"Black Lives Matter", "No justice, no peace" and even "Black Power" were chants bellowed by the crowd of protesters. The killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in New Orleans sparked a mass reaction. Watching Castile bleed to death on Facebook was bound to provoke a response. Thousands of people poured out onto the streets to demonstrate their anger and disgust at the slaying of yet more black bodies at the hands of the police.
As the march settled outside the police station, speaker after speaker stepped to the mobile podium condemning the racism and brutality of the "pigs". Family members of those who had died in police custody gave impassioned calls for justice. Tension on the streets of Birmingham crackled through the crowd. When Malcolm X spoke of a "racial powder keg", it was this kind of scene he had in mind. Close your eyes, take in the crowd and you could well be in Alabama in the 1960s. But this is a protest in the second city of Britain in the 21st century. The picture tells us how little things have changed in the last 50 years, and speaks to the global nature of racism.
Crowds of black people came onto the streets following events that took place thousands of miles away because they related directly to our experiences. Just as in America, the police are often seen as "an occupying force" in black communities in Britain. There is a long history of over-policing, harassment and brutality. To be black is to be a suspect. To live in a black neighbourhood is to be a target.
In the 1980s, the situation came to a head, with large-scale rebellions taking place across the country in cities like London, Birmingham and Liverpool. Communities tired of the police taking advantage of the "Sus Laws", where they had the power to arrest on the basis of suspicion, to crack the head of a "darkie". Despite changing laws and police reforms, if you are black in Britain today, you are up to 18 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. You are more likely to be charged if arrested, and subject to a longer prison sentence if found guilty. The criminal injustice system means that in Britain, compared to our numbers in the country, black people are actually more overrepresented in the prison population than in America. We only make up 3 percent of the population, but account for 13 percent of prison inmates. Black people also represent 9 percent of deaths after police contact that were independently investigated.
The protest in Birmingham was actually a pre-arranged march for justice for Kingsley Burrell, who died in police custody after a chain of events that started when he had called the police. At the march, the families recounted the names of Demetre Fraser, Sarah Reed, Mark Duggan and many more. You are unlikely to be shot by the police in Britain because the majority do not carry guns. But if you are black you are more vulnerable to death after police contact.
Black Lives Matter protests sweeping across Britain were not just about the shared experiences of police abuse. The shootings in America drew a much larger protest than the typical marches for justice for people killed in Britain. To understand the depth of feeling in Britain to slayings in America is to grasp the connections of blackness, which cannot be contained by national borders. When we see Philando Castile bleeding out we are not looking at a distant stranger. We are seeing our brother, our father, our cousin, our friend. His killing happened to black communities in Britain as much as it did to those in Minnesota. It is that connection, that pain, which drew the largest black mobilisations for years onto the streets of Britain.
Black Lives Matter has re-energised black political movements across the globe. In both Britain and America, the battles and hard-fought victories for recognition and legislation have lulled us into a false sense of progress. Landmark gains for civil and voting rights in America, and race relations bills in Britain, opened up the dreams of inclusion and equality for black so-called citizens. The sad reality is that 50 years after these apparent gains, racism is as embedded in the fabric of society as ever, coded into the DNA of the system. There may have been a black man in the White House for eight years, but under his rule the value of black life depreciated. The poverty rate, wealth gap, evictions and food stamp usage all went up under the watch of the first black president. It was truly a case of a black man, white house. Meanwhile, the police continued to bring the hammer down on black communities, providing the horrifying footage that relit the sparks of protest. Now that the fires of protest have been lit, the question is what direction they will take.
We need to reclaim the politics of black radicalism, connecting the struggles today to the long history of black freedom movements. In doing so, we should stop thinking of black radicalism as a tradition and start to understand it as its own political ideology. Essential to this project is to debunk the myths and distinguish black radicalism from the various other forms of black politics is it often confused with. Reclaiming black radicalism is vital because it is one of the few politics that presents an alternative to the iniquitous system of the West.
Black Lives Matter has caught the imagination of a younger generation who understand the system has failed them. The thousands who came onto the streets across the world to protest need to choose the kind of society they want to fight for. The last thing Black Lives Matter needs to become is the new civil rights movement. The legacy of civil rights struggle is the current system, which has opened up enough for some to "make it" and receive some of the food from the table. However, the majority remain locked out, left to fight for the scraps. If 50 years of so-called progress has taught us anything, it should be that "this system can never provide freedom, justice and equality" for black people in the same way that "a chicken can never lay a duck egg". The West is built on and maintained by oppressing black people, and this oppression cannot end without overturning the system.
One of the biggest problems with mobilising around black radicalism is that the analysis can make the issues we face feel insurmountable. If nothing can change without revolution, and the overthrow of the West seems unimaginable, then it is easy to lose hope, to get stuck. We will end with tying the bigger issues into a programme of local action. All global movements are based on local groups coming together on the national and international stage. The struggle for black liberation starts in your home, your community, your school. Black radicalism has always offered a concrete politics of liberation, and a blueprint to struggle where you are.
Fifty years of so-called progress, false promises and symbolic change have meant we have moved away from a political programme that can lead to liberation. If we want freedom, justice and equality, we need to root the next generation of mobilisations in the politics of black radicalism.
Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century is out now on Zed Books.