One Friday night in May I watched as a fire engine pulled up to Turbo Island to deal with the embers of a bonfire for the drinkers and I stopped to take a picture, noticing afterwards the fire fighter leaning out of the window smirking at me. Then I headed off up to Gloucester Road. Later on I delivered to a Captain Hungry on Braggs Lane and then called it a night. Such was the height of excitement on a Friday night in late May, the whole country still under lockdown, the motorway empty and the only people around couriers, key workers and street drinkers (and police). The parks later began to fill up as people quietly then loudly began to conspicuously unfollow the rules in the wake of Cummings and increasing distrust in the incompetents in charge. Then the rules relaxed as the incompetents caught up with the people and the torpor and boredom of a hot spring spent indoors gave way to the explosive rage of an uprising against systemic racism both despite of and because of the pandemic and its tragic ethnic and racial structural bias. Just before the George Floyd killing I found myself idly pondering what the legacy of the pandemic would be. Would we band together, showing our collective strength in the face of the petty and large scale injustices of capitalism, creating a new and more equal society or would that hope become rioting and despair? I heard that astronomers had maybe seen a new planet being born 520 light years away from Earth, and pictured them glancing back into the past to witness the birth of a planet now perhaps a fully emerged life form, from the rather literally named European Southern Observatory’s ‘Very Large Telescope’ (VLT), located not in southern Europe but in Chile, and are we able to look through that telescope to see our own new planet Earth forming from the rubble of the post-corona, post-anti-racism revolution, the smouldering soil of Turbo Island birthing a kinder way of being with one another? Exoplanet AB Aurigae, give us a sign light years from the future that we’ll be ok.
It seemed like something changed when the world watched as a policeman kneeled on a man for 8 minutes as he lay there dying but maybe nothing changed, just more people saw. It seemed like many were shocked, but perhaps the truest shock is that for many people who are used to being subjected to this state violence, the killing of George Floyd was not a surprise but the straw that broke the camel’s back. Surely this uprising against the brutal and tragic death of George Floyd would spell the last dying breath of US racial capitalism. My mind immediately went to Palestine as I watched scenes from protests being ‘dispersed’ across the US in exactly the same way as I saw in Hebron, with tear gas thrown into crowds of peaceful protesters, journalists shot in the eye and blinded, women being dragged away by heavily armed police/soldiers, and the tyrant Trump emerging from a sea of soldiers after violently clearing the streets with tear gas and stun grenades, much like Netanyahu lorded through the streets of Hebron last September, after tear gassing children and having the army invade the souk and local shops, arresting kids. I think I learned in Hebron that the violence of racist colonial power is the same violence wherever it is practiced, whether in the West Bank and Gaza or the refugee camps of Calais and the British immigration detention system, or the US-Mexico border, or the policing of Baltimore and Chicago. Police in the US formed out of specific needs to protect private property and the interests of capital in both northern industrial cities and the plantation south, where private property meant slaves, and early police forces replaced slave patrols set up to scour the countryside for runaways. In Chicago in 1886, the police fired on a meeting of trade unionists and labour activists, killing four civilians and several police officers in so-called ‘friendly fire’ in what became known as the Haymarket massacre. Instead of asking why is the US police so racist and violent, maybe we should instead ask why did we ever expect them to become any different. The history of police forces in industrialised countries has always been tied up with protecting capital, property and the hierarchical racial order bound up with the economy, and the US is no different.
For a moment in June Bristol was at the centre of the world’s attention as people rose up to pull down the statue of Edward Colston, kneeling on his neck then rolling him through the city centre and throwing him into the docks. A just end to a man who made his money from the plunder of people from West Africa, thousands dying in the Atlantic Ocean on the way, written off in his accounts as necessary externalities, the cruel flotsam of British colonialism. Bristol grew rich from the profits of tobacco and sugar, and the wealth can be seen in the grand crescents of Clifton and Cotham, including the university. I was for a moment when we cheered at Colston being pulled down, as men holding Black Lives Matter banners danced on his empty plinth, proud to be from Bristol. Statues were immediately removed or covered in London, Belgium and the US, and the letters were quietly removed from Colston Tower and the Colston Hall. As ever progressive change happens slowly and then suddenly. A debate has been rumbling about these names since the 1990s, and then witness a week where history changed in a flash. If I hear people again saying that direct action and protest doesn’t change anything, I will tell them about the week that Colston was pulled down and dumped in the docks, and then days later the city scrambled to erase the name Colston from its buildings and streets, despite decades of tireless campaigning that had led to nothing more than talking and the dragging of feet. Never again can we let racists tower above us because of their supposed virtue and good deeds. Philanthropy and civilisation have always been central to the project of colonialism with all its violence and will to control. I read this article on racial capitalism and coronavirus the week before George Floyd was killed by Arun Kundani. He was talking about the interaction between the racial bias of the virus and its effects, and the violent over-policing of those same communities most at risk of dying from covid:
“As the virus spreads through South Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, inequalities in the virus’ effects will become all the more visible. Frantz Fanon wrote that anti-colonial revolts occur when it becomes ‘impossible to breathe.’ More recently, ‘I can’t breathe’ — Eric Garner’s infamous last words while he was choked to death by the New York police — was taken up by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. It now takes on a new layer of meaning for those many thousands of people who will die because they were not white or wealthy enough to have access to a hospital ventilator.”
A week later George Floyd was killed by a knee to the neck, his last dying words those of Eric Garner, ‘I can’t breath’. The article is called ‘from Fanon to ventilators: fighting for our right to breathe’, and it closes with the line: ‘And we cannot give up the streets — it is from there that our power derives’, and on that day in June Bristol showed the world this truth. I remember teaching Fanon to Masters students at the university last year but it seems like an age ago now, before the birth of the new planet that might or might not show us the way forward. I’m not even sure if I’ll go back to the university now that the higher education sector is in a corona crisis and is cutting its lowest-hanging fruit first. When I deliver takeaways to the campus in Cotham and Clifton I feel like an interloper and the time when I was getting paid to sit around talking about colonialism and Fanon with a bright bunch of masters students, or intersectionality with first years, feels like an impossible dream. As I’m picking up an order from KFC on union street a woman walks up the hill playing reggae on a tiny speaker and with a bottle of rum sticking out of her pocket and she gives me a glimpse of the person I’d clearly rather be.