Photo credit: Marc Lungley
On May 1, International Workers’ Day, there were over 40 demonstrations across Britain protesting the Tory government’s draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Members of Red Fightback’s Midlands branch, who attended the demo in Birmingham, provide the following report on the day’s events.
May Day in Birmingham saw another lively protest against the new policing bill that threatens not only to erode workers’ rights, but also curb the resistance of the most marginalised members of society – the racially oppressed, the disabled, women and LGBTI+ people. At 2pm trade unionists, socialists, anti-racist campaigners, feminists and climate activists assembled in Victoria Square to voice their opposition to the bill. Social distancing was observed, and the vast majority of attendees were wearing masks.
A demo of two halves
Typically, the protest reflected the sharply divided nature of the British left. It’s impossible to gloss over the role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a heavily-resourced organisation that’s had multiple instances of sexual abuse cover-up. The SWP, liaising with the Birmingham Trades Union Council (BTUC), turned up to previous protests on the 3rd and 17th of April despite being formally banned by the Women’s Strike Assembly, which initiated the KilltheBill campaign in the city. On May Day, the SWP arrived early at 11am to plaster signs advertising their organisation around the Council House steps. An executive member of BTUC and local secretary of the SWP-led Stop the War Coalition, Stuart Richardson, gave a tedious speech claiming hostility to the SWP prohibits an ‘inclusive’ campaign. How tolerating abuse apologists is conducive to building an inclusive movement remains unclear to us.
The problems with the SWP extend beyond a misogynistic culture. They have a long history of co-opting struggles led by people of colour, and have a preference for cooperating with state authorities in pre-staged, inoffensive marches. They’ve also called the police on their political opponents, seriously endangering members of communities at greater risk of arrest or deportation. The SWP attempt to circumvent their notoriety via front organisations such as Stand Up To Racism (SUTR), and by giving out their laminated placards to uninformed bystanders. They are functionally little better than what Lenin called ‘labour lieutenants of capitalism’; offering no real threat to established power, and hindering the development of a liberatory movement championing the struggles of the dispossessed.
The ‘official’ demo was a well-organised affair coordinated by the KilltheBill Brum coalition, which is committed to feminist and anti-capitalist politics, and has prioritised accessibility and the safety of attendees. The coalition so far includes the Women’s Strike Assembly, Plan C, the Disabled Socialist Alliance, Disabled People Against Cuts, No More Exclusions, and Red Fightback.
At 2pm the size of the protest swelled. The SWP’s attempt to draw an early crowd was thwarted by a dreary morning with spring showers, but during the speeches the clouds parted offering a brief sunny spell. The KtB coalition countered the SWP presence by setting up on the opposite side of the square, in front of the colourful vendor huts. It was made clear at the start of the speeches that the SWP and SUTR aren’t welcome, and stickers were provided to cover over their logos (some comrades simply tore the logos off their banners). The coalition organisers brought along craft supplies to make handmade signs, with slogans calling for the abolition of the police.
The diverse cross-sections of society which the bill targets was reflected in the speeches. One given by a member of the Traveller community spoke about the oppression of Roma and Travellers, from discrimination in schools to the denial of access to healthcare. She reminded us of an incident in 2012 when Birmingham city council evicted from an encampment a Romani mother whose daughter was being treated in hospital for a brain injury. The bill will further demonise Roma and Travellers and empower more violent evictions, in a direct attack on a key component of their way of life.
Links were also drawn between workplace grievances and other struggles, like those over housing. A spokesperson from the renters’ union ACORN explained how the bill threatens to criminalise people protesting parasite landlords, and dangerous living conditions. A young trade union representative from Unite West Midlands referred to the vibrant Black Lives Matter protests in Birmingham last summer demanding justice for George Floyd and Kingsley Burrell, who died after being violently detained under the Mental Health Act by the West Midlands police. We’ve seen repeatedly that the West Midlands police are just as brutal and institutionally racist as the Met, despite their insistence to the contrary.
An activist from Disabled People Against Cuts and the Disabled Socialist Alliance spoke about the oppression of disabled people by the British state, which has ramped up during the pandemic. They pointed out that advances in disabled people’s civil rights were never “gifted” from above, but were won through campaigning and direct actions – like chaining wheelchairs to public transport – which the bill seeks to suppress.
A powerful speech was given by the mother of Osime Brown, a Black autistic man from Dudley arrested by police on minor criminal offences, who is now facing deportation to Jamaica and being denied access to Legal Aid. Osime’s mother Joan Martin explained how careless social services and the overuse of sedatives and anti-psychotic medication caused him to develop a heart condition. She highlighted the hypocrisy that this is how the socially vulnerable are treated in rich, purportedly “Enlightened” Britain.
Another speech was given by No More Exclusions, a Black-led feminist and abolitionist movement opposing the racist and classist school-to-prison pipeline. Building on this, a Birmingham University and College Union representative noted the government’s attempt to curb anti-capitalist and anti-colonial materials in higher education. They also spoke against Labour’s attempt to silence resistance to the ongoing settler-colonial occupation of Palestine.
The last speaker was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Group (an old splinter from the SWP’s predecessor), which also had a case of sexual abuse cover-up in 2017-18, and whose presence has been opposed by other local KtB movements. The RCG hadn’t helped to organise the protest but they were able to get hold of the microphone at the end of the prearranged speeches. A member from a new Trotskyist formation, Anti*Capitalist Resistance, was also walking around with a bundle of pamphlets, looking unsure which half of the demo they were meant to settle in (principled organisations with capacity should approach the coalition, as it needs all the help it can get!).
After an hour of speeches, a peaceful spontaneous march led by disabled comrades made its way around the city, moving loudly past pig central station (Lloyd House, West Midlands Police HQ), and declaring the streets to be ours. Those wolves in sheep’s clothing, the blue-clad Police Liaison Officers, followed at a close distance.
In vital contrast to the muddled anti-lockdown protests, the KilltheBill movement is purposeful, targeting the centres of ruling class power in the capitalist-imperialist state. The clampdown on civil liberties which has intensified in the pandemic context is merely an extension of the racial authoritarianism of the hostile environment, and the overblown police response to previous mass protests like those initiated by Extinction Rebellion.
The polarised character of Saturday’s demo referred to above is emblematic of the wider left. On the one hand, there are the fossilised “socialist” parties, trade union bureaucrats and Labour councillors wedded to respectability politics and the illusion of change through state channels. Stuart Richardson has declared that Birmingham Trades Union Council will hold an open KtB meeting on 10 May, in an attempt to override the grassroots coalition (that shit won’t fly).
Then there are those, like Red Fightback, No More Exclusions, and other coalition members (individuals and groups), who are committed to a radical socialist alternative and principled opposition to social oppressions. After the distraction of the Labour left revival in 2015-19, there is an increasing popular consciousness that power is won not in parliament, but on the streets and through workers’ strikes. It’s encouraging that the KtB movement is drawing lessons from previous struggles such as the campaign against Thatcher’s poll tax. The movement also needs to seek ways to connect with the trade union rank-and-file, while opposing the frequent class collaboration of the TUC officialdom.
The ruthlessness of the Tories and treachery of Labour means the bill will likely pass, so we need to prepare for coalitions, local and national, that go beyond the immediate aims of KtB. The heightening of state repression, with mass arrests witnessed at demonstrations in Bristol and elsewhere, strongly raises the need for some degree of national organisation and coordination; problematising the over-reliance of sections of the radical left on a fetishised decentralism. Such coordination is also necessary to combat the influence of the SWP, which is able to thrust itself at the head of structureless movements.
There’s already been a promising convergence of struggles owing to the pivotal role of intersectional feminist groups in KtB, notably Sisters Uncut who sparked the movement after the repression at the Sarah Everard vigil. The movement to kill the bill also has potential to be expanded to confront ‘the totality of state racism’ – the police, carceral-border regime, Prevent apparatus, and economic imperialism. A speaker at the May Day demo from the Indian Workers’ Association linked Tory repression to the policing of the farmers’ protest in India – where British imperialism is cooperating with the fascistic Modi regime to safeguard corporate mining and agribusiness interests.
Energised by a people’s spring of protests against state violence, we must prepare for a long summer of community-focused organising and building of socialist counter-power.