(Freedom and Democracy)
Across the world, sports men and women have been ‘taking the knee’ in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. What troubles me is the prospect of this becoming a trivialised gesture, wrapped up in processes that change nothing. Stripped of specific, disruptive, demands it could slip intothe trough of gesture politics. Broader ‘Change Now!’ demands are needed to give it meaning.
‘Stop killing black people’ is one essential starting point for police forces, both across the USA and worldwide. But what else? What about those being killed in the coronavirus outbreak in the Smithfield meat processing plant in South Dakota?
Smithfield is the US’ biggest cluster outbreak of coronavirus. It accounts for 55% of South Dakota’s reported cases. Most of its 3,700 workers are non-white, non-English speaking, citizens.
The Smithfield pork plant is located in a Republican-led state which has not issued any kind of shelter-in-place order. Smithfield is a microcosm of the Trumpian socio-economic disparities that today’s global pandemic lays bare.
How many of those dropping the knee in solidarity have dumped the burgers too?
The picture isn’t much different in Germany, where 1,500 workers at the Tönnies meatpacking plant, just south of Gütersloh, tested positive for coronavirus. At least there, the State is supplying the 7,000 quarantined workers with food parcels. But again, it is a factory largely underpinned by migrant workers with minimal rights. Who’s lives matter here?
You could say the same about Britain’s Covid outbreak at the ‘2 Sisters’ chicken processing plant on the Welsh island of Anglesey. The Unite union, representing many workers in the meat processing sector, argues that such factories often employ migrant workers who aren’t entitled to full sick pay and who lose money if they self-isolate. Across Europe, this is the pattern in some 40 meat factory outbreaks, where over 4,000 (largely migrant) workers have contracted the virus. Whose lives matter there?
Bend the politics, not just the knee
This is far more than a ‘let’s kick the carnivores’ issue. Switch to air quality and the same picture emerges. Some 68% of black Americans live within 30 miles of an operating coal plant. Apply the same pollution test in any country on the planet. What you find is that the poor (black, brown, white and migrant) live in the most polluted districts, endure the most health damaging conditions, and produce the consumption goods that supporting the lifestyles those bending the knee rely on.
There’s no point in bending the knee unless you bend the politics (and economics) behind the exploitation.
The Right know this. So, instead, they shift the debate onto personal freedom and liberty. In Britain, Boris Johnson set up another Commission (yawn) to look at race and inequality. But he ducked direct reparations to the Windrush victims of his own Party’s brutally racist policies. Victims of the Grenfell fire also wait for full reparations. Those in similar fire-risk blocks wait longer still. And the only legislation likely to be rushed through parliament would be legal penalties against those seeking to remove racist statues.
It’s a sad society, where statues are better protected than citizens.
‘Liberty’ has already become the rallying cry of the authoritarian Right. Defending statues of slave traders and imperialists’ is just the veneer of white nationalist movements re-emerging across Europe, the UK and USA.
As in Brazil, many also add the claim that Covid-19 is a scam designed to steal our basic liberties. These are today’s self-proclaimed defenders freedom and democracy.
In the USA, the Right see the freedom to shoot and shop as cornerstones of constitutional liberty. Sadly, this only guarantees that Covid-19 will run riot through American life for a long time to come. Do the corporate backers behind such movements care? Not particularly. Covid works for their cause too.
Covid-19 is not a virus that strikes equally, arbitrarily and impartially. Look at the scatter patterns of its victims. Those who are poor, black, old and infirm figure disproportionately in the death toll. Sure, it scares the rich too. But most are safely holed up in comfortable surroundings, as far removed from the pandemic as possible. Like First World War generals, they won’t lose sleep if their white foot-soldiers get mown down. Rallying calls for the defence of ‘freedom and democracy’ will always find replacements.
The anachronistic procession
We have been here before. Almost 70 years ago, Bertolt Brecht nailed it. His poem The Anachronistic Procession warned of the fraudsters, whose politics lay behind the crisis, dressing themselves up as the leaders needed to get us out of it. Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, take your pick; all drape themselves in ‘freedom and democracy’ flags, as they scramble to lead the procession.
“Every church bell started ringing,
Soldiers’ widows, airmen’s women
Orphaned, shell-shocked, crippled, raped
Open-mouthed the watchers gaped.
And the deaf could tell the blind
Who it was that marched behind
Such a slogan as, maybe,
Freedom and Democracy.
Tory Ministers, responding to the burgeoning demands of the BLM movement, blandly insist that in a democracy “we must not seek to delete the past.” Behind the scenes, this is exactly what their Party is doing; deleting archives of its MPs past speeches from the internet. And when Johnson himself defended slave-trader statues, insisting we must not “lie about our history”, he conveniently forgot this is exactly what he was sacked for as a Times journalist.
“At it’s head a featherbrain
Sang with all his might and main:
‘Allons, enfants, God Save the King
And the dollar, Kling, Kling, Kling.”
Johnson may be superficial but he isn’t stupid. Hiding behind platitudes, he lacks the inventiveness of true ignorance. But behind him genuinely evil forces lurk.
In the Anachronistic Procession, Brecht warned of the 6 deceitful leaders seeking to define the shape of post-war Germany – fraud, robbery, stupidity, oppression, murder and plague. Use the characters to assess where we are now.
Plague has had us in lockdown for months. It will continue to blight our lives for at least the year ahead. Murder hasn’t just been about George Floyd. It includes the litany of black deaths at the hands of US police forces. It applies no less to the corporately purchased killings of those opposing destruction of the Amazon Rainforest. And what about countries (like Britain) that have turfed elderly patients out of hospital beds, into care homes lacking Covid-testing facilities or sufficient isolation/PPE equipment? Is this murder or just lives that didn’t matter?
For robbery, stupidity and oppression, look no further than those currently pushing the US-UK Trade Deal. Although the Tories promised that UK food, agriculture and environment standards were sacrosanct, all were excluded from the current Agriculture Bill. Cabinet Minister Liz Truss MP even turned on her own Party advocates of safe farming and environmental safeguards, dismissing them as ‘Waitrose protectionists’. In doing so, she also ignored the fact that Britain’s cooperative movement grew out of precisely this search (by the poor) for safe food.
But who cares if the Deal destroys British farming? Who cares if it dumps chlorinated chicken, GMO’s or growth hormone beef on your plates? For trade deal cynicism doesn’t stop there.
Over the last 80 years the US has imposed no new regulations on its make-up industry. Their products include some 1,300 ingredients banned in the EU. Hundreds of these are known carcinogens; all soon to appear as beauty products in British shops. None will be labelled with warnings.
It’s much the same in the agro-chemical sector. US industry spent over $100m opposing any moves that would compel them to tell customers what is in their products. To facilitate a trade deal Boris is now ‘helpfully’ changing UK laws to allow the same fraudulent deceit here. But again, who cares about known risks to public health? For free marketeers, such things don’t matter.
No pandemic, no crisis, will be allowed to stand in the way of corporate capitalism’s post-Corvid, cash-grab. Boris et al will sing eulogies to ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ whilst cynically undermining both… “Kling, Kling, Kling”.
Change the singers, change the song
We can, of course, form a different procession. Right now, the inspirational intervention of Patrick Hutchinson offers a much better starting point.
Newspapers were full of the image of Hutchinson stepping in to rescue an injured counter-protester at a BLM demonstration. Unassumingly, Hutchinson said he only did what any decent human being would have done: come to the aid of someone who needed it.
No one mentioned that Hutchinson is black and the injured man white. No one needed to. Hutchinson himself merely pointed out that if US police officers had done the same, George Floyd would still be alive. In that moment Hutchinson became the embodiment of the simple truth that all lives do matter. But he redefined its global meaning.
We won’t win the hearts and minds of white counter-protesters unless we recognise that, for those without jobs, without homes, without a living wage, without healthcare, without hope, the flag (and anger) is all that hides their naked abandonment… Step in and pick up the despair.
We will not stem the tide of Covid-19 deaths in poorer countries unless we increase intervention funding for the WHO… Step in and pick up the tab.
And for those who, in the biggest challenge of all, would rescue this ailing planet, the choice is no less stark. Green-washing a recovery of yesterday’s economics is a death-wish, not a plan. It would race the planet towards dystopian climate collapse.
Hutchinson didn’t step into the melee to rescue a bankrupt shopping centre, an ailing airline, a polluting industry or a corporate behemoth. He picked up another human being. If Covid-19 and BLM teach us nothing else it is that, on a planetary scale, this is what it’s all about. It isn’t markets that matter, just life.