We don't need Keir Starmer to kneel. We need him to get up and fight

We don't need Keir Starmer to kneel. We need him to get up and fight
Comment: Given Labour leader Keir Starmer's track record of complicity with repressive policing and state racism, taking a knee is an empty gesture, writes Malia Bouattia.
7 min read
12 Jun, 2020
Labour leader Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner take a knee in support of BLM [Twitter]
The current moment of revolt, triggered by the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police, continues to radicalise and internationalise. 

Demands have quickly moved beyond accountability to questioning the role of the police as the repressive arm of the state, structural forms of racism and oppression, and the links between racism at home and imperialism abroad. The current focus on statues, while symbolic, captures this important turn. 

Starting with the collective removal of the statue of slaver Edward Colston by demonstrators in Bristol, and its dumping in the waters where his boats used to dock, an international wave of actions is targeting statues of colonisers, slave owners, and other imperial officials.

A statue of King of Belgium Leopold II was burned and removed in Antwerp, and in the US, one Columbus statue was dumped in a lake in the state of Virginia, and another beheaded in Boston. People around the world are making the link between colonialism, slavery and the continued celebration of its key perpetrators and organisers on the one hand, and contemporary institutional racism on the other. 

While thousands are taking these actions and collectively reclaiming the public sphere, the Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, took to LBC to denounce the "illegal" character of the action, instead of using the opportunity to unquestionably denounce the continued official celebration of colonial criminals in the UK.

People are making the link between celebrating colonial slavery and contemporary institutional racism

While the mayor of Bristol condemned government calls for repression and recognised the significance of the action, even Sadiq Khan - hardly a paragon of progressive politics - announced a broader review of statues and landmarks in the capital. The leader of the opposition however, sided with the state, and the law. 

Starmer's refusal to extend basic, unconditional solidarity to protestors, made his and Angela Rayners "taking the knee" picture in support of US demonstrations all the more devoid of meaning.

What is desperately needed from politicians is not gestures and symbolism, but real action. On average, one person a week is killed in police custody in the UK - disproportionately affecting black people. Countless families continue to desperately fight for justice and recognition of the murder of their loved ones. This is to say nothing of systemic racism in education, employment, public funding, and healthcare provision. We need action, and we need it now. 

However, it was always illusory to hope that credible initiatives would come from Starmer at the head of Labour. Not only did he run against Jeremy Corbyn on the expressed platform of bringing "respectability" back to the Party - read: an end to any significant demand for a transformation of the status quo - but Starmer has displayed longstanding complicity with state racism, and the lack of accountability for state sanctioned murder and repression.

In 2008, he became both the Director of Public Prosecutions as well as the Head of the Crown Prosecution Service, putting him directly in charge of rubberstamping of some of the most high-profile actions of state murder and repression of the last decade - standing personally in the way of justice.

Read more:  The statues are tumbling down, the structures of racism must follow

This of course raises real questions about not only his willingness but also his ability to support calls for structural change. He is personally entangled in much of it, and his high-profile persona, as well as his political career, are directly connected to the denial of justice. 

Soon after his appointment, in early 2009, Starmer dealt with the case of the police officer who killed Jean Charles de Menezes in the London Tube. De Menezes was a Brazilian electrician who was shot by a police officer as he ran to catch his train. Being brown and carrying a backpack apparently made him suspicious. His earphones meant he did not hear the police officer shouting at him.

Anti-terrorism guidelines and racist assumptions led the officer to shoot him directly in the head. It was Starmer who stood in the way of the police officer being prosecuted. The de Menezes family is still waiting for justice. 

A year later, Starmer returned to his unaccountable ways when he refused to prosecute another officer. This time it was Simon Harwood, who killed Ian Tomlinson during the G8 protests in London. Tomlinson had not even been a protestor that day. Footage had emerged showing him walking home, with his hands in his pockets, and his back turned to the police, when Harwood, unprovoked, assaulted him.

This was, once again, not enough for Starmer to prosecute. It was only because of the Tomlinson's family's sustained campaigning that an inquest was held and found that he had been unlawfully killed. This in turn forced Starmer to reconsider. 

But perhaps the most shocking chapter in his career, was his energetic support for the heavy-handed repression of the riots in the summer of 2011. In the aftermath of the execution of Mark Duggan and the repression of solidarity demonstrators in front of Tottenham police station, riots erupted in North London and quickly spread around the country.

Starmer is personally entangled in much of it, and his high-profile persona as well as his political career are directly connected to the denial of justice

Much like in the US today, politicians and media outlets focussed on property damage and looting in an attempt to avoid talking about the roots of mass anger directed at police violence and structural racism. 

In response to the riots, the state increased its repressive measures quickly. Courts were kept open throughout the night to be able to send people to jail quicker. Maximum sentencing was applied across the board and even basic-due process was thrown out the window. A solicitor in Tottenham at the time described the situation in stark terms:

"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." 

As this was going on, Starmer paid night visits to the courts to encourage the judges and praise them. So much for impartial lady justice. Later on, as the dust settled, he redoubled his support for the measure and identified the speed of the prosecution as an important tool in quelling the revolt. So enamoured was he with this approach, that the next year, in 2012, the CPS replicated the fast tracking of cases during the London Olympics, repressing among others, community protestors who were outraged about the militarisation and gentrification that the Games brought to the East End. 

Those on the left who rushed to Starmer's defence on the basis that as an MP and leader of the opposition he could not possibly condone illegal activity, might wonder why the mayor of Bristol was able to hold the line, while Starmer didn't even try.

What is desperately needed from politicians is not gestures and symbolism, but real action

They might also ask why Starmer has failed to act on the horrendous racism directed at black MPs uncovered in Labour's leaked internal report, if he is so concerned with fighting racism. And lastly, whether a man who has spent much of his professional life propping up state repression and is waging war on the Left wing of his party, is likely to go beyond symbolic acts in the fight against state racism and repression. 

In the 1980s, in the aftermath of another wave of riots sparked by police violence and murder, the MP for Tottenham was Bernie Grant. Unlike the current Tottenham MP, he did oppose greater repressive powers for the police and stood with the youth in his area, pointing out that the police got "a bloody good hiding".

He took the opportunity to use his national platform to highlight poverty, racism and police repression.

This is the basic minimum we should expect from a supposedly left-wing opposition at a time of mass struggle across the UK and beyond. We don't need Starmer to kneel. We need him to get up and fight. But, given his past, we should not hold our breath. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.