To arrest and intimidate: State determination to undermine dissent laid bare

Black Lives Matter

The arrest of 76 protesters following a die-in at Westfield shopping centre in London on 10th December 2014 was not just outrageous and callous, but provides one of the clearest recent cases of the state’s current determination to stamp out protest by any means necessary.

The protest, which was called by the London Black Revolutionaries, in conjunction with the NUS Black Students’ Campaign, London Campaign Against Police and State Violence and Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts, was held in solidarity with protests arising in America following the death of Eric Garner after a grand jury failed to indict the officer who put Eric in an illegal chokehold. Eric died shortly after this incident, having repeated ‘I can’t breathe’ eleven times at the scene. This judgment followed closely behind another grand jury decision not to indict the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson – a decision which sparked country-wide protest and worldwide uproar – and the fatal shooting of a 12 year old black child by a police officer in Cleveland on 22nd November. The UK, too, bears responsibility for a litany of black lives lost at the hands of the police, and for an over-representation of black people at every stage in the criminal justice system. This is a huge problem, an embarrassment, and a scandal.

In recognition of this problem, hundreds of people attended the protest at Westfield, which mirrored similar actions in America. Protesters used the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ to draw attention to this disturbing trend – most tragically demonstrated through these deaths, but also reflected in a much more insidious pattern of prejudice which continues to pervade our society. This statement of solidarity – and of shaming the police/state – follows other such phrases that previously traversed the globe via social media: #icantbreathe and #handsupdontshoot. These actions are a testament to the ingenuity of current forms of protest, which demonstrate a innate understanding of the potential for social media to draw global attention in a way that leaves governments powerless to hide wrongdoing, or to portray an image of ‘business as usual’.

Resistance Reimagined

The London Black Revs are representative of a new wave of protest in the UK: unafraid, unwavering, deeply political, and focused on direct action. This energy is capturing the imagination of younger citizens, who feel increasingly disempowered, forgotten about and derided by the current government. They are also capturing the attention and respect of other groups, academics and commentators. Intelligent and focused on serious, often complex, political issues (such as highlighting the precarious existence of black trans women, food poverty in the UK, or low conviction rates for rape), groups such as the London Black Revs are opening the eyes of their supporters, and building lines of solidarity across movements – something which is so vital for success in a contemporary environment in which numbers don’t necessarily equate to success, and in which the media/government miss no opportunity to undermine and isolate protesters.

While, obviously, not everyone protesting on 10th December was young or new to protest, there is a notable contingent of newcomers when compared to many other movements. This cohort – which also draws from a wider range of social backgrounds than often found at protests, with working class and BME groups better represented – brings young voices and black voices to the fore in a country which so often pays little heed to their needs; with little political power, they are convenient scapegoats and some of austerity’s biggest losers (along with immigrants and the disabled).

These young people may well be the next wave of individuals engaged in lifelong resistance – and, if so, it’s not hard to see why those in power are concerned. At a time in their lives where they are forming ideas about what the world they want to live in looks like, and are about to face the challenges of adulthood and/or going to higher education (where a great deal of political organising takes place), these individuals are connecting, developing ideas, and organising – disrupting the status quo rather than blindly following it. They are also experiencing first-hand how the state deals with dissenters and critics.

The issues raised by the London Black Revs and others are reaching a varied, frustrated audience, and the potential for their calls to spread and develop is vast. The government and police are placed directly in the firing line, and with little defence for their actions they will seemingly go to huge lengths to minimise the potential for these calls to proliferate.

Intelligence & Intimidation

It seems likely that the heavy-handed police response on 10th December was indeed due to the increasing threat these groups cause to the status quo. In part this response was to gather intelligence on the main organisers, and participants, from the outset, as the movement gathers momentum and before they are an established part of the protest scene (which they are fast becoming). Added to this is intimidation – another major player in the police’s repertoire. In arresting large groups of young people, and giving them bail conditions stretching months, the hope is that they will be scared away – while simultaneously also sending a message to those thinking of joining in that it’s a risky business. The offence the protesters were all arrested for – violent disorder – adds another layer to this: the offence carries a high penalty if convicted (bearing in mind that mass arrests garner barely any convictions). Violent disorder is also an offence couched in inflammatory terms which label protestors as thugs, thereby minimising public support.

However, in the face of these attempts, the protest has accrued wide media coverage, and the state has once again shown its hand as an overbearing force that’s scared of its citizens – kettling and arresting a large number of protesters (many of whom were minors) after they were lying down in a shopping centre on a protest against police brutality. It’s so ludicrous it’s almost funny – except it’s not, it’s the opposite of that. With stop and search statistics still showing systematic racism at play, with a grotesque number of deaths in police custody (over 1500 since 1990), with black lives being taken with impunity by police on both sides of the Atlantic, you’d think there would be some realisation on the state’s part that things have to change, that this is not how they and their law-enforcers should be behaving. And yet. And yet this realisation has not come, in part because accountability mechanisms for police behaviour are so porous and weak, and perhaps also because, until recently, these issues weren’t being aired in wider public forums. But we should not have to force the state that claims to represent our needs to do that very thing, they should be doing it spontaneously, as a system of governance that claims to be democratic. There is clearly something very wrong with the system we live in today – something which goes far deeper than this latest mass arrest.

This bias, this lack of respect, is not lost on today’s increasingly politicised youth. And the intimidation has not succeeded: the groups leading the protest on 10th December have immediately responded, and commenced further planning. Other groups have supported them. Links and networks grow across the Atlantic and throughout the world. Mainstream media have even lent their column inches to the cause. This growing awareness and solidarity will play a vital role in achieving admissions of wrongdoing, and in enacting change. Above all: change.

Upcoming Events of Interest:

Defend the Right to Protest: Ferguson Solidarity Tour

Centre for Crime and Justice Studies: Justice Matters for young black men: tackling the ethnic penalty

Centre for Crime and Justice Studies: Police Corruption, spying, racism and accountability

The Brick Lane Debates & London Black Revs: Can We Breathe? – police violence and urban unrest


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