Black Dissidents interview: “Real power comes from collective fights for liberation”

Black Dissidents were formed earlier this year and since then have been involved in fights against oppression from migration struggles to resisting evictions. Tomorrow they’ll be taking part in the  UFFC Annual Remembrance Procession, 1pm, Trafalgar Square, London.  Jaz Blackwell-Pal caught up with Shanice McBean from Black Dissidents to discuss the politics of the group, how they organise and the state of the anti-racist movement in the UK today. 


What are the political aims and starting points for Black Dissidents? How do you organise as a group?

The founding political principles are about being rooted in working class black communities in Britain and tackling the day to day issues that working class people face: education, police, work, migration, housing, family, environment, community, prisons. The purpose of the group is to try and add anti-capitalist, revolutionary narratives and practise to those issues in our local communities. There’s a regular weekly meeting where we discuss proposals that people have put forward, and we organise for up and coming actions. We also utilise online forms of communication. Two things we’re focusing on the moment are police and migration.

Can you explain the choice of the word ‘black’? What kind of political discussions have you had about using that term?

It is a group that organises on the basis of political blackness. It’s contains South Asian people, people from Mauritius, from France, Americans, Latin American, mixed race British people, so it’s a very ethnically diverse group. If you’re a person of colour you can join. We want to come from the perspective of showing solidarity with different struggles, and similar struggles, that people of colour face in Britain. So for example if you look at stop and search in the UK, the people most affected by it are African Caribbean people followed by South Asian people so there’s that continuity of experience. However, while the group is politically black, there is a strong desire to make sure that doesn’t mean we’re ignoring differences in the way that oppression works. We think if you’re not privy to what these differences are you’re not going to be very good at fighting oppression.

Black Dissidents a new group dominated by younger activists. Do you see yourself as a break from previous anti-racist organisations?

In essence, the political break is that it’s a group that organises intersectionally and doesn’t see anti-racist politics as being a separate domain to women’s politics, LGBT politics, trans politics etc. We try to reflect that in our practice, and we’ve had some problems around that with older people in the movement who see police brutality, for example, as not being related to LGBT politics or feminist politics. We need more solidarity between LGBT groups and black groups who both suffer very vicious forms of police brutality and police violence. You only have to look at the statistics about how trans woman are repeatedly abused by police to see that the same police officers that murdered Mark Duggan are the exact same ones abusing trans women in Soho.

What about working with white organisations? How does the idea of black and white unity factor into your activism?

On a political level the group stands firm on the notion that the liberation of all people is crucial to the liberation of black people, including white working class people. We work with all types of groups, not just black groups, because liberation from capitalism is going to require the movement of the international working class, which consists of people with white skin, black skin, brown skin, and the group is very firm on that.

What do you think are the key struggles facing black communities today?

In many ways it hasn’t changed. If you look at what was happening at the time of Rock Against Racism, the Anti Nazi League, in the 1970s and 1980s, you also had big campaigns against police brutality, you had stuff around migration, people challenging xenophobic positions. I think those are still the three fault lines today: police, fascists, and migration. What has changed is, it seems like it’s more difficult to mobilise black communities. That’s what I think is different. If you look at the New Cross massacre, the Black People’s March, there was a constant flow of mobilisation of black people, and it was growing, it was powerful, it reached its thousands. It’s difficult to see where that could come from today.

Why is it harder?

Probably a legacy of neoliberalism and the way in which black communities were viscously attacked and defeated. And also, similarly to the way the Democratic party works in America, the Labour party is the graveyard of black political movements in Britain. But I also think generally one of the general impacts of neoliberalism is to create the sense that we can’t fight back. That said, we did see young generations burst into the political arena towards the end of last year around the Michael Brown and Eric Garner demonstrations, and they were beautiful. There’s definitely a new generation inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, so it’s a task for the anti-racist, anti police brutality movement: how do we capture a new generation who are angry about these issues? It’s an on-going question.

Do you have much of a relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US? What do you think about developments in that movement?

One of our members was recently in America on tour with prominent families from the UK who have had people die in custody. They met up with other family members and activists in the movement, and the whole point of that is to build UK to US solidarity and try to develop an international movement. That’s one of the positive directions that the movement in America is going in, developing a sense of internationalism. You can see it in the work that’s happening US to Palestine as well, and the way in which black activists are seeing an affinity between the hyper militarisation of the police in places like Ferguson, and the hyper militarisation of the police, occupation and army in Israel.

Another positive lesson from the US, which is similar to the way Black Dissidents operates, is organising on an intersectional basis. I think one of the downfalls of anti-racist politics in Britain is to see anti-racist politics as just about race. There have been times where this hasn’t been the case, so Love Music Hate Homophobia building off of Love Music Hate Racism, creating the sense that these issues are connected and that we need to fight on similar platforms. You can see from the US that you build a much more diverse, vibrant, politically sharp movement by connecting the different struggles for liberation.

 How do Black Dissidents approach the question of developing black leadership, and a new generation of confident black activists?

Largely I think it’s a matter of being more active in terms of creating campaigns to tackle the things affecting us. For example in Tottenham Operation Shield is very active, so what can we do? Can you do a snappy action, mobilise a large protest or do some leafleting to create a sense in the community that we do have the ability to collectively challenge these things? I think that’s the priority: how do we create the sense that communities can collectively challenge these things.

One way that Black Dissidents is thinking of doing that in the near future is police patrols. When you’re being stop and searched, or when you’re being abused by the police, because they have the law on their side, because they can detain you and because they have powers of arrest, you automatically believe that the police have power and we don’t have strength to fight back. So the idea of police patrols, and not just using a small group of people but creating a network of people who are skilled up and trained to do these patrols, is to take this big institution that you feel makes you powerless and actively and lawfully confront and challenge it.

How do you think the question of immigration is going to impact anti racist organising, particularly immigration of people from Eastern European countries? How do we develop our analysis of racism to involve these groups and show solidarity with them?

Racism is being reconfigured around Britishness. It is still very much about whether you’ve got white or brown skin, but what is being created is racial-national boundaries, who can come in, who can’t, who has to pay for NHS who doesn’t have to pay for the NHS, who has access to public funds, who doesn’t have access. Of course, most of the time, the people who can’t get into the country are going to be black or brown people, but couching it around Britishness, around nationality, allows you to maintain that fervent racism without having to name skin colour as such. In terms of how that changes our organising: we need to be building links between new migrants coming in from Eastern Europe who are 100% being racialised and facing oppression on the basis of the way Tories are whipping up racism and divide and rule. At the same time I do think it’s important to be clear that the way in which skin colour is mobilised under capitalism is a very specific form of racism and for us to not lose sight of the specificity of what brown skin means under capitalism in the West.

What problems do you see facing the movement and do you see identity politics remerging?

This is a discussion we’ve been having in Black Dissidents. My view is that there is a hard form of politics, that is really difficult to put into practise, and then there’s an easy form of politics. The hard form of politics is to change the views of white working class people and get them to unite with migrants against their bosses, it’s challenging the police and institutions of policing in Britain. That’s hard. An easy kind of politics is taking cultural memes, pictures or images in the media, or white people wearing bindi’s, and turning those into your campaigns. The difference between them is that one is about critique and once is about liberation. Liberation is hard and critique is easy.

Those divisions are political divisions because quite often the way identity politics is mobilised completely ignores class. It’s a huge problem. In my personal opinion, the assumption that because someone is white working class that their ideas cant change, and that our only option is to call them out as harshly as possible misses the trick. We don’t just want to critique, we don’t just want to upset white people, we don’t just want to talk about oppression online: we actually want to fight for liberation. One of the main drivers of identity politics is a sense of powerlessness. The negative elements of call out culture, telling people to shut up because they’re white, that comes from the intense powerlessness we feel under capitalism and having to constantly navigate racism. But ultimately real power comes from collective fights for liberation. The worst kinds of cultural appropriation are only going to be seriously challenged by international movements against imperialism, colonialism and capitalism.

 How do Black Dissidents relate to some of the anti-gentrification campaigns that are specifically based around black and Asian communities like Brixton, Hackney and Whitechapel?

We’ve been quite heavily involved in campaigns like Sweets Way campaign, that’s over now unfortunately, the last resident, an Asian man was evicted. The real importance of fighting gentrification is that the first communities to be turfed out are black, Asian working class communities.

What Black Dissidents will bring to the fold is attempting to bring an anti racist, black liberation analysis which can hopefully draw black and Asian communities in Britain into these struggles. At the end of the day, the working class is a very diverse bunch of people. There’s not going to be a serious anti-gentrification campaign in Brixton, in Tottenham, that doesn’t mobilise black and Asian communities. The role of groups like Black Dissidents is to provide the kind of analysis that can make these campaigns more relevant to black and Asian communities.




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