Political gestures can be inspiring. But let’s not confuse them with victory | Nesrine Malik


The first anniversary of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests was widely noted a few months ago, with acres of coverage and analysis asking: What has changed? Not much at all, seemed to be the open sea conclusion. It seems clear now that the excitement of these early protests was to spark an organized backlash – which first became visible in Britain in September 2020, when a BLM-inspired dance on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent sparked off. nearly 25,000 complaints.

The moment when many opinions seemed to harden against BLM is an anniversary just as worthy of marking as the start of the protests because it teaches us a vital lesson: Political change does not follow naturally once public attention has shifted. been captured.

BLM’s clearest cultural footprint was the popularization of taking the knee. It could be argued that the gesture actually helped trigger a significant change in public attitudes. It has moved from the fringes of the American NFL, in protest against police brutality and racism, to the halls of DC and Westminster, where politicians from Nancy Pelosi To Keir Starmer adopted the gesture. But there is a thin line between a symbol that becomes current and digging into an empty gesture. It’s much easier to look like you have the right credentials than it is to try and do anything to fix the problem.

The speed with which these symbols circulate and are consumed makes them even more likely to be appropriate, in a kind of cultural market where politics is literally an accessory. Last week, for example, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the Met Ball wearing a dress emblazoned with the Tax the Rich slogan. She explained the decision as an opportunity to expand the reach of her anti-capitalist policy. “The medium is the message,” she wrote on Instagram. “Now is the time for child care, healthcare and climate action for all. “

Tax the rich. I had a scary flash-forward to a Tax the Rich product line featured by wealthy influencers. Or perhaps rendered in jewelry, a bit like the VOTE necklace, popularized by Michelle Obama (£ 310 RRP). On the way to the general public that Ocasio-Cortez wanted to reach through the Met Ball, there’s a giant cultural and business net: a net that catches everything and turns as much of it into a cheap (but still overpriced) product as possible. ). Audre Lorde said: “The tools of the master will never dismantle the house of the master. But the rest of the quote, less often cited, warns us that it will often look like a victory at first. “They may temporarily allow us to beat him at his own game, but they will never allow us to make a real change.”

It is quite common to observe that political symbols and gestures are too easily co-opted and commercialized – a tale as old as the advertisements. But today there is a more insidious risk: that we confuse this with victory.

Last summer, people of color around the world rose up and demanded systemic change, to be offered little more than background corporate diversity exercises, brand changes and ‘pass the day’ events. mic ”to give people of color an“ exposure ”before they give the mic back. An important early step in bringing about any kind of change is indeed realizing and getting “a seat at the table”, but that is only part of how change occurs. The rest of the time, it is discreet and long-term work that creates the conditions for new ideas to take root. Think of symbols as fertilizer: useless in untilled soil.

Over the past 18 months, even more of our politics than usual has been conducted in this bizarre liminal space online. Despite the stagnation of this moment, there were two great breakthroughs: protests for racial and social equality, which revealed the persistence of racism and unjustified inequalities, and the realization that many Western states had become so atrophied in the field of welfare and care that they could not sufficiently protect their populations from a pandemic. The gains from these unique moments of introspection risk dissolving into the pixels of a virtual world where, spectators or participants, we exhaust our energy, scrolling reels of police brutality, falling statues and black squares of solidarity. .

Any ground gained here is illusory. The expansion of the online space puts too much emphasis on the impact and reach of virtual speech, and so one could easily mistake the fact that we are having these conversations for some sort of victory in itself. But if those arguments don’t translate into real-world power gain, they’re all hot and without light.

For a democracy to work, for good popular ideas such as racial equality or taxation of the rich to become meaningful in any way, people cannot simply be exposed to information presented to them as correct. They need to convert, to see how these policies or these facts relate to their own lives. One campaign I often think of is the one that paved the way for the historic same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland in 2015. What may have seemed like a dramatic if not inevitable liberalization of a socially conservative country was actually the product of years of fieldwork. One of the campaign’s most successful tools has been the “Ring your grandmother”Effort, where young people pressured their grandparents, mainly in rural areas, to vote yes. The motion was carried with two-thirds of the votes.

Specific campaigns are different from general movements with much broader goals, but there is a promising echo of this type of organization in what BLM UK has done with the financial support it received briefly last year. The movement, while fighting against backlash and hostility, spent it on supportive organizations, such as African Rainbow Family and United Voices of the World, which help empower people of color by providing legal and community support, enabling them to gain the status, documents and stability necessary to participate fully to democracy. I fear that we forget that this is the ultimate point of symbols, declarations, iconography.

A little over a year since the start of Black Lives Matter, we should mark our calendars and remember that action is necessary but never enough. By all means, take the knee and sport the slogans, but see them, as Audre Lorde warned, as temporary victories in a game where the ultimate goal is to beat the opponent.


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