Remembering 2016 – a year of political progress and awakening

by Maurice Mcleod 

Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” – meaning eventually the good will win. Last year it often felt like the arc was actually just a loop, a never-ending cycle of hope, disappointment and despair. But although it may seem as if the world has got hopelessly dark, there is another truth.

I’m not going to attempt to polish the twin turds of Brexit and Trump but it’s important to remember those reactionary decisions (and the increased xenophobia and racism they inspired) are in no way the only stories of last year. If history is ‘written by the winners’, we need to prepare for victory by telling our own tales and celebrating our own triumphs.

The mainstream media, along with the likes of professional trolls like Breitbart News and Tomi Lahren, would love us to believe the world is becoming more right-wing and any hope of genuinely improving the lives of those whose lives need changing most is forlorn or naïve. Another way of looking at things is that the general public have had it with the mainstream political consensus and are hungry for genuine change. While I won’t be blinded to the dangers an emboldened far-right pose to people of colour and the poor all over the world, I also refuse to drown in fatalistic depression.

While Britain and America seem to have jolted alarmingly to the right with Brexit and Trump, we shouldn’t ignore the mass support that was shown for two confessed socialists (Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn) with long histories of fighting racism and the evils of capitalism. One almost won the Democratic nomination in the States and the other stormed to a renewed victory as leader of the opposition in the UK.

The attempt by the Parliamentary Labour Party to force Jeremy Corbyn out of the leader’s seat with an orchestrated campaign of resignations only served to cement his position and saw MPs like Dawn Butler, Clive Lewis and Rosena Allin-Khan take front bench positions. Labour now has the most diverse shadow cabinet any British party has ever seen.

In the USA, the Democratic Party was more successful in ousting its own popular maverick by working behind the scenes to undermine Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and handing the nomination to Hillary Clinton. This display of arrogance and entitlement is now widely accepted to have gifted Donald Trump with the Presidency and while Hillary disappears off into political oblivion, Bernie’s stock has risen and he looks like being more influential in US politics in the future. Even while sending pussy-grabbing, Muslim-hating, ilhan-omarwall-building Donald Trump to the White House, the US also elected its first ever Somali-American lawmaker by sending former child refugee Ilhan Omar to the Minnesota state house of representatives.

At home, despite one of the most vile campaigns of recent times  and in the face of a growing number of Islamophobic attacks, Londoners elected Sadiq Khan to be the first ever Muslim mayor of a major western city to be chosen by the people. The excellent Marvin Rees also became Europe’s first elected black Mayor when he romped to victory in Bristol.

Beyond politics, as well as mourning the seemingly endless parade of celebrity deaths including Prince, Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro I am celebrating celebrity awakenings, where stars like Gary Lineker, Colin Kaepernick and Beyonce have taken a stand. All three faced criticism from the mainstream press and risked their successful careers, but all three received waves of support and their stances only served to enhance their statuses.

While last year’s Oscar ceremony avoided nominating any black, Asian or Latino stars, prompting the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, we also saw Birth of a Nation, finally tell the tale of Nat Turner’s ‘slave’ uprising and had the excellent Fences and Moonlight all released to decrease the hegemony this year. On this side of the pond, A United Kingdom told the true story of the birth of Botswana without a white saviour or wise black servant in sight and the BFI launched its BlackStar series showcasing black talent through the ages. While we still had Tilda Swinton playing a mystic from the Far East in Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr Strange, we also had Luke Cage and the Black Panther both showing that black superheroes can finally have the clout to connect with mainstream audiences.

The heart-breaking tragedies of Aleppo, Yemen and South Sudan shame the world and no positive spin can lessen these human disasters. At the same time a cure for ebola, described as 100% effective, has been developed and Boko Haram is alleged to have lost its last stronghold in Nigeria.

The ‘pink tide’ of progressive governments in Latin-America appeared to ebb with Argentina, Brazil, Venezuala and Peru all facing problems for the left. In Cuba, iconic revolutionary leader Fidel Castro’s death and the softening of relations with the US may usher in a weakening of the socialist state.

But across the Atlantic, there was also the rare case of a dictator standing down peacefully.adamabarrow Gambia’s autocratic president, Yahra Jammeh, who had claimed a ‘billion-year’ mandate and had ruled the west African state for more than 20 years, conceded power, following an election, to former London security guard Adama Barrow.

(edit – this now seems sadly to have been taken back)

Deeply religious Italy had been the last major western nation to officially recognise gay couples but last year, it voted to allow same sex unions. While only a small step in the right direction, in Paris, the world finally agreed to take concrete action on climate change.

The death of Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr reminded us of the execution of his father, by the Nigerian state back in 1995. The plight of his Ogoni people since serves as both a warning and an inspiration – corporate power is strong on its own but it’s deadly when combined with political force.

But last year, a group of native Americans from Standing Rock stood against the might of an oil company backed by the President-elect, and for the moment at least, seem to have won.

Despite originally getting little media coverage, the Standing Rock Sioux Hunkpapa and standing-rockBlackfoot tribes thwarted Energy Transfer Partner’s plans to put an oil pipeline below the Missouri river, potentially poisoning their water supply. In North Dakota (which means ‘allies’ in the Sioux language), campaigners organised the largest ever congregation of native American tribes and made a mockery of Barak Obama’s announcement of Native American month and America’s annual Thanksgiving farce. All this served to remind America and the world of the hideous act of treachery and genocide that was carried out on America’s original inhabitants. The victory at Standing Rock serves as a symbol for what solidarity, integrity and determination can achieve.

If Theresa May can’t navigate her way to a Brexit that makes sense, she may decide to call a snap election to cement her position. If this happens Labour will need a rapid turnaround in polling figures if they are to mount a respectable bid for power. This means forming the sort of alliance that the Standing Rock campaigners did. There won’t be time for squabbling, everyone who opposes a lengthy term of Tory power will need to be brought on board.

The left is tragically bad at forming alliances though. In her excellent autobiography, Black revolutionary Assata Shakur says:

‘Arrogance was one of the key factors that kept the white left so factionalized. I felt that instead of fighting together against a common enemy, they wasted time quarrelling with each other about who had the right line.’leejasper

An inability to tell friend from foe will simply leave you friendless. When anti-racism
activist and former deputy Mayor of London Lee Jasper attempted to re-join the Labour Party and use his sizeable skills in the fight against Tory austerity, he was rejected because he had dared to oppose the party in the past by being active in the Respect party.

Lee told me:

‘I’m frankly flabbergasted that someone within Labour thinks it a priority to challenge my re-entry into the party. The party’s priorities should tackling poverty and inequality. At a time when Black and Muslim communities, amongst others, are facing unprecedented levels of racism, discrimination and violent attacks, some in the party prefer to focus on me. That’s the wrong priority, I’m not the enemy.’

At the same time as Lee is being black-balled, we saw Labour MPs talking about ‘courting UKIP members’ and threatening to throw black people and migrants under the immigration van.

The West isn’t becoming more right wing; it’s becoming more polarised. This polarisation might be bad for polite dinner party conversations but it will ultimately be good for progress. It will be a lot harder to sit on political fences this year because the monsters will be more visible.

This year we will need to be united; this year we will need to be on our guard; this year there is no time for people to be ‘not interested in politics’.

Politics, like life, is either something you do or something that happens to you.

Last year may have seemed like a disaster but instead, we should treat it as a clarion call and be determined to make this year better.

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White Men Dancing is a weekly column. Kiri Kankhwende and Maurice Mcleod keep an eye on Westminster. Politics is too important to leave to politicians.

Maurice Mcleod is a social commentator with Jamaican/Swazi heritage. He is director of his own communications company, Marmoset Media, and writes regularly for The Guardian and The Spectator among other titles. He is also a trustee for campaign group Race on the Agenda. Maurice often appears on Sky News as a talking head and writes about social issues, race or politics. He tweets as @mowords

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