After the Metropolitan police violently shut down a vigil for Sarah Everard on Saturday, the usual negative cycles of online discourse began again in earnest. Many wrongly assumed that those who had organised the protest were white (when the organisers – Sisters Uncut – are predominantly women of colour), while scornful remarks were directed at white middle-class women for only just waking up to horrors of police brutality. Some went so far as to suggest that protests since have appropriated the symbol of the raised fist from the Black Lives Matter movement (even though BLMUK have supported these protests).
This kind of discourse betrays a worrying lack of political education amongst the broad left today. If you relied solely on social media for a history of resistance movements, you would think everything from the miners’ strike to the Black power movement happened in its own bubble. You would believe activists were only concerned with their own struggles: at best oblivious to the activities of others across the world, at worst actively stealing ideas from each other and claiming credit for them.
The reality is very different. While we often tend to focus on the leaders of movements, in doing so we lose sight of the collectives and coalitions that provided these leaders with their foundations and gave them their strength. With the release of a biopic about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton this year, we can come to learn about Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition. Founded in April 1969, the coalition was a project aimed at building a radical socialist movement that brought together groups such as the Young Patriots (white working class people from Deep South Appalachia), the Young Lords (Puerto Ricans), the American Indian Movement (Native Americans) and the Red Guard (Chinese-Americans).
Hampton said the Black Panthers “would work with anybody, form coalitions with anybody, that has revolution on their mind”. That the Panthers were active in trying to build a movement beyond the African-American community, and in moving towards an inclusive politics that liberated all oppressed people no matter who they are, often gets lost in its retelling. In 1969 Hampton was assassinated by Chicago police, indicating how much the US government feared the power of coalition-building amongst the marginalised.
We can also find this type of movement building on our own shores between groups who, on the surface, may seem poles apart. Famously, in the 1980s London’s lesbian and gay community recognised it shared a common enemy with the striking miners: Margaret Thatcher and an oppressive police force. Probably less well known is the flying pickets that took place during the Grunwick strike in 1976-77. These pickets were led by Jayaben Desai, a south Asian immigrant who struggled not only against an exploitative employer but also a racist trade union hierarchy that refused to acknowledge immigrant workers. In June 1977, thousands of trade unionists including Arthur Scargill and miners from the North came down to London to show solidarity with a workforce mostly made up of Asian women migrants. As recently as 2016, we saw Palestinian activists use social media to reach out to BLM protesters in Ferguson with advice to “run against the wind” and to use milk instead of water to wash their eyes when police launched tear gas into the crowds.
These moments of solidarity aren’t hard to find, and can teach us important lessons about how to build movements today. Rooted in socialism, each aimed to build a mass movement from the ground up. They didn’t compromise on their politics. There was no performative liberal kumbaya-ing or holding of hands, but the raising of fists. These were demonstrations of solidarity in practice.
Today we are seeing the emergence of new tools for international movement building, such as social media apps like Clubhouse. Here, thousands of comrades in groups such as ‘To the Left’ are creating virtual consciousness-raising groups – a modern version of the informal political education groups at the heart of past movements. Some recent Clubhouse ‘rooms’ have attracted comrades from all over the world. My own experience of being able to chat informally to activists from Palestine or Indigenous communities in the US or Canada have taught me more about comradeship than any political theory. The BLM protests last summer also saw marches in places that have little to no Black population: a clear example of how we’re still able to radically empathise with others.
The uninformed social media hot takes of the past few days would have us believe that this kind of movement building is unfathomable, if not impossible. In some spheres, it is actively being discouraged. Resistance movements are in danger of becoming possessions, something to be owned by a small group of individuals who, in the micro-economy of online influencers, use them to gain social status and capital. But there are also those on our own side who have forgotten our purpose as socialists and as activists. It may be frustrating when, after years of organising against state violence, the very people who dismissed you suddenly come to realise you were right all along. But while these frustrations are understandable – and come from being continually let down in the past – we have to stop, take a breath, and remind ourselves why we are doing this work in the first place.
People learn and are radicalised through struggle. Most importantly for the left, it’s only by organising with others that we all can move forward. Dismissive attitudes towards political naivety can snuff out a spark before it has had a chance to catch fire. Instead, we should be feeding that fire through solidarity, political education, and building a movement that welcomes those who, for whatever reason, become alert to the violence of capitalism, racism and patriarchy. With where we’re at now, we can’t afford to alienate one another. We are all fighting the same beast – and it will take more than a few radicals to kill it.
Chardine Taylor-Stone is a Black feminist, trade unionist and socialist. Her book on the neoliberalisation of Black feminism – Sold Out: How Black Feminism Lost Its Soul – will be published in 2022 by Cassava Republic.