As we reach for mid-summer the state of melancholy and delirium seems more intense. As the uprising in America continues to build (cloaked clumsily by tweaked algorithms and disingenuous media) the shockwaves continue to wash over us.
The response to this awakening about racism, state violence and imperial past is confused. There are the tortuous scenes of liberal apology, there is the far-right “defending statues” in town squares, ad hoc vigilante groups forming as the spectacle teeters on the cusp of farce, like a Dystopian Trumpton reboot. Then there’s the law and order brigade shouting on news outlets about how “mob rule” is imminent, without seemingly any sense of perspective, irony or hinterland of decency.
There’s a fourth response which is the sort of Panic of the Unconscious. Sensing the mood is not going their way they now act randomly and uncontrollably. Having resisted any change for ever they now panic and start acting in all sort of ridiculous ways.
As the journalist Daniel Trilling writes: “BLM protesters say ‘end systemic racism and acknowledge Britain’s history’… corporations panic and start deleting things while the right tries to turn it into a culture war about liberalism gone too far. They do that because both are easier than redistributing wealth or power.”
And so at a moment when deep change seems to have acquired an urgency – like someone banging on the door – we descend into the trivial, banning Fawlty Towers and end up in a stupid conversation about a 1970s comedy.
Britain seems to be enthralled to a new psychosis, as the powerful refuse to give up, refuse to cede. The descent (of standards in public office, of decency in the media, in the quality of public discourse) seems endless. Yesterday London was filled with the spitting pissing fury of English fascism in full bloom. Falling downwards, hurtling backwards.
Nigel Farage is on TalkRadio foaming at the mouth about Black Lives Matter being a Marxist organisation. The black writer Afua Hirsch being told by Nick Ferrari on television she should “leave the country” if she doesn’t like it here. Her destination isn’t specified. Richard Littlejohn dips his poison-pen in the Mail and talks of “mobs roaming the country” and “Everywhere, madness is in the air …You’d never think that six short months ago we elected a Conservative Government with an 80-seat majority. It feels as if we’re living in a Left-wing dictatorship.” TV presenter Neil Oliver joined the happy idiot-throng opining that black lives matters protests were really: “An attempt by anarchists and communists to eat into the built fabric of Britain and thereby bring down British society.”
As the sleaze that never stopped oozes out of the Conservative regime with more revelations about the porn-baron Richard Desmond, then owner of the Daily Express brokering a lucrative housing deal with Boris Johnson. Cash for Access is a permanent state.
Amongst it all on Friday The Sun published a front-page celebrating domestic violence and giving a platform to a domestic abuser to “taunt” his victim, in this case the author JK Rowling. It was not only disgusting but, at a time when domestic violence has increased during the coronavirus, extremely dangerous. It breaches IPSO guidelines, gives a platform to an abuser, and trivialises violence against women. Nothing will happen. The tabloids spread their hate with impunity and everyone throws their hands in the air about press regulation. This shit erodes democracy and contaminates the public realm.
“The country is teetering on the brink of anarchy” splutters Littlejohn in his Hate Mail.
If only it were true.
The old order is resistant to change. Changing street names, or removing statues is a trigger for many, now forced to defend the indefensible.
It will “erase history” they scream.
“How will anyone know about the past” they cry.
“Put up a plaque” they demand.
“This is the sort of thing that happens in a dictatorship” they wail.
Just. Don’t. Actually. Change. Anything.
And here’s the “statue defenders” out in force. Nazis defending Churchill.
Another deflection that is often been heard this past few weeks is the retort that changing symbols and statues isn’t real change. The elusive “real change” is something rarely defined but resolutely protected. It’s funny though, if statues and symbols and placenames and street names are so unimportant, so insignificant, why are you so upset?
But real change IS happening and – as has often been repeated – the protestors are making history not erasing it. The howl of Establishment Britain and White Nationalist America can be heard clearly as it’s shaken and broken down. The moves to “defund the police” – at first derided is gaining real momentum and authority. Based on the idea that the police is basically unreformable, riddled with racists and deeply broken men, the alternative is to defund and demilitarise the police and ask deeper questions about what might be better investments.
As 27-year-old “humanitarian rap artist and peace activist” Jessica Disu says, “our police is not working—we need to replace it with something new.”
Disu appeared on Fox News and the clips of her calling for police abolition have been seen by more than 31 million people in the month since they were posted online and sparked a virulent backlash.
The demands of protestors are getting more radical not less, and their focus is shifting from the defensive “stop killing us” to a more potent imagination. Minneapolis has become a city at the epicenter of a growing movement imagining and building a world without cops. As Maya Dukmasova writes:
“On July 15, Assata’s Daughters, a black feminist group often described as a radical version of the Girl Scouts, led an #AbolitionChiNow march across Bronzeville. On July 20, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, formed in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, launched an occupation of an empty lot across the street from CPD’s Homan Square facility in North Lawndale. The collective dubbed it “Freedom Square,” publicized it as an experiment in “imagining a world without police,” and called for the city to put its $1.4 billion police budget to other uses. Following the fatal police shooting of Paul O’Neal on July 28, young people made explicit calls for police abolition in front of CPD headquarters. And on August 7, several black teen girls organized a march for abolition that drew hundreds of supporters to the Loop.”
Minimalist demands have become maximalist political strategies.
The poet Jericho Brown wrote: “These rebels and rabble-rousers marching today have something radical in mind. They are not interested in reaching for the middle ground when it comes to institutions that exist only to patrol, intimidate and kill us. We know that it once seemed insane to say, “abolish slavery”. And we are ready to get called crazy when we say, “abolish the police”. As it is, the scenes we’re watching on the news and through social media may as well be reruns of a poorly written TV show. The police are the problem in every production of that show, so they should go so we can stop watching it.”
Grassroots groups, have grown tired of waiting for top-down change. This is true everywhere. Those who moan about the “mob” in Bristol (in reality practicing peaceful non-violent direct action) but resisting any change are in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can’t resist change to a structurally racist society, then defend the symbols that celebrate it and expect everything to be hunky-dory. You can’t resist media regulation and then shudder at the dire misogyny of The Sun front-page. This attempt to defer change is a futile tactic. Boris Johnson, who called black people “piccanninies” with “watermelon smiles” is now giving a lecture on how to defeat “racism and discrimination.” These contradictions can’t be upheld. Little Britain is coming apart.
The radicalism of the American moments is not yet mirrored here. The easing of lockdown restrictions may allow communities and organisers to elevate the protests and the nature of the demands, but we are still living in a world marked by deep uncertainty and virus. What exactly the New Normal looks like that emerges from all this is still very much a contested space. But the questioning or our deeper values and what that means for our relationship to our colonial past and to our troubled present will be the key to provoking real change.