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Black Lives Matter is an opportunity for reckoning with Britain’s imperial past

August 11, 2016 at 3:27 pm

Black Lives Matter (BLM) – the anti-racism campaign made famous primarily for its protests across the US – made headlines in the UK last week with demonstrations in several locations around the country. Yet while some in the media struggle to understand the rationale behind bringing these protests to Britain, where police violence against non-whites has been far less deadly than in America, I argue that there is clearly an urgent need for anti-racist activism in Britain.

First off, we should be clear: BLM can speak for itself. It had very good reasons why it chose to undertake the protests last week and spokespeople from the campaign have been explicit about what they are during interviews with the media. I’m not attempting to rewrite those words or tell you that there were other motives at play.

Instead, my argument is that, in addition to what the organisation itself has said, there may be other broader positive impacts on British society that can result from a high profile anti-racism campaign. In particular, my hope is that by opening up the too-long dormant discussion of racism and its links to Britain’s history as an imperial power, such a campaign can bring some light – and perhaps some reckoning – to the often overlooked or romanticised view that many of us have about the nature of British power.

Why now in the UK?

It is no coincidence that BLM began protests in August 2016, some five years after the shooting of Mark Duggan, the young Black man whose killing by the Metropolitan Police sparked protests that escalated into the 2011 Riots in London and in other cities in the UK. According to Adam Eliot Cooper, an activist with BLM UK – who spoke to Channel 4 News – Duggan’s killing is only one example among several.

But in addition to police killings, Cooper suggested that there are two other drivers for the campaign. These are (a) the harsh and unfair treatment of black and non-white immigrants by the British authorities and (b) wider issues of racial inequality throughout British institutions and society.

Yet while statistics, gathered by Inquest – a charity, find that that police do not disproportionately kill black people in shootings, there is strong evidence to suggest that “disproportionate numbers of deaths [occur] following the use of force against people from black and minority ethnicity (BME) communities”. Moreover, there is serious concern regarding the level of abuse directed toward people who are in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) and Immigration Detention Centres. According to Inquest:

“There have been several cases in recent years that have raised concerns over the quality of care offered to immigration detainees, including the case of Mohamed Shuket, AA, and Prince Kwabena Fosu, all of whom died in IRC’s, and Abdullah Hagar ‘Joker’ Idris, who died in prison.”

Yet while issues of abuse of detainees and deportees has been well known since the mid 2000s – evidenced by the 2008 report “Outsourcing Abuse” which documented the role of private security forces in approximately 300 alleged assaults – there has been virtually no progress on improving the system or dealing with these complaints.

Racism on the Rise

As Cooper suggested, there is also a broader issue of racism in the UK. Even before the turmoil of the “Brexit” campaign – which apparently gave licence to anti-immigration sentiment across the country – the re-rise of racism was a growing concern in Britain. Indeed, the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey revealed that one third of Britons surveyed admitted to some level or racism, up from one quarter in 2001.

Penny Young, the chief executive of NatCen Social Research, the organisation behind the survey, told the Guardian in 2014: “Levels of racial prejudice declined steadily throughout the nineties, but have been on the rise again during the first decade of this century. This bucks the trend of a more socially liberal and tolerant Britain.”

According to various analyses of these results, it is likely that there is a link between such growth in racism and the popularisation of anti-immigration sentiment. Yet, while right wing political insurgent parties like UKIP may have been the main drivers of such an argument, it is worth noting that neither of the UK’s two establishment political parties has offered an alternative view of immigration.

Rather, both Labour and the Tories fought the last few general elections on some-or-other variation of an anti-immigration platform, seeking to outflank UKIP rather than refute its claims. This clearly backfired; effectively allowing UKIP to appear credible and, more importantly, it helped cement a negative consensus view on immigration. Indeed, according to the British Attitudes Survey, 90 per cent of Britons believe that immigration is too high.


Yet there is another side to this story that is more distinctly British, though it has yet to come to light. This is the anti-imperialist potential of BLM.

Some of the BLM chapters in the US and Canada have – in addition to their calls to end anti-black violence and systematic racism – given strong support for the voices and concerns of indigenous peoples who have suffered cultural genocide at the hands of – predominantly white – settler colonialists. Moreover, as we have seen through examples of links between BLM and Palestine solidarity campaigns, there is clearly a way to view these actions through an anti-imperialist lens.

Yet while, to my knowledge, this aspect of the campaign hasn’t made it to the foreground of the UK’s discussion of BLM yet, I hope it does soon. According to a recent YouGov poll, 75 per cent of British people see the British Empire as a source of pride and one-third wish that it still existed.

It is likely that these astonishing statistics are the result of two factors: the overly romanticised view of British imperialism that is perpetuated by the media and, second, the profound lack of serious education on the topic. Indeed, as was made clear in a BBC discussion programme The Big Questions, for many advocates of the virtues of Britain’s empire, the main issue is that Britain is seen as a “civilising force” in the world.

Yet this is deluded. There may be a few examples where the influence of the British empire had particular positive outcomes – a favourite example of advocates is that British rule ended the practice of Sati, or widow burning in India, yet even this cannot be seen as a justification for centuries of military conquest and rule through force.

(Indeed, the spurious logic of such arguments can be easily demonstrated by a counter example: for instance, if a burglar were to break into your house and steal a large proportion of your valuables, but also leave behind a note of thanks – and maybe a small gift of chocolates – would anyone consider that the note and the gift could possibly be justification for the other crimes? Yet isn’t this exactly the line of argument used to justify British imperialism?)

A more truthful view would see that British imperial rule was predicated directly on the logic of racial hierarchy. Indeed, while the British often pride themselves on abolishing slavery in 1807, it should also be noted that from the 16th century, England (as it was, prior to the act of union with Scotland) was one of the few main countries involved in establishing and sustaining the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in order to serve its colonies in North America.

Moreover, Britain’s rule over distant lands and foreign peoples always rested on the fact that the military was prepared to use overwhelming force and inflict killing on a massive scale in order to suppress resistance. Indeed, under the British Raj, deaths in India were in the scale of tens of millions, many occurring as a result of the Bengal famine in 1943 while British authorities – directed by one Winston Churchill, an overt racist in his own right – actively prevented the provision of relief.

Britain also used mass killing in efforts to maintain control in Iraq, where the RAF and the army used bombing and chemical weapons in order to supress popular dissent, in Kenya where the administrations’ method of choice was mass hangings and in many other localities across the world.

If we really want to create a better and less racist society, it is imperative that we not only seek to deal with the surface issues – albeit they’re obviously very important – but also look at the roots of racism in the UK. It is important to note that, as the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre explained of the French in Algeria, systemic oppression degrades and entraps both those oppressed and the oppressor alike. Racism and the legacy of empire remain a quagmire for all of us, until we achieve a proper reckoning of their costs. If BLM’s activism in the UK brings these issues to light it will have done us all a great service.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.