Keir Starmer has given a tepid, equivocal response to the Black Lives Matter movement in Britain. What is needed from the Labour leaders is not hollow rhetoric or tokenistic kneeling, but firm and clear support to those fighting racism.
The murder of George Floyd has sparked uprisings in the USA and protests worldwide, calling for an end to police brutality and racism. Many are calling for the wholesale abolition of the police and the prison system itself.
Floyd’s last words – as with Eric Garner in 2014 – of “I can’t breathe” have become the rallying call of the international Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Activists have highlighted that Britain is no better than the US when it comes to systemic racism. Indeed, it was only in 2011 that the UK saw nationwide riots in response to the Met Police’s killing of Mark Duggan. Since then, this anger was merely buried – it did not go away.
The response of the Labour Party leadership to this mass movement has so far been lacklustre. Starmer has failed to condemn the actions of Trump, for example, only reluctantly calling upon the UK government to ban sales of tear gas to the US.
At the same time, Starmer has failed to give his full support to the movement. Instead, the Labour leader’s reaction has been one of empty platitudes and tokenistic gestures, such as stage-managed kneeling for press photographers.
We kneel with all those opposing anti-Black racism. #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/ZvjBndwqKk
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) June 9, 2020
Most notably, Starmer angered Labour members and anti-racist activists when he condemned BLM protestors in Bristol for tearing down the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it into the river.
The Labour leader said on LBC radio that while he believed the statue should have been taken down long ago, it was “completely wrong” for protestors to take matters into their own hands. Starmer has even supported Priti Patel’s demand to prosecute protestors for “criminal damage”.
Tories, right-wing Labour MPs, and media hacks have all condemned this act as some frightful descent into ‘mob rule’, arguing that protestors should have gone through the ‘proper democratic channels’ to remove it.
But residents of Bristol already tried this route: a petition signed by over 11,000 people calling on the council to remove the statue to Edward Colston has been ignored for years. They had waited long enough!
Left-wing Labour MPs such as Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy have correctly criticised this moralising hypocrisy from the right wing. The real focus should be on the barbarism of Britain’s racist and imperialist history – and present.
In a few days, #BlackLivesMatter protests have achieved what public statues of slave traders and Empire builders couldn’t in over a hundred years: educating people about racism.
It’s time to take them down and start teaching this history in our schools.pic.twitter.com/AucSruytfs
— Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP (@BellRibeiroAddy) June 10, 2020
Starmer’s equivocal response is in sharp contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, who commended the removal of the statue. He pointed out that people in Bristol had “become exasperated with the years of debate on having a statue of a man whose wealth was founded on slavery, as Edward Colston’s was, and have taken action.”
There are now calls to replace this statue with civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson, who led the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 after one of the city’s bus companies refused to employ ethnic minorities. This petition surpassed 25,000 signatures in two days.
Fight racism! Fight capitalism!
The inaction and vacillation of Starmer and the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party has rightly sparked anger amongst grassroots Labour members. The issue has become yet another battleground between the left and the right of the party.
As capitalism’s crises deepen, so too will the fight for control within the Labour Party. Labour members are out on the streets demanding real change. We need a leadership that expresses these radical yearnings.
If the power of the labour movement was wielded alongside the BLM protests, the combined movement would be an unstoppable force – not just in the US, but across the world. This would strike at the heart of racism: the capitalist system itself.