Simultaneous protests in London, Paris and Washington DC last weekend aimed to raise awareness of modern day slavery taking place in Libya.
This is no simple issue, given the long history of slavery, the multiple players involved and the role of western governments in creating the conditions that have led the trade in humans to boom once again. But the protestors’ response shows the potential for an effective pushback against both the slave trade and Trumpism.
The Libyan link
The trade in human beings rose significantly following a 2017 Italian government decision to begin paying Libyan militant groups and smugglers to stem the flow of migrants over the Mediterranean Sea.
Italy, with an economy crippled by European Union-imposed austerity, has been bearing the brunt for western Europe of a refugee crisis created by France, the UK and USA.
In toppling the upstart Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the old imperial powers destroyed Libya as a functioning state capable of managing its huge borders and coastline.
The gateway to Europe was left wide open. Instead of Gaddafi’s functioning state, Libya became a country of vast ungoverned spaces awash with weapons.
Into the power vacuum militias have presented as the most effective deterrent to the refugee influx into Europe. Within this messy situation, a complex people trafficking system has emerged.
It is a money spinner: Sub-Saharan Africans pay fees to militiamen – the gatekeepers – but money can go missing and passage can be arbitrarily denied. Without authority or oversight, increasing numbers of Africans have become ensnared.
Powerful Libyan militias operate detention centres which hold fresh arrivals from sub-Sahara, including many from Nigeria, Chad and Niger.
Testimony from the International Organization for Migration suggests that the Libyan trade in human beings has become normalised to the point that people are being openly traded in public. CNN released footage in November apparently showing Africans being sold at auction for as little as $400.
Some arrivals in Libya are held in makeshift prisons controlled by militias and carry out forced labour. The militias will call the captives’ family homes and demand a ransom. Africans are sold between prisons, when the demand arises, and are held without sufficient food in unsanitary conditions. If no ransom is forthcoming, the slaves can be killed.
In London on Saturday, protestors gathered at the United Arab Emirates’ embassy, calling on that particular government to halt its role in enabling the trade that has enriched individuals at the cost of many African lives.
Speakers at the protest accused the government in Abu Dhabi of harbouring and protecting wealthy Emiratis who are directly profiting from the trade in Africans. Campaigners claim that sub-Saharan Africans are sold to wealthy families in the Emirates to work as slaves.
In France and the United States, simultaneous protests were held at the Emirates’ embassies in those capitals, as organisers looked to build momentum for their cause.
The London protest was organised by activists from African Lives Matter and the International Campaign to Boycott the UAE, the same two groups that held a similar protest in December at the Libyan embassy in London that attracted thousands of people.
Alternative to Trumpism
The protests coincided with openly racist American President Donald Trump marking his first full year in the White House by declaring himself the “least racist person” in a UK TV interview.
His claim went unchallenged by interviewer Piers Morgan.
The mainstream media, represented by Morgan, offer no answer to the bombastic assault on truth that Trump represents. They also lack the wit to challenge the foreign policies of western powers who have created and sustained the Libyan power vacuum.
Mainstream, centrist politics, represented by Hillary Clinton, also has no answer to these urgent problems that the Trump administration is accelerating at full pelt. Traditional hard Left protest politics is not providing the answers either.
But the times are changing, and the London anti-slavery protests hinted at the potential of an intelligent, multi-faceted resistance movement that could form around a transcendent issue like slavery.
At the London protests the old school Communists were there, as were the Nation of Islam, religious groups, atheist groups, black power activists, and a whole array of interested parties, stances and styles. But the most powerful presence in the crowd were those without political dogma, simply there to object to what they saw as unacceptable practice.
The diversity of the crowd, the warmth between strangers and the power of uniting behind a shared belief in the sanctity of life… Such an atmosphere is in stark contrast to Trumpism and its divide and rule tactics.
And the implications are far-reaching: If the UAE government can be identified and agitated, it shows that people are beginning to connect the dots, that issues of racism are not separate to ideologies that exploit and profiteer on the back of human misery.
In London, Paris and Washington, the light of effective pushback against Trumpism might just be emerging from the gloom.
Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies.