Police Violence

Derek Chauvin is guilty. The news was greeted with a sigh of relief by white America.

After all, this shows that American justice works and that Mr Chauvin was the proverbial bad apple, who has now been removed from the barrel. Black Americans can sleep easily in their beds knowing that this was a terrible tragedy but one that has now been put right. Or, not.

When the verdict was announced people on Twitter were popping gifs of champagne corks flying. I understand why, but what were we celebrating exactly?

In the space of just 9 minutes and 29 seconds George Floyd’s life was snuffed out and, let’s be honest, if there hadn’t been video of the event that police officer would never have been disciplined let alone convicted.

A pandemic of police violence

In this case the evidence was so strong that anything but a guilty verdict would have simply added to the litany of miscarriages of justice which are commonplace in American justice when white police officers kill black people. Did I say American justice, in the U.K. we have the grotesque story of police officers taking selfies with the bodies of two young black women who were murder victims.  In Germany the police force is riddled with neo-fascists.

In Canada a black woman “fell” to her death after police were called to her flat, whilst Mounties were videoed punching a First Nations chief in the head.  In November police in France spent 15 minutes on video beating and racially insulting a 42 year old black music producer.

Even in “liberal” Sweden police have taken to profiling black and ethnic minority people in a controversial racial profiling policy. This is a pandemic of police violence against people from ethnic minorities.

And, as if to reinforce the point, this week police in Ohio shot and killed a 16 year old black girl Ma’Khia Bryant whilst investigating a knife crime. The Mayor of Columbus asked: “Did Ma’Khia Bryant need to die yesterday?”  Now I don’t know the facts of this case or of 47 year old Andre Hill an unarmed black man shot by police officer Adam Coy, but I do know the answer to the Mayor’s question.

No. No, Ma’Khia Bryant did not have to die.

If she were white she probably would still be alive.

If she lived in the U.K. rather than the US she would probably still be alive.

If she was middle class she would probably still be alive.

These incidents have three things in common. The deaths are the responsibility of the police. The victims are black. The police are armed. If the police were not armed they would not be able to keep shooting people. These are not accidents. There is a structural issue at play here. And, yes, I know George Floyd was not shot so guns are not the whole problem. Indeed, disarming the police would only take away the means, not the motive.

But, hey, Chauvin is guilty. Justice works. On the other hand, as Britons we don’t have to worry about any of this. In the U.K. the Government issued a report detailing how Britain is a beacon of racial harmony. A report denounced by the United Nations as citing “dubious evidence to make claims that rationalize white supremacy by using the familiar arguments that have always justified racial hierarchy”.

Perhaps the biggest omission from that report was that it didn’t start “Once upon a time..” because the reality is it was an absolute fantasy created by people who began by denying systematic racism exists and end by searching for the positives for black people in a system that treated them as cattle to be bought, sold, branded and used. Over on Twitter and Facebook the Government’s incipient racism has brought out the white supremacists and racist bigots circulating their filth for those who want to see anybody different to them as the enemy.

Protest works

In America, meanwhile, the end of Trump’s Presidency has, at least on the surface, driven the racists backwards. This verdict unless something goes seriously amiss with the sentencing is, whatever else it signifies, a victory for Black Lives Matter. If there had not been a worldwide protest at the treatment of George Floyd it is likely that Minneapolis Police would have been able to protect Derek Chauvin. If this trial proves anything it is that protest works. It is a testament to all those who took to the streets during a pandemic that anything even remotely looking like justice happened.

It was, predominantly, black people taking to the streets in America that forced the world to take notice of the viral video taken by 17-year old Darnella Frazier who described seeing Mr. Floyd “terrified, scared, begging for his life.” That video went viral and sparked protests across America, in the U.K., Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Syria, Mexico. Such Worldwide protests have only really been seen recently for environmental action.

In the same way that people across the globe suffer from environmental degradation so too do ethnic minorities across the globe suffer from racism and police brutality. When you have no respect, no access to power and no resources protest is where you end up. Protest is the reason Derek Chauvin was brought to justice. Lack of protest is the reason so many other black lives will not be.

There is little doubt that white liberals will try to minimise the impact of protest but does anybody seriously think that even a country that is institutionally racist could ignore thousands of people on the streets? Well, yes is the answer. The response of white liberalism when confronted with majority black protests has traditionally been to ignore them, lie about them, demonise them and then criminalise them. Think the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others.

White liberals like to believe that they are decent people who believe in fairness, but something said to me recently has more than an element of truth about it. When confronted with racial issues, it was asserted, whites feel uncomfortable and they don’t particularly like feeling uncomfortable.

White comfort

The reason that makes sense is the truth is that none of us like to feel uncomfortable and whilst most nice white folk are not racist they are comfortable in a system in which being white, especially if you are middle class, can be a definite advantage. Let’s be clear here, it is not only blacks who have a hard time from the police. I interviewed a young trans activist this week – Layla – and she made the point that the police weren’t interested in violence against trans people either. (You can hear that interview in full on next week’s Socialist Hour podcast.) People protesting in Bristol and London have been attacked by the police for trying to protect their right to protest. If you can’t see the irony there then you are lacking an irony bone.

But most people have no reason to distrust the police. Unless you step across a line the police will protect you. For most white people they are assumed to be on the right side of the line unless they do something to be on the wrong side. For black people they are assumed to be on the wrong side as the default position.

It can be difficult for white people who believe the world is essentially fair, or at least believe that the unfairness’s can be alleviated by a procedure or regulation, a policy, to understand what daily harassment means. You have to imagine stepping outside your home and running the risk of being racially abused by random racists who think they are better than you simply because of your skin colour. You have to risk being stopped and searched by police regardless of whether you have actually done anything wrong because you fit the profile. Or being stopped if you are driving a ‘nice’ car because people like you aren’t supposed to have nice cars.

Black and Asian people don’t have to imagine that World. It is their daily lived experience. And, they don’t have a choice. You don’t escape police harassment or racist abuse by moving to a nicer area as white people can, because your colour singles you out. It is relentless. And, I am not surprised that they are angry about it. Because for all our liberal propaganda that things are improving, would George Floyd be dead now if that was true? Would Osime Brown be facing deportation if that was true? Would Mohamed Hassan still be alive if he had been white?

But anger is not enough even if it is understandable. Racism is illogical. It makes no sense at all. The colour of your skin is no indicator of the person you are. Not all black and Asian people are nice. I’ve met a few that I didn’t get on with at all. But I’ve met plenty of white people I don’t get on with either. The point is that racism is structural, institutional and endemic. It is not confined to Ku Klux Klan nutcases wearing white hoods in America, or skinheads with swastika tattoos in the U.K., it is embedded in the very fabric of our society. And, I’m sorry to say this, but unless we actually change everything about our society it is likely to remain.

Dripping in blood

Capitalism is a social system founded upon the slave trade. As Pryamvada Gopal showed in a New Statesman article 7 years ago virtually all the British banks, and most of our big businesses are in the position they are because they were beneficiaries of the slave trade. As Gopal points out, many “perfectly ordinary middle-class people come from families which were compensated for the loss of slaves. The freed slaves, of course, never received such compensation and their families inherited, instead, the poverty and landlessness which blights them to this day.”

Marx once described capitalism as being born “dripping with blood”. Much of that blood was from the whips and chains used to extract surplus value for the predecessors of today’s elite. Of course, it was not just the Caribbean slave trade that defined modern capitalism but also the whole notion of Empire. I don’t have space to trace the history of empire here but simply note that apart from devastating the countries which were brought within its remit the British Empire left behind a legacy of racist beliefs about white supremacy that are every bit as pernicious as those accompanying slavery.

So when the Tories get their knickers in a twist over statues to long forgotten slavers it is not the statue they are defending but their right to define our past. Indeed, it is their right to, quite literally, whitewash that past. To issue a report only days before the Chauvin verdict declaring a country literally at the heart of the racist enterprise that has left a legacy of white supremacy as a beacon of racial harmony might be considered insensitive.

But, like Trump’s support of his Ku Klux Klan supporting fans it is more than that. It is a denial of the reality of the real lives of so many of our fellow citizens. It is a battle cry to those who believe their white skin makes them better than their black and brown neighbours. It is the clarion call of a racist elite determined to maintain a racial hierarchy and to undo any reforms that have been won through years of struggle and heartbreak.

I was born white. Not much I can do about that. Do I feel guilt for what white people have done in the past and continue to do to black and brown people? Not particularly. I feel guilt that it took me until my teens to really question this racial hierarchy. And guilt that I have not been more vocal in my opposition to beliefs about racial hierarchy. But, that said, I made a conscious decision as a young man to treat people as people and not judge anybody on their skin colour. That doesn’t make me a paragon because as a white person I still benefitted from their oppression, even if I had no desire to.

It was that realisation that led me to a conclusion that it was not about what individuals did, but about how we react as a collective, as a society. The fact is that structural inequalities, including racism, require a structural solution. Liberal/Tory society  offers no strategy for challenging inequalities because the system they support, and which supports them, relies on inequality. It requires a class of people with nothing to sell but their own labour and a class that controls the means of production. The point is that creating a black and Asian middle class does not do anything to challenge the racism inherent in society.

I am not saying that black and Asian people should stop fighting to be treated as human beings. Or that outrage about George, Osime or Muhamed is misplaced. This is not a “anything that isn’t class struggle is a waste of time” post, but a recognition that the cultural change that people talk about is only possible with a structural change. And, that change will require a change not only in the way we view each other, but in the way we organise the wealth in society. A wealth created by the many, but hoarded by the few.

A society founded on racist foundations is rotten to its core. For those of us lucky enough to have what appears to be a good life it is had on the backs of the suffering and humiliation of generations of people. That suffering is worldwide and still ongoing. People can feel guilty about that if they wish, the more appropriate response, in my view, is anger and a determination to change things. For those who say ‘all lives matter’ as if saying ‘black lives matter’ means other lives don’t they need to pull their heads out of their own backsides and realise it is precisely because some lives have mattered less that the struggle for equality has neither been won nor gone away.

I’m a socialist. I believe, as an article of faith, that people should be judged only on their character and not on arbitrary features. I support the rights of black people, brown people or women to self-organise, but ultimately until all the oppressed peoples find common cause those struggles will, at best, create reforms that maintain the hierarchy but in a more palatable way and at worst achieve nothing tangible at all as the next generation of racists simply push them back.

We have to pull together because, frankly, as Marx and Engels wrote we have nothing to lose but our chains, we have a World to win.

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Another great site by the Dangerous Globe

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Dave Middleton
I'm Dave Middleton. I am a member of the Labour Party (until they catch up with me) and like to think of myself as left-wing. My Twitter account is @DavMidd Please do feel free to email me about this blog at ThinkingDoing51@gmail.com
https://davemiddletons.blogspot.com/
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