CW: racism, violence, police brutality
We need to talk about the rioting. And the looting. And the destruction of statues during recent Black Lives Matter protests. We really do. The failure to recognise the entrenched nature of historical and enduring structural violence in both the US and the UK speaks volumes in terms of the normalization of oppression, enforced poverty, racism and discrimination in contemporary society. Whilst there are certainly white victims of structural violence, it is an irrefutable fact that Black or minority ethnic communities experience the most severe intersecting consequences – not as uncomfortable rarities, but as a grinding, every day, relentless struggle, which as we have seen in the case of George Floyd along with so many other black men, women and youth, can too often have fatal results.
Paulo Freire, in his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, observed that ‘violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognise others as persons – not by those who are oppressed, exploited and unrecognized.’ Dogged determination to avoid listening to the experiences of the Black community, or to ignore calls for solidarity and assistance is not to remain neutral, but rather it is to support oppression and directly contribute to perpetuation of a broken and inhumane system. By condemning looting and rioting from the comfort of a place in which you do not have to fear for the safety of you and your family based upon the superficiality of skin colour, you are very much a part of the subjugation which Black people and their allies are currently railing against. To again quote Paulo Freire, ‘for the oppressors, “human beings” refers only to themselves; other people are “things”. For the oppressors, there exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right, not always even recognised, but simply conceded of the oppressed to survival.’ To perceive those participating in the current uprising (for this is what it is; an uprising, not a riot) as somehow morally defective because after centuries of enslavement, exploitation, violence and brutal subjugation, they can take no more, is indicative of your flawed code of ethics, not theirs.
the consequences for Black communities in the US and the UK are much more confronting, much more insidious, much more deadly.
The prevailing system of neoliberal governance is stacked against all of us who constitute the 98% of the global population who are not millionaires or billionaires, but when racial dynamics are considered, the consequences for Black communities in the US and the UK are much more confronting, much more insidious, much more deadly. As Mustafa Dikec notes in his book Urban Rage: The Revolt of the Excluded, liberal democracies have proven so far to be inherently unable to address exclusion, being prone to disparities of power. He argues that ‘focusing on the looting and burning to negate the political significance of uprisings is to confound the unfolding of an event with its causes […] these uprisings are not signs of defective human nature, but of justified rage with interrelated economic, social and political causes.’
Looting can be feasibly explained as a reaction to neoliberal capitalism governance combined with the social values that it disseminates through a hegemonic media. We are pounded with marketing on a daily basis: billboards, TV, internet, sports venues, pubs, radio, magazines, newspapers. If you want to be recognised, respected, seen you must visibly demonstrate your wealth in terms of a new car, nice house, branded clothing, newest model of flatscreen TV and entertainment system, hobbies. The list is limitless. As we endlessly consume and irreversibly destroy nature, so too do we destroy the authentic ties that bind us. We are increasingly viewing each other through the shallow prism of “haves” and “have nots”; two mutually exclusive groups who rarely interact in most social circles. It is against this context of an increasingly materialistic and superficial society that looters can be understood as what Zygmunt Bauman calls “defective consumers”. Those who have been excluded from the mainstream rat race of perpetual consumption through oppression, poverty and discrimination, but who nevertheless have been socially conditioned into developing a consumerist desire in order to feel like they are worth something. Unable to participate in consumer culture through financial means, they achieve it by looting.
So what if a huge national or transnational corporation chain store is looted? These businesses have become monsters, built through exploitation of workers and monopolisation of natural resources. We owe the millionaire CEOs of these companies absolutely nothing. They owe us everything in return for the natural resources they have plundered beyond repair, the poverty-trap wages they pay, the manipulation of society into believing that our worth is measured by consumer goods, their tax avoidance and simultaneous investment of money into lobbying groups who actively work against the interests of the majority in favour of the minority wealthy elite. Fuck them. Let them burn. From the ashes we should be encouraging each other to reimagine a new society. Together we should strive to build something better. Something fairer.
As for the police station in Minneapolis being burned down: more people seem to be concerned about a burning building than the fact that in the US, getting killed by the police is the leading cause of death for young black men. Imagine living as a Black man in the US knowing that whenever you are in contact with a police officer, there’s a significant chance they could murder you, whether you’re picking up trash in your shared garden, or allegedly selling cigarettes.
The UK, contrary to popular belief, is not much better.
This institutional racism is coupled with a particularly vile form of US-based capitalism which sees the police, the criminal justice system and city councils working together to generate income for municipalities. Mustafa Dikec explores this in great detail in his book, but an ex-police officer, writing under the pen name of Officer A. Cab has written an essay which breaks down the US approach to policing here. Black Americans are overwhelmingly the victims of such established police harassment and persecution due to the institutional racism inherent within the force.
The UK, contrary to popular belief, is not much better. One third of victims of police shootings in the UK since 2014 have been Black or minority ethnic, despite the fact that they comprise only fourteen per cent of the population. The number of murders committed by the police may be lower in the UK, but institutional racism within the police force combined with a background of structural violence remains present. For example, in 2017 Bristol police tasered their own race relations adviser, a Black man named Judah Adunbi, in the face, leading him to believe he was going to die. Much like the pattern of police impunity that has established itself in the US, the police officer responsible was not convicted of any wrongdoing. In 2018, Judah Adunbi was again harassed by the police, who this time drove off giggling. These incidents strongly suggest that we should take heed when Dr Neville Lawrence urges us to recognise that nothing has changed since his son, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered twenty seven years ago. The Macpherson inquiry into the police handling of the case found the police guilty of institutional racism.
In the UK we commonly compare ourselves to the US as a benchmark and satisfy ourselves that we, as a nation, are more progressive, more socially cohesive, simply doing better. Our nation however was largely developed through the spoils of murder, exploitation and vicious brutality conducted in the name of empire. It is true that slavery no longer exists in its traditional form, but its legacy certainly does. Reparations are still due and white privilege very much remains an engrained and omnipresent feature of British society. In 1835, two bankers agreed to loan the British government £20 million in order to pay compensation to the slave owners who until two years earlier had been making a fortune from the most abhorrent of trades; buying and selling slaves. The equivalent in today’s currency is £300 billion. This “debt” to previous slave owners was part of our public debt, diligently paid off on an annual basis through taxpayers’ money until 2015. Let that sink in. If you pay taxes in the UK, you have been paying former slave owners for the loss of “their” slaves until five years ago. Liberated slaves and their descendants have received nothing.
With this considered, it is mind blowing that anybody would take affront to statues commemorating slave owners and slave traders, or any other individuals who epitomize the bloody, barbaric and ruthless history of the British empire being dumped in a river. Black communities in the UK and the US today suffer from neighbourhood gentrification resulting in rent hikes and forced evictions, discrimination when seeking jobs and accommodation, excessive misrepresentation by the media, closure of community services which are not generating a financial profit, disproportionate arrest and detention as well as more overtly manifest acts of racism at a social level. This can not be abstracted from the history of slavery; the effects of which linger on, perpetuating white privilege.
If you pay taxes in the UK, you have been paying former slave owners for the loss of “their” slaves until five years ago. Liberated slaves and their descendants have received nothing.
To those who argue that statues such as that of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston should be placed in a museum to educate the population, my answer is this: Black communities do not need education on slavery and the evils of empire – they live the reality of its enduring effects every single day. For white people to try to assert that these statues should remain – a visual representation of the trauma of slavery for the Black community – so that white people can educate ourselves, is disingenuous. That statue belongs at the bottom of the nearest slurry pit. Slavery and the dark days of the British empire belong in the national curriculum as well as in the forefront of British politics. Placing a statue which commemorates an individual who stole people and resources in a museum, alongside art and artefacts the British government has looted from other countries, is a completely nonsensical, insincere argument. This line of argument boils down to the fact that for some people property is still more important than Black lives.
To those who argue that the looters are unjustified or harming their cause my answer is this: society repeatedly ignored peaceful protestors. It took looting and rioting for people to listen. This speaks of white society’s deliberate deafness to the pain and anguish of Black and other oppressed communities. Two nations built through loot and exploitation cannot condemn the actions of protestors who continue to live with the consequences of these actions today. Black lives matter. As white allies we need to listen and learn. We need to work to dismantle inner prejudices which see us consciously or subconsciously valuing property over people and which underpin our worldview as ahistorical.
Featured image CC BY-SA 2.0 Chad Davis
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