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06 July 2020

Abolishing Racism: The Global Black Lives Matter Revolt

Tadiwanashe Ndlovu

European politics student, Tadiwanashe Ndlovu shares her account of a webinar which brought together hundreds of people from across the globe to talk about the Black Lives Matter revolt:

European politics student, Tadiwanashe Ndlovu
European politics student, Tadiwanashe Ndlovu

"King’s College London and our King’s Decolonising Initiative constantly engage in difficult conversations and debates, and the webinar Abolishing Racism on 17 June was no different. 

The Decolonizing Initiative brings together staff and students within the faculties of Social Science and Public Policy and Arts & Humanities. This collaborative webinar (chaired by Dr Lucia Pradella and Dr John Narayan, from the Department of European and International Studies) fostered an open and honest global conversation regarding race and racism, putting in dialogue multiple perspectives. More than 200 students and academics from across the world and a cross-section of societies and cultures attended. 

The first speaker was August Nimtz, Professor of Political Science and African American and African studies at the University of Minnesota. Based in Minneapolis, Professor Nimtz has been active in anti-police brutality mobilisations for more than four decades. The current protest movement, in his view, represents the rebirth of progressive forces. A global pandemic coupled with the death of George Floyd, for which four people have been charged, made action a necessity. Nimtz criticised those who argue ‘All Lives Matter’ to denounce Black Lives Matter. This means erasing the injustices faced by African Americans. It is like being told that “all bones matter when one needs a fix of their broken arm”. 

US race relations are entrenched in history, but Nimtz challenged the popular ‘1619’ explanation that traces the birth of racism and ongoing inequality back to the introduction of black Africans into US society 400 years ago. This 'origins' argument fails to consider that the current situation is not a clear-cut case where history predetermines the present. While racial injustice persists in the US and Brazil, it has been eradicated in Cuba. Class structures, rather than the history of slavery, are the determinant for racial struggles. In the US, these structures continue to exist and frame life for all US people. Policing is part of a class structure to control and subjugate black citizens. Rhaysa Ruas, a PhD student from Rio De Janaeiro, told us that black people in Brazil face even greater state violence, what has been defined as a “black genocide”. Nimtz concluded that the US could implement the Cuban blueprint by abolishing the social structures supporting systemic racism. The current movement, in his view, must operate independently of electoral politics and focus on dismantling racist social structures.

Lester Spence, a Professor of Political Science and African Studies at Johns Hopkins University, followed from this. Using metrics, he showed the impressive spread of hashtags like #icantbreathe, #BlackLivesMatter and #handsupdontshoot since 2014 from the US and worldwide. Pre-existing organisations allowed widespread protests to happen amidst the pandemic. The power of popular culture allows us to re-imagine interests and identities, while allowing movements to progress and continue by having a political ‘centre’, which previous movements (Occupy Wall Street) did not have.

Professor Spence also reinforced Professor Nimtz’s message on the importance of class perspectives: “A movement must seek to make people's lives better, not just stop police killing them”. After 1970, Spence argued, the neo-liberal turn led to limited social services, widespread privatisation and the rise of mass policing – as a way of extracting value from and controlling working people and ‘surplus’ populations. He reminded us that that George Floyd was a bouncer, Breonna Taylor an emergency technician, while Eric Garner sold loose cigarettes. Research has shown that there is a disparity in police responses: the use of force disproportionately targeting working-class black people.

Spence also reminded us that this is a gendered experience: police brutality is an extension of gendered violence. It is also because of the gendered nature of policing, mass incarceration and misogynoir (anti-black misogyny aimed at black women) that black women have emerged as leaders of movements and protests. A black woman from the United States said that she felt that in the past, also in her family, police brutality was always discussed from a male perspective, without mentioning rape and sexual assault, “but this time around we are discussing it and we are saying #sayhername”.

Professor Spence ended his intervention linking together the 1968 Baltimore rebellion after Martin Luther King’s assassination and the 2015 Baltimore protests after the murder of Freddy Gray. The Baltimore example shows how time and political movements are intertwined, translating a social movement into a political movement with specific demands must be the outcome of these protests. On the back of the recent BLM protests, New York City and Los Angeles have committed to cutting police budgets, and Denver, Chicago and Phoenix banning choke holds.

Utsa Patnaik, Emerita Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, followed, arguing that authoritarianism is a cornerstone of finance-led globalisation, while colonialism was at the centre of globalisation’s early stages. Contemporary globalisation reproduces past colonial structures. She argued that globalisation should be people-led to be successful and supersede racial barriers. Looking at the history of finance-led globalisation, she incorporated her own research into the Bengali famine being directly caused by Keynesian economic policies. British policy forced inflation from 1943-44 to support British finances, killed some 2.7-3 million people in Bengal. Planned hyperinflation saw seven times the normal budget spent in two years, with Britain printing Bengali currency and setting up a rationing system for those employed in war industries. The intentional exclusion of the entire agricultural population meant that millions of people were pushed to starvation and death for money-saving purposes. This is a key example of non-white bodies being treated as collateral damage globally. Patnaik viewed recent protests against police brutality also as an intellectual struggle. Colonial societies are marked by these atrocities, but to build humane societies all discrimination must be addressed. The #BLM movement is an important counter-movement against (neo) fascism and to protect black and brown bodies.

Baba Aye – a contributing editor of Review of African Political Economy, co-convener of Nigeria’s Coalition for Revolution– labelled the current movement as “the fire this time”. He argued that a global anti-racist movement in more than seventy countries is unprecedented and thus real change must be the outcome. Solidarity protests brought forward questions about racism, police brutality and the treatment of the black diaspora globally. In Belgium, questions have been raised around the legacy of King Leopold, while UK police brutality and racial targeting has come to the forefront. Similarly, in Australia, the death of more than 40 aboriginal people is gaining national attention, while in Nigeria and throughout Africa people are protesting increasing sexual violence, feminicide and police brutality.

Next was Cage Boons, the student co-ordinator of the Decolonizing Initiative, who raised the issue of performative activism, a form of support that isn’t genuine. This led into a discussion among participants, who also discussed mass incarceration of black people, particularly black men, as a form of neo-slavery. Students from KCL, London, Brazil and Australia shared their experiences and their views on the necessity of turning this moment into effective change. Professor Brian Kelly, an historian of class and race in the US, warned of the risks of neoliberal, electoral politics: while the Republican party is openly flirting with alt-right fascists, the Democrats are putting forward a candidate implicated with the suppression of black voices and freedom.

In my intervention, I noted how special this moment is in terms of opportunities and momentum: we have the chance to make ambitious actions, bringing meaningful change. The mobilisation of people across social lines and borders banding together against injustice and in solidarity with black people is what makes the current protests so powerful. On the one side, I believe that Achille Mbebe’s theory of necropower is particularly relevant for understanding the present situation. This theory posits that the economic and political management of human populations through their exposure to death has become a global phenomenon. In light of Professor Patnaik’s talk, I also believe that, because of the global preoccupation on finance, individuals are increasingly governed through their direct and indirect exposure to death. This helps explain racialised violence and the exposure of black bodies to police brutality. If this system is braced against action and protests, the state of globalisation has also made an unprecedented connected protest against racism possible. The present movement has raised the question of how history shapes what is seen as appropriate today. The demand to pull down statues is also aimed at changing the structures that allow history to continue today. In the UK, given the central role Britain has played in establishing racist structures globally, attention must be paid to the connection between imperialism and anti-blackness. To change the world, we must problematise underlying class structures and popularise inventive alternatives.

Universities have a pivotal role in educating people and abolishing racism, because they are a place where cross-sections of society meet. This movement has brought to light something very important for KCL: the history of Thomas Guy and Robert Clayton, who made their profits from the slave trade. This has led to conversations about the imperial structures that have underpinned the birth of the university. This puts KCL at the heart of the conversation of how to dismantle and educate on the legacy of racism and imperialism in Britain and in our everyday lives. The infamous quote that ‘the sun never sets on the British empire’ is indicative of the far-reaching consequences of imperialism and the racism it engenders. This close link between British imperialism and rampant anti-blackness in the UK is something more people need to be educated about. I really hope universities like King’s will play an important role in abolishing racism moving forward from the Black Lives Matter movement."



In this story

John Narayan

Senior Lecturer in European and International Studies

Lucia Pradella

Reader in International Political Economy