by Debadrita Chakraborty
26th June 2020

So far 2020 has been phenomenal in terms of the histories we have been living. Both the rise and spread of coronavirus to pandemic proportions and the greatest ‘domino’ resistance movement since the 1960s, catalysed by George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer, have – in different ways – changed the structures of our lives forever.

While it seems likely that the coronavirus crisis will eventually find a solution in the form of a vaccine or herd immunity, what remains less certain is that state-sanctioned violence towards African-Americans will be consigned to history in the 21st century. The ‘affective’ nature of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of Floyd’s death, and its criticism and vilification by right-wing media and white supremacists should make us re-evaluate the course of progress in America in particular and the Global North at large.

Black Lives Matter: From a hashtag to a global movement

A country whose political, economic and health systems were already reeling from the effects of the pandemic received yet another setback in the form of civil unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death on 25 May 2020. For many African-Americans, the racist homicide of yet another black life by a white man, with his last words ‘I can’t breathe’ forming the enduring idiom of the event, was an agonising reminder of the institutionalised racism, vigilante attacks and vicious police tactics that have been employed to stifle black voices and agency since the Civil War. This was compounded by the disproportionate suffering of black communities following the lockdown, which left many unemployed, socio-economically vulnerable and disadvantaged in terms of accessing diagnostic testing and treatment for the contagion.

The Black Lives Matter movement emerged from a deep and longstanding resentment towards America’s anti-black past and present, state-sanctioned racist discourses, rising police brutality, social inequality and economic deprivation. While the protests across America from 26 May onwards were mostly peaceful, demonstrators in various cities gradually descended into lawlessness as they rioted, looted, burned police cars and vandalised commercial properties including luxury shopfronts and retail stores.

When the looting starts, the shooting starts’

This sudden swerve in an otherwise peaceful movement offered far-right and white supremacist groups an opportune moment to denounce the movement as deviant, corrupt, disorderly and roguish. In his now infamous tweet, President Trump threatened to unleash military force on the protestors, using a bigoted phrase used during the civil rights movement in 1967 (‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’) while addressing black demonstrators as ‘thugs’ – a malicious imagery that associates blackness with criminality.

The fact that such racial demonisation and criminalisation have found their way into 21st century public discourse and been spread through everyday acts of racist insults and invalidations in some way legitimises the protests that have been raging across America. Contrary to stereotypical interpretations of rioting as evidence of depravity, the radical expressions of dissent are motivated by an emotional opposition to domination, control, disempowerment and dehumanisation. According to Scheff, the dominant emotion surfacing from a disruption in social relations is that of humiliation or shame. To read the arson and looting motivated by Floyd’s death as reckless, planned and opportunistic is to whitewash centuries of humiliation and brutalities that black lives have suffered, first by their white colonisers and currently by racist political discourse and American corporate capitalism, leaving them alienated, rejected and abandoned. It is these negative emotions that have been expressed as anger, hostility and non-conformity provoking the destruction of symbols and structures of the dominant order.

White America ‘fanning the flames’

As if the media portrayal of the rioting as an uncivil, violent occurrence wasn’t enough, the presence of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups on the streets diluting the purpose of the uprisings (to challenge state-sanctioned police brutality) have further served to dismiss and denigrate black lives and movements. Capitalising on the civil unrest, far-right groups have organised vandalism of properties and arson to push forward their accelerationist goal of promoting violence and polarisation in order to disrupt the political order and initiate a race war. While white racism of course influenced collective revolt among Black Lives Matter protestors, what really ‘fanned the flames’ of the eruption was the white supremacists’ mission to establish a white racial hegemony in America.

Towards a decolonial progress

Even as privileged white Americans continue to condemn and decry the Black Lives Matter rioters for their violence, countering black communities’ resistance to the status quo with the ‘All Lives Matter’ battle cry, the Black Lives Matter movement has come a long way, having found solidarity in the streets of London, Paris, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi and Copenhagen among others. The radical expression of the Black Lives Matter protests in America has made the world take notice of the disempowering consequences of everyday oppression on people of colour in the Global North. But more than this, it has allowed people to consider the affective ties that bring people together on the streets as a possible way to collectively heal from the effects of oppression. One of the ways in which the world has responded to Black Lives Matter’s emotional opposition to structural inequalities is through the removal of statues, flags, monuments that are symbolic of the legacy of colonial slavery, racism and oppression. The climax, so far, of Britain’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement has been the toppling of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston’s statue to the ground in Bristol. With political leaders stepping up to ensure that these historical artefacts be carefully curated in museums so that Britain can come to terms with its colonial past and disrupt racial barriers in the present, it is important that Britain’s decolonial mission does not succumb to red-tapeism and be forgotten until the next revolt.

Debadrita Chakraborty is a research scholar in Literature, Gender and Culture Studies at Cardiff University. Her research focuses on examining the shifting nature of the construction and performance of South Asian masculine identities catalysed by major political and socio-cultural events from the 1980s until the contemporary period in Britain employing culture and gender theories. She has contributed papers in the fields of postcolonial theory, decoloniality, diaspora literature and culture and subculture narratives.

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