Don’t boo. Vote.” This was the message Barack Obama had, during the 2016 presidential election, for a crowd of Democrats who jeered when he mentioned the Republican party. It became his mantra as he campaigned for Hillary Clinton.
It is a familiar reproach. If you’re angry, don’t boo, don’t protest, don’t take matters into your own hands. Vote, lobby, report to the authorities, trust the process. It’s the appeal of reasonable liberals and the rebuke of rightwingers. It is the refrain that rings out when demands for justice “go too far”.
As protests after the death of George Floyd got bigger and bigger in the United States – and then began to spread around the world – the focus of conversations in the media shifted abruptly. Now the issue was vandalism and anarchy, precisely what Donald Trump and his backers wanted to talk about as they cynically accused black protesters of dishonouring Floyd’s memory. And in the UK, it’s easier to talk about the lawless mobs tearing down statues than the crimes these monuments commemorate.
But this is nothing new. What we rarely hear about all the great revolutions of the past is that they too looked at first like spontaneous uprisings against the existing order – and they too were subject to charges of anarchy, reckless violence, puritanical revenge. So much so that the economist Albert Hirschman described the demand to “follow the process” as “the first reaction” whenever the threat of real change is on the horizon.
The first accounts of the French revolution made no distinction between its positive and negative aspects – collapsing its moral position and its violent manifestations into one. The result was that, for a long time, it was defined and smeared by its excesses. It was only the passage of time that transformed it into “a riot blessed by history”, as Gary Younge puts it. Closer to our own time, the poll tax riots in 1990, now part of a national odyssey of popular rebellion against an overreaching Thatcher government, were originally blamed on anarchists and the far left, with an official account that vastly underestimated the number of peaceful protesters and the degree of police provocation.
Today, it is the Black Lives Matter movement that is being discredited for not staying in its lane; for refusing to “quit while they’re still ahead”, in the words of one broadsheet columnist. But protests happen in the first place because the “proper channels” have failed – in some cases, because previous protests have also failed. When #MeToo first began, it only took a moment for women to be told to report their assaults to the authorities instead of taking their allegations public, lest they destroy a man’s reputation before he could have a hearing. But it didn’t occur to these critics that the court of public opinion was itself a last resort. When a statue falls, you don’t see the years of campaigning and lobbying and writing that went before it, and came to nothing. When Extinction Rebellion occupies central London, you don’t see the power – corporate lobbyists, complacent politicians, indifferent bureaucrats – that marginalised these concerns for so long that activists knew there was no other way.
The very nature of being excluded from the spaces in which decisions are made means that the process of managing grievances is already rigged against you. The very position of black people as always appellants, never adjudicators, means that every protest will soon enough be denigrated as violent or disruptive. Their demands will always be dismissed as unreasonable, their priorities confused, their methods offputting to erstwhile allies. Politely they will be questioned: are statues really the most important thing here? May I call your attention to your pay gap? Your incarceration rates? They will be lectured about coalition-building, about easy wins that mean little in the end, and the hard graft that needs to be done if they’re going to get anywhere. Because we have processes, you see.
And these rules must be respected – because conservatives will always hold them up to stymie any change, and because liberals are afraid to admit that most of our rules and norms are neither definitive nor universally observed. They are afraid to shatter the illusion and face the reality that so many of these rules are, in fact, broken all the time by people who can get away with it: tax avoiders, labour exploiters, vote manipulators. And so it is those who cannot get away with breaking the rules who are told they must uphold what is left of this order; it is their responsibility to ensure that the slope does not get too slippery and allow us all to slide into chaos.
But as long as concessions have to be prised from the hands of the establishment, rather than reasonably handed over, we cannot live without slippery slopes. Our history may, in time, bless some riots; but it also sands the rough edges off many others, expunging the anger of martyrs and revolutionaries and telling us that their victories, over slavery or Jim Crow, were the benign gift of those masters whose morality carried the day.
Today’s movements for equality are expected to resemble the dramatised depictions of their sainted predecessors – conveniently forgetting the calumnies heaped upon Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, from enemies and would-be “allies” alike. Random quotes from black icons are cherry-picked out of context from the past and waved in front of the protesters of the present, in an attempt to shame them into the most timid form of political activism possible.
The Black Lives Matter protests in the UK have been accused of being vague and rudderless, merely a faint echo of their American counterparts, whose complaints and demands are deemed more legitimate, more concrete: to bring police to justice for their killings of black people, and to strip away the impunity, outsized funding and overweening power of local police forces. But even that demand, specific and studied as it is, has been dismissed as unrealistic. There will always be some component missing from the playbook of the perfect protest. Even without leaders and discrete demands, the protests in the UK are a legitimate expression of racial grievances for which there has been no redress and no justice. The streets are swelling for Grenfell, for Windrush, for the illegally deported and the unlawfully detained, and for all those who perished before their time in a pandemic that claims their lives at three times the rate of their white neighbours’. We may not know how this protest is going to end, but it has to start somewhere.
The premise of change is that risks and chances need to be taken. And the movements that will be born from that demand will never be neat, and never have been. The effort to humanise black lives and win them the rights to safety and the dignity of equality may involve – among many other things – pulling down statues when it becomes clear that polite petitions and humble pleas to decolonise the curriculum will for ever go unheard. Process by its very nature is conservative. To insist that the aggrieved must “follow the rules” or lose our support is to ignore the lessons of history. Many of the rights we now take for granted were won by people who knew when the time had come to give up on the establishment. Civil disobedience, strikes, riots and boycotts are not the hijacking of process: they are its continuation by other means.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
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