The Black Lives Matter protests have come up against the police and the far right in the streets. Starmer’s Labour Party has taken the side of the cops.
Only last weekend we witnessed the incredible scenes of the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, being torn from its plinth and hurled into Bristol Harbour by anti-racists. Sir Keir Starmer, Knight of the Realm and Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, stated on LBC radio that it was ‘completely wrong to pull a statue down like that’.
On Saturday around 2000 far-right ‘statue defenders’ descended on Whitehall. After they clashed with police, Sir Keir tweeted ‘Any violence against our police is completely unacceptable. No ifs, no buts.’ Strikingly, he said nothing about the racism displayed by the far right and condemned them only on the basis of their unruly behaviour.
Today Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said that the party would ‘potentially support’ proposals to issue jail sentences of up to ten years for those who ‘vandalise’ war memorials. Because of the broad definition of ‘war memorial’ used in the legislation, it could be applied, for example, to statues of colonial military officers.
The Labour leadership wants to have it both ways. Starmer wants to be seen to condemn racism in general terms, but has condemned the practical steps people have taken to rid their city of a racist symbol. He says that the far right attacking the police is unacceptable, but stays silent about the police violence against BLM protesters. He says ‘Black Lives Matter’, but his Party stands ready to back the Tories’ new measures to repress the movement.
In the last week we have observed a sea-change in public opinion as a handful of other statues have been removed with the approval of Local Authorities and public institutions. At the same time, the Government and the media have expended tremendous energy into a national conversation about the politics of ‘statues’ and our ‘national heritage’, often to the exclusion of a genuine conversation about racism and state violence in contemporary Britain.
There are several dynamics at play in this discussion. Statues memorialising racists, colonisers, eugenicists and slave traders are material symbols of the permanence and untouchability of the established racist order. Taking them down demonstrates to millions of people that change is possible. For that reason, Boris Johnson and the EDL have, in their different ways, used the statue question as a flash-point for popularising and legitimising opposition to the BLM movement. At the same time, even among progressives, the conversations that arise from a focus on statues and colonial legacies can have the effect of treating racism in contemporary society merely as a reflection of historical racist ‘legacies’.
In fact, the policing, immigration and criminal justice systems show us how race and racial inequality is made every day, in front of our eyes. On 20 May, five days before George Floyd’s murder reverberated around the world, Simeon Francis, a 35-year-old Black man from Torquay, Devon, was found dead in a police cell. His name is now added to the over 1700 who have died in police custody in Britain since 1990, for which there has not been a single conviction. The law is not neutral; it protects the racist inequalities which are baked into capitalist society, criminalising sections of the working class and racial minorities.
While paying cursory lip service to ‘the cause’ of the protesters, the Government’s strategy for containing the movement on the streets has been to meet it with ideological attacks and violent repression. By smearing the more militant demonstrations in London as having been ‘subverted by thuggery’ they hope to isolate it from its wider support across the country. Justice secretary Robert Buckland has instructed magistrates to fast-track court proceedings in order to jail people accused of vandalism, criminal damage or assaulting a police officer within 24 hours of their arrest.
We’ve been here before. Keir Starmer used to be Director of Public Prosecutions, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service. In 2011, courts ran overnight to speed up the prosecution of young people who took part in the ‘London riots’ in response to the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, including those who ‘incited rioting’ on social media. In many cases these prosecutions were accompanied by the eviction of activists’ families from social housing as a ‘deterrent’ – a form of collective punishment.
In stark contrast to the harsh treatment of Black youth who took to the streets, Starmer proved consistently unwilling to prosecute state actors for murdering civilians in cold blood. In 2009 Starmer approved the decision not to prosecute a single police officer for the extra-judicial execution of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London underground, despite a long campaign by his family for justice. Officers opened fire on de Menezes, a Brazilian man, after he boarded a train at Stockwell Station, firing seven bullets in his head after restraining him. Officers claimed that de Menezes was a likely suspect for the previous day’s terror attacks because he was behaving ‘suspiciously’ and ‘had Mongolian eyes’.
Starmer also infamously refused to prosecute police over the death of Ian Tomlinson, who died of a heart attack after being struck by police at the 2009 G-20 Summit protests. The Metropolitan Police Service paid Tomlinson’s family an undisclosed sum and acknowledged that police actions had caused Tomlinson’s death.
In 2009 and 2011 Starmer upheld the regime of state repression and violence. Today, he is hiding behind platitudes and the more respectable side of the conversation about statues and history. The battle lines are being drawn between the defenders of a racist social order and anti-racist protesters, between the state and the BLM movement. While thousands of Labour members have spoken out and taken action in support of BLM, the Labour leadership is not only avoiding the question of state racism, but siding with a racist ‘law and order’ agenda.