people who have been repeatedly ignored, told their voices don’t hold power and their lives don’t matter. The expression of a riot is never organised, it’s never planned in advance, it happens when emotion takes over.
It is however, by no means a ‘bad’ form of protest.
To the ruling class and people who feel they would lose out all forms of protest are considered ‘bad’. When black people fight for justice, workers strike for a pay rise or women protest for abortion rights we’re all told to sit down and keep quiet.
There’s only so many times you can be told your voice doesn’t matter before you look to your fists as the answer.
There are people who denounce the riots because they say police agent provocateurs are instigating the violence by throwing objects, smashing and burning things. They say without this sort of involvement the riots would not be happening. However, I don’t think this is a good line of analysis. While I agree that it will be happening there is an explosive anger at the heart of these protests that represent years of mistreatment and that anger must come out.
Activist and rapper Killer Mike and activist Tamika Mallory have both addressed these issues differently but in a very strong way.
Killer Mike spoke emotionally at a press conference urging people to stay at home to “plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize in an effective way” and went on to encourage people to register to vote and demand change this way. His position standing alongside officials was clear, he wants structural change but through the normal methods given to us so we can “see the system that sets up for systemic racism burnt to the ground."
Mallory says “people here are saying...enough is enough"; ”Don’t blame the young people...they are enraged and there’s an easy way to stop it...charge the cops...all the cops”. Her powerful speech where she says “you are the looters...we learned violence from you” is reminiscent of Malcolm X’s famous speech in 1963 in which he states “the chickens had come home to roost”.
So what do we do?
While I agree more with Mallory than Mike, I do understand Mike’s disappointment and he is right that we need to regroup and strategize the coming weeks and months of struggle. Riots are uncontrollable events of pure emotion, they are raw and they are dangerous, but a strong political voice can direct them in a way which can be beneficial for systematic change.
Riots are not the only way to shut down a city and take control of our future, right now we need revolutionary tactics and revolutionary change.
We have already seen glimpses of it when bus workers refused to drive arrested protestors from the demonstrations. When this happens the police are powerless.
We have the ability to shut down cities by connecting the growing social movements directly into the unions of workers which can shut down production. We can shut down transport networks and take control of industry into the hands of the workers who are already there running things.
This is what capitalism is truly terrified of, the ruling class can survive social movements, it has done so in the past. The civil rights movement (CRM) leaders were given governing positions in order to shut down protest, others were assassinated. The movement on the streets was dispersed violently, or with the help of the CRM leaders. And many of the victories won in the 60’s have been slowly stripped back by changing terminology and creating an idea of a ‘colour-blind society’. This means that “Today, we have more black elected officials in the United States than at any point in American history. Yet for the vast majority of black people, life has changed very little.”
However, when social movements and worker’s power come together we can be unstoppable.
I’m writing this from Berlin where there have been solidarity demonstrations, and I’m incredibly proud to see them happening around the world. This must continue. International support for the movement and pressure on the US government can keep the momentum going and provide a bigger platform and voice to the people in the US fighting for their lives.
We also need to share the lessons of other movements in other countries in order to develop our own tactics relevant to where we are. In Hong Kong there has been a huge movement for democratic rights where new tactics are being used all the time and quickly spread through apps which government agencies can’t monitor. They use laser pointers and spray cans to blind cameras; trash can lids and luggage for shields; human chains to carry equipment to where it’s needed; and quick dispersals to different areas to avoid mass arrest or attacks from the police.
We can use our platforms to raise money and support for protestors in the US and the organisations representing them, as well as sign the online petitions. Everyone has a part to play and if you aren’t able to be at a protest physically there are other ways you can show your active support.
We also need to make a very clear distinction. What is happening in the US with the current riots is a very particular period of the movement which exists right there, right now. We should under no circumstances be promoting solidarity demonstrations with the idea that we will be rioting in solidarity. As I stated earlier a riot is not a planned action, and - if it were it very quickly becomes an exclusive and dangerous, small group of people - when we need the largest possible mass of people on the streets if we really want to shut things down.
We need to be promoting solidarity demonstrations to be safe, maintain social distancing, wear masks, arrive with people you know or meet people there, bring water and food and look after each other. Be as visible as possible in the streets and on social media so the US protestors and people affected by racism all over the world know that we are here.
Ultimately we are in a global system and we need a global movement in order to change things. We must organise in our workplaces to bring our colleagues into the streets or to send solidarity messages, in our local communities we need to build links and prepare for struggle. This system isn’t going to change unless we change it and no matter where we are we all know it needs changing.
Antony Hamilton is a Berlin based graphic designer and socialist activist from the UK. he is the author of 'A rebel's guide to Malcolm X'. This article was written for theleftberlin.com.