Far-Right Extremism: BLM is a Cause for All Against Racism and the Far-Right22 Jun 2020
It’s been less than a month since the killing of George Floyd by a police officer and what sparked the recent protests by the Black Lives Matter movement. However, at almost every opportunity, far-right groups in the US and UK have been busying themselves trying to discredit anti-racism movements with online disinformation, and hijacking public gatherings for their own agenda. Let’s first remember why the anti-racism protests started a month back.
On the evening of 25 May, George Floyd was pulled out of his car, handcuffed and put face down on the floor by police after a shopkeeper’s complaint that Mr Floyd allegedly used a counterfeit $20 note. While compliantly lying on the ground, a police officer kneeled on his neck – for 8 minutes and 46 seconds – eventually suffocating and killing him, despite repeated calls by him in what have become harrowing echoes of his final words before his death: “I can’t breathe”.
George Floyd’s death caused outrage with millions of people taking to the streets in major cities across the world in protest against this heinous act, police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism. Here in the UK, tens of thousands of people identifying with anti-racism movements demonstrated in many towns and cities in solidarity with the “gentle giant”, as he was known to friends.
In the backdrop of decades of racial injustice and inequality in the US, George Floyd’s death was not the only spark that lit the fire. On the morning of that same day, a video went viral of a White woman, Amy Cooper, who called the police to complain about a Black man who was simply asking her to follow rules by keeping her dog on a leash in The Ramble in Manhattan’s Central Park. In the video, Cooper could be heard weaponising her whiteness by threatening to call the police to complain that an “African American man was threatening her life”. The man, Christopher Cooper, an unrelated Black New Yorker, Harvard graduate and avid birdwatcher is often out birdwatching in The Ramble.
It is well documented that these incidents are not isolated. The Black Lives Matter movement aims to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities” ultimately seeking to win “immediate improvements in our lives”. In the 21st century, is that too much to ask?!
As you might expect, whenever minority communities stand up for recognition, call for fairness and demand justice, the usual suspects on the extreme fringe of politics and society come out to undermine them with hate and disinformation. In late May and early June, I saw attempts by online far-right groups to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement in very similar methods to those used against Muslim and other minority communities, both in the UK and the US. Below are some recent examples, which are deliberately not hyperlinked.
In an underhand attempt to prevent people from having sympathy with victims of anti-Black racism and violence, or to undermine the real need to challenge anti-Black racism and violence, American far-right trolls shared statistics and charts on social media purporting to show the level of violent crimes committed by different ethnic groups, broken down by perpetrator identity and victim identity. In one widely shared infographic, “Black on White” violence is quoted as being “more than 900% higher” than “White on Black” violence, and is accompanied by a divisive and fear-mongering narrative about racial violence against White people. However, the selective use of this data, which appears to be extracted from a 2018 US Department of Justice factsheet, is deliberately misrepresented. After examining the DoJ data sets – which one should approach with caution as they are estimatesbased on “10 or fewer sample cases” – there is only a 5% difference in recorded incidents. But let’s not get distracted: the intention of these far-right trolls is not to highlight the “truth” about the levels of racial violence, but instead to silence Black and minority voices.
In another example, far-right channels on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram were posting selective streams of clashes, destruction and looting from various continents where protests were taking place, to deliberately suggest that violent disorder is the “real” motivation behind the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter movement. If you only got your news from these sources, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that US cities had turned into war zones! However, this ignores that fact that a majority of protests have been peaceful from impassioned speeches, prayers, vigils and the chanting of “I can’t breathe”; to where protesters have made human chains around shops and properties to prevent them being damaged and looted; and where peaceful protestors admonished those who intended to be destructive during peaceful marches. While there have been few clashes at protest events, elsewhere, personnel from the police, army and National Guard joined in solidarity by kneeling alongside protestors. The far-right accounts spreading this disinformation work like a network of echo chambers that feed off each other by reposting and regurgitating each other’s content until their channels are saturated.
A more nefarious (and equally pathetic) example is from the wackiest of quarters of the far-right, where self-appointed commentators attempt to tie far-left groups with “jihadists” in any situation by uncovering supposed “truths” that highlight an unholy alliance between the two. In one post on Telegram, a far-right commentator suggested that an incident at a protest where a man had been hit and beaten with stones was proof that there is a “Marxist-Jihadist alliance” at work behind the scenes, because apparently the only group of people that use stones are “jihadists” – the post referred to Al Qaeda – and all other protestors are really undercover Marxists trying to overthrow the government.
To many people, such disinformation is instantly recognisable but the increasing growth of online far-right groups and the extent to which these conversations are viewed, shared and endorsed online is alarming. Regarding just one such online group, a Washington-based tech watchdog found that tens of thousands of people joined the far-right Boogaloo Facebook group in just 30 days in March and April this year, and that it contained discussions about weapons and creating explosives. This is of course not to ignore unlawful behaviour where it has occurred – wanton violence and vandalism should be condemned and dealt with according to the law. But such deliberately misleading characterisations are not indicative of the Black Lives Matter protests, which aim to address the structural injustices and violence that Black people face on a daily basis. These disinformation tactics are solely designed to discredit and relegate causes against racism. We must not let that go unchecked.
In these examples I see many parallels in the challenges that Muslims and other minority communities are up against with coordinated online far-right networks in the UK that spread disinformation and sow discord. Online far-right groups often distribute fake or skewed information to further their divisive, racist agenda to invoke some sort of culture war. They dehumanize Muslims and other minorities to convince others that they are undeserving of support, respect or sympathy. They only ever publish selective videos to show that only the minorities cause trouble on the streets and break the law (or do not follow social distancing rules) as if it is somehow due to their race, religion, ethnicity or culture. When Muslims and minorities speak up against hatred, they’re silenced and discredited by being accused of pursuing some other hidden agenda while self-appointed commentators explain how their hostility is not unjustified.
Far-right activity in response to anti-racism protests is not limited to online hate and disinformation. In the US, the same far-right Boogaloo movement is reportedly trying to hijack anti-racism protests to start a race war. Meanwhile in the UK, West Midlands Police recorded an increase in far-right activity in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Furthermore, following the removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and Robert Milligan’s in East London, far-right thugs made plans to disrupt anti-racism protests by “protecting statues”, forcing BLM organisers to cancel. As you might expect, it turned out that the self-appointed saviours were only interested in getting drunk and picking fights with the police and members of the public.
The question now is: what next? Over the past 4 weeks there has been global action online and in person to show support and solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. While it appears as though the death of George Floyd has woken up more people to the reality of anti-Black racism, we must and can do more to support our Black brothers and sisters with meaningful action to bring about lasting change. We need to openly challenge the anti-Black racism and hostility within our own minority communities: in our homes, workplaces and places of worship. We need to work together with other communities to challenge the disinformation and the dehumanization of all minority communities. There are growing, influential far-right networks trying their best to silence minorities calling out racism. We cannot let them. We must beat them at their own game. Expose them. This is a cause for all of us.