rs21 National Meeting 10 Jan ’15: Racism, Immigration, and Police Violence


What I will talk about mainly is the recent events and what they mean for the struggle against racism. The attack in Paris was, particularly for Dutch anti-racist activists, a quite bizarre experience. I was very active in the Dutch anti-racist movement when [?1:05] came up firstly after 9/11 in 2001 and then Theo Van Gogh was killed two years later. Watching Paris was like being thrown back 10 years, with some similarities and differences that I want to going into because I think they are important for our analysis in how we deal with the current form of Islamophobia and how we understand also how it changed.

charlie-hebdo-2What is interesting is, everything you hear about Paris, similarly what we heard about Van Gogh in the Netherlands, is that it’s very unique and that it’s “unprecedented” and “historical.” All the news framings are giving us the idea that this is a historic phenomena. The only reason why it’s unique is the sense that terrible things happen in the world but they happen in the periphery, or they are proxy wars elsewhere, in which Europe or the West is involved, but they don’t happen in the centre. This is the “unique” element used in framing this as a “shocking” event. For those of us who know people in other parts of the world, who are in solidarity with other struggles, it doesn’t quite feel that way. Of course it’s unique for other reasons but we sort of have an ability to internationalise and frame these events in a different light. But an identical narrative was given when [?3:06] was killed: it was the first political assassination in 300 years in the Netherlands.

The two major elements in racism are still the same. It’s surprising how very little has changed. Firstly that it is related to Islam or Muslims. In Paris it’s about Muslims doing something bad or it’s about critique against Muslims being revenged. So the second similar issue is free speech. The issue of free speech being a fundamental secular civilised principle that we all must unite [for]. This has implications for us all because it means that you have to perform a kind of political agitation that adheres to the idea of free speech that condemns silencing oppositional opinions by killing or threatening, but at the same time have a principled anti-racist position by reminding your audience what the newspapers have been saying all along about Muslims. That’s a very hard position to be in, because as we’ve experienced in the Netherlands, if you’re a leftist activist or Muslim it automatically means you’re guilty by association. This is what we’ve seen in France where Jeanette [?4:54], who was the partner of one of the cartoonists, and an ex-member of state, accused the [?5:02], anti-racist activists, for being guilty of the murder of Charlie Hebdo. So you see this direct correlation between those who have been all along principally anti-racist and principally anti-Islamophobia are being framed as guilty by association. It has implications for those who are directly in the struggle or on the ground, which means that their response is different from our response outside. So they had to come out immediately with a condemnation of the attacks. Which is also very difficult to do because we are against the idea of condemning as it implies you have responsibility. It reasserts the racist dichotomy we’re against, that there is a collective responsibility by Muslims, or Muslim activists, or even leftists if it concerns them, like in the case of [?6:08]. So 10 years ago we were absolutely against condemning the murder (in the sense of it being a Muslim or leftist act), and we propagated that if we have to condemn, then it’s because we are human beings or citizens. I think we have a very strong example from a recent experience around Breivik, where we said, “For good reasons, Breivik’s act was not framed as one of a white man or a Christian,” but of a man who was inspired by a political ideology, etc.

I think the reason there’s a panic state among activists in France, and why we have to show solidarity, is that a lot of people know what the backlash can be like, based on the experiences from the Netherlands. Now I’m not just saying this because I’m from the Netherlands but because it’s a real experience, and it’s the kind of experience that doesn’t happen that often. So as a reminder, in the space of one month after Van Gogh, there were more than 100 attacks on Muslim schools, on Mosques, people were spat at, my sister-in-law’s hijab was torn off, my other sister was told to go back to her country–these are actual real experiences. We are now hearing stories from France that are very similar. There have already been schools attacked; there have already been mosques attacked; there have already been accusations against Muslims. And as I said the [?8:00] has been accused. There is an international call for solidarity to send statements of support, and I think we as RS21 should put up a statement on our website in which we condemn the ‘guilty by association’ politics and support our comrades.

I want to end with the differences: of course there is a difference in the context of France. France has the largest Muslim community in Europe, and the largest Muslim communities in France happen to be people from ex-colonies, mostly Algeria. Algeria has a very bloody legacy that has not been dealt with, and has been ignored and denied, and this plays a very important role in how people feel and how they respond. So the popularity of the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie is explainable when you look at the context of migrants in France. The colonial legacy left a very deep scar but it is aggravated by the fact that police brutality and racism in the [?9:21] is very high. The other context of France which is important for the Left: the reason why [?9:31] have [?9:34] is exactly because the Left has always had a very complicated relationship with Muslims and other religious groups, and have betrayed them. This happened twice in the Netherlands: when the murders happened, everybody fled the scene, we were left alone and had to protect ourselves and this is happening in France at the moment. So that context is very important and we should not just compare and conflate France and Holland and Britain in our analysis: we should draw these distinctions.

The other more important contextual difference, which I will pose more as a question for discussion that we should have, is that the ruling class have been responding very differently to this attack is also a sign of two things: on the one hand, our anti-Islamophobia politics in the last 10 years has had quite an impact and has partly become mainstream or acceptable, and so in a lot of articles about Paris, you read the condemnation about the killing and then on the other hand, a sentence saying “We should not allow this to divide us to give the extreme right an excuse to attack Muslims” (this was not the case 10 years ago, after 9/11 or Van Gogh); the second difference is that now 10 years later the extreme right and populist agendas and themes that the mainstream parties have been instrumentalising for themselves have become mainstream, so the extreme-right parties are part of government (Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Front National in France, Vlaams Belang in Belgium). The ruling class is now seeing a competition in these far-right groups they helped create. So the call for unity by Hollande and Obama and others is partly because they see that they cannot continue with the same approach to far-right politics as they did before. It’s a positive difference for the wrong reasons, but it’s something we need to take into consideration in our analysis of how the face of Islamophobia and the response to it have changed. Of course the implications will be harsh: there will be more attacks on Muslims but the way that the ruling class and mainstream parties are responding is quite different, and it partly has to do with, as I said, that our narrative and analysis has been taken over, and this confirms that we were right and we were successful, but partly it’s also because the far-right now are becoming a serious competitor to the Labour Party and the Tories.


Miriyam mentioned how the argument about Islamophobia that we’ve all be re-treading the last couple of days has actually shifted from when we first started making these arguments 10 years ago. And I think that’s quite important, because I do remember a time when it was much harder to get it into the heads of well-meaning liberal anti-racists that the anti-Muslim stuff was racist and that they shouldn’t buy into it. And over the years, the Iraq War turned out to be the disaster that we said it would be, the EDL emerged on the streets… I remember a friend of mine who I had arguments about Islamophobia with, but when the EDL turned up, he just went, “Look, we’ve had arguments about George Galloway but I know who those people are: they’re fascists.” Things have shifted, and that’s important, because on the arguments around anti-migrant racism I think we’re at the beginning of the curve. People don’t recognise the anti-immigrant rhetoric/discourse that you get in the mainstream press, and all its various varieties: from the Ukip-style straight up wog-bashing, to the quite refined social-democratic lines that “We’re against exploitation of foreign workers” which should be read as “Send them back for their own good.” These arguments are racist, but you can’t simply say, “That’s a racist argument” and expect people to agree: you have to win people to these arguments. We’re not gonna solve that overnight; we need to start making those arguments now and think about how, to an extent, we won those arguments over Islamophobia ten years ago, and how we can deploy them now.

In terms of the election that’s coming up… I’m reading a lot of graphs and statistics, and I saw a very very scary one. The y axis has how important issues are to people; and the left-right axis showing which out of Labour and the Tories is strong. In the top left you have the NHS. The NHS is something people care about a lot and it’s something where Labour and the Left in general has a lead. On questions of “the economy” the Tories are in the lead. Sitting in the middle is immigration: it’s something everyone is talking about, but nobody trusts either party on. That’s because it’s kind of a fake issue. It’s been talked up, initially by New Labour in the mid-2000s, and I think it’s very important that we don’t let New Labour off the hook about this. They were the ones who in the late-’90s started banging on about asylum seekers, and that rolled into anti-immigration. This has been going on a long while and you can see that a section of the Labour Party that is explicitly saying, “We should be taking up Ukip’s rhetoric.” There’s been rumours that Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, has columns that are Ukip in all but name. Really what’s happening here is that mainstream politicians have put this stuff out: raised immigrants as a scapegoat, fed a certain kind of racist fantasy, so people want “crackdowns”, “toughness in borders,” which of course nobody can deliver! No amount of crackdowns on immigrants or tougher regulations on borders will ever satisfy the Daily Express or the Daily Mail. The idea that you can turn up the nob a bit and this issue can go down is ridiculous because the grievance isn’t based on reality.

5724703-largeAs a result of that there is a large right-wing constituency that is motivated by an anti-migrant racist vote. Ukip is hoovering up that constituency. If you pick through all the different issues for why different people vote Ukip, the magic ingredient is anti-immigration stuff, and Ukip knows this. If you look at how they campaign on the ground, that’s the catnip they put out to pull people in. This is a space created by the mainstream parties but it’s one that Ukip is filling, and I think we’ll see a race to the bottom between now and May, because both Labour and the Tories are unpopular; their only hope of getting into power is to chuck more at the other one. So this is going to be a very negative election campaign. Immigration is something people are worked up about but they don’t trust the Tories on. So Labour is going to, in a very opportunist way, try to keep that issue up in the air, while the Tories for their own reasons are going to try to pull defectors to Ukip back into the fold.

In terms of what we do about it… in different localities there are anti-Ukip campaigns that I think are very important–you might remember seeing Bunny on Question Time making about the only sensible contribution–but that’s a decapitation campaign against Farage. It’s really designed to make Farage someone who’s unpopular. This is one of the interesting things that happened towards the end of last year: for the first time Farage’s personal ratings have started to plummet, and I think that’s the cumulative effect of the mud the Left has been throwing, which has actually been useful! Let’s see if that develops. But I think there is a wider ideological problem, that nobody is making the argument about why anti-immigrant racism is racism, or essentially, the argument of why we’re against border controls. That’s a radical thing to say, and no one’s really saying it. The most articulate defences of migrants at the moment are coming from Blairites, people like Jonathan Portes, who oversaw the influx of Polish workers in 2005-2008. We can’t leave those arguments to the Blairites. It’s one third a very ethical defence of migrants and two thirds of “good for the economy” and “good for capitalism,” and we need to have a different approach. I think the NHS is our secret weapon in here. To the racist granddad who wants to vote Ukip, you can just basically tell him, “Do you want a health service? ‘Cause if you kick the migrants out you’re not gonna have a health service. So which do you want: your racism or the health service?” That kind of puts them on the spot! Ukip knows they’re very vulnerable on the NHS and they’re trying to distance themselves from their privatisation policies they had last time round.

10483936_1566631236883839_5664037941628773827_oThe issue of police violence has been much much higher in the last two years than it ever has been. I don’t think the police are shooting black people any more, or killing people in custody any more. What has happened is, it has a kind of sexiness as a story in the media. Part of it is social media: the protests in Ferguson became visible worldwide in a way that they wouldn’t have been 5-10 years ago. Part of it is because of the wider crisis in capitalism, the ruling class is starting to fragment and fracture, and you’re seeing things like the police turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio in New York, or the weird catfight between Teresa May and the police earlier in this government’s term. Anyone who was around on the Ferguson demo will have seen it was huge, very young, I think the average age was 20. (These are people who would’ve been 15 at the time of the student uprising five years ago.) It had a similar kind of flavour, very fluid–an old man like me had to rush to keep up with them. NUS Black Students Campaign played a very key role in drawing those people together. I went to their conference this year because I was doing the Defend the Right to Protest stall there, and had a little look. I expected NUS Black Students to be the usual, slightly bureaucratic collection that it was when I was last looking at it. In fact, they had about 250 people there: young, black, militant, but also very serious and sensible about building a campaign on their campuses.

I’ll end with a quick calendar of things that are coming up that need to have imprinted on our minds. At the end of January there is the Ferguson Solidarity Tour that is going around the country with Rev Sekou, one of the key organisers of protests in Ferguson. That’s linking up with Family Justice Campaigns around the country. That is going to be very important in terms of pulling together the new militant anti-racist movement we want to see. On 28 February there is a demo in Thanet at the Ukip conference. On 21 March there is the UN anti-racism day, which is less exciting than the Ferguson one, but important for a certain constituency. Going on into May, we’ll see the election campaign really blow up, and the rubbish about immigration will come thick and fast. Be prepared for that.


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