This article aims to explore the structural position of the Global African Diaspora population in Britain as related to the economy, education, employment, criminal justice and political representation. It examines the decline of social movements and of independent political resistance to the structural, cultural, institutional and personal manifestations of racism and discrimination that still define social relations in British society. It ends by addressing the question of what electoral politics has to offer the African Diaspora in Britain, given the record of successive governments over the last 60 years.
The African heritage population of Britain now stands at 1.87 million, having been a mere 28,000 at the end of the Second World War. One million of us currently live in London alone and in some boroughs we make up more than 25% of the population. Among the Global African Diaspora (GAD) in Britain, therefore, there are 4 generations of British born Africans in relation to whom the old narrative about ‘coloured immigrants’, ‘newcomers’ and ‘integration once the newcomers have settled and produced British black children’ is increasingly meaningless, as the GAD population remains marginalised and subject to widespread discrimination and social exclusion.
Many writers and academics cite the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush at Tilbury port in East London on 22 June 1948 as the start of the growth of the black population in Britain. That ship brought 492 passengers from Jamaica, the largest group of West Indian immigrants to arrive in Britain immediately following the end of the Second World War. Most of them settled in Brixton in the London Borough of Lambeth, a place that would later become the site of some of the fiercest confrontations between the African population and the state as represented by the police.
In fact, there had been a continuous black presence in Britain for at least 400 years before the Empire Windrush docked in June 1948. While it is not possible to state the exact number of Africans that lived in the UK from one century to the next, what is known is that they were to be found in all strata of the society and hailed from the African continent and the African Diaspora. Many were scholars and scientists, artisans and missionaries, musical composers and dramatists, medical doctors, biologists and horticulturalists. Others were seafarers and military personnel.
British historians’ failure to acknowledge that historic African presence and the phenomenal contribution Africans made to Britain’s economy and to its intellectual, political, cultural and scientific life led to the widely held view that there was no significant African presence before the Windrush. It also encouraged the erroneous belief that Africans in Britain during those centuries were just temporary residents, or were victims of imperialist domination and expansion and were typically poor, poorly educated and dispossessed.
Contrary to the view most British folk have of the older African presence in Britain, there is evidence that Africans were not subservient and unwanted people who spent their entire lives combating racism and social exclusion while conforming to the prevailing social consensus in the society and begging to be included. They formed social movements, and worked with reformers in the majority society to bring about change and to challenge the social and political systems that conferred privileges on the minority while confining the majority, i.e. , the working class, women, children, the poor and disabled, to a life of servitude and hardship. They participated in protest and were active in movements such as the Suffragettes, the Chartists, the abolitionists, the Fabians and the Communists.
On Wednesday 16th July 2014, a blue heritage plaque, courtesy of the Nubian Jak Heritage Plaque Scheme, was unveiled at The Medical Centre, 209 Harrow Road, London, W2 5EH, along the route of the internationally famous annual Notting Hill Carnival, in memory of ‘the Black Doctor of Paddington’, Dr John Alcindor (1873-1924).
Born in Trinidad, Alcindor won an Island Scholarship and studied medicine at Edinburgh University between 1893 and 1899. In July 1899, he moved to London where he worked for a number of doctors and hospitals before establishing his own surgery along the Harrow Road. There, he would publish medical research and serve the local population as a highly respected doctor, health campaigner and anti-poverty activist until his death at the age of 51. During the First World War, he was not allowed to serve in the British armed forces as a medical officer because of his African origin. Blacks were debarred from joining the ranks of the officer corps. Instead, John Alcindor served with the British Red Cross and was awarded their medal.
Alcindor’s medical research and his work on epidemiology among the poor in London challenged prevailing attitudes towards working people and their health needs and that body of work is still regarded today as laying the foundations for what was to become the Beveridge Report (1942). That report (on Social Insurance and Allied Services) led to the establishment of the Welfare State, including the expansion of National Insurance and the creation of the National Health Service.
The wording on the heritage plaque reads:
JOHN ALCINDOR 1873 – 1924
DOCTOR, RESEARCHER, CRICKETER AND COMMUNITY ACTIVIST
HAD A SURGERY ON THIS SITE
Alcindor worked with Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian barrister, who organised the first Pan African Conference in London in 1900. He later attended both the 1921 and 1923 Pan African Congress in London and collaborated with WEB Du Bois.
The British population’s ignorance of the history of the African presence in Britain was matched by its cultural supremacist assumptions about itself and its lack of basic knowledge about the social and economic background of the Windrush generation. Apart from believing that ‘the West Indies’ was a continuous land mass called ‘Jamaica’, far too many British people felt that post-war African immigrants were uneducated if not illiterate labourers, or peasant farmers, or plantation workers. ‘Coloured immigrants’ were therefore considered to be needy, unskilled, incapable of being positive role models for their own children on account of poor education, low level employment, poor parenting skills and dysfunctional family units that are typified by ‘absent fathers’.
As a consequence, ‘coloured immigrants’ (as we were typically described) were felt to be responsible for the social decay and the appalling conditions that pre-existed in the inner city areas we inhabited. Soon, the narrative in the media, no less than in the Parliament and in civil society, was that we were variously: ‘taking jobs that should go to English people’; lowering the profile of the neighbourhood and the price of the properties of white people, thus causing white flight, an exodus of white residents who had lived in those same areas for generations; living off the welfare state; having confrontations with the police and making unreasonable demands for equal rights and justice.
Those views were prevalent especially in areas where the white working class had long been forgotten and where it suited politicians of all parties to encourage the view that immigration was associated with ‘race’ and ‘race’ signalled problems and inter-ethnic conflict, not least because the ‘immigrants’ were robbing white people of their birthright.
This was exemplified by an instance of clear incitement to racism that took place in Smethwick in the West Midlands during the 1964 general election. A Wikipedia entry about Smethwick reads:
After the Second World War, Smethwick attracted a large number of immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the largest ethnic group being Sikhs from the Punjab in India. There was also a background of factory closures and a growing waiting list for local council accommodation. In 1962 race riots hit Smethwick (The Conservative candidate, Peter) Griffiths ran a campaign critical of the opposition’s, and the government’s, policies, including immigration policies.
The Conservatives were accused of using the slogan ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour‘, though the Conservatives claimed that these posters were the work of far right groups. The Socialist Review claimed that Gordon Walker (the sitting Labour MP) had himself pandered to such sentiment when his local party ran an eve-of-poll leaflet claiming that increased immigration was the result of Conservative government policies.
This was all taking place two years after the Conservative government passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act (1962) which removed the automatic right of citizens of British Commonwealth countries to migrate to the United Kingdom, prompting Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Opposition, to call the act ‘cruel and anti-colour’ legislation.
This blatant process of racializing immigration was to continue well into this millennium, with the conflation of immigration and race relations and the argument that in order to promote and sustain good race relations, government needed to be ‘tough on immigration’. Needless to say, however, both Conservative and Labour governments adopted a much more laxed approach to immigration from Australia and New Zealand, though both are also members of the Commonwealth. ‘Race Relations’ clearly becomes a bone of contention only when ‘race’ is associated with black folk.
Both political parties, Conservative and Labour, thus succeeded in focusing the working class that had been exploited and socially excluded for generations, not on how government was going to improve their lot after they had for the second time in 25 years sacrificed so many and so much in two devastating world wars, but on ‘unwelcome and ‘alien’ black newcomers who were projected as working against their interests as a class.
Stuart Hall (et al 1978) points to the inseparability of class relations and race relations:
“Race is the modality in which class is lived. It is also the medium in which class relations are experienced. This does not immediately heal any breaches or bridge any chasms. But it has consequences for the whole class, whose relation to their conditions of existence is now systematically transformed by race. It determines some of the modes of struggle. It also provides one of the criteria by which we measure the adequacy of struggle to the structures it aims to transform.”
Against this onslaught by the state, African Diaspora immigrants needed to draw upon their experience of struggles against colonialism and capitalist exploitation, and for ‘bread, justice and freedom’ in dealing with the structural racism of the state, the institutional racism in its apparatuses such as the police and criminal justice system, the cultural racism of the media, educational institutions, etc, and the rabid racism of individuals and neo-fascist organisations.
While the white working class continued its tradition of workers’ struggles in respect of wages and working conditions, and at the same time denying for the most part the racism black workers were experiencing in the workplace, the African Diaspora typically had two sites of struggle. It was necessary to struggle in the workplace and to assist the labour movement in confronting its own racism. But, it was equally necessary to struggle in the community in relation to: police treatment of African people; ‘Stop & Search’ or ‘Stop & Frisk’; racism in the criminal justice system; schooling and education; racist attacks; bigotry, racism and xenophobia; denial of equal employment opportunity; discrimination in the provision of goods and services.
Sociologist John Lambert, in his study of police and race relations in Birmingham in the late 1960s pointed to the under-representation of West Indians, young and old, among the population of offenders, but suggested that there was a very real danger that their numbers would increase. He wrote:
“In contrast with the typical British delinquent and his family, the few West Indian delinquents appear to come from families with high aspirations and ambitions. West Indians in general are aspiring and ambitious; many are acutely aware of the poor status that attaches to the kinds of areas and houses in which they live and are ambitious for a better way of life. They are not part of the failure that life in such areas means for many. They seek success within the general framework of values and generally rise above the delinquent and criminal standards prevalent in the areas in which they live. Clearly the danger is that if their legitimate aspirations for betterment in terms of employment and housing opportunity are not met, with time the crime and disorder which surround them will contaminate their life style and lead, in years to come, to a crime rate that matches that of their neighbourhoods. Such influences may particularly infect and misdirect their children’s achievement and undermine their chances for success and mobility”.
(John Lambert: Crime, Police and Race Relations, pp.128-130. OUP and IRR, 1970).
It is possible to chart two developments within the African Diaspora community since the 1960s that have sought to engage with the condition of being young and African in British society and to resist processes of rendering that community marginal if not invisible. The first was the number of grass roots movements that were formed by the African Diaspora community itself. These included: the British Black Panther Party; the Pan-African Congress Movement; the Black Unity and Freedom Party; Organisation of Women of Africa and African Descent; the North London West Indian Parents Association; the Black Parents Movement; the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association; the Black Youth Movement; the Race Today Collective; the Bradford Black Collective; the African-Caribbean Self-help Organisation; New Beacon Publishers and Book Distributors; Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications and Walter Rodney Bookshop; the Supplementary/Saturday School Movement; various youth and sport organisations.
The focus of these was on positive identity formation, self-empowerment; community development; self-determination and combating racism in all its manifestations. The grass roots base and political orientation of those entities was responsible in large measure for raising the consciousness of the African Diaspora community, defending the community against manipulation by the state and its agencies and against discrimination in schooling, policing and criminal justice. Those movements in the main sought to make common cause with the struggles of the Global African Diaspora and the liberation struggles in Africa itself. They managed to increase the knowledge and political literacy of African Diaspora people across the generations and to equip them with the tools for understanding and the strategies for tackling the racism, class exploitation, gender subordination and related forms of oppression they experienced daily.
But, theirs was not an exercise in political rhetoric. Communities could see the impact of political organisation and the results of taking collective action. Young and old alike had a spring in their step and were emboldened by the knowledge that the community could organise and rise up against police brutality and abuse of power; could challenge the perverse decisions of courts and judges; could hold schools to account; could run neo-fascists out of town and protect their neighbourhoods from would-be racist murderers.
The state, however, employed elaborate methods of political sabotage, co-optation, containment and divide and rule. When all of that failed to displace the righteous aspirations of communities and their just demands, and when major uprisings were triggered by the abuse of state power, not least on the part of the police, the state allowed the increasing militarisation of the police and on onslaught on the rights and civil liberties of communities, young people in particular.
Since the 1970s, therefore, there has been an ideological war between, on the one hand, politicised and collective responses and independent pro-active interventions on the part of communities, and on the other, state-sponsored and state-funded projects that are geared towards containing dissatisfaction, unrest and strident demands. The state, through various Ministries and agencies such as the Community Relations Commission and its successor the Commission for Racial Equality took to funding a growing number of youth projects and in a manner that had much more to do with containment and encouraging dependency, than with self empowerment and tackling those structures and practices that result in the alienation and exclusion of young people.
Worse still, those funding policies and practices helped to further set young people aside from the experiences of the community as a whole and encouraged them to see themselves and be seen as a group apart, disconnected from the experiences and struggles of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Indeed, the schooling system made sure that those young people were totally unaware of the history the Africa Diaspora has made in Britain since the Windrush, let alone the 19th and 20th centuries. Successive governments appeared to be acting according to the belief that self-help projects will not provide the arena for, but rather would neutralise, political struggle, especially when you make it necessary for community groups to crawl over one another, like crabs in a barrel, in order to access funding and endorsement for such projects.
The national self-help programme government put in place was about instituting yet another oppressive structure to defuse the struggle of an isolated and particularly vulnerable section of the black working class.
How are ‘alienated’ black youth to be allowed to shake off the pathological label of alienation and confront those structures which confine them to a marginal existence within society, if they are subjected to schemes which abort their forms of resistance and entrench their powerlessness?
We need to re-locate ‘youth’ back within the class, and remove all the artificial divisions and assumed exclusivity of the various sections of the black working- class: African Caribbean alienated youth; 1st to 3rd generation West Indians who have settled in Britain and ‘adopted our values’; Asian youth who are showing signs of being as disaffected and disgruntled as the African youth; Asian youth who are showing signs of ‘extremism’ and of being ‘radicalised’; older West Indian parents; traditional Asian parents; Asians with language problems; a residue of newcomers; and the rest.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, gun and knife crime often associated with so-called ‘gangs’ has ravaged the African community in Britain’s inner cities. In the 1990s, it earned the City of Manchester the moniker ‘Gunchester’.
The lives of hundreds of parents, siblings, families and friends have been wrecked by murders that have traumatised a whole generation in cities across the nation, including London, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool.
In the Borough of Lambeth alone, there were fourteen (14) such murders between April 2010 and April 2011.
The African Diaspora community needs to create spaces and opportunities for our young people to engage with one another in neutral ‘territory‘ and, with the aid of capable and experienced men and women in our communities who have listening, mediation and conflict resolution skills, encourage a dialogue about the matters that preoccupy them and for which they are prepared to kill and to die. While it is no doubt convenient for government and the media to suggest this is all to do with turf wars about drugs, the history of the state’s treatment of African Diaspora suggest that this is far too simplistic and grossly inaccurate an analysis.
Trouble is that there are too many meetings/forums where concerned adults are talking about young people, often in an undifferentiated and non-nuanced way, and too few where young people are engaging meaningfully with one another, including:
Where are young people having meaningful exchanges about those matters and working out strategies for dealing with them? Whom can they trust to come clean about those issues to? Where can they go to for confidential counselling and not feel that a death sentence hangs over them because of the “don’t snitch” code and the fear that if they reveal what they know, those in whom they are confiding would feel they have to go to the police?
What makes people believe that you can abolish youth and community work with young people and with it the opportunity for young people to build trusting relationships with significant adults over time and have those adults guide and influence the choices they make about ways of handling their affairs, and then out of panic open up a few facilities in the Summer and expect young people to come and engage meaningfully?
Who is dealing with those schools that, rather than supporting young people who bring their fears, their anxieties, their anger and their grief to school and act inappropriately as a result, exclude if not criminalise them on the grounds that their behaviour is mirroring ‘gang culture’ and the culture of ‘street violence‘ which ‘we simply will not tolerate in our school‘?
These are all questions that the state and the entire nation need to address, not just our communities.
Delivering the Second Anthony Walker Memorial Lecture in 2008, I said:
So long as the phenomenon that is uppermost in the concern of young people, parents and communities (gun and knife-enabled murders of our young people by one another) is treated as if it has nothing to do with the condition of Britain and with its hegemonic practices and exclusionary structures and arrangements (as Tony Blair implied in his challenge to the black community about what it was doing about gun and knife crime), those parts of this ‘One Nation’ state would continue to see themselves as insulated from the ‘urban madness’, as someone recently described it. As such, Government and political parties would continue to plan their social and political agenda on the basis of its acceptability to ‘middle England’ in a manner that projects the excluded and marginalised as an aberration that demands more stringent ‘law and order’ responses, rather than as the section of the society whose vulnerability puts at risk the safety and sense of wellbeing of us all.
The forward march of neo-liberalism and the increasing tendency of the state, irrespective of the party in government, to privatize and marketize everything are mirrored by what I see as rampant individualism in the society, even among those who regard themselves as progressives. We are encouraged by government and media to go after the best for ourselves, the best schools, to start our own bespoke schools according to our narrow aspirations and objectives, go after the best house prices, shares in businesses being sold out of public ownership, and to encourage our children to indulge in selfishness and not care for the weak and vulnerable. More and more, we are cajoled into seeking private solutions to public ills. Yet, lurking in the background is a mantra about ‘commonly shared values’, ‘community cohesion’ and ‘being in this austerity on account of the global financial crisis, together’.
In Britain currently, there is much noise about the electoral power of black and ethnic minority voters, with the prediction that ‘the Black vote can decide the 2015 general election’.
After almost 70 years of a politically active and ever increasing black presence in Britain, during which the ‘Siamese twins’ of race and immigration have been knocked about as in some barbaric circus, such that every new generation of African and Asian heritage people suffers the indignity of seeing themselves talked about as if they were pariahs and a real and imminent threat to ‘Britain as we know and love it’, Black Britain is being told that hope, if not salvation, lies in throwing in their lot with these politically and morally bankrupt political parties.
What Operation Black Vote is doing here is informing people about the emerging power of the black vote in determining the next election in 2015. We want all those who want political change to register, and vote for the change they want to see. There are high hopes. The good news about Operation Black Vote is that there is a desire to use the power constructively. To determine leadership, to determine the flow of jobs, you have to influence the political process. I think consciousness is rising.
The very next day, Saturday 7 September 2013, just one week after we witnessed wall to wall coverage of Martin Luther King’s iconic ‘I have a Dream’ speech 50 years on, the Daily Mail ran a front page story with the headline: Migrant Influx Fuels New Crisis in Schools. And the sub-heading: Secondary schools face an overcrowding crisis due to Labour’s failure to deal with the effects of immigration. Quoting a leaked ‘secret report’ prepared by the Department for Education, the Mail stated:
The seven-page document cites evidence collected by the Home Office that ‘the impact of immigration’ has been ‘substantial’, adding that it was seen ‘as an important contributory factor, through both the arrival of migrant children and the high birth rates of some migrant groups’.
It is a well known fact that in any society migrant populations by virtue of having larger numbers of young people, including women of child bearing age, tend to have a higher birth rate than the local domestic population. For decades, successive governments have been preoccupied with the ‘immigrant birth rate’, not so that they could plan for the provision of schools and services for the totality of the local population according to need, but in order to cynically use ‘race’ and immigration for party-political point scoring.
Demographic projections suggest that by 2020 the British economy will be dependent upon a labour force drawn from among the British black population for the reason that that is the fastest growing sector of the population overall. The Blair Government’s own report on Ethnic Minorities and the Labour Market (produced by the Strategy Unit in the Cabinet Office in 2003) identified African Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups as having the lowest educational attainment and lowest occupational status. The report noted that African and Asian people make up 1 in 13 of the UK population and that over the past 20 years they have accounted for two-thirds of the growth of the total UK population. Similarly, in the coming 10 to 20 years, the British labour market will be dependent, increasingly, on the supply of labour from those communities.
Yet, the political discourse about primary and secondary school places and about the ratio of black to white people in the British population is couched in language which suggests that there are far too many of ‘them’ here and the only contribution they make to already overcrowded Britain is to increase the size of its population.
Interestingly, however, the political narrative is different when it comes to the debate about immigration, not from the Commonwealth (a strange and increasingly anachronistic vestige of empire), but from Europe and the ever expanding European club. The visceral hostility towards ‘black and ethnic minorities’ and the growth of their numbers in the population by virtue of their high birth rate gives way to a different discourse when the political class and the media exercise themselves about immigration from Europe. The population of French, Spanish, Polish, Rumanian and other European citizens resident in Britain, especially in London, has burgeoned over the last two decades. This has given rise to a focus on the Schengen Treaty and the free movement of Labour across the European Union.
While it is never stated in these terms, even by those who want to see Britain out of Europe, white Britain could take comfort from the fact that those European migrants could mesh and blend with White Britain and fit into the preferred skinscape, as generations of earlier European migrants have done, whereas British-born African and Asian heritage citizens cannot. The European club ensures that employers exhaust all possibilities of attracting EU citizens to available jobs before they could legitimately issue work permits to Commonwealth immigrants. While descendants of those who built Britain and Europe, and were kept in shackles in order to compel them to do so, risk life and limb to get to Europe and escape poverty and political repression, Europeans with no historical connection through labour or anything else with individual member states of the European Union could come and go as they please, invariably being preferred and chosen for employment over British born people of African or Asian heritage.
Those Africans and Asians who were invited or/and encouraged to come to rebuild Britain after two devastating World Wars and who gave most of their adult life to this country before retiring in their countries of origin are included in a vilified and undifferentiated mass of ‘health tourists’ when they return to their children and grandchildren and are in need of health and social care. They belong in the main to a generation that used to love to boast of having zero sickness absence from work in all their working life. But, like those who played the system and ‘did a sickie’ when it suited them, or those who were absent due to illness, they paid their national insurance throughout their working lives. They, however, opted to forego their entitlement to health care and the provisions of the National Health Service. Their children and grandchildren continue to support the British economy in the same way that they did. They pay an ethnic penalty, however, for their decision to escape winters and the stress of elderly living in Britain.
So, Operation Black Vote is right in one respect. Without a doubt, the black electorate will become increasingly visible if not influential in British electoral politics. The question is, though, whether we would succeed in putting and keeping ‘race’ and Britain’s historical and current responsibilities to us as African and Asian people on the political and policy agenda other than in the run up to local and general elections, whichever political party wins.
But, in order to keep ‘race’ on the political agenda or to insist that those whom we elect actually do so, the black electorate must itself be clear on where it stands on matters to do with ‘race’ in British political life. It is surely not enough to see ‘the black electorate’ as some unified, undifferentiated mass that can collectively bring about change. The BME population in any part of Britain is as diverse as any other part of the British population. It does not have a unified position on anything. Not on immigration, not on refugees and asylum seekers and how the state should deal with them, not on ‘Stop and Search’, not on BME people in the economy, not on what it means to be British and African, British and South Asian, British, black and gay…, not on anything. It is fanciful, therefore, to factor in the BME population as if we are talking about a homogenous group of people who share a consensus on their experience of racism, let alone their vision for the Britain they have a right to claim as theirs, as does anybody else.
In this democracy, electoral politics will always be important irrespective of the segment of the population you belong to or identify with. But, power, including the power to free yourself from the stranglehold of political leaders who are concerned only about winning power and remaining in power in order to preserve or tinker with the ‘status quo’ and regulate the pace of social change, is never handed on a plate. It is won through the struggles and sacrifice of those who are seen to be outside the norm, not quite belonging, not having the same sense of ‘entitlement’ with which those who rule, marginalise and exclude strut about the place and seek to impose their agenda and their values on others.
The best way for BME communities to engage with the electoral process and ensure that the politicians they elect do not continue to capriciously and wilfully erase them and their increasingly urgent concerns from the national political agenda is by empowering themselves and acting collectively to define where they stand, what they demand as of right and what they insist upon government delivering, whoever they help to elect. The ideological contestations will be huge; the intergenerational misunderstandings likewise. But, if that numerically significant BME electorate does not find ways of organising itself such that it, rather than elected politicians, could call the shots, then as the history of the British black presence has taught us, it would not matter who wins the election. As my mother used to say of Conservative and Labour governments, ‘it doesn’t matter who is in the farmhouse, they make sure they cook your goose anyway’.
Self-Determination, or Co-option by the Political Class?
Throughout the 1970s, there was a debate within the British trade union movement and in the Labour Party at local and national levels about the need for autonomous black political organisation within their ranks. This debate was fuelled by the widespread evidence of trade unions failing to acknowledge the extent of racial discrimination in the organised Labour Movement and to properly represent black members who brought complaints of racial discrimination.
In the early morning of 18 January 1981, a massive fire broke out at 439 New Cross Road, Deptford, in South-East London, the home of the Ruddock family. Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson were celebrating their 16th birthday, accompanied by scores of other young people aged between 14 and 25. The fire, which the police initially claimed had started as a result of an incendiary device being hurled into the house through a front ground floor window, quickly spread and trapped many of the guests upstairs who had not even been aware that a fire had started downstairs. Thirteen young people lost their lives, including some who jumped from windows upstairs and were impaled on railings at street level. The fire claimed a 14th victim when one survivor succumbed to mental illness and jumped to his death from the 14th floor of the apartment block where he lived.
Deptford was the organisational home of the neo-fascist organisation, the National Front, at the time of the fire and they had been known to firebomb black people’s homes and attack them physically on the streets as they went about their daily business. However, having initially claimed that the fire was caused by a bomb in a racially motivated attack, the police later ruled out the possibility that the fire was a racist attack and instead began concentrating on the Ruddock family to try and find evidence of ongoing conflict that might have caused the firebomb. This earned the police decades of public criticism and community mistrust, especially as they later told two Coroner’s Inquests, the second as late as 2004, that they could not produce any witnesses or enough reliable evidence to confirm that the fire had been racially motivated. Both inquests returned an ‘Open Verdict’.
The New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NCMAC), led by John La Rose who headed up the Alliance of the Black Parents Movement, the Black Youth Movement and the Race Today Collective, supported bereaved families and survivors of the fire, including 27 young people who had been injured (some seriously) through smoke inhalation or as a result of jumping from the burning building. Crucially, the NCMAC organised a national demonstration and rally, the Black People’s Day of Action, on Monday 2 March 1981. On that ordinary working day, London was brought to a standstill as an estimated 25,000 people from across the UK converged on London and marched from the burnt out house to the Houses of Parliament to protest racist murders and the police handling of the fire investigation.
By 1981 and the New Cross Massacre and Day of Action, communities generally and black members of the Labour Party in particular were challenging not just trade unions, but Labour run councils and the Labour Party at national level about their record in defending the rights of black people and combating racism in their employment practices, service delivery and selection procedures governing both local and national representation. This, it must be remembered, was a period when it was taken for granted that the Labour Party could depend on the black vote in local and general elections.
The Labour Party Black Sections movement grew out of that community agitation and by 1983 was able to table a demand for greater representation at the Labour Party conference. Four years later, four Black Sections members, Bernie (Bernard Alexander) Grant, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz were elected to Parliament as Britain’s first post-war black MPs.
Most outspoken and ‘grassroots’ of them all was Guyanese-born Bernie Grant (1944 – 2000), a former trade union official and member of the Socialist Labour League. He became the Leader of Haringey Council in 1985, the same year in which black youths (predominantly) on Broadwater Farm rose up against the police in one of the fiercest confrontations with the state in that decade, during which a police officer, PC Keith Blakelock was hacked to death. Bernie Grant was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Tottenham in Haringey in 1987. In addition to his work as a highly effective constituency MP, Bernie Grant earned a reputation as the ‘father’ of the campaign for reparations from the British state and ruling class for the enslavement and genocide of millions of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade.
Paul Boateng (of Ghanaian and Scottish heritage) was a lawyer when in 1987 he was elected as MP for Brent South in North West London. In 1992, he became shadow minister for the Lord Chancellor’s Department and held that post until the general election in 1997. Labour won that election and Tony Blair appointed him Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health, thus making him the first black government minister. In 1999, he was made a member of the Privy Council and in 2000 he became the first Minister for Young People. He was made Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 2001, and was promoted to the position of Chief Secretary to the Treasury in May 2002, becoming Britain’s first black Cabinet Minister.
Diane Abbott was elected MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1987, becoming the first black woman MP. She is considered to be a free thinking, independent minded MP who does not always stick to her party’s line. In 2010, she made a bid to become the leader of the Labour Party but was defeated by Ed Miliband who later made her Shadow Minister for Public Health. In the late 1990s, she started the annual Hackney Schools and the Black Child conference which some three years later became the London Schools and the Black Child conference, attracting some 2,000-plus black parents, teachers and community workers each year, with a focus on barriers to raising the achievement of black students, African Caribbean boys in particular. Abbott is widely known and highly regarded as a champion of school students and campaigner against school exclusion and for each child receiving their educational entitlement.
In this regard, she is seen as the one who works most closely with communities and seeks to represent their interests, especially with regard to their children’s schooling.
Marc Wadsworth, himself an original Black Sections member, writing in the Guardian in October 2008 to mark the 25th anniversary of Black Sections stated:
None of the movement’s achievements would have been possible without protest and agitation. The uprisings that occurred in the early 1980s in Brixton, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere acted as a wake-up call to a society that was either indifferent or hostile to the demands of disenfranchised and disadvantaged black people. But the legitimate calls for fair representation made by black communities whose electoral support was given overwhelmingly to Labour were stubbornly resisted by the party leadership of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, who were obsessed with defeating a rising left-wing rank and file.
Despite this opposition, Black Sections won. We achieved a 500-fold increase in African-Caribbean and Asian representation in town halls around the country, four black council leaders, four black MPs, and Bill Morris as the first black trade union general secretary. On top of that, black self-organised groups were formed in trade unions and even by police officers. And the TUC created places on its general council and executive for black representatives.
The New Cross Massacre Black People’s Day of Action was both the application of a process of self organisation on a massive scale and an unleashing of people’s power and self assertiveness that impacted upon even the most resistant institutions in the society. The tried and tested principles and method of organisation that the late John La Rose as Chair of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and others from the movement he led brought to the community’s response to the massacre laid the foundations for sustained action by the mass of unemployed black youths, by black police officers, by Labour Party supporters and many other sections of the black community.
The horror of the New Cross Massacre, compounded by the crass and incompetent response of the State (prime minister, police investigation, coroner) will undoubtedly be a memory the survivors and relatives cannot erase. The political advances the massacre spurred and the momentous contribution to change in British society and to the self empowerment of black people that the response to the tragedy triggered will hopefully remain lasting monuments to the memory of those who perished.
Staying with the theme of ‘self empowerment’, the jury is still out as to whether or not Westminster-style electoral politics would deliver power to the masses of ordinary people. Diane Abbott, for example, organizes the LSBC conference each year. That conference does not come up with any resolutions or demands to put to the government, not even when Abbott’s own party is in power. Apart from the informal networking that takes place during the conference, there is no mechanism for building that conference with all its loyal attendance into a mass movement of parents, or of students, who are concerned with the same perennial and vexing issues. The conference too often feels as if black professionals gather to have a conversation among themselves and share angst and grief, while parents who are disempowered by lack of knowledge and information about how the system works and how it should work listen appreciatively.
In this sense, not only is the professional status and practice of black teachers, school managers, learning mentors, etc., not making too visible a difference year on year, the knowledge gap between them and ordinary parents is widening with each new education reform and each new type of school and system of school governance the government introduces. The Abbott conference does not publish papers or fact sheets that parents can use to empower themselves and to devise strategies for holding schools to account, let alone act as a basis for challenging government policy on education and the way those policies disenfranchise students and families.
The trade union movement does not have a history of organizing within communities to safeguard and extend children’s education rights, despite the fact that the white working class has historically been given a raw deal in the schooling and education system. While there have been black trade union activists throughout the decades who have played a major role within their unions, they have functioned very much within the existing trade union framework and have not been able to focus the labour movement on those issues outside the workplace which so directly impact the lives of black, or white, trade union members (education, policing, housing/homelessness, immigration, civil liberties).
And that is despite the fact that the equivalent of ‘black sections’, i.e., black staff networks, have been established within the trade union movement itself and in particular professions since the 1980s. A few examples are: The National Black Probation Officers Association; the National Black Police Association; the National Black Crown Prosecutors Association; the (black and ethnic minority) Network in the Home Office; the Department of Work and Pensions Black Staff Association; the National Union of Teachers Black Members; Unison Black Members; the Trade Union Congress Black Members; the Fire Brigades Union Black Members; etc.
The widespread criticism in black communities of the police investigation into the New Cross Fire and especially of their treatment of the young black party goers, the police conduct during the Black People’s Day of Action (BPDA) and the nature of ‘Swamp ‘81’, the police operation that led to the Brixton uprising in the summer of 1981, shone the spotlight on black officers in the Metropolitan Police. They began to associate much more directly their own experience of racism in the police service with the way the communities to which they belonged experienced policing in London and elsewhere. Black police officers became increasingly conscious that they were part of an arm of the State that was targeting black people disproportionately through ‘Stop and Search’, the Sus laws, and raids on places of entertainment and on residences, at a time when the economy was in decline and unemployment was affecting black youth more than any other section of the population.
When Brixton erupted in 1981, whereas unemployment in Brixton stood at 13% overall, among ethnic minorities it was 25.4% and among black youths nationwide it was estimated at between 55% and 60%. It was precisely that group, displaced from the labour market in such high numbers and having a visible presence in their communities, that bore the brunt of police oppression in cities such as London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.
Black police officers drew strength from the political struggles in their own communities to confront the racism they were experiencing in the police service. It is their identification with that resistance in communities, invariably led by young people however spontaneously, that gave rise eventually to the formation of the Black Police Association in the Metropolitan Police Service in 1994. By 1999, when the Home Office framed its plan of action in response to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’s findings and recommendations, it was mandating chief constables in the 43 police forces in England and Wales to support the development and work of Black Police Associations among their black officers and ‘non-sworn’ staff.
The mass uprisings of the Summer of 1981 in Brixton, Moss Side, Toxteth, Handsworth and elsewhere would probably not have occurred but for the confidence generated among young black people as a result of the Black People’s Day of Action and the politics that shaped it.
The vigilance and awareness black communities once had in relation to police abuse of power, for example, an alertness which led to instant mobilisation in relation to oppressive police practices in our communities has largely given way to a form of indifference, save for the spasmodic upsurge of protest in response to ‘Stop and Search’. While I have as yet no research evidence to support this, as someone involved in strategies for combating gun- and knife-enabled crimes in our communities and who talks to young people and adults, including community activists (in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds) on a regular basis, I surmise that the reason for this is the feeling communities have that whatever methods the police use to tackle the fear, mayhem and wrecking of lives caused by ‘gangs’, guns and knives are alright by them. Parents and young people alike in communities are frustrated by the coercive force of the ‘code of silence’ that allows perpetrators of such crimes to continue operating outside the reach of the law. Consequently, they focus less on police abuse of power and denial of fundamental rights in their dealings with black young people and the homes in which they live, than on the need to end that regime of fear and violence in those communities.
In a word, I believe that we need to revisit the ‘Self Reliance‘ that characterised our political engagement and community activism in defence of rights and in the demand for social and economic justice in the 1970s and 1980s, and raise the political tempo within our communities. That, for me, is the real legacy of the Black People’s Day of Action and it is the spirit we need to revive now, especially as in the last 30 years we have been drip fed on government handouts and socialised into a dependency culture, with the piper calling the tune every step of the way. The policies of this Collision Government (a government on a collision course with the majority of its citizens, i.e., the working class and us Africans as the most visibly excluded of that class) are already having a disproportionate effect on us, our children and our elderly.
It is frankly immaterial that there are some black faces on the benches in the Houses of Parliament or among the profile of members of the various political parties. I even heard a ‘brother‘ seriously propounding recently his theory that ‘there are many reasons why black people who have settled in England for a long time should join the British national party, especially with all these Romanians and Poles taking our jobs while we have the highest levels of unemployment, especially among our youth’. So, you create your own under-dog class and then join forces with your executioner in the hope that he would target the under-dog you’ve created and take the heat off you, if not validate you as finally ‘belonging’. How deluded can you get?
If we are to make progress and understand and build upon the legacy of the Black People’s Day of Action, we need to encourage a mature debate in black communities and in the society generally about all these matters and make sure it is an open, free and democratic debate that does not project the issue as exclusive to ‘the black community’ but as having everything to do with the state of Britain and the condition of being young and black in the society now and for the last half a century.
The United Nations has declared that the next decade (until 2024) will be the Decade for People of African Descent, with the overarching theme of “Recognition, Justice and Development”. The African Diaspora in the UK, as elsewhere, must work out an agenda for its own political and economic advancement during the coming decade. It behoves us all to address the many structural issues that impede the human liberation of Africans in the Diaspora and in the Motherland, acknowledging our strengths, overcoming our weaknesses, building alliances with other progressive forces in the struggle against all forms of oppression and not, nonchalantly, handing our power over to those who have historically disenfranchised us and who have an expectation that we will continue to acquiesce in our own subjugation.
Photo (home): “African Flag Day” by woodleywonderworks (Flickr)