The white South African artist Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B has been described by its black participants as “a powerful tool in the fight against racism” whilst a petition that gained over 20,000 signatures labelled the Barbican’s decision to host the work as “an outrageous act of complicit racism”. After 200 protesters blockaded Tuesday’s opening the thousands that called for a boycott won some sort of victory when the show was called off. Unfortunately the decision was not taken because an anti-racist reason prevailed, but because the Barbican worried for the “safety of performers, audiences and staff.”

It is important to firstly take note of the kind of sentiment invoked when the ire of a protesting black crowd is seen as a risk to ‘safety’. This is especially the case given that the protest was not a surprise mobbing of an innocent art event, but the culmination of a campaign that called for the very real concerns that a gross act of racism was taking place to be taken seriously.

But there is a wider point to be made too. Are we to lament Bailey being censored? The kind of critic who seeks to make this sort of claim is one who understands very little about racism, and yet those who defend Exhibit B as a piece of anti-racist artistic provocation have rallied to cry that art has been censored and freedom of speech has been curtailed. Of course this ignores that censorship is not simply a case of pressing the mute button on something you don’t like – it is a relation of power, much like racism itself. In the art industry it has everything to do with who gets to make the systematic decisions about who is exhibited where and nothing to do with black protesters boycotting an event.

Only in thought experiments do equal acts of free speech collide with one another to produce harmonious discourse. In reality one act of free speech is toured around the world’s prestigious galleries and discussed and reviewed in the pages of art magazines. The other act of free speech is decidedly ignored by gallerists and has the police called on it when it gets too close to the first. This imbalance is a problem that all those committed to art as a political act must contend with and in the Bailey controversy the intersection between race and the politics of art is brought into stark relief.

It seems the case that Exhibit B can be offered its platform because it engages the question of race precisely as objects fit for a gallery. The ‘human zoo’ turns its black participants into those objects and audiences into spectators of those objects. Rather than appearing as the critical intervention Brett Bailey may claim it to be, the human zoo is recreated and ends up representing the horrors of those 19th century and more contemporary injustices. The problem is representation is no neutral act – it takes a great amount of piety to display painful histories of oppression as merely controversial objects for consumption in a gallery.

Political artists working from positions of privilege should ditch the piety of their own freedoms to be creative and pay more mind to what it means to be fundamentally less free. Racist oppression is met with the anti-racist struggle against it and it is about time we concentrated on producing works that are a part of this struggle – not so distant from them that they end up calling the police on protests. The systematic exclusion of black struggle from the art industry is the real censorship.

If this were merely a generic expression of rage it would be excellent (Lauryn Hill has recorded ‘My Favourite Things’ and ‘Black rage’ before and I have long thought that those performances, similarly to the the Coltrane recordings, give the piece a depth that immediately casts aside any hint of insincerity or superficiality), but this is an attempt to give voice to something much more directed: a personal experience – that much maligned category that is near impossible to make truly visible – that at the same time can only really be made sense of as a condition of collective oppression.

With a tenderness entirely appropriate to the material she finds a language, timbre and style that manages to work its way between the concrete particular of ‘dog bites’ to the potentially universal ‘Black Rage’. The list of injuries doesn’t pretend to be a complete catalogue, just moments in a infinitely oppressive continuum that gives birth to the infinitely painful, yet practical, Black Rage. Can you not hear that rage in her song? Does it not stir you to want for the destruction of its maker?

The production too is an apt reflection of the wider conditions of white supremacy being acted against in this piece. Some have noted it for it’s haunting quality, but it achieves that only through what is for many everyday sensuousness – this is a recording from her living room and do you think that a woman of colour supporting children in her daily life would find the intrusion of children’s cries into the music as an interruption or a quotidian continuation? Is the lyrical material that unfamiliar that is haunts rather than just remind one of a collective history? It has found its way here into the piece not through some occult mechanism but through its pertinence and so this song should be heard as such.

At this time when yet another unrepentant murder of a person of colour has become the locus of a Black Rage against those very same killers, this piece serves as a weapon. It comes dedicated to peace (perhaps as all of our actions should be) but the conversation it opens between today’s injustice and the history of white supremacist injustices calls to mind the long time slogan of such moments: ‘No justice, no peace!’ Only Black Rage.

Marx Boxpark

Taken at BOXPARK Shoreditch

Today, Sunday 18th of August, the UK Border Agency deployed a team in East London to action the removal of ‘immigration offenders’. This kind of harassment happens with some frequency and is certainly nothing new. Which is precisely why it is important to remember these daily occurrences and to remember them as horrific. As each of these raids by the UKBA takes place they share a history of exploitation and violence – part petrified as the legislation that invests the officers with their powers and part the exercise of power in various forms.

Calls to support those being harassed by UKBA today directed people towards Sclater Street in Shoreditch. The street itself is a market on Sundays, selling some of the cheapest fruit, vegetables, toiletries and other essential items in the area (Tower Hamlets, which has the highest child poverty rate in the UK). It serves a geographical significance as it connects two important tourist and retail locations: Brick Lane to the east and BOXPARK Shoreditch to the west. Brick Lane, well known – thanks in part to the succession of local government and other institutional ‘multiculturalism’ campaigns – for being lived in by a number of different migrant communities over its history, is visited by large numbers of tourists and is home to a large Bangladeshi community and their businesses. BOXPARK Shoreditch is a shopping mall constructed from modified shipping containers which is described by its owners thus:

‘BOXPARK is not some run-of-the-mall shopping centre. It’s a living, fertile community of brands packed with talent, innovation and attitude that puts creativity and fashion back where they belong: on the street.’

Contrary to their claims, the infantile ‘pop-up’ entrepreneurial spirit that emanates from BOXPARK feels palpably of death as opposed to a ‘living, fertile community’.  Yet the history of these black shipping containers, placed here to please a community of hip new instigators and beneficiaries of gentrification in the area, comes to add to the horror of the UKBA searches that happened about one hundred meters away from them.

In Scattered Sand, Hsiao-Hung Pai narrates and examines, with an important and convincing attention to suffering, the conditions of rural migration in China. When people are forced to leave not only their villages but also the entire country in order to earn a wage to feed their families, they engage in long, indebting, painful and potentially fatal trips. One such attempt by Xiao Lin, a farmer dispossessed of his land by the local authority in Fuqing, is described in its harsh detail in the book.

‘Xiao Lin had no idea what the journey would be like, not even which US city he was bound for … A long rope ladder hung down the side of the cargo ship. A man on board told the four migrants to climb up … When they were finally all aboard, they found they’d been only the second group of migrants to arrive. There were many more fishing boats to come with people from Fuqing and Changle. They had to wait for five to six days before the ship was full. When there were over 400 people on board, they started to move …  Their living area was three huge storage containers at the bottom of the ship, each of which could accommodate up to 200 people. There was no other cargo on board … No one had proper bedding because they’d been told not to bring any, as it would overload the ship and take up too much space.’

Hsiao-Hung Pai, ‘Scattered Sand’, pp. 230-232

Pai goes on to describe Xiao Lin and the others slowly running out of food in their shipping containers as weeks go by. The journey ultimately failed and the migrants were sent back.

Whilst the shipping container isn’t as associated with perilous attempts to cross borders in the UK as it is in the US (a lorry from Calais probably serves the same function in the public’s mind), the proximity of BOXPARK – which participates viscerally in forcing poor migrant communities out of sections of London – to the UKBA officers enforcing removals is a geographical happenstance that perhaps allows us to think about the important political proximity the gentrifying and immigration policing projects have.

An engagement with the history of suffering racism, whether it materially impacts as a gentrifying force or the obviously brutal UKBA, can give some clues as to how we get rid of it. But it remains important to remember these moments of violence in their own right, so that being regular occurrences does not strip them of their horror or allow them to slip into a naturalised mundaneness.

Whilst several long weeks in the ‘public gallery’ of a courtroom cannot even begin to compare to the pain of those same weeks in the locked glass box defendants occupy, the experience warrants a critical engagement – both as witnesses to and participants in administered bourgeois justice.

These reflections on the public gallery emerge from the trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King, two young men perused by the police and the CPS for charges of violent disorder (an offence under s. 2 of the Public Order Act 1986) at the 9th December 2010 student demonstration in Parliament Square. After two years on bail, a trial and an aborted retrial, their case was heard at Woolwich Crown Court from February 2013. After a month of this third iteration of the trial the jurors found the defendants not guilty.

This piece can not be a report of those proceedings* – I am neither skilled enough nor strong enough for such a task – but must instead be a reckoning of my engagement with the trial, as a friend to the defendants and their loved ones and, at least in name, an observing member of the public. An image from the first trial serves as an interesting point of departure for this.

As reported by Petra Davis in the New Statesman, supporters of both defendants had initially been denied entry to the entirety of Woolwich Crown Court on the day their trial was to begin. Parents, partners, friends and supporters were locked out in the early February snow by the order of a nameless ‘court manager’, purportedly in the interest of maintaining public order. The gallery of this nominally open trial was shut on his command and those excluded were told they could only be granted leave to enter as and when the manager saw fit. This example of the managerial character of courts and their exclusionary processes served as the radicalisation of a previous brutal attack on supporters. In the first iteration of the retrial the elevated glass box that was the public gallery of one of the high security courtrooms at Woolwich was supervised by two police officers. In order to maintain public order in the least public of spaces they insisted that two seats be reserved for them, over the defendants’ supporters.

It is important to remember that both defendants on trial had been attacked by police before their arrests – famously Alfie Meadows fought for his life after a police baton to the head. Many in the public gallery had suffered alongside them or indeed attended out of solidarity as they themselves were victim to police attack. The result of sharing a box with these officers was only added trauma. Yet how are we to comprehend both these efforts to exclude the public from the gallery? One may think that the risk of a riot in a courtroom is minimal, if not an absurd suggestion. A cursory search of news archives shows that this is true, but the fact remains strange.  Why, when a day in a magistrates’ court reveals the state’s naked destruction of lives – racist, gendered and in the service of the bourgeois class – is order not more routinely breached? Why do the traumas of observing in a courtroom not erupt violently? They are instead carefully managed in the space of the public gallery. The absurdity of the police presence at court was not that they were concerned about public disorder, but that they did not realise it was already prevented.

Passivity is the demand made of all those who visit a court. From the invasive investigation by security guards on entering the building, to the constant reminder from judges that no emotion should be exhibited and no expression should creep across one’s face lest the jury notices that somebody loves the defendants, is disgusted by a barristers attempt to smear a witness or thinks that the entire process is a great injustice.

The prosecution made their case in the first two weeks of Alfie and Zak’s trial mostly by calling on police witnesses. In succession they lied and contradicted one another (despite admitting to discussing their statements before writing them). In the weeks that followed the prosecution barrister embarked on bizarre distortions and torturous cross-examinations of the defendants – each suffering days of repeated questioning. Through all this the public gallery could not comment, refute a lie or exhibit the pain one feels when video footage is shown of police officer after police officer hitting protesters on the head with batons. It would have been ‘Contempt of Court’ to do any of these things, a crime that allows judge’s to summarily imprison members of the public; there is a sort of recognition in this law that courts breed their own contempt.

Of course those who bear witness in them cannot achieve the passivity that courtrooms demand. An active critical relationship is constantly maintained and this cannot be masked in the juridical structures enacted by wigged and gowned major and minor functionaries of the court. Anger, pain, suffering and misery compose the theoretical engagement with the courts barbarous treatment of human life. No matter how many times one is made to stand and bow before the judge – who relishes in acting the sovereign-like role – the public in the gallery engage in a struggle with the brutal reality of the law.

It is such a shame then that most verdicts are returned and most sentences are handed down before empty galleries. Whilst once public galleries were relatively full, now it is a shock to judges to see them occupied. Defendants are left to struggle against crushing state mechanisms alone. The courtroom exchanges that should ferment public disorder – imagine for a moment how many more nights of rioting we would have seen in August 2011 if the galleries of those all-night courts had been full and the herding of the ‘feral underclass’ had been witnessed – remain unchallenged by the ‘public’ that can undermine and interrupt the smooth administration of bourgeois law.

We should fill the public galleries then so that defendants are not alone in confronting the law with humanity, so that judges are confronted with the social bodies that they hold in contempt and so that disorder returns to the gallery.

* A number of journalists attended the trial and have written accounts. Petra Davis and Glen Mcmahon both came to court regularly and have reported on it exceptionally.

This Saturday the biggest march against the government’s austerity measures since the ‘March for the Alternative’ will make its way through the scenic streets of London towards the awaiting Labour party leader in Hyde Park. Why? The TUC has cleverly titled the march ‘A Future That Works’ to answer this very question. It represents a twofold demand on the government to provide ‘ordinary British families’ with: (1) an economy that functions and (2) jobs. The various inconsistencies of this double demand have been discussed elsewhere. Here I would like to concentrate on what this demand actually entails given current government policy. Namely I will make the argument that calling for jobs to fix the economy without a proper critique of what it means to work in Britain today is an implicit demand for the proliferation of welfare-for-work type programmes.

The TUC likes work. This is patently obvious from reading their pamphlet which heavily criticizes the current policy of deficit reduction for its lack of job creation. They note that ‘In a recession spending on unemployment goes up and money from tax falls’1 – so the presumption is that if the government are not creating jobs, their plan to reduce the deficit is hampered by reductions in tax revenue and spending on unemployment benefit.  However, this explanation conveniently forgets the reason that unemployment rises during crisis in the first place: workers are no longer seen as profitable, so the size of the workforce is reduced.

Nevertheless, alongside this economic rationale the TUC have a more self-interested reason for liking work. Namely that as the umbrella organisation for most of Britain’s trade unions, people are mostly relevant to the TUC only when they are in work. The greater the number of people employed, the easier it becomes for unions to organise them. The smaller the size of the unemployed, the easier it is for unions to win concessions against bosses. So it is clear that a person being in work is beneficial to the TUC and it is therefore entirely understandable for them to demand job creation.

But it is not only the TUC who like work; capitalists also do (as long as it is profitable for them). What is even more germane however is that the state as an entity with the interests of capital in mind does not want to support a large number of unemployed who it sees as having little chance of contributing meaningfully to its economy for much of their lives. More and more people find themselves out of work for longer and longer – at the moment many are superfluous to the needs of capital. Yet this surplus population has to be dealt with somehow – this is probably something that plays on the mind of the current government as much as it does for the TUC. Their interests are aligned on this level, so when the TUC make their demand for more jobs to get ‘the economy growing’2 the government has a response: ‘workfare’.

The Conservative-led government has during its time in office expanded on earlier forms of forcing people into work by developing various ‘work experience’, ‘mandatory work activity’ and ‘training’ programmes. Refusing to take part in these schemes or not meeting the standards expected can lead to sanctions including the removal of benefits. You truly have a system where one must work for their welfare. Those social democratic mechanisms that existed for ameliorating the effects of capitalism are being taken away and replaced with the technologies for drilling and disciplining the reserve army of labour. The unemployed – and underemployed with the introduction of Universal Credit – will be used as unpaid labour where possible, paid labour where needed and a means by which bosses can bring down wages, provide worse terms and conditions and break organising in the workplace.

Immediately this seems like a method of getting people employed that the TUC should be taking issue with. It undermines their own work and what interest they had in the conditions of actual people should lead them to stand fiercely opposed to the schemes. Of course that isn’t what they do. As we have seen they call for more jobs, without for a moment critiquing the existing government response to that demand. For the TUC ‘young people who don’t get a job can be scarred for life’3; apparently it is unemployment, not forced work and lack of welfare that leaves you scarred. But unfortunately it goes beyond simple negligence on the TUC’s part not to critique what the government is actually doing – they wouldn’t want to come across as anti-work after all. Instead they make the following policy suggestion:

‘We should give every young

person who is unemployed for

more than six months a job

that pays at least the minimum

wage, or quality training.’4

There is a call for a minimum wage which is quickly qualified with the get out of providing ‘quality training’. Here we have precisely the rhetoric of current government policy which treats a person’s inability to get a job paying the minimum wage as a personal issue for the labourer that needs to be remedied with more training and disciplining in the art of waking up for a 09:00 start. But what is most pernicious of all in the above is that every young person should be either working or training after six months of unemployment. We already know that the TUC agrees with the government that people should be working, but it seems they also agree that one simply shouldn’t be allowed to be unemployed. There is no agency; you must put your ability to labour on the market as a commodity or presumably you stop being one of the ‘ordinary British families’ the TUC cares about.

We have known that the TUC isn’t an organisation of the left for some time and here we see in great detail just how its interests lie in the continued immiseration and exploitation of the class that it half heartedly pretends to represent. For various reasons those on the left who really do care about this class will continue to respond to this organisation’s calls for demonstration. Why exactly this is cannot be explored fully here. But what we must not forget to do however is to critically examine these calls to action and where their real interests lay. The TUC march will not lead to revolution. Their general strike, If it does happen, will be the political and not revolutionary one, this history has shown. Genuine struggle is still down to us as workers and the unemployed.

This is why the TUC march and the labour leader’s speech are not the only choices this Saturday. You can shutdown workfare too – 14:30, Oxford Circus.

This piece comes out of discussions at the ‘No future in “A Future That Works”’ event held at the Cuts Café on Tuesday evening. Two presentations were given in response to the TUC’s ‘A Future That Works’ pamphlet (PDF) – which serves as the economic argument for why the October 20th demonstration has been called – as well as a more general discussion on the  politics and economics of the TUC and trade unions in general. I did not aim to reproduce the discussion here, but the critique by The Wine and Cheese Appreciation Society of Greater London which was the basis for their presentation at this event can be found here.

Notes

1. “Austerity is failing. We need a future that works.” p. 3

2. ibid

2. op. cit. p. 9

3. ibid

REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Given the harrowing images, confusing information circulating and lack of reportage about the killing by police of over 30 miners in Marikana, South Africa, I have tried to gather together information on the event itself and the lead up to it here. (Warning: There are disturbing images below.)

Short background

Actual clashes between the relevant unions and the police at Marikana seem to have begun within the last week. These however of course stem from existing antagonisms within the South African mining industry and the unions that represent its workers. It should be noted that the strikers who were shot dead on Thursday were part of a wildcat action undertaken by workers in the Lonmin platinum mine. As far back as 2010 (and perhaps earlier) there have been antagonisms between elected officials within the largest union representing workers in the industry, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), that may be broadly characterised as: representatives of platinum miners politically supporting Thabo Mbeki and the incumbent union leadership supporting President Jacob Zuma of the ANC.

Another union which has its roots in the NUM has been in competition with the larger union for rights to negotiate on behalf of workers at sites including the Lonmin mine. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction union has recently described itself as distinct from NUM party because it is “apolitical and noncommunist”. Whilst the AMCU seems to at least be on the same side as the striking miners at Marikana, the NUM have asked miners to return to work. As said this is a wildcat strike and the relationship between the rank and file and the AMCU is unclear.

The strike action itself began on 10 May 2012 and has been conducted over pay as miners want an increase from R4,000 to R12,500 ($1,500) a month. These demands are made specifically by the rock-drillers, arguably the most dangerous role in the entire mining operation. The action also follows strikes at a nearby Impala Platinum mine where rock-drillers won a increase from their R4,000 wage. Questions of nationalising South Africa’s rich mines have been brought up, but in July of this year President Zuma noted that it was not a policy recommendation from the ANC conference and thus unlikely to be perused by the government. This particular strike remains directed at Lonmin however.

The violence

As far as official reports suggest there has been violence between the two unions since last Friday with two people wounded after clashes over entry to the site. This continued to 13th August 2012 where nine people were killed, which includes three mine workers killed by officers and two officers according to South African police. This all lead up to the horrific shooting of a huge number of people on Thursday by the South African Police Service.

Whilst police claim they were acting in self defence the shooting dead of over 30 workers is inexcusable especially when footage from the massacre is viewed.

The widely circulated initial video is here. The scenes are distressing and graphic.

This video from Al Jazeera English shows that police initially boxed strikers who were only lightly armed into a small area before the events in the video above take place.

Other information

Whilst most news outlets are quick to point out how this has all effected Lonmin’s financial situation we should be looking very critically at how this company has profited from mining South Africa’s resources until now as well as the state’s repression of workers’ organisation.  This statement of solidarity by Abahlali baseMjondolo is hugely important.

South African newspaper Mail & Guardian’s liveblog is also useful.

For those in London, a solidarity demonstration has been called by Bloomsbury Fightback! at Lonmin’s headquarters (4 Grosvenor Square, SW1X 7YL) for 4pm Saturday. Please do attend if you can and share the event with others.

George Galloway

At times politics throws some hilarity our way. The last week has been awash with examples: the ludicrous pasty fixation, the summoning of Francis Maude to once again paint the picture of evil unions and the news that George Osborne may well have sent us back into recession before his ‘granny-hating’ budget even had time to bite. But with results from the Bradford West by-election coming in after yesterday’s vote, it is about to become the most surreal and hilarious week we have had for some time.

https://twitter.com/#!/pmdiogo/status/185488366626816000

That tweet from a Labour supporter was clearly overly hopeful and ignorant of how voting behaviours have changed recently. The Conservativse and Liberal Democrats have lost support both nationally and locally, but very little of this has headed in the direction of Labour. In fact, minor parties such as UKIP, who have seen positive swings in 4/5 by-elections they have run candidates in since 2010, seem to have been the recipients of voters disinclined towards the three main political parties. Of course, no one was expecting a RESPECT victory for George Galloway over incumbents Labour, but in retrospect the inability of the party to even present a modicum of opposition rather mild contestation at the national level has clearly been a grave mistake given that this is increasingly the electorates concern.

Yet, who does Galloway’s victory reflect well upon? It would be fallacious for the left to claims this for themselves. Clearly at a time when the main national parties are haemorrhaging voters and when groups such as RESPECT become more adept at picking up votes by seeming to be a better representative than the mainstream, such results are inevitable. But it would also be hypocritical of the left to join in the celebration of Galloway’s victory. This is a man with no qualms presenting programs for PRESS TV that put out statements such as this; who has described President Assad of Syria as “the last Arab ruler” and said that Syria “is lucky to have Bashar Al-Assad as her leader”; who takes an anti-abortion stance and continuously apologises for the Iranian regime on a plethora of issues including gay rights. These are not values that the left-wing should identify with. In light of this and the fact his election platform was no more left leaning than a vague anti-cuts position, the reality is that the win can only reflect well on Galloway and not a wider leftist movement. From the victory he receives affirmation regardless of his awful politics and so in response the only position the left should take is to highlight that Galloway is someone to be derided.

Very quickly some have made recourse to the notion that he was the best alternative to Labour in this by-election. Surely by now we can recognise that this is merely the humming of a bankrupt system? Yes, Labour are a disgrace, but this in no way negates the disgracefulness that Galloway exhibits as a political representative. The very fact that this quandary appears should serve to suggest that representative democracy is neither desirable nor effective. If it can throw out Galloway as the ‘best’ option, something has gone so very wrong.

Clearly, the Bradford electorate were looking for an alternative. The vote for Galloway is an alternative, but not a ‘anti-establishment’ one as has been suggested. You do not counter the establishment by engaging with it from the inside. You do not get a better democracy by voting in the ‘best of the bad’. You do work towards something better by refusing to engage in this joke. Such a huge victory for Galloway over Labour can be laughed over, but it is also a huge disgrace.

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