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Political gestures can be inspiring. But let’s not mistake them for victory

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA</span>
Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

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, appeared to be the broad conclusion. It seems obvious now that the excitement of those initial protests was bound to provoke an organised backlash – which first became visible in Britain in September 2020, when a BLM-inspired dance on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent sparked nearly 25,000 complaints.

The moment when much opinion 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 naturally follow after the public’s attention has been captured.

BLM’s clearest cultural footprint has been the popularising of taking the knee. It could be argued that the gesture has in fact helped trigger some meaningful change in public attitudes. It went from the fringes of the American NFL, as a 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 becoming mainstream and being hollowed out into an empty gesture. It’s much easier to appear to have the right credentials than try to do anything about the problem.

The speed with which these symbols are circulated and consumed makes them even more likely to be appropriated, in a sort of cultural marketplace where politics is literally an accessory. Last week, for instance, the US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to the Met ball wearing a dress emblazoned with the slogan Tax the Rich. She explained the decision as an opportunity to extend the reach of her anticapitalist politics. “The medium is the message,” she wrote on Instagram. “The time is now for childcare, healthcare and climate action for all.”

Tax the Rich. I had a chilling flash-forward to a line of Tax the Rich merchandise trotted out by rich influencers. Or maybe rendered in jewellery, much like the VOTE necklace, as popularised by Michelle Obama (£310 RRP). On the way to the mainstream that Ocasio-Cortez wanted to reach through the Met ball, there is a giant cultural and commercial net: one that catches everything and turns as much of it as it can into a cheap (but still overpriced) product. Audre Lorde famously said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But the rest of the quote, less often cited, warns us that it will often look, at first, like winning. “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

It is common enough to observe that political symbols and gestures are too easily co-opted and commercialised – a tale as old as advertisements. But today there is a more insidious risk: that we will mistake this for winning.

Last summer, people of colour all over the world rose up and demanded systemic change, only to be offered little more than corporate back-covering diversity exercises, product rebrands and “pass the mic” events to give people of colour “exposure” before making them give the mic back. An important early stage of bringing about any sort of change is indeed about awareness and getting “a seat at the table”, but that is only part of how change happens. The rest of the time it’s about low-key, long-term work that creates the conditions for new ideas to take root. Think of symbols as fertiliser: pointless in untilled ground.

Over the past 18 months, even more of our politics than usual has been conducted in this strange liminal space online. Despite the stasis of this moment, there have been two big breakthroughs: the race and social equality protests, which revealed the persistence of racism and unjustified inequality, and the realisation that many western states had become so atrophied in the realm of welfare and care that they couldn’t sufficiently protect their populations from a pandemic. The gains from these once-in-a-generation moments of self-reflection risk dissolving in the pixels of a virtual world where, whether as spectators or participants, we exhaust our energy, scrolling through highlight reels of police brutality, falling statues and black squares of solidarity.

Any ground won here is illusory. The expansion of the online space overemphasises the impact and reach of virtual discourse, and so one could easily mistake the fact we are having these conversations at all for a sort of victory in itself. But if these arguments don’t translate to winning some power in the real world, they are all heat and no light.

For a democracy to work, for good and popular ideas such as racial equality or taxing the rich to become mainstream in meaningful ways, people can’t just be exposed to information that is presented to them as correct. They need to be converted, to see the way such policies or facts relate to their own lives. A campaign I think about often is the one that paved the way for Ireland’s historic gay marriage referendum in 2015. What may have seemed like a dramatic or even inevitable liberalisation of a socially conservative country was in fact the fruit of years of grassroots work. One of the most successful tools of the campaign was the “Ring your granny” effort, where young people lobbied their grandparents, mostly in rural areas, to vote yes. The motion passed with two-thirds of the vote.

Specific campaigns are different to general movements with much broader goals, but there is a promising echo of this sort of organising in what BLM UK has been doing with the financial support it received briefly last year. The movement, while battling backlash and hostility, spent it on supporting organisations, such as African Rainbow Family and United Voices of the World, which help enfranchise people of colour by providing legal and community support, enabling them to secure the status, documents and stability to participate fully in democracy. I worry that we forget that this is the ultimate point of the symbols, the statements, the iconography.

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

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

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