The killing of George Floyd is part of a broader pattern of state violence. Police violence is bound up with the class system and the place black people occupy in our class system is in turn bound up with our history, says NICK WRIGHT writing in the Morning Star
How should we understand the events in the United States? And in our own country?
Over ten thousand people have been arrested in the USA during protests against police racism and violence. When such events simultaneously occur across dozens of cities then any analysis which attributes the cause of such disorder to a conspiracy by ‘anti-fa’ or any other imaginary category of subversives itself is fantasy. This is especially the case when the filmed evidence suggests that where preplanning is evident it is the police that are responsible for starting the violence.
Fantasies are the stuff of the media representation of these events. In as far as they obscure the reality, mask an understanding of the underlying causes, or mystify the real concrete circumstances in which these human actions take place then they are at the service of the capitalist system and the bourgeois state.
In understanding how ‘riots’ or disorder occurs it is necessary to make a distinction between the largely ritualistic encounters between demonstrators and the police, which can become violent, and the conventionally separate incidents of looting and arson which occur, often involving different groups of people, not infrequently in separate locations, when the flimsy film of routine behaviour which governs most public interactions is ruptured.
Thus we can make a distinction between what is happening in the USA and here.
The killing of George Floyd – tragic as it was, distressing for his family and friends and doubly distressing for the poor child who witnessed the eight minute public torture — was not an unusual event. Not all encounters between the coercive apparatus of the US State and its black citizens ends in a killing but be sure that almost all of them have that potential.
This tension is not a new feature of US life and no amount of corporate-sponsored racial awareness programmes or liberal hand-wringing can obscure the reality that this contradiction arises from the ways in which the extraction of surplus and the accumulation of capital in the United States has, from its inception as a republic, and before that as a part of the British Empire, been grounded in the super exploitation of black people firstly as slaves and, since the formal abolition of slavery, as wage slaves.
Challenging racism in daily life is an individual responsibility for every class conscious worker and politically conscious citizen. Challenging the systemic racism that is the inevitable feature of the neo-liberal capitalist order is the responsibility of the labour movement and the working class as a whole.
If our history lessons have failed to bring home that Britain’s development as the first and leading capitalist power was based on the enslavement and hyper-exploitation of Africans transported to the Americas then the young people of Bristol have made up that deficit.
This is the starting point in understanding the historic specificity and concrete local circumstances in which the racist violence of the police produces and accompanies an irruption of anger.
Note that the police commander in Bristol did display an awareness of this circumstances and the event passed off without immediate arrests. He now faces criticism. If a state sanctioned hunt starts for people involved in toppling the statue we can be sure that the next demonstration will be even larger.
The US black voice Cornell West – perhaps the most incisive observer of these events in the USA – makes the powerful point that the state violence on the streets of the USA is at one with the state violence of the USA abroad.
This is not simply a rhetorical point.The neo-liberal ordering of the global economy – which entails an active US military and subversive intelligence presence on every continent – dovetails directly with the US domestic economy which has seen a precipitate collapse of manufacturing and basic industries. These traditionally were where union organisation meant black workers could enter the more secure sectors of the economy.
Save for America’s First Nations everyone who lives in the USA is, or is descended from, immigrants or a slaves. This lends a particular construction to the American identity in which race has a particularly active role; and the US social structure which stratifies people in a matrix of sex and race in which class is the most active and organising factor.
The diverse reactions to the toppling of the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue into the river in Bristol reveals just how deeply embedded in British political culture are the contradictory accounts of our history, and the human cost of the capital accumulation arising from the slave trade.
Each protagonist in this episode knows that police violence is bound up with the class system and that the place black people occupy in our present class system is in turn bound up with our history.
The oppression and discrimination experienced by Black people in the USA, and for that matter Britain, is central in organising the class structure, in maintaining social order. One aspect of this, police oppression, is no less an expression of the exploitative and oppressive class nature of that society, is an essential function of it, and presently, the most visible product of it.
The peculiar nature of this present crisis is that the increasingly generalised and routinised nature of police oppression against black people has become a destabilising factor. Furthermore, as Cornell West points out, the incorporation of a black elite into the political establishment and the state apparatus – up to the level of President, Secretary of State and top military commander – made absolutely no difference to the imperialist foreign policy, domestic racism, the mass incarceration of black people in the prison system or police violence.
The American crisis of policing has no resolution within their system and neither does ours.
It is worth asking the question how does the ruling class understand why these events recur? At one level they see them as a rupture in the social order, a threat to both political stability and property. Any direct threat to particular property is seen as a potential threat to property relations as a whole and this naturally alarms the propertied classes.
The more perceptive of our rulers – and perhaps a bigger proportion of their attendant professional intellectuals – understand exactly how this breakdown signifies deep structural problems.
Sometimes through guile but more often through an inability to see reality they resort to delusional thinking in which outside forces are assigned magical powers to create rupture in the social order.
One the evening of 5 October 1985 I stood in Mount Pleasant Road bordering the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham with David Whitfield, the Morning Star’s deputy editor, as Sir Kenneth Newman, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – framed against burning buildings – told journalists that ‘left wing agitators’ were responsible for the fighting between his officers and residents besieged on the estate. This was followed next morning by a Daily Express headline ‘Street fighting experts trained in Moscow and Libya were behind Britain’s worst violence’ while the Daily Mirrorclaimed ‘The Tottenham riot was ignited by well prepared outsiders.’
I was present as head of the Haringey Council’s Police Research Unit charged with monitoring police operations in the borough and responsible for liaison with the police. For weeks our reports to council leader Bernie Grant had detailed stop-and-search operations, some so crudely imposed that they disrupted other crime prevention operations and all contributing to a steadily rising tension.
This tension turned to a demonstration outside Tottenham police station the day after four police officers carried out a search of home of Mrs Cynthia Jarrett during which Mrs Jarrett collapsed and soon after died.
Just how intractable is the crisis of policing is shown by the context of the fighting which erupted on the 6 October after a massive deployment of police armed with CS gas and plastic bullets surrounded the estate. This had followed two nights of street conflict over the 9 and 10 September 1985 in Birmingham. And on 28 September, in Brixton, Mrs Cherry Groce, another black woman, had been shot and paralysed inside her home by an intruding police officer.
Kenneth Newman was regarded as a pioneering type of police intellectual with a background as commander of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and formerly head of the Bramshill police staff college.
Newman mobilised a territorial policing concept in which working class neighbourhoods, most especially where Black people lived, were designated ‘symbolic locations’ in which the police were regarded as an alien presence.
In response to the recurring nature of such disorders a veritable academic industry has grown up to theorise the changing patterns of popular resistance to the police in terms which sometimes fail to understand the context which every young person born into a working class neighbourhood has, by adulthood, already acquired quite profound insights.
The academic joke has it that the police are a public service in which the customer is always wrong. The orthodox understanding of the role of the police – dating back to 1924 – centres on the individual role of the constable ‘entrusted with powers that may gravely affect the liberty of the subject and he must be ready to act on his own initiative’.
The Israeli military technique of the ‘knee on the neck’ is the contemporary expression of this individual discretion. At the public order end of the tactical policing spectrum is the reality that policing only works as a deterrent to disorder until it no longer does. And judging by the masses of mostly young people, white and black, taking to the streets, it no longer does.
This is not the first transformative moment in British politics, it won’t be the last but unless the organised working class finds a common ground with this movement it will develop independently. And unless the Labour Party finds a common language with this generation it will lose legitimacy and support from those for whom Black lives matter.