In the current culture wars, the Tories have made delegitimising the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement one of their top priorities.
The movement gained traction in the UK back in 2016, when protesters blocked the motorway leading to Heathrow the day after the anniversary of Mark Duggan’s murder by police. Its presence grew as it began exposing the endemic nature of institutional racism within the UK. This culminated in the explosion of protests last summer in response to George Floyd’s murder, with protesters not only condemning America’s racism but their own country’s too, exemplified in the rallying cry “the UK is not innocent”.
This antiracist spirit was revived once again this summer, when the England men’s football took the knee during the Euros. With the decision receiving widespread support – even from rightwingers like Piers Morgan – it’s clear the Tories understand the power the movement holds and its potential to upend their agenda.
As a result, the Conservatives have launched an attack on the movement. From health secretary Sajid Javid claiming it is “not a force for good”, to home secretary Priti Patel describing BLM protests as “dreadful“ and full of “hooliganism“, government ministers have made every effort to further the impression of a subversive, divisive and dangerous organisation.
With a global aim of “eradicat[ing] white supremacy and build[ing] local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes”, there is no mention of Marxism in Black Lives Matter’s mission statement. This, however, hasn’t stopped the Tories from deliberately conflating the movement with Marxism, and other ‘extreme’ leftwing ideologies.
This came to a head last year during the George Floyd protests. Once again, Javid was on the attack, describing the rallies’ organisers as “neo-Marxist”. Meanwhile, foreign secretary Dominic Raab claimed that the widely used action of ‘taking the knee’ was a “symbol of subjugation”.
And the rightwing press is in on it too, with newspapers like the Telegraph frequently describing BLM as a “radical neo-Marxist organisation“.
Another red scare.
Of course, this isn’t anything new. Historically, such redbaiting tactics are frequently deployed to discredit antiracist movements. Most notably, the US government aggressively targeted the civil rights movement during the 1950s-70s in an attempt to root out those with Communist leanings. This onslaught led Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the FBI’s prime – and totally unsubstantiated – suspects, to declare, “There are as many Communists in this freedom movement as there are Eskimos in Florida.
“The government is in the midst of a sustained ideological attack on the anti-racist movement,” says a spokesperson for BLM UK. “The pejorative use of ‘Marxist’ [acts] as a red scare-style tactic intended to whip up a moral panic around the anti-racist movement.” However, they are also quick to stress that “BLM is not a ‘Marxist organisation”, explaining that “while some of the members of BLM UK are Marxists, not all members are. We are, however, anti-capitalists, and are committed to dismantling class as well as gender and racial domination”.
Beyond verbal attacks on the movement and its organisers, the Tories are also indirectly waging a war on BLM through their policies – particularly in terms of their attempt to pass the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will effectively criminalise protest. The bill itself appears in part to be a response to the BLM and Extinction Rebellion protests of last year with Patel describing them as acts of “thuggery“.
It’s no secret that the bill will disproportionately target people of colour. With excessive use of force, racial discrimination and failures in duty of care already all prevalent at last year’s BLM protests, the stifling of dissent will enable – and legitimise – even more discriminatory policing. 55% of people in the UK already claim that last summer’s protests increased racial tensions – likely due to the unfavourable way in which demonstrators were portrayed by factions of the mainstream press. If protesting is criminalised, it is extremely likely that this figure will only go up.
Indeed, the Tories have consistently relied on this lack of education around antiracist politics and movements to stoke up fears and anxieties in the British public. In schools, the government has gone as far as to actively suppress knowledge dissemination on the subject for that very reason.
We saw this most clearly in October, when equalities minister Kemi Badenoch declared that any school teaching elements of critical race theory would be breaking the law, arguing that supporters of critical race theory wish to create a “segregated society“. Meanwhile, the Department for Education told schools in England that they were prohibited from using materials produced by anti-capitalist groups, or to teach “victim narratives that are harmful to British society” – the implication being that critical race theory implies whiteness is oppression and Blackness is victimhood.
“Political education has historically served as a tool for liberation, and the right knows this just as well as we do,” says a spokesperson for BLM UK. “Guidelines that restrict the teaching of Black Lives Matter materials, of critical race theory, and of so-called victim narratives are a direct response to the dissent we saw last summer. In an attempt to quash future resistance, the government is depriving young people of the tools to understand and dismantle structural racism”.
But where there is repression there is also resistance. In response to the Tories’ attempts to silence antiracist political thought, there has been a welcome and noticeable growth in small-scale activism. All Black Lives UK, Tribe named Athari and United For Black Lives all emerged out of the 2020 protests and are working to resist the government’s racist rhetoric and policies.
And outside of England, resistance is happening at an establishment level too, with the Welsh government working with charities like Show Racism the Red Card in order to dismantle racism in the education system and create a more racially and culturally representative curriculum. Consequently, the Welsh government recently announced that colonialism and Black history will be mandatory parts of the new school curriculum, set to be introduced in 2022.
“It’s important we develop a generation of anti-racist ambassadors that will go on to challenge the historic injustice of racism throughout society wherever they might find themselves as they grow; in their future workplaces, universities, communities and institutions,” explains a spokesperson for Show Racism the Red Card. “Racism is largely perpetuated through ignorance. Education is our greatest weapon to break down that [ignorance]”.
The government is working hard to create an atmosphere of denial around racism’s existence. This is seen perhaps most clearly in its recent report, which found racism in the UK to no longer be an issue.
On the surface, the country might look like it’s making progress. Sure, we have the most racially diverse government cabinet in history, but that doesn’t matter when the people of colour in positions of power – people like Patel and Javid – wield it to promote racist agendas.
BLM is a vital organisation and movement. The Tories’ campaign to destroy it only confirms why it must exist. It is absolutely vital that we challenge damaging racist discourses and the politicians that uphold them. Black lives matter. We must not allow the Tories to get away with pretending they don’t.
Kimi Chaddah is a freelance journalist whose work covers government policy, education and inequality.