Pouneh Ahari discusses her research on the BLM movement.
In 2016, I joined the Young Fabian’s ill-fated ‘Operation Stop Trump’ delegation to the USA. The rest, as they say, is history. Four years of President Trump has seen the degradation of a multitude of norms: moral, political, international, societal, presidential, and so on. The undermining of norms has never been so blatant as it is now, when the whole world can witness the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
The focus of my 2016 research in the USA was on Black Lives Matter (BLM). As someone who is not black, I will not claim to be able to speak of the lived experience of a black person. Rather, the intention of that work (and this retrospective) was the dynamics of the movement. How has BLM brought about new models of organising and protest? What role has social media played? What is the movement’s cross-border potential?
Back then I drew comparisons between BLM and the Occupy movement that was focused on wealth inequality. The basis of that comparison was the idea that Occupy provided a broad uniting message that was “also malleable enough to accommodate different groups to confront injustices in their own communities across the US and the world.”
Whilst the Occupy movement seems like a lifetime ago, the comparison still stands in many ways. BLM was triggered by the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and its force derives from the continued campaign against police brutality. However, BLM was never confined to police brutality and embraced other issues such as the Flint water crisis, which saw the majority African-American population of Michigan being denied clean water.
Today, BLM takes place against the life and death backdrop of COVID-19. The current context has magnified systemic issues – not only in the US and UK, but across the world. Migrant workers, minorities and the working class are disproportionately affected by the virus. There may be many reasons for this, but fundamentally the issue is structural racism and systemic inequality. The impact of the unprecedented situation today on minorities merely speaks to the struggle BLM has been engaged in since its beginnings. In the UK this includes multiple campaigns: against police brutality, justice for the Windrush generation, dismantling the hostile environment immigration regime, exposing state failure with regard to the Grenfell Tower fire, and decolonisation of the school curriculum and higher education. All these campaigns, and more, demonstrate why so many black people and supporters of BLM feel compelled to take to the streets despite the risks posed by coronavirus.
Looking back again at 2016, a key difference appears to be the acknowledgement of white privilege and the uniqueness of anti-black racism. Anecdotally, there is an eagerness amongst many who are not black to listen, learn, understand and try to play a part in bringing about change. Here I posit two reasons (though there are many more) that point to the dynamics of BLM and what this means for the future.
Firstly, it is obvious that structural racism did not materialise because President Trump was elected. It is worth noting that the creation of BLM and the first protests took place during the Obama presidency. That being said, it is undeniable that Trump’s presidency has seen deeper polarisation of US society and the normalisation of the language of intolerance. His failure to de-escalate the situation and offer empathy stands in stark contrast to previous presidencies; particularly when succeeding the first black President of the US.
Thanks to the US’s soft power – from the accessibility of the English language to its cultural and artistic output – the whole world can see Trump’s handling of this crisis. Though these issues did not originate with Trump, he has exacerbated them through racist remarks, dogwhistle politics and false messages. As such he has become the lightning rod, both in the US and outside, for systemic racism and inequality. It is doubtful that there can be any improvement in race relations while he is president.
Secondly, the sharing of incidents and viral videos on social media has gained greater potency. The past few years have seen the steady increase of users on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and the demographics using these mediums has changed. With increased social media use there has been an explosion of misinformation and disinformation. (Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election is an obvious example). On the other hand, technology has offered one of the greatest tools against police brutality through video recordings: the harrowing murder of George Floyd being an example. I suggest that the increasing ease with which we can record incidents will give continued momentum to BLM and other progressive movements. However, as video editing becomes more sophisticated, all of us must be aware of attempts to undermine activism and progressive causes through doctored videos and allegations of doctored videos.
In conclusion, it appears that we are living through a genuine political, social and cultural moment. Systemic inequalities have been laid bare in light of the pandemic and the mainstream within the sub-cultures of social media appear to have changed with the latest BLM protests. Whilst some shows of solidarity may be performative, I am hopeful that we are witnessing a collective awakening and a conscious effort to understand and combat anti-black racism.
Pouneh Ahari is a Labour Party activist and Secretary of the Labour BAME Network. She has a law degree from the University of Leicester and a Masters’ degree in International Development Law and Human Rights from the University of Warwick. Following her studies, she worked as a Legal Researcher at the law reform and human rights charity, JUSTICE, and as an Assistant News Editor at the New York-based blog, Just Security.
She tweets @pounehahari