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Criminalising Black Lives Matter

Priti Patel's plans to fast-track cases against Black Lives Matter protestors will deepen racial injustices in Britain's courts – but Keir Starmer's record during the London riots implicates Labour just as much.

The Home Secretary has declared war on the Black Lives Matter movement. The schema of racial terror has been laid bare in plans for “violent protesters” to be “jailed within 24 hours” in direct response to the protests, which the media expected to ‘clash’ with antagonistic counter-demonstrations from the far-right in the capital this weekend.

Transgressions liable for overnight prosecution include vandalism, criminal damage, or assaulting police officers. These promises for fast-tracked justice will endure as a summer of riots has been forecasted amid the fallout over the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the racial injustices the pandemic has aggravated.

These plans are not simply designed as a precaution due to forecasts of unrest, but are conceived as a retrospective punishment against people who have dared to expose anti-black racial terror as endemic to the governing logic of the carceral state.

In response to BLM protesters toppling the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and defacing a monument of Churchill in Westminster, the Home Secretary condemned protesters to the Mail as “reckless and lawless,” tweeting that: “These demonstrations have been subverted by thuggery. Justice will follow.” These words are parallel to the words of the Prime Minister himself, and indeed to President Trump who labelled protesters in Minneapolis thugs, and promised “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” 

Let’s be clear – “thuggery” is racist language. These leaders have racially profiled a sort of criminal patient zero, the anonymous embodiment of criminal, dangerous black masculinity who will be viewed as the epicentre and catalyst for violence, divesting attention from the state itself. The racialised agenda is strengthened even moreso by the encasement of Churchill’s statue in Westminster – an unprecedented action considering that Churchill’s statue has been defaced in (largely white) May Day, anti-capitalist, and student protests of recent years.

The Home Secretary’s plans promise to escalate potential clashes between BLM protesters and far-right groups and in fact encourage unrest across the capital. Racial tensions cannot be defused by pledging punishment, when it is the punitiveness of criminal justice in this country which is inspiring protest in the first place. Far from quelling destructive violence, the Home Secretary has witnessed controlled fires flamed by community-led justice and retribution against white supremacy, and promised to pour litres of gasoline over them.

As Saturday progresses, it looks unlikely that clashes on the previously anticipated scale will occur – BLM activists on social media announced the postponement of demonstrations due to the far-right threat, though many were determined to continue regardless. Despite the far-right’s descent on Westminster, the Home Secretary’s plans have been deliberately targeted against BLM protesters; none of us expect white nationalists to be the victims of 24-hour prosecutions. This is because far-right protests have been invested in the protection of property, and in both this and the defence of the legacy of empire, they chime nicely with the government’s agenda.

In fact, it has been facilitated by police and local government – as in Poole, a coastal town which is predominantly white, retired and unlikely to contain a significant BLM presence, police advice to the local council was to remove a statue of Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell amid fears it was on a “target list for attack.” Local residents have instead offered their bodies as protection for the statue. Increasingly, it seems that the government is intent on playing the racial tensions in the country to its advantage by provoking reaction by older white voters to threats which are a distraction from the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement.

It is only right to ask where the Opposition stands on this issue. Perhaps the deafening silence over these plans from the Shadow Home and Justice Secretaries are because the fast-track prosecution response to BLM protesters is modelled after the response Keir Starmer himself designed to bring rioters to justice following the 2011 London uprisings.

The Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, has briefed magistrates to extend their opening hours and sit through the night, and such preparations are reminiscent of the 24-hour courts operated in 2011, which railroaded cases against rioters – often young, Black, and without adequate representation or contact with family. 24-hour courts were an abuse of state power in 2011, and they are an abuse of state power now. 

On August 10th 2011, while the riots were still ongoing, Keir Starmer as Director of Public Prosecutions made a high-profile visit to Highbury Corner Magistrates Court in North London at around 4am during a night sitting. This visit was criticised as a “publicity stunt” by legal professionals speaking to the Guardian, which obscured the reality of juridical disorder in pressurised courts. 24-hour courts are not for strategic or practical efficiency, but for performance.

As reported in the Guardian, a Tottenham based solicitor noted: “The CPS was totally disorganised. I saw an argument between two prosecutors who were working overnight at one point… things weren’t much better in the courts, defendants were remanded in custody on the basis of no evidence, with the judges rubber stamping prosecution applications and all but ignoring the safeguards of the Bail Act.”

Under the Bail Act 1976 those charged with an offence are entitled to be granted bail at the first hearing – a 24-hour gap between arrest and prosecution is, therefore, an effective suspension of due process in preference of racist showmanship, which risks significant miscarriages of justice.

Despite himself commissioning the Lammy Review which examined disproportionalities in the criminal justice system against Black and Minority Ethnic Britons, Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy has, likely for the stated reasons, stayed quiet. The Shadow Home Secretary remarked that this weekend “is set to cause huge challenges for policing” and called on the Prime Minister to show leadership, but has nothing to say with regard to plans for fast-track prosecutions. 

For Black Labour members, Keir Starmer’s position compromises our ability to have faith that our party will defend the interests of Black communities who have had their lives destroyed by an unrelenting criminal justice system which criminalises blackness itself. Criminalisation and unfair detention are some of the central concerns of our movement demand – we will not settle for liberalised diversity audits and unconscious bias training programmes.

Starmer will have to address his record of the “13, 14, [and] 15 year olds [being brought] into court at two or three o’clock in the morning.” It is to his disgrace that the Opposition likely cannot challenge the way in which 24-hour courts undermine the integrity of the criminal justice system. As Black academic Paul Gilroy observed of the criminal proceedings enabled by Starmer after the riots:

“I was sitting in Highbury magistrate’s court this morning, watching the magistrate giving people who had no criminal record months and months before their case would even be heard. And those young people, some of whom were not with their families but were on their own, could not have been defended successfully even by someone like Michael Mansfield. It’s a sham what’s going on down there. For people who’ve been charged with violent disorder, 2 out of 3 of them have been remanded in custody, and that is a scandal, not justice.”

Fast-tracked prosecutions are about white panic, national revulsion, and a public desire for revenge against those who threaten racial capitalism. The government’s use of Starmer’s DPP approach is strategic – it is in the same vein as defending the February deportations of Jamaican nationals by emphasising that this was enabled by New Labour legislation, the UK Borders Act 2007, which compelled deportations for non-citizens who had “received a custodial sentence of 12 months or more.”

The Home and Justice Secretaries are deliberately seeking to antagonise Black families, many of whom are still living with the long-term consequences of the cruel legal proceedings which followed arrests of their young family members. And it is a disgrace for Black members that, to avoid Starmer himself being placed in the firing line, we may have to fight against this alone.