Former Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott MP, considers the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Black Lives Matter movement is an important political moment. It could be argued that it is the most significant intervention around the politics of race for a generation. Certainly it is at least as significant as the 1985 wave of riots in Brixton, Tottenham and other inner city areas.
People have campaigned since then, marched since then, protested since then, even rioted since then. So what makes the current iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement so significant?
First of all, Black Lives Matter is emphatically an international phenomenon. The protests here in Britain reflect the protests in the United States and around the world. All have been triggered by the murder of the unarmed black man, George Floyd, by US police. And people around the world have been able to see the images of a policeman deliberately kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he died.
Seeing the images of deliberate police brutality has been important in lighting a blue touch paper under the flames of international protest. White British commentators at first tried to argue that the British Black Lives Matter protestors were merely copying what was happening in America. But, in fact, the black British experience of police abuse of powers and deaths in custody was what gave the US Black Lives Matter such resonance and relevance here in Britain.
The original Black Lives Matter movement emerged in 2013. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began to be used on social media with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, when he had shot dead black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. The huge anger about that erupted into even bigger street demonstrations and protests in response to the deaths of two other unarmed black men at the hands of the police. They were Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
So why has the Black Lives Matter movement taken off in 2020 in an even more powerful way than in 2014?
Partly, I believe that political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic has proved incendiary in the obvious lack of concern for black lives. Donald Trump panders to white nationalism in a brutally frank way. Here in Britain, Trump’s friend Boris Johnson pays lip service to concern about racial justice, but the black community is not convinced.
The other issue which has heightened concerns about racial injustice is the COVID pandemic and the wholly disproportionate number of black deaths. It is hard to convince black people on both sides of the Atlantic that their lives matter to Donald Trump and Boris Johnson when black people are dying in such numbers. Boris Johnson commissioned an inquiry, seemed reluctant to publish it in full and has not implemented a single practical recommendation. If there was ever a time when it seems appropriate for black people to take to the streets to say that Black Lives Matter it was when the shadow of death from COVID is looming over them.
One of the significant things about the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement is that issues of culture and representation are very much to the forefront. The toppling of the statute of the slave owner, Colston, in Bristol has been criticised. But it has led to more debate about Britain’s role in the slave trade than I can remember. And institutions like the Bank of England and Parliament itself have been forced to talk about portraits and statutes of men, who made their fortunes out of slavery, in their buildings. These institutions are talking about either taking down these artistic glorifications of slaveholders or at least adding plaques which put their historical role in context.
None of this would have happened without Black Lives Matter. Although the ‘RhodesMustFall’ movement in Oxford predated this year, it has been given a fresh lease of life by Black Lives Matter. And ‘RhodesMustFall’ was as much about the curriculum and the treatment of black students and faculty as it was about individual statutes. And this debate has been further energised by Black Lives Matter.
And, remarkably, black professionals in fields like publishing, football, even motor racing, are speaking out about racism in a way they never did before. All emboldened by Black Lives Matter.
So this is an important political moment. The challenge for the left is to help bring all strands of Black Lives Matter together and make this a time when we will see real change.