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Podcast transcript: Gary Younge on the global black liberation uprisings

Ayeisha Thomas-Smith is joined by Gary Younge, writer, broadcaster, and professor of sociology


This is a transcript of a special one-off episode with Gary Younge, writer, broadcaster, and professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. You can listen to this podcast here. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. 


The death of George Floyd three weeks ago at the hands of Minneapolis police officers sparked a fresh wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the world. In the US, calls to defund the police have won victories in Minneapolis, and across Europe leaders are taking down statues of slave traders and reviewing national school curricula. Here in the UK, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets, despite government warnings and coronavirus restrictions. So, why has this explosion of protest happened now? Does this mark a new moment in our collective conversation on race, racism and the role of the police? And once this moment of the whirlwind passes, how can protestors make sure we achieve lasting change?

Ayeisha: So for this one-off, super special episode we’re really excited to be joined down-the-line by Gary Younge, he’s a writer, broadcaster, and professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. Lovely to have you back with us, so we’re gonna dive straight in. So as I said at the top this seems to be an unprecedented moment for the Black liberation movement across the globe really but especially in the West so I wanted to start with asking why do you think this explosion of anti-racist protest has happened now.

Gary: Well the truth is I don’t know. I don’t know what it is about the kind of alchemy that comes together to make one death particularly totemic while others aren’t. What happened to George Floyd was brutal but sadly not rare apart from kind of the specifics of its brutality that were caught on film. And so the confluence of things that make it now as opposed to last year or next year I couldn’t really say.

I do think that there is a kind of accumulated effect to these things, as someone said in Baltimore during the rebellion following Mike Brown in Ferguson: there’s only so much you can put in a pressure cooker before it’s going to pop.” And that we are 12 years out of an economic crisis that affected African Americans and Black Britons and poor people around the world and we’re over-represented among poor people more heavily than other people. That we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting poor people and therefore Black people. And we have both in America and Britain, not exclusively, but certainly in America, Britain, Brazil we have these very right-wing governments who in different ways have a proven disregard for Black people and have openly stoked and galvanised racism. Elsewhere fascism is a mainstream ideology in Europe.

So you can see that there’s a lot of oil on the floor waiting for a spark. Why it was this spark as opposed to another spark I honestly couldn’t say. But this was an explosion that’s been a long time in the making and it was waiting to happen.

So you can see that there’s a lot of oil on the floor waiting for a spark

Ayeisha: So let’s yeah, let’s dive in a little bit to the thing you raised, that the relationship between the protests here in the UK and overseas in the US. So Matt Hancock has said that the UK protests were in response to events in America and that the UK is one of the most open and tolerant societies in the world”. So I wanted to talk a little bit about the relationship between the US and the UK in particular around race because I know that obviously you’ve lived and reported from both places. So in your opinion why does general British understanding of anti-Black racism kind of tend to revolve around events in America? And what does anti-Black racism look like here in the UK?

Gary: So I mean he was right in the first bit, it was initially a response to that but it wasn’t only that and one has to start from a broader thing that has nothing to do with race which is just that America is a bigger, more powerful country. It’s the centre, we are the periphery and so in a range of ways we always know more about America than they know about us. Most people listening to this podcast know who the president of America is, they also know who the Democratic challenger is. If you took our equivalents in America, they probably know who their prime minister of Britain is, they almost certainly wouldn’t know who the leader of the opposition is and then it can elide quite easily with our kind of racial conversations. America has a significant Black middle class, it has a critical mass of people, a significant amount of wealth and therefore it reaches us in a way that the experiences of Black people in Holland or Belgium or Portugal, where there are many, just don’t reach us. Or actually even from the Caribbean or Africa which have kind of the same cultural and political economy, so there is that.

Then I think among a certain kind of liberal white person in Britain and the rest of Europe, race peculiarly gives them a kind of space to feel morally superior. America has material, military, economic superiority. For a certain kind of white European, who not so long ago historically was top dog was the centre and America was the periphery, race is one of those areas where white Europeans think we are better than them”. Now some of that comes from a discernible ill-informed place I think, which is that our civil rights movement, our segregation, our slavery, most of the egregious forms of anti-Black racism among particularly Western Europe, took place abroad. 

And then there is a desire, I feel, among Black Britons for a boomerang effect which is that stories of American atrocities reach us in a way that stories of British racial atrocities don’t, peculiarly, not all of them but the biggest ones. So if we throw that boomerang, there’s a hope that it might come back. That we start with that the thing that they know and then we say but you know what, here are four or five other things that I’ve been trying to get your attention about that have happened here that didn’t notice, that you thought weren’t important that you thought was me whining, well they’re kind of connected, as a story they’re connected”. And the hope is that the boomerang will come back and hit someone in the head and then they will get just a flash of revelation, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This time it seems that it has worked.

Ayeisha: On the New Statesman podcast you talked about the kind of culture of violence in the UK and the US and you mentioned that the US was more deadly but not necessarily more violent for Black people. You know often in response to what you just said people will say well you know we saw this video of George Floyd being brutalised and murdered by the police and it’s just not that bad here, you know the British police don’t do that to Black people”. So it’d be great to hear you kind of tease out this idea of kind of violent versus deadly.

Gary: Well first of all they do do that here (laughs). I know that you know that, that’s just not true. Secondly the overarching point is that America is generally more lethal, not just for Black people, just generally more lethal. More people get shot dead, you know that more guns so even your suicide is more likely to be successful. People are generally more likely to be incarcerated there, they have execution there. So America is a more lethal country and therefore its racism is more lethal. 

Now there are some people who like to travel on that better or worse axis, I think it’s just a wrong direction of travel. Is it better to be racially oppressed here than there? What kind of question is that? It doesn’t stand up to even the basic scrutiny. Like well Black America has a significant Black middle class, we don’t. They have Black institutions that are centuries old, we don’t. They’ve had a Black president, we haven’t…” So you’re more likely to be president and more like to be murdered. Like let’s not do that. Let’s kind of start from the basis that racism is evil and wrong, and that in every country and every culture it will express itself differently; that it’s a very hardy virus and it adapts itself to the body-politics that it’s in. And so it’s little comfort to Stephen Lawrence’s parents that he was murdered in one way rather than another. Or that proportion of people who are murdered is this rather than that. It suggests, ultimately, that there’s a level of racism that you should be content with.

And so in the same way that I won’t get into who ran the better empire: Britain or America? Because that is not a conversation that is of much interest to the people who are catching hell from empire. I would rather talk about ending empire than saying well those people oppressed me in a nicer way than you did”. So I think that’s a conversation that people can have if they want, just don’t have it with me. At the end of that conversation, I’m still racially oppressed (laughs) I have no joy in that. But the desire for that is overwhelming, that when I moved back to Britain from the States after reporting there for 12 years and I left in 2015, people said is it because of the racism that you’re leaving?” And I thought- yeah, yeah I’m going to Hackney because I’m fleeing racism: like listen to yourself! But it speaks to a kind of urgent desire for Europe, or in this case Britain, to be better than America at something. But in this case. it’s just different. That axis works for geography but it also works for time. Is it better now than it was in the 70s? Well in some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t.

This notion that we were once a great nation without any understanding of whom that greatness was built on

Ayeisha: Oh yeah, I would definitely agree with that you know around the urgent desire for a kind of British superiority complex. And also I think it is another cultural tool of obfuscation right, of moving the conversation away from the issues of racial justice and towards a comparison or a kind of All Lives Matter-esque distraction. I wanted to ask a question specifically about that cultural piece because what I’ve noticed in my work has been that this whole idea of the kind of British stiff upper-lip, British white middle-class politeness seems to have a very direct, dialectical relationship I guess with white fragility and with the kind of like silencing of conversations around race. And I’m wondering whether, in comparing with the US, do you feel like white British people are less willing and less able to have these conversations than white Americans?

Gary: I think Britain is less equipped for the reasons that I mentioned before. America had to internalise its segregation, its slavery, its kind of… that all happened there. After Katrina, even George Bush Jr has to say this country has a painful history of racial discrimination”. And then they kind of pad it out, we’re a great country and we always keep moving on and we’re always better and better” and all that kind of stuff but that has to be part of it. Trump would be the first president who kind of wouldn’t probably acknowledge that but generally speaking it’s baked into the understanding: there was slavery, there was segregation and then usually even you’re kind of hardiest Trumpier would say yeah but that’s all in the past” but they would know it was in the past. 

Whereas in Britain the relationship to slavery and segregation, because they happened abroad, there is a willful ignorance about where British racism comes from, where Black people come from or what British history is. And it’s wilful because it’s there in the kind of let’s put the great back into Great Britain” well how did it get? Two world wars and one World Cup, this notion that we were once a great nation without any understanding of whom that greatness was built on and therefore a kind of pick and choose collective identity. So people will say we won the World Cup”, even though they didn’t play. They’ll say we won the war”, even if they didn’t fight. But if you say well then we are owned slaves then, if we won the World Cup and we…” well no that wasn’t me, I didn’t own anything.” Yeah you didn’t play for England either.

We all know 1066. We can’t blame it on history, history was such a long time ago, why are you bringing up old stuff?” We know about 1066. We know that because it’s important they’ll say oh it’s the last time we were invaded”, you know Rule Britannia!” and all that kind of stuff. If you can know about 1066, then you could know about the persecution of the Mau Mau, if you wanted. But they don’t want to and so we are left, Black people are left, with the heavy lifting of both being among the poorest and the most likely to be stopped and searched and incarcerated and all of those things, and having to teach Britain its entire history. Because they don’t want to know it.

xxx

Ayeisha: And I mean I think also, you know Nadine El-Enay wrote a really great piece about this around Brexit time of what often happens also in those historical, cultural erasures is then there is a kind of like latent nostalgia for empire that exists in people’s consciousness that they’re not necessarily overtly aware of. That when they’re given a lever to pull you know around say take back control something, what is really activated there are these values of superiority these values of, exactly as you say, a nostalgia for an oppressive past gone by but it’s not necessarily articulated through that lens because we don’t have a national conversation about it but is very much enacted through it.

Gary: Yeah, the illusion of all that stiff-upper-lip stuff that’s what makes it difficult. Not that these conversations are necessarily easy in America, or places that are more honest, but that’s what makes it particularly difficult here. First of all you have to tell people things they don’t know so that you can actually start the conversation and that they should know, but secondly there’s a way in which people who otherwise consider themselves educated find themselves at a loss you know to kind of account for how Britain got where it was, how we as Black people got where we are, you know here. It makes for very awkward and sometimes unedifying conversations because they either don’t know or they don’t want to know.

Ayeisha: OK I want to dive into the UK left a little bit, so in your recent work with the New Statesman you talked about your frustrations with the UK left when it comes to a conversation around racial justice. And that really jumped out at me as that’s definitely been my experience as well of being in you know rooms full of people who would definitely identify as strong thinkers, names, faces, speakers on the left who when issues around racial justice, but intersectionality more generally all these kind of things come up, the word that we hear a lot in those circles is it’s divisive: it’s divisive or it’s a distraction and those conversations are often shut down. 

And I realised I think because I was looking into this because I kept hearing it, I kept hearing it and was like — what did they mean? And I was kind of doing some reading into 1970s British cultural studies and one of the ideas I came across was what I think all that’s rooted in, which is this belief that there is only class. That class is the one true unifying fact that we all share as you know people who don’t own the means of production and any further stratification along the lines of race or gender or any of those other things, is dividing us from taking meaningful action with each other. Therefore we should just all focus on class and not have these silly kinds of caucuses about how we feel about the other oppressions we face. And I was like — that makes sense. I really (laughs) I understand now why I felt so terrible in those spaces. I just wanted to throw that over to you and ask if you feel like the UK left has a problem with race.

Gary: I mean, there’s a great quote from a guy called Andrew Kopkind, he was writing in 68, and he said however rebellious children may be, they have their parents genes. American radicals are American, they cannot easily cross class lines to organise groups above or below their own station. They are caught in the same status traps everyone else, even if they react self-consciously” and that’s true for the British left. The British left has a problem with racism because Britain has a problem with racism and frankly racism is a problem so wherever it exists, it’s always going to be a problem.

The specific problem that the British left has, which is different to the American left: first of all it’s the ignorance that I talked about before. If you haven’t had an anti-colonial sensibility, if you haven’t explored that, I’m thinking of the Orwell quote, he said it’s quite true that the English are hypocritical about their empire. In the working class this hypocrisy takes the form of not knowing that the empire exists.” And the left was complicit in that because it kind of makes everything harder, it makes conversations… if you’re going to deal with racism then you’re going to go up against a numerical majority electorally, how’s that going to work?” and you’re going to have to say look we’re going to have to do things differently” and so on.

So the British left have always had a problem with it and a more recent problem came with the explosion of nazism in the seventies in the far-right and a desire to have that kind of broad front which basically eliminated race as a category, and a kind of highly reductive Marxism that just said class, class is everything, class”. And so you see people throwing around the term identity politics” and you’re like what do you mean by that? I always just say to them, it’s a bit like political correctness” where it means whatever you want it to mean as long as you don’t like it. It’s like identity is in politics, people come to politics with something. And there is a notion that class about material concerns, well being arrested and being threatened with murder is a material concern. If you can’t marry the person that you love, that’s a material concern. If you’re being paid 83p to a man’s pound, that’s a material concern. If you’re four times more likely to die of Covid than a white person, that is a material concern, it’s literally life and death. And the notion from a certain central-left is identity is just how you feel. You know, it’s samosas and steel band and saris and people leveraging that into politics rather than understanding that it’s in politics all the time. And that Marx said labour in the white skin can never free itself as long as labour in a Black skin is branded”, so even in the evocation of the great man himself, they kind of don’t really get it quite right.

And that this becomes particularly urgent because from the eighties you see the kind of crushing of the organisation’s of the established working-class in terms of unions and you see a kind of fracturing of both what it means to be working-class and of potential allies. So there are more people working in Indian restaurants than there are working in steel, coal and shipbuilding all put together. Now steel, coal and shipbuilding; that was the fulcrum of the British working-class, if they went the whole system went: they can back out the country. We’re in a different kind of economy, we have a different kind of working-class and the degree to which people on the left are interested in engaging with the potential of the working-class, is the degree to which they can understand that he’s changed. Actually I find that to some extent it is generational but I still get asked quite often you know what’s more important, race or class?” or which comes first?” and so they exist in silos, as opposed to being two interdependent forces that can only be understood together or misunderstood separately.

There are more people working in Indian restaurants than there are working in steel, coal and shipbuilding all put together

Ayeisha: OK so you mentioned it there, let’s move on to talking about how the uprising for Black liberation has intersected with the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly here. So you’ve written extensively in the New Statesman about how the pandemic is exposing broader inequalities to the extent that that quote being Black is a pre-existing condition”. So can you talk about what you mean by that?

Gary: What Covid appears to be illustrating in the disproportionate number of Black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi people who are dying is an entrenched, systemic racism whereby nobody is going around and injecting us with Covid. There have been Black people who’ve been spat on and died but generally speaking no one’s deliberately walking around and licking our faces and making us sick. What’s happening is that before Covid ever came we were on the bottom of pretty much every pile, be it African- Caribbeans, Africans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis — depends on the pile. And because we’re in more cramped housing, often multi-generational. Because we have to go to work, also because of patterns of migration because of some of the work we do, because of lack of opportunities because of other kinds of work we do — particularly public transport and nursing, Pakistani taxi drivers in certain areas, security guard work particularly for people of African, African- Caribbean descent. We are more vulnerable, we are more prone and so we are dying at greater rates. And there is an awareness of that just because quite a lot of us are dying and so people know someone who knows someone who’s died. If you’re Black, you’re more likely to know somebody who’s died or who’s had it or who’s struggling. Sheer force of numbers.

I don’t know that I would want to draw any kind of causal connection between that and the broader moment that we’re in in terms of Black Lives Matter, but I do think there’s a contextual one that’s clear. You have the brazen brutality of the neck on the throat, or the Lawrence murder, or any of those things where people die in a moment of extreme and vile racism and to some people that is racism. That’s it, that is what racism is: bad people doing bad things to other people. Sometimes in their mind to good people, which is also awful, this notion that well it turns out he wasn’t as good as all that, that maybe he had a previous record” it’s like yeah well even if we did have a record the price for that is not state execution, or any kind of execution. You have the most brazen form of racism but actually it’s kind of like an iceberg and that is at the tippity top of it and that’s not… most people’s experience of racism isn’t that. It’s being shoved to the bottom of every pile, it’s is being routed for the kind of, you know, least convenient thing, it’s not feeling that you can speak up in a certain moment, it’s living in an area that either you don’t think is safe or that is just poorly resourced, it’s going to schools that are poorly resourced, it’s kind of being turned down at an exceptional rate for a range of opportunities even when you have done everything they’ve asked you to do and done well at school and gone to university: it’s all of those things. And so there is this connection between the banal, that everyday racism that is faced in a range of ways and dealt with in a range of ways in Black communities, that makes us more vulnerable to Covid-19. And there is a connection between that and the more brutal, more deadly, more lethal forms of racism that people often understand exclusively as being racism.

And actually broadening people’s understanding of what we’re talking about would help them understand how you get to that point in the first place and the point I made in the New Statesman article is that there is a rhetorical connection between George Floyd, some of his last words I can’t breathe” and the experience of the pandemic patient on the ventilator who literally can’t breathe. That in all sorts of ways we are struggling for the most basic thing, which is oxygen.

Ayeisha: OK so let’s move on from Covid because I want to have some time to talk about the movement uprising and some of the demands around it. First of all I want to look at some of the demands that have emerged so far: we have defunding the police in there, we have campaigns around the history of the British empire to become part of the curriculum, and then we also have Sadiq Khan calling on the Met Police to reconsider their use of stop and search and tasering. So kind of taking them systematically, yeah what your thoughts on those as demands and do you think they’re viable and what might they look like?

Gary: First of all the issue of viability is an important one in more ways than one: we shouldn’t dismiss something just because it’s not viable. When Martin Luther King gets up and says I have a dream”, it’s not viable dream”.

Ayeisha: (laughs) “ I have a viable dream” — it’s less catchy.

xxx

Gary: Yeah, I have a ten point plan to… ” you know. But it’s quite important to be utopian in these moments and to speak honestly about what one thinks is necessary, not just what is possible. Not least because two weeks ago we didn’t think this moment was possible so who knows what will be possible in two weeks time. That said, defunding the police I think is a demand that’s come from America and I could be wrong, I’d be happy to be wrong. I don’t know that a significant amount of work has been done on that here. That there’s a sufficient amount of political education to kind of know what that is and what that would look like.

Ayeisha: Yeah I think on defunding the police in general there has been… because some of my friends and colleagues organise n Minneapolis and have done for a long time, and the thing that they point out there in terms of that victory is that for decades they’ve had organisations that have been invested in developing community alternatives to policing and advancing them to the council and the government, such that when this moment arose, they had an alternative plan ready. I agree that I don’t see that here.

Gary: So I feel like that’s an American demand that doesn’t translate at the moment, doesn’t mean it couldn’t, doesn’t mean we might not talk about it. The curriculum, that seems way overdue and necessary otherwise it’s like people walking in a film halfway through a film and they’re like what just happened?”

Ayeisha: I mean I suppose we’ve made the case for that throughout this podcast so far right?

Gary: Yeah. We should be doing that anyway. In some places they are doing that, in places where they’re not, they should be: it should be part of the national curriculum. I kind of think similarly with stop and search, like it’s not new and it’s not difficult to understand why the manner in which stop and search is used is a problem. It’s actually self-defeating. In Scotland when I did work on knife crime they said one of the problems we have in London is that the people with the information and communities with information don’t trust the police and you know stop and search actually doesn’t produce as many arrests as all that, whereas community information would and so in Scotland they’ve made you know big strides in knife crime. So I think that we have the right to be both safe from crime and safe from state harassment: I don’t think that’s too much to ask. 

And one of the things I do find galling in this moment, even as I think it’s important to be generous and to embrace the things that are coming out, is it’s not like I have anything new to say to Sadiq Khan. It’s almost like for our humanity to be asserted, we first of all must die. It’s not new, this is not difficult and if that’s all we get out of this moment that it’s not enough. Neither of those things are new demands and neither of them cost any money and neither of them should be in any way challenging to a place that is interested in anti-racism let alone committed to it. So I feel like they are important and good and entirely insufficient given what’s happened.

It’s almost like for our humanity to be asserted, we first of all must die

Ayeisha: So what’s missing then? I mean I know it’s a bit of a crude question but what should the UK Black liberation movement be demanding? What might be enough?

Gary: I think there is a benefit in Britain in cementing the issues that have arisen over Covid; the broader issue of brutality, history, all of that stuff, to look at how we’ve got here — now that’s very vague. Specifically with Covid I think we should be demanding a public inquiry into how we got here, that’s not going to put food of anybody’s table but I think that’s important because I think that that will expose a kind of far broader hole than the one that we’ve got. But I think we’re moving quite quickly from this moment into a massive economic depression that’s gonna hit us hardest, it’s going to hit Black people hardest, there’s no doubt about that. The last one hit us really hard; I think it was only a couple of months before Covid hit that wages emerged from the real equivalent of 2008 and here we are again and so I think whatever demands are made will go beyond this moment to address the kind of hammering that we are about to experience.

A different way of saying that would be I don’t know precisely what demands should be made, I don’t know. But I do have a kind of clear idea that it will come out of the lived experience of a community that is in revolt at the moment and that for it to come out of that community there is going have to be some kind of gathering, some opening, some place — not geographical, particularly at the moment — for all the things that have been felt and said to sit and congregate and to establish what those priorities are.

Ayeisha: OK, so yeah that makes sense. Let’s talk a little bit about this question of violence, we’ve touched on it once or twice, but you’ve drawn a connection in your writing between the violence of the riots, the violence of the police and the violence of our economic system. So could you expand on that a little bit?

Gary: Yeah. I think that violence has to be understood in this context and if you take the violence that has taken place in these rebellions…what is the context? Well first of all there is a context it was a direct cause which is state violence, the killing of George Floyd and of many others. Beyond that there is a broader state violence: the incarceration, the executions, the stoppings, the searchings, the disproportionate arrests, the unreasonable disproportion of sentencing — all of those things that take place in Black communities in America. 

Then you have the economic violence: the violence that makes a Black man in Washington DC have a lower life expectancy than a man on the Gaza Strip. The violence that leaves so many people without health care, without housing. That delivers such developing world-levels of infant mortality. And you have to ask yourself what were the alternatives? What were the other options? Look at Colin Kaepernick when he took a knee, well that didn’t work. Sometimes Black people have voted in higher percentages than white people — they got a Black president. You can’t talk about Black people not being involved in the political system, in the political structures, not trying other things; raising your fist, taking the knee, lobbying, demonstrating — all those things have been done nobody listened. So then what peace was there before?

Ayeisha: Yeah, peace for whom?

Gary: People were being killed, wantonly, by the state. There were peaceful protests, nobody listened. So what was the nature of that peace? Let’s say that there wasn’t a violent response, then how would we live? In what way is it possible to live in a western state that claims to be a democracy, when you don’t know if your teenage kid can walk down the road without being murdered; where you might be murdered by police at any moment. In what sense is that living in a state of peace? And then there has to be an acknowledgment that political violence is problematic. That the rage on the streets well you will never have the power of the American state, you just won’t. They’ve got tanks, they’ve got rocket launchers, they’ve got dirty bombs, they’ve got drones. Don’t think that you will out violence them because you won’t. And it’s often a hyper-masculine, it can be very polarising — it’s not equipped to solve the problem that it highlights and so it shouldn’t be fetishised.

And then you have to look at OK, the fires are burning down now, well what’s the result been? Well the whole world’s looking at racism right now; the whole world is outraged about what happened; Minneapolis has disbanded its police force; there’s been a shift in popular approval of Black Lives Matter; it has spread like a bushfire all over the globe, where it is now being translated into local context. Do not tell me that if Black people hadn’t come out onto the streets and raised hell that that would have happened, because it wouldn’t. Now the problem is that the people who riot are very rarely the people who actually benefit, that’s historically true that they create a Black middle-class, that…I got my bursary from the Guardian following the 1985 and 1987 uprisings, they decided that we needed more Black journalists and you know, it was a direct consequence of Black people taking to the streets but it benefited me, it didn’t benefit them.

Do not tell me that if Black people hadn’t come out onto the streets and raised hell that that would have happened, because it wouldn’t 

Ayeisha: If anything they’re the ones who often end up behind bars, so…

Gary: Well, right! Or policed like they’re in an occupied territory or just still poor. So it’s not unproblematic, it shouldn’t be fetishised, it should also not be condemned summarily; you have to look at the alternatives and you have to look at what has or hasn’t been gained and in this particular instance it would be a hard argument to say you should have stayed at home. From what I’ve seen, video-wise, in many of these cases the violence wasn’t started by the protesters anyway, there’s been plenty of police riots.

Ayeisha: Yeah OK, so I want to wrap up in a sec but in the last answer you gave you know you talked about how some of the impacts of what’s happening around the world at the moment are already being, I guess, baked in, they’re already causing shifts in the public consciousness and perhaps kind of irreversible progress around racial justice. Would you say that there’s more that we need to be doing to make sure what’s happening now translates into lasting change, above and beyond what we’ve discussed so far?

Gary: Yeah, I’m not sure that they were irreversible, actually, I fear the worst you know I think in general terms the left has done a good job of clearing space but a bad job keeping it the last ten years. A lot of space has been cleared but let’s not forget how the last economic crisis went down; everybody knew that the bankers had done it, everybody knew that it was a financial crisis that was at the heart of a certain kind of caffeinated capitalism, and yet they managed to make the narrative about asylum seekers, refugees and public sector workers. So the degree to which these moments can be distorted should not be underestimated, I think it’s all in play and that all of us in different ways have everything to fight for. And that we’re in a moment now where we’re kind of shifting, I hope, from symbols to substance the statues which is you know a great thing to get rid of Colston and other things, and they’re symbolic. I think symbols are really important so that doesn’t denigrate them but I don’t think they should be mistaken for substance. The marches, which were showing anger and rage and so on but now you have to do something with it. 

And I think the challenge at the moment, (laughs) particularly under Covid, is to convene in whatever form makes sense with the purpose of thinking, it was this huge explosion on the streets that have made this moment possible, how do we attach ourselves to that moment? What does that moment say to me as a writer or as a worker or where I live or wherever it is, in whatever way that one seeks to convene because you’re not going to be able to do it on your own. Not to leverage that moment for your own personal effect but to think like what connections can I make with the issues that have been raised and the people that were raising them? Because that’s what’s going to keep it going — not the will, the will itself is there, not the themes because the themes are never-ending — but the capacity to kind of create some connective tissue between the energising, exhilarating, somewhat chaotic urgent moment that we’re leaving and the more protracted moment that we’re entering. And that’s to gather, in whatever way that we can, to talk about what we need to do next, to talk about what are our priorities. 

I’ll give you an example and it’s an example of why I kind of am squeamish about saying you should do this, let’s go here”. I lived in Scotland as a student and there was a Lothian Black forum which was created in protest at the racist murder of an asylum seeker, Ahmed Sheik, the Black forum kind of existed for about three, four years, did wonderful work: organised marches, convened, got people together and then there was a kind of OK, let’s almost form working groups, let’s do our own thing. A group of us decided that it would be good to do some youth work with young Black kids, it ended up being a toddlers group from mainly mixed-race kids and their white mums. Now you could only know that by doing it, it’s the action that makes the kind of work real. And because this moment exists on such a huge landscape, Black Lives Matter, well that means health, education, housing, police; it means everything, art, culture, everything. How we go from that notion to what next is the product of an engagement and that’s what we need now, is to engage. We’ve demonstrated, we’ve protested, we’ve taken statues, there’s a range of things that we’ve done — and to take it forward we have to kind of think well OK, that was what that moment demanded of us, now what do we demand of this moment.

Ayeisha: Let’s figure it out. (Sighs) gosh, OK yeah I mean I think that the one thing that I would add to that from my vantage point is we need to also be thinking about how we not only kind of assemble in the way that you just elucidated, but how we make the links really explicit between the governmental economic agenda that follows and the moment that we’re in. And what I mean by that is, for example when we see them pedalling out the inevitable austerity narrative, we start to make these links between who’s most directly impacted by that. That when we see their response to having funded the NHS more leading to them kind of cutting the budget, cutting education budgets etc. etc. that we continue to make these links and that we have specific policy demands as well that really emphasise that what we meant when we said no more; what we meant when we said Black Lives Matter, is exactly this, is exactly these changes. And I think that is also the work of us as the left right?

Gary: Yes, yes I agree and I feel that to some extent because of Covid and what that’s done in a range of ways, we’re in a suspended moment but that there’s hell coming down the line and we need to be ready for it because we’re gonna catch it in a way that other people don’t. That also means creating allies; expanding the demands of this moment. It’s a bit like with the Covid, it’s like well in the short term what we need is PPE, test and trace — that will save Black lives, it also saves white lives. That kind of our demands for better policing, for an accurate assessment of our history, for a range things, aren’t demands specific to Black people; they’re demands Black people are making but we would all benefit from that. Because it’s not just us who’s going to catch hell: it’s not even us that’s just catching hell now.

Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

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