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THE FAR-RIGHT BACKLASH AGAINST THE BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT

By Joe Mulhall

The brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer sparked a global response, galvanising a long-brewing resentment and anger at deep- rooted and systemic racism, as well as broader societal anti-Blackness and white supremacy. Inspired by the demonstrations across America, people have taken to the streets across Europe to show solidarity and raise awareness about racial injustice closer to home. Thousands gathered in Paris, London, Berlin and Amsterdam, amongst others, to join in the chants of ‘I can’t breathe’. 

Like everyone else, the European far right have followed events in the US closely, seeking to exploit them for their own domestic gain and provide international support to Donald Trump and the US far right more generally. While the proliferation of continent-wide discussions about race, colonialism and imperial legacies has been a welcome one, it has also been seized upon by elements of the European far right as an opportunity to talk about race in a more exclusionary and supremacist manner. 

This has happened in two ways. Firstly, existing racial nationalist activists and organisations, already preoccupied with the concept of race, have used the BLM protests to push their existing political platform to a wider audience. 

a group of racial nationalists standing behind a banner which says "white lives matter"

Secondly, some elements of the far-right that had traditionally distanced themselves from open racial politics, promoting instead ‘cultural nationalism’, have become more willing and open to explicitly racial politics. Whether this shift is permanent will remain to be seen but in the short-to-medium term we are likely to continue to see cultural nationalism cede ground to racial nationalism within the far-right.

The most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon has been the emergence and spread of the ‘White Lives Matter’ slogan in response to BLM. First emerging in the US in 2015, it is only really this year that it has been popularised amongst the European far-right. Decontextualized, the slogan is inoffensive and comparable with ‘Black Lives Matter’. 

In context it represents a negation of the structural and systemic racism implicit in the need to highlight the value of non-white lives. It allows the far right to push a racist agenda via the use of an indisputably true statement, namely that white lives do indeed matter. The requirement of explanation and context when opposing the use of ‘White Lives Matter’ is its major advantage for the far right. For people who understand racism as something that only occurs when there is direct intent, they are more likely to personalise the issue and get defensive. Where there is cognitive dissonance on people’s understanding of historical racism’s bearing on systemic discrimination today, it is also easier for people to distance themselves from the problems at hand and thus make them more likely to see nothing wrong with the use of the slogan White Lives Matter. However, while some people genuinely but mistakenly believe that BLM movement is being dismissive of white lives, many on the far-right are willfully misunderstanding the issue for political gain. 

In the UK, the slogan has been adopted widely by the domestic far-right. The anti-Muslim organisation Britain First, for example, released numerous images of Lee Rigby, Emily Jones and Charlene Downes – all white murder victims – with text overlaid reading ‘White Lives Matter’. The hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter has also trended in the UK, though admittedly much of the traffic is in condemnation of its use. Similarly, the name of Lee Rigby, the British soldier murdered by al-Muhajiroun activists on the streets of London, also began to trend on Twitter. Many on the far-right have sought to draw false equivalency between the two tragedies. Katie Hopkins for example tweeted, ‘Outrage. Available in any colour, As long as it is black #leerigby’. For some, this more open discussion of race was something of a departure. Prominent figures and groups such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) and Britain First, known primarily for their Islamophobia, switched their focus to race as part of broader plans to ‘defend’ various statues and memorials, in response to protests about their links to slavery and colonialism. When a Burnley FC supporter was condemned for organising a plane to fly the ‘White Lives Matter’ slogan over Manchester City stadium, Lennon likewise lent his support. While the likes of Lennon and Britain First were far from moderate in their view prior to this, such a move is clearly worrying to the extent it can normalise more extreme far-right ideas in such a socially divided time. 

The most sustained use of the slogan White Lives Matter in the UK has come from a new racial nationalist organisation called Patriotic Alternative. Formed in 2019 by Mark Collett, former Head of Publicity for the British National Party, the group has quickly grown to a following of nearly 18,000
on Facebook.130 PA is a racist far-right organisation with antisemitism at its very core. They aim to combat the “replacement and displacement” of white Britons by people who “have no right to these lands”. In this regard PA follows the broader trend in recent years amongst many in the far right of rebranding white nationalist ideology as a defense of ‘indigenous’ Europeans against their ‘Great Replacement’ from non Europeans. On 9 August Patriotic Alternative (PA) held a day of action across the UK to coincide with International Indigenous People’s Day (IPD). The event involved repeating, at a national scale, a strategy the group employed on 4 July when they displayed a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner on the top of Mam Tor, a hill in Derbyshire. The image of the banner atop Mam Tor was intended to stir up controversy and in so doing bait the media and concerned members of the public into giving the marginal group free publicity. Though press coverage was only local, the event attracted attention on social media and was successful in bringing in new supporters to PA. Due to this success they decided to hold the much larger event on IPD. The result was images of roughly 80 locations displaying the slogan, alongside related phrases, from just over 100 activists. There were also a handful of pictures submitted from abroad, including by the fascist groups Nordic Resistance Movement in Denmark and Action Zealandia in New Zealand. 

Similar stunts using the White Lives Matter slogan have been seen across the continent in 2020 with reports of banners being unfurled at football games in The Czech Republic, Ukraine, Hungary and the Netherlands. One report by DW showed how “Monkey chants, a Confederate flag, “White Lives Matter” banners and even a call for the release of the policeman charged with the death of George Floyd have all been seen at football grounds in Europe over the past month.” 

British police officers scuffle with members of far-right groups protesting against a Black Lives Matter demonstration in central London
British police officers scuffle with members of far-right groups protesting against a Black Lives Matter demonstration in central London on Saturday.

However, one of the most concerted and high profile campaigns in reaction to the BLM movement this year has come from the Identitarian movement across the continent. The international Identitarian movement started in France with the launch of Génération Identitaire (Generation Identity, or GI), the youth wing of the far-right Bloc Identitaire. It has since spread across the continent with affiliated groups, the most prominent of which, in addition to France, are based in Germany, Italy and Austria. At the core of identitarianism is the racist idea of ethnic-separatism which they call ‘ethnopluralism’. Similarly, they also call for ‘remigration’, a coded term for the idea of repatriation of non-white people. Part of the movement’s success has been their ability to take extreme ideas and present them in a way that sounds moderate. They affect public attitudes by promoting a lexicon which, for those unfamiliar with the contemporary far right, may have less obvious links to extreme, prejudicial and dangerous political ideas and policies. It is for this reason that they have pounced on the White Lives Matter slogan so enthusiastically this year. In June for example, GI activists in France held an anti-BLM counter protest and unfurled a huge banner reading “Justice for the victims of anti-white racism: #WhiteLivesMatters”. Similarly, in Germany, GI activists sought to capitalise on a series of large BLM demonstrations across the country by launching a campaign titled #NiemalsaufKnien (Never on our knees) in response to protestors and politicians kneeling in solidarity with the victims of racial violence.

The increased prevalence of more explicit racial politics and rhetoric is not merely anecdotal. Based on keyword matching in the tweets posted by far- right accounts monitored by HOPE not hate, we observed a notable increase in tweets discussing race during the week of George Floyd’s death a period that also become a flashpoint in the BLM movement. His death took place on the 25th of May, a Monday. That week and the following week, adjusted for total weekly tweet volume, tweets mentioning the keyword “white” increased fourfold compared to the previous two months. Specifically looking at a set of 289 accounts being part of the European Identitarian movement in mainly the UK, France, Germany and Austria, the same pattern was observed. Although the movement more frequently used the keyword “white” (and it’s French and German counterpart) than the average far-right account overall, the week of Floyd’s death saw the amount of discussion increase by approximately 370%. In both the case of identitarian accounts as well as the whole sample of far-right accounts the relative amount of tweets matching the keywords remained elevated until August 31st, the end of the period measured. 

The re-racialisation of the far-right has been notably evident within the UK, though similar tactics have been observed across the European far right. By using the international discussion of racial injustice that has been spawned by the events in America, the European far-right has worked to deny or downplay the scale and uniqueness of anti-black oppression across Europe and promote their longstanding belief that the true victims of societal racism are actually white people at the hands of multicultural and politically correct elites. Egregiously, many have increasingly sought to co-opt the language of human rights and oppression, with some even publicly identifying with figures such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi or Mandela. More generally though the European far-right has seized the BLM moment this summer and sought to mirror its success and co- opt the claim of being a persecuted minority. Here we see a rhetorical gymnastics that frames far-right activism as a struggle for human rights and equality, shorn of overtly racist or crude epithets. This tactic provides a serious challenge to those opposing the far-right or seeking to moderate their activity on social media as the lexicon ostensibly appears progressive thereby requiring increased levels of context to reveal the reality of the prejudiced politics on display. 

State of Hate: Far-Right Extremism in Europe

State of Hate: Far-Right Extremism in Europe is a landmark report exploring the state of far-right extremism across Europe. It is a collaboration between three leading European anti-fascist research organisations: HOPE not hate Charitable Trust (UK), EXPO Foundation (Sweden) and Amadeu Antonio Foundation (Germany). The report includes contributions from 34 leading scholars, researchers and activists from across the continent and 32 country profiles. The report includes an exclusive survey of 12,000 people across eight major European countries (Sweden, France, Germany, UK, Hungary, Poland and Italy), measuring attitudes toward immigration, minoritised communities, feminism and political disaffection.
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