Black Lives Matter and the labour movement

By Mohan Sen

Comrades should read this interview with West Coast US docks activist Clarence Thomas – involved in organising mass docks strikes in support of Black Lives Matter – in Jacobin magazine. Thomas calls for the US labour movement to get serious about challenging police racism and violence.

The British labour movement needs to get serious too.

Small groups of socialists aside, trade unions and the Labour Party have largely had no organised presence on the great wave of demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd. This is partly, no doubt, caution in the context of Covid-19; but also a more general passivity that predated the pandemic. The labour movement could have helped to organise more protests with covid-distancing and in ways that minimised virus risks (as some protests already were); instead it largely did nothing.

It is all too common for labour movement organisations to effectively “outsource” anti-racist — and not just anti-racist — campaigning and do little to mobilise their members. That culture is now deeply ingrained.

Most unions and union leaders have been remarkably quiet during the upheavals of the last three weeks. Go on the national Twitter accounts of Britain’s largest unions, Unison and Unite, and you’ll find almost nothing about Black Lives Matter, and nothing about the pro- tests.

Labour’s main political interventions have been backing for the Tories’ proposals for harsher sentences on those who vandalise war memorials; and Keir Starmer’s criticism of protesters who took down the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol.

Some union leaders and Labour MPs have supported the protests. But the thousands of labour movement activists who have attended demonstrations, in some cases providing important support, have been left with- out wider support.

If the labour movement had mobilised at all seriously, the far right could not have won partial victories on the streets over the weekend of 13 June. In any case our movement has a wider positive responsibility — to use its social weight and creative capacity to champion the interests of the whole working class, and particularly the specially oppressed.

A labour movement not roused up by this mass revolt against oppression will not revive and will not transform society. Socialists must try to rouse it up.

Part of the reason for the labour movement’s silence is surely worse than passivity.

The Labour and union leaders are keeping fairly quiet about it at the moment, but they mostly have an actively conservative, pro-police political line.

Unlike in the US labour movement, there are no police unions in ours. But it is widely accepted in the unions and on the left that the Prison Officers’ Association is a normal part of our movement, and even a radical, left- wing force. Meanwhile the labour movement has nothing to say about the huge, and disproportionately black and brown, prison population.

Even under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour presented more police as part of the solution to the problems working-class people face. In the 2017 and 2019 elections, and in between, the party campaigned for thousands more police. It demanded hundreds more border guards and, beyond opposing privatisation, said little about the prison system.

The unions, by and large, fell in behind Labour’s pro-police stance. The Labour left, reluctant to criticise or even differ with Corbyn, by and large went quiet.

A labour movement capable of and committed to replacing capitalism will need to organise to replace the existing police, who defend the interests of the ruling class. Socialists must pursue that argument. We must educate about the history of conflicts between the police and workers in struggle, and how our movement confronted the cops.

We must also develop immediate changes we can push for Labour, the unions and anti-racist campaigners to demand.

We must insist on the right of self-defence, by the labour movement and oppressed people, against police violence and oppression.

We should demand sharp limits on police powers; measures of democratic accountability to rein them in; social reforms to limit the spheres in which the criminal justice system operates; and a clear program to refund and expand the social provision gutted over the last decade. We need to develop these kind of demands in more concreteness and detail.

Every Labour Party or union activist who supports the Black Lives Matter protests has a responsibility to help get this debate off the ground, linked to backing and mobilising for the demonstrations.

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