Joe Hayns discusses the spate of demonstrations in the UK instigated by Donald Trump taking office and the prospects they open up.
Is a proto-protest movement forming? What are its prospects?
On Friday 20 January, 1000 protested outside the US embassy; Saturday 21 saw the 100,000-strong Women’s March; on Monday 30, at least 40,000 were outside Downing Street – with tens of thousands more across the country – all against the new Executive’s Muslim Ban. Three demonstrations since the inauguration in London alone with a fourth planned for this Saturday. If the question is ‘protesting what?’, the answer seems obvious: Trump.
But, those three demonstrations were called by quite different groups – Stand Up To Racism; the Women’s Equality Party; and Owen Jones, respectively – and directed towards different aspects of ‘Trumpism’.
That is not to say, at all, that either the organisers or protestors see no relationship between the new regime’s imperialism, sexism, and racism, or that the organisations that have constituted the anti-Trump protests might not coalesce temporarily – on a day’s protest against the President’s visit, say – or, perhaps, more enduringly.
In 2004 Chris Harman wrote “every successful protest movement goes through two phases. The first is when it bursts upon the world, taking its opponents by surprise and bringing joy to those who agree with its aims.” But, as those opponents react, and opposition develops, “arguments over tactics necessarily arise within the movement”. We have not reached the second phase yet, but, given the politically mixed nature of the proto-movement, arguments over not only tactics but targets – about ends and means – are already implicit. The shame at the explicitly anti-migrant politics of the Leave campaigns and, too, at the more subliminally racist rhetoric of the official Remain camp – their promise having been to control, control, control, Euro-chauvinism always there – has found, yet, no organised expression; that shame has not transformed into effective anger.
There have been laudable efforts: the June 23 2016 demonstration in London – co-organised by Movement for Justice, Jewdas, Razem, and rs21 – felt as if it might lead to a coalescing of more radical forces (it hasn’t). MFJ’s periodic protests at Yarl’s Wood detention centre continue; and Black Lives Matter UK’s actions at London City Airport forced the press to platform radical anti-racism.
Perhaps most promising over the last period have been the explicitly anti-racist, pro-migrant labour struggles at Fawley and, too, those workers organising in majority-migrant sub-sectors (cleaning, food and drink, and transport), all showing that anti-racism and militant trade unionism can – must, if either’s a chance – be done together. In the US, we’ve seen the best and the worst of trades unionism. The New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance refused to work JFK airport after the announcement of the Muslim Ban and stated, “as an organization whose membership is largely Muslim, a workforce that’s almost universally immigrant, and a working-class movement that is rooted in the defense of the oppressed, we say no to this inhumane and unconstitutional ban”. This contrasts sharply with the leadership of the biggest union federation in the US, the AFL-CIO, that said “we are ready to work with him”.
Still, in the UK, there is an enormous, realistic, and self-replicating despondency; or at least there was, prior Trump’s inauguration. The rapidity of the shift should leave radicals suspicious, with the dangers of ‘bad hope’ real enough. The fact that hundreds of thousands marched last Monday is exciting. That it took an explicitly Islamophobic policy, written by the world’s most powerful white supremacist, demands a better understanding of why official racism – codified in May’s 2016 Immigration Act, spread through schools and hospitals via Prevent, and heard from both the Leave and Remain campaigns – has not been effectively opposed.
Contra Boris Johnson – Trump’s “bark is worse than his bite” – the President’s first few weeks have been head-spinning in their reaction, with his war-talk against China, Iran, Mexico, North Korea (and counting) only slightly less terrifying if considered as revanchist pornography rather than firm policy. The Muslim Ban seems not much a continuity of Obama’s migration policies – as Islamophobic as they were – as recalling of the irrationalism of qualitatively different regimes.
And, whichever way Britain leaves the EU, the UK is near-bound to develop an even closer relationship with the US, not least through the proposed free trade deal, to which the disciplined Tory party – and, probably, much of Labour – will subscribe, regardless of the new, giddy sadism from Washington.
It is unclear if Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbot will be able to use May and Trump’s hand-holding effectively. Despite local efforts it seems highly unlikely that Momentum will take an active organising role against a renewedly racist Atlanticism. We can trust Trump, who can trust the Tories. The Official Opposition, especially minus the weak leadership, not so much.
“Demonstrations express political ambitions before the political means necessary to realise them have been created”, as the late John Berger wrote. So far, the expressions of this proto-movement are both angry – if, still, civil – and highly varying.
Participation in mass demonstrations is transformational (“it temporarily changes our outlook”: Berger again): Asking how people are be transformed always involves questions of the involved organisations, and the political focus and leadership that they bring, or attempt to. Those may come from any number of groups, though none involved seem, at least, capable of radical, national leadership. Most optimistically, the possibility of a novel, anti-racist, pro-migrant formation, relating somehow – since it must – to sections of the labour movement seems likelier now than even six months ago.
Revolutionary organisations will have little numerical presence amongst the radicals – actual and potential – ready to protest over the coming months. It is not clear, to me at least, what the political content of any ‘intervention’ will be, even if the method of developing it – through theory and practice, as patiently worked through together – are assured.
As sure, too, is that Trump, formerly arch bankrupt, is now paying the debt he owes his electoral base (white, richer, more masculinist America). Hence, assuming he serves his term, we’ve both too much and too little time to fight against his regime’s worsening – in the US and far beyond – of an already bleak, bleak period.