Notes on an Insurgency
Thoughts on the George Floyd protests and the crumbling world order
There was a moment during last year’s climate protests in October. We had set off from our Global Justice Rebellion site at St. James’ Park to a rally in front of the Royal Courts of Justice to show solidarity for the people trying to save the iconic Latin Village in Seven Sisters, a true cornerstone of the local South American community, from gentrification and demolition. Over the course of an hour, the crowd grew in size, impassioned speeches were given by the organisers, a samba drum band showed up, and flares were lit, as the autumn afternoon became evening. This also happened to be the same day that Donald Trump had announced the withdrawal of US troops from Northern Syria, sparking very understandable fears of immediate Turkish military action in the Kurdish-held region of Rojava in London’s sizeable Kurdish community. And so, when the rally at the Royal Courts was over, we all marched, banners and flares in hand, to Parliament Square, where a crowd had gathered in solidarity with Rojava. Two neighbouring communities from North London marching for each other. We walked down a car-free Strand, chanting slogans, banners raised, past Trafalgar Square, where many thousands had already set up camp. And in that moment I really felt something.
There was a sense of lawlessness, of anarchy, spontaneous self-organisation where people were being kind and looking after one another, where there seemed to be an implicit (and at times overt) sense of support from even the average passer-by who had nothing to do with the protests. There was a sense of genuine solidarity –people turning up to other people’s struggles just to offer help without expecting anything in return. It seemed like a brief and fleeting glimpse at a different possibility, a different kind of world. There was a sense that we are really not too far from a total breakdown of the social contract, and that there could be a better world for us to build from that. This was 8 months ago, and in the intervening time, decades have passed.
Since last week I, along with the rest of the world, have not been able to take my eyes off the computer screen, watching the surreal images roll in from across the Atlantic, as America finds itself in the middle of a genuine insurrection, incited by the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. For even our desensitised selves, that video showed a display of such utter contempt for another Black life, it was shocking to say the least.There is something to be said about the nonchalance with which Derek Chauvin, the officer who committed the murder, looks straight into the camera, knowing full well he is being filmed, as he crushes Mr Floyd’s neck under his knee and he begs for his life. Chauvin is an officer with a particularly sordid history of violence, however he and many others like him act in the way they do, because they know that they will be treated with near-complete impunity. And the good cops? They’re the ones watching it happen and not doing anything.
The complete inaction by the police department despite the clearest possible evidence led to protests of such intensity that by the second day, an unarmed group of citizens had taken over the 3rd Precinct. This was the signal that the rest of the country needed to rise up, as protests erupted in every single state in the following days, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns, against the systemic injustice and brutality that Black people face daily at the hands of the police.
Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Botham Jean, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, I find it incredible that I can list these names off the top of my head as someone who has never been to the US. The reason why Black people have to keep on repeating that Black Lives Matter is because the de facto reality in the US, as in many parts of the world, is that Black lives seem not to matter. The escalation of these protests, their gathering of seemingly unstoppable momentum, the increasingly violent and fascistic response from police departments across the country, and the unrelenting determination of those righteously raging against this broken system, this has been the main story in all corners of the world. And as of the evening of June 1st, Donald Trump declared war on his own citizens by announcing that the military would be brought in if necessary to break up the protests.
The reasons why we got here are too numerous to state all at once, and most of them should not even need to bear repeating in this day and age. Not only is the US a country founded on slave labour, but even after its abolition, from the antebellum period to the Jim Crow laws of the South to the modern-day Prison-Industrial Complex and War on Drugs, it is no secret that Black people in America have been systemically kept under the boot heels of the white ruling classes since its inception. This has been maintained through a deprivation of democratic rights including voting, a disenfranchisement from accessing financial capital, and a police system which not only has deep roots in slave patrols but has historically actively recruited from the KKK and other white supremacist groups. There have also been many protests and riots from recent US history that have happened in reaction to police brutality against Black people, from LA in 1992 to Ferguson in 2014 to Baltimore in 2015. However, this time things are markedly different.
The whole world is still very much in the grips of a global pandemic which forced many of the world’s sovereign nations into quarantine and lockdown for two months, which has in turn led to a stock market collapse and forecasts of the worst economic recession in 300 years. In the middle of this public health crisis, more than 30 million people lost their jobs since lockdown began in a country where the majority of people only have access to healthcare through their employment. The shambolic handling of the crisis in the US has led to more than 100,000 deaths and that number is rising every day. Congress passed the most criminal of rescue packages for failing corporations, tacking on a pathetic one-time $1,200 stimulus cheque for all citizens as an afterthought (and even that had to be fought for till the last minute), and up to now, a third of those benefits have not even been paid out yet. Millions across the country were already living a dangerously precarious existence, paycheck to paycheck, worrying that one missed shift at work might mean losing access to their insulin. They have now been left an even more impossible mountain to climb with the COVID lockdown. This is also an existence far more likely to be experienced by Black people than those of any other ethnicity in the States. And so, as others have noted, as if 1918, the 1930s and 1968 were all to happen at once, George Floyd’s murder only gave way to the forces of history which have been threatening to burst the dam for a long time already.
There is currently a thread on Twitter containing every recorded instance of excessive force used by US police departments around the country since the 30th of May. It is presently more than 260 incidents deep. Every single act of unprovoked violence that I have seen has been committed by the police forces. And let’s also be very clear that property damage does not constitute violence. You can fix a broken window, you can clean up graffiti, but you can’t bring someone back to life.
The police departments seem to be fighting a losing battle on nearly all fronts. Two nights ago, the Los Angeles Police Commission held a Zoom call where residents were able to phone in to directly address the police chief and commissioners, leading to one of the most remarkable instances of direct democratic accountability in action, as countless residents called in, carrying varying levels of pain and anger, demanding that the department is defunded and that the chief resigns. The police are being caught on camera committing acts that are considered war crimes by international law, such as attacking medics and using tear gas in the middle of a global pandemic which targets the respiratory system. One 20-year-old Black man, Justin Howell, is currently in critical condition with brain damage after being shot with “non-lethal” rounds by the Austin PD, who then proceeded to open fire on the group that was carrying his body to where they had been told to go. And then you begin to dread just how many will die before this is all over.
The NYPD has temporarily cancelled all regular off days, demanding their entire staff to work 12-hour days, 7 days a week. Their union is being flooded by desperate requests for help by police officers pushed to the edge. And in this moment of desperation, they are exposing themselves as the state-licensed organised crime syndicate they’ve always been, by driving cars into crowds, firing rounds and spraying mace at people indiscriminately, framing protesters by sabotaging their own equipment, covering up body cams and badge numbers, and planting bricks near rallies. If there is indeed rioting going on, it is undeniably the police who are causing it.
Nafeez Ahmed wrote a fantastic piece on Extinction Rebellion’s deeply flawed theory of change, particularly in their tactic of using mass arrests to disrupt the system and bring about change. He notes that XR founder Roger Hallam’s constant referral to the Indian Independence Movement and the Civil Rights Movement as successful examples of this strategy fundamentally fails understand that those other movements had far more specific goals than comprehensive system change. In particular, they were both movements against systemic repression by authoritarian regimes and by confronting that oppression head on with non-violent action and civil disobedience, they succeeded in delegitimising the authority of their oppressors in the eyes of the broader public. And once you lose that legitimacy, well then you’re just some cunt with a badge and a gun.
The reason why the tactic of mass arrests didn’t work in the case of XR was, while the police in the UK certainly do protect the interests of power and capital that are causing climate change to happen, that relationship is far more obscured, at least in the eyes of the average person. And so when the police are seen being excessive in their response (and they most certainly were in October), it still does not garner the same level of public support that a mass movement needs in order to succeed. In stark contrast, the reason why the current George Floyd protests continue to be so successful, the reason why this feels so momentous, is because by having the courage and discipline to remain peaceful and face down tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at point blank range with millions of eyes around the globe watching closely, these protesters are dismantling, in real time, the legitimacy of the authority of the police and by proxy the state. A recent poll found that 54% of respondents from across the US are supportive of the actions of the protesters in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
With the whole world watching, many thousands have also stood in solidarity, organising huge demonstrations everywhere from Amsterdam to Athens to Rio de Janeiro to Auckland over the last few days. Which brings me back to Britain, this wholly unserious embarrassing, pathetic, shit little island. While in the US, it is at least possible to have a discussion about race, over here, there is near complete denial. A few nights ago, BBC Newsnight had George the Poet on as a guest, when Emily Maitlis had the sheer audacity to claim that while the killing of George Floyd was terrible of course, and that the US has a history of slavery and racism, that those problems do not exist as such in the UK. I am genuinely curious as to who she thinks brought slaves to the US in that case. If the Transatlantic Slave Triangle, like all triangles, had three points, I wonder where she thinks the third point was. And to say this on the same day that government chose to delay the publishing of a report into the impact of COVID on BAME communities for fear of stoking racial tensions really did beggar belief.
Britain exported white supremacy to the rest of the world, and the internalisation of anti-Black racism as part of the colonised mindset was so complete that it led to my great aunt, an elderly Bengali Muslim woman in Kolkata, who has likely never had any interaction with a Black person in her life, telling a confused 7-year-old me before I first moved to London “to be careful of Negroes”. Anti-Black racism, an ideology invented to justify the centuries-long subjugation of African people was spread throughout the rest of the world by the European powers, and remains a deeply regrettable component in many non-white communities around the world to this day. This is most certainly still the case in South Asian communities.
A few months ago, not long before lockdown, I had gone for drinks with some former colleagues. Before long, I found myself sat at a table with 2 other white guys asking “Oh of course Windrush was really bad. But you can’t say it was racist, can you? Seems like a bit of a broad generalisation right there.” At this point, I simply got up and left and haven’t spoken to them since. I am tired, as I know many other Black and brown people in this country are, of constantly having to justify their own existence and educate people on things they should already be aware of. I am tired of being told that I’m being overly emotional, that I should calm down, that I’m actually the real racist for calling out racism. Especially at such a crucial point in our collective history, there is no fence to sit on any more because it has long been broken. If a person, no matter how well-intentioned, who inevitably benefits from an inherently broken and unjust system, cannot at least have the humility to find out how they might be, then they have already made a choice about which side they are on. Yes, the world is shades of grey, but there is also something called being on the right side of history.
Yesterday was my first day back at school in over two months. It was also my first time out of North London in that whole period. On my way home, as I got out at Victoria station, I saw a heavy police presence. I knew that there was supposed to be a BLM rally at Hyde Park earlier in the day, but as I left the station I saw a huge procession marching towards Parliament Square. And so I joined in, marching and chanting slogans, in awe at the sheer numbers of people who had descended. To see so many young Black people out in force for a political cause, something I have not seen in my 20+ years in London, was deeply moving.
Black people in the UK have been thoroughly disenfranchised from the political system, and so it is not surprising that for many, engagement with it has been low for some time. There was clear pain and anger on the faces of those there. And how could there not be? Today, nearly all national newspapers ran front pages about the most spurious of new leads into the disappearance of Madeline McCann, a 13-year-old open case which has had millions in funding poured into it. Yet Belly Mujinga, a train worker in London died of COVID 2 weeks after a man spat on her after telling her he had it, but her case was dismissed and the police refuse to release the surveillance footage. Since the mid-90s, more than 150 Black and brown people have died in police custody in the UK, and not a single officer has been found guilty of misconduct. And yet some people would still like to assert that the UK’s hands are clean of racism. I was in London in 2011 when the police killing of Mark Duggan sparked riots nationwide, and while their force and fury were immense, there was little to no organised political leadership behind it. By now, even though this uprising has been by and large organic, Black Lives Matter is an established movement with trained organisers and leaders, and that is making a huge difference.
After getting back home and listening to John Boyega’s full speech, I have been little more than a blubbering wreck since last night, randomly bursting into bouts of tears. Watching thousands of beautiful people sitting and singing songs while the military is being deployed onto the streets of DC to clear them out, I thought back to what happened in Delhi in February, when state-sanctioned terrorism was used to purge the people fighting for the most basic of rights and I was overcome with fear. In many ways Muslims and Dalits in India share a similar status as Black people in the US, subjects of an internal colonial repression, and particularly since Modi has come to power we have seen a drastic increase in lynchings, rape and pogroms that they have been victims of.
I have been following US politics fairly closely for the past 4 years, and particularly over the course of the last week, I have felt so close to all those incredible, brave, and inspirational people out there, and the thought of them being met by such brutal force is beyond heartbreaking. For anyone who feels pessimistic about what might come next, I don’t blame them either. After the nakedly corrupt ways in which the Corbyn and Sanders projects were dismantled, mostly by their own parties, it is easy to see why many people would not feel like there is much to hope for. But then again, if there is no hope, then what are we even fighting for? Right now an empire is crumbling, and none of us can truly know where things will go from here. But as long as there is even a flicker of hope that we can build a better world, then we must fight for it. And like last October, when I joined in that march from Victoria station, it really felt like that moment had maybe finally arrived.
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