The Black Lives Matter movement has seen impressive – and apparently spontaneous – protests erupt around the country. But, Trevor Fisher asks, what challenges does this new form of organising present for the left?
Saturday 13th June saw two Black Lives Matter demos in Staffordshire with very different outcomes. NorSCARF (North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism & Fascism) sent its banner to Leek, where there has been activity in the past. Alas, only 30 people turned up for a mobilisation at the war memorial. And fortunately no fascists turned up, unlike Stafford where a dozen hard right turned up following the new tactic of the EDL/National Defence League of “defending war memorials against hard left attack”, which has led to clashes with police in London and Glasgow.
The fascists spent a sunny afternoon waiting… and waiting… and waiting. Meanwhile, half a mile away some 800 BLM supporters (600 the police estimate, 1000 the press – social distancing made estimates difficult) filled the Market Square for a non-violent and truly remarkable gathering, wholly unexpected. Mostly young and with a good ethnic mix, self-made banners very visible, the solidarity could almost be felt. The organisers appeared to be three young women, had no big name speakers and needed none. Activists walked up to the megaphone – no proper PA – spoke briefly and positively to much goodwill and cheering.
By the time the eight-and-a-half-minute kneeling took place – in an awesome silence where only the fluttering of pigeons could be heard – the event had proved a total success. The police gathered in the side streets had nothing to do. But afterwards the questions began.
NorSCARF would love to see a follow up, but I am the only activist in Stafford and do not recognise the people organising and taking part, save a few Labour members. In trying to find the organisers, I found a name but no contact details. Labour, NorSCARF and other groups cascaded the invitation but it has no identification information. No one I have spoken to can recall where they got the invitation from – it just appeared in inboxes.
Chartist comrades have asked if there is information on ethnicities, age groups, Labour movement involvement, banners etc… There are some banners in one of the pictures in the report by NorSCARF, but the assembly happened at random and people left without a trace. The BLM protests in general appear to have happened outside of established left organising spaces, with social media playing a significant role. This is clearly true for Stafford, and points to the long run problem of ‘clicktivism’. Organising in cyberspace. It can mobilise effectively, but as NorSCARF has found in the past, students in particular tend to stay in cyberspace. They are not visible on the streets doing the essential work to change people’s minds.
The brutal fact which has to be addressed is that the world we have occupied for the last 50 years and the world of the young are poles apart. The processes built on membership, affiliations, agendas, contact mechanisms and points of order/matters arising do not exist in the world of people who click and go. If indeed they go. They did not in Leek. Why they did in Stafford is a puzzle and one that cannot currently be solved.
The wider issues are however national and international. We live in a world of instant communication via the web, which also goes along with fake news and mobilisation for many purposes. Black Lives Matter has been positive, but it works for the right as well. Defending statues and war memorials are the coin of the anti-BLMers so no simple positives can be taken from social media. There has been, for Labour in particular, a failure to understand potential and dangers – news that the Tories outsmarted Labour on social media in 2019 is not a surprise given the Brexit Party won the same battle in the Euro elections.
Two aspects of the debate we now need seem to be obvious. Policy is less important than credibility – the manifesto in 2019 was not an issue; delivering it was very much so. And structurelessness does not work. The tendency to have the most vocal setting the agenda has been made worse by social media, so the old feminist discussion on the Tyranny of Structurelessness needs revisiting. For the soft left there is a tendency to go down this road; whether on small websites like Labour List, or wider focused initiatives like Left Foot Forward, the controllers have a rigid grasp which would not have been out of place in the Stalin era. And there are no ways to counter clique politics in the world of social media.
From the Black Lives demonstration in Stafford I was heartened and puzzled in the same measure. The numbers and solidarity were positive. But how to build on this seems impossible. There is a reality gap, with both sides staring across the void and sometimes in support. The new politics here is formless and challenging. How is the challenge to be met?