My highlights: History, Education, and Policing

Est. read time: 18 min

The week of 18 February 2013 offered many opportunities for reminiscing, reflection, critical analysis and for planning collective action on a number of fronts, history, education and race and policing and community security among them.

On Wednesday 20 February, Global Hands and DeMontfort University, Leicester, hosted a one day symposium on Police Reform and Developing the Community Security Sector in the Emerging and Developing World, looking at police practices, community policing, non-state policing and policing and national security in Britain, Nigeria, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

My contribution to the symposium was ‘an overview of policing and human rights issues in the developing and emerging world’.  In that presentation I examined a number of issues that are common to Britain, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, South Africa, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, to name but a few.  Age old notions such as policing by consent and the centrality of public confidence in the police and in the structures that hold them accountable for their actions are under serious strain in many countries.  This is a consequence of police routinely abusing their power without being held to account, as well as weak government and compromised politicians being seen as incapable of protecting the citizen and upholding the rule of law. 

In Nigeria, for example, the police are widely seen as abusing their powers and acting without authority in ways that constitute human rights abuses and lead to loss of life.  This is most evident in police patrolling of the highways.  The police set up regular road blocks, sometimes less than 2 kilometres apart, and extort payment from motorists before the latter are allowed to continue on their journey.  A failure to volunteer payment before being asked could result in lengthy detention at the roadside while meticulous examination is made of driving documents, the vehicle or/and its contents.  There have been cases where drivers, frustrated by the constant stops and demands for money have refused to stop at such roadblocks, or having stopped decided to speed off, only to have their car wheels shot at, causing the car to spin out of control and crash, killing some or all occupants.  Public animosity against the police grows apace when the perpetrators of such crimes are not brought to justice.

Jamaica, Nigeria and other countries share the experience of political parties arming their supporters in the run up to elections so that they could intimidate the opposition, seek to coerce voters in switching their loyalties and generally sow fear and panic among those who are known to, or who they believe are likely to support the opposition.  Such militarized lackeys do their worst and irrespective of the outcome of the elections are allowed to hang on to their illegal weaponry.  That weaponry is then used to indulge in criminal activity, politically motivated or otherwise, with such criminals depending upon their political minders for protection from the law.

While this is clearly not the only source of the weapons that are used in criminal activity within such communities, this phenomenon over the years has accounted for a great deal of the crimes and particularly the murders that have plagued such communities.  The presentation also examined the intersection of all that with the international drugs trade and its management and local manifestations in individual countries.

The tendency of an increasing number of nation states to conflate crime and disorder arising from economic powerlessness, wealth disparity, moral decadence and the machinations of corrupt political and civic leaders with ‘terrorism’ and its lure for the disaffected is a very worrying one. In complex societies such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone, where the commercial exploitation of natural resources and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a minority of the population skews social realities, ratchets up prices and impacts upon the capacity of the poor and dispossessed to subsist, as well as their aspirations for material acquisition, the security issue and how policing is done is paramount.

"Boko Haram" by AK Rockefeller (Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Boko Haram” by AK Rockefeller (Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)

The emergence and rapid expansion of ‘Boko Haram’ in Nigeria cannot be separated from the widespread disenchantment in the society with the policies and practices of successive administrations, especially in areas where public disenchantment has been fuelled by poor governance and the failure of federal and regional governments to engage with the people and their legitimate demands. While this is in no way a direct comparison, the federal and regional governments in Nigeria had ample experience over the last decade of how their neglect of the righteous demands of the dispossessed, economically powerless and marginalized could have their legitimate demands hijacked by organized groups who purport to articulate their just demands and cross the line between political militancy and organized criminal activity.

I have recently helped to produce a book on the situation in the Niger Delta (where I have been working off and on since 2004) that led to the Amnesty Proclamation by the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua in 2009.  Remaking the Niger Delta – a development handbook by the Honourable Kingsley Kuku, Presidential Adviser on the Niger Delta and Head of the Amnesty Programme, is the story of 50 years of neglect, exploitation and recurring crises in a region that has generated trillions of dollars for the Federal Government of Nigeria and for Shell and other multinationals, while leaving the people in the oil producing communities of the Delta chronically impoverished for generations.  The book is a testimony to the monumental challenge of sustainable peace, socio-economic development, equitable distribution of wealth, human rights and justice.

Politicians have been quick to exploit the chaos and public insecurity caused by the wanton destructiveness of the perpetrators of these ‘Boko Haram’ outrages which have become all too frequent. What must surely be crystal clear to ‘Boko Haram’ is that despite political tensions around issues of regionalism, territorial governance, regional self-determination and the rest, Muslims, Christians and followers of traditional belief systems have cohered around common social and economic challenges much more than they have been in conflict over religion and belief. The targeting of communities where both Muslims and Christians are massacred, as well as churches where Christians are bombed and murdered while worshipping, is clearly an attempt to spread chaos and encourage reprisals among faith communities purely along religious divides.

The posturing of local, regional and national politicians who refuse to comprehend the threat to the stability of the entire nation, not just the Northern states, caused by the activities of ‘Boko Haram’, and the machinations within the state security services that have helped create opportunities for that organization to outwit them and spread fear across the nation have as much to do with the current and growing security challenges in Nigeria as any planning ‘Boko Haram’ itself may have done.

Any overlay of an imported ‘war on terror’ in Nigeria, in the Gulf of Guinea or in Africa generally that does not take account of why states such as Nigeria continue to fail, could only lead to more and more human rights violations or/and curtailing of the freedoms that the citizenry have been employing in order to bring about change in their day to day existence and hold the administration to account.

The growth in private policing and security organizations that often operate as a complement to the regular police or state security is another worrying phenomenon.  This, too, I had cause to observe in the Niger Delta.  In situations where they come to be seen by the regular police as ‘partners’ in fighting crime or preventing terrorism and where the public have experience of the unlawful activities of such organizations not being challenged by the state, public trust in the state and its institutions to defend their rights and promote their safety and wellbeing suffers greatly.

Extra-judicial killings by the police and state security forces in Nigeria, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago and their impact upon the human rights environment in such countries were considered in some detail.  In this regard, the collusion of the police with known criminals, especially where such people are seen as operating a merciless regime of coercion, control and punishment in certain communities and have a tacit understanding that they could expect the state to turn a blind eye to their operations outside the law, gives rise to heightened public cynicism and to the view among some citizens that their protection could be guaranteed only by arming themselves or organizing their own ‘militia’.

A Blue Plaque for American abolitionist Frederick Douglass

"Frederick Douglass" by Marion Doss (Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Frederick Douglass” by Marion Doss (Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)

Also on Wednesday, Nubian Jak community trust unveiled a blue plaque in honour of Frederick Douglass, (February 14, 1818 – February 20, 1895),   American abolitionist, social reformer and human rights campaigner, in South Kensington, London. The plaque was unveiled on Nell Gwynn House, Whiteheads Grove, SW3, the site of the former home of British abolitionist George Thompson, with whom Frederick Douglass stayed for a time in 1846, while lecturing in London on the abominations and barbarism of the slave trade.

Organized by the English Heritage approved plaque scheme, the Nubian Jak Community Trust, it was the first blue plaque unveiled in the capital for 2013. Wednesday 20 February was exactly 118 years since Frederick Douglass passed away. Nubian Jak was partnered by the American Embassy to do the tribute and the unveiling was streamed live to the United States.

That same day, London Metropolitan Archives hosted the first International Huntley Symposium as a precursor to the Annual Huntley Conference.  Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Barbados, delivered the address on the topic of his new book:  Britain’s Black Debt:  Reparations Owed the Caribbean for African enslavement.

Getting the best education for Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority children

Thursday 21 February saw a gathering of more than 100 young people for a conversation (which I had the privilege of chairing) organized by themselves in partnership with Race on the Agenda (ROTA), the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN) and SE1 United, on getting the best education for Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority children and young people.

The event was organized for young people, parents, voluntary sector organizations, teachers, education policy and decision makers and others with educational interests and responsibilities to discuss educational issues facing young people which need to be addressed as a matter of priority. The focus was on children and young people in London generally but specifically within the adjacent south London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark.

This event followed on from ROTA’s 2011/2012 seminar series:  Shaping the Future:  Race and Racism in 21st Century Britain.  The series highlighted the growing concern within communities about the potential impact of educational reforms and public spending cuts on educational equality. Young people and parents from Black, Asian and other ‘global majority’ groups called for support to enable them to have greater influence on schooling and education.

The highlight of the event was the presentation by 21 year old Timi Raji, a member of SE1 United and RoTA , of the results of social policy research he had conducted.  The research report:  ‘Why Always Me?’ dealt with ‘how young people, practitioners and the community can help improve the educational attainment of young black males in Lambeth and Southwark’. Timi is one of a group of young people being supported by the three partner organizations to undertake research into educational inequalities in Lambeth and Southwark.

By far the most encouraging aspects of the entire event for me were:

  • The confidence, self belief and clarity of purpose of the young people and the sharpness of their analysis of why the schooling and education system is so resistant to change despite the many decades of community activism on the question of schooling and race;
  • Their eagerness to understand and apply the Equality Act 2010 so as to hold schools to account for how they address inequalities and racial disadvantage in schooling and in educational outcomes for young people in Lambeth and Southwark;
  • The challenge posed to the impressive panel of policy makers, service providers and other statutory agencies about the impact of their policies and institutional practices on young people and black school students in particular;
"Munira Mirza" by Andy Miah (Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0)

“Munira Mirza” by Andy Miah (Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sitting on that panel was, among others, Munira Mirza, Deputy Mayor of London (picture – left), who gave a brief summary of the Mayor’s Education Inquiry and its three delivery mechanisms, viz:  the London Schools Excellence Fund to stimulate new partnerships and help schools make substantial progress to raise standards in literacy, numeracy, STEM and modern and ancient foreign languages; the London Schools Gold Club – an annual scheme to identify schools that are ‘bucking the trend’ by achieving success, particularly for their most disadvantaged pupils, and share learning in workshops and seminars. It will be aligned with the Excellence Fund; the London Curriculum for secondary schoolchildren, drawing on the considerable assets of the City itself to inspire every secondary school to strengthen its curriculum.

The meeting wanted to know what the Mayor was doing about levels of school exclusion for black students, African Caribbean males in particular and what criteria the Mayor was setting for schools to satisfy before they could be awarded Gold Club status.  Ms Mirza stated that there will be local agreements with schools with regard to lowering the number of school exclusions and attention will be paid to the practice of informal exclusions, including ‘managed moves’ by which students are removed to another school or pupil referral unit in conjunction with parents, without that being recorded/reported as a formal exclusion.

Ms Mirza was also asked to say whether schools would be required to show evidence of having in place objectives and tangible actions to meet the Public Sector Equality Duty before they could be considered eligible for Gold Club status. She indicated that schools were not required to satisfy any such criteria; that the eligibility of schools would be determined by the grading they receive from Ofsted and that the Mayor wished to encourage schools to self-regulate and take action in respect of the disadvantages suffered by ethnic minority students, such as exclusions, rather than getting them bogged down in policies.

The meeting stressed the need for schools to be seen to comply with the Equality Act 2010 and use the legislation to eliminate unlawful indirect discrimination against black students, especially through school exclusions, setting and streaming, etc.  Schools need to listen to students and parents and have regard to the concerns and aspirations of their communities.

For me, it was refreshing to see such a large body of young people engaging teachers and policy makers in an informed debate about schooling and education.  It is much more common for such education debates (from Diane Abbott’s ‘London Schools and the Black Child’ conference to the Mayor’s own gatherings to discuss serious youth violence in the capital) to be characterized by the absence of young people.

ROTA, SE1 United and CEN are thankfully committed to continuing to work with this focused and dynamic group of young people.

Remembering Willis Darnley Wilkie

On Friday 22 February, we laid to rest a veteran community activist, Willis Darnley Wilkie, who had been a pillar in the community in Ealing, West London, for many decades.  Activists old and young and an appreciative community of hundreds whose lives he had impacted upon gathered to honour him and send him on his way.  The eulogy I wrote and delivered charts his remarkable life of service to the people of Ealing in the struggle for racial equality and social justice.

Black History Month

Also on Friday 22 February, the Africa Centre in Covent Garden (which is threatened with closure to give way to yet another prestigious commercial outlet) hosted a debate about the future of Black History Month.   It is 25 years since Black History Month (BHM) was established in the United Kingdom.   Held in the month of October, BHM has become all things to all people and has origins are not necessarily known, nor its objectives clear, to many of the groups, institutions and agencies that organize BHM programmes and tend to forget that Black History exists before and beyond the month of October. The paper I produced for that debate can be seen here.

The annual Huntley Conference

On Saturday 23 February, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) again hosted the annual Huntley Conference.  The theme of this year’s conference, the 8th, was Educating Our Children:  Liberating Our Futures, with the purpose of ‘examining how African Caribbean children are educated and what parents can do to supplement the school curriculum’.

In a packed programme with five concurrent workshops, one was truly spoilt for choice.  I chose to join the workshop that sought to tell ‘A Story of Supplementary Education from the 1970s’.  Facilitated by David Simons, teacher and director of Simons Education, and Richard Wiltshire, senior archivist at LMA, the session explored the origins and development of the Supplementary/Saturday School movement against the backcloth of the Caribbean experience of the British schooling and education system.

A highlight of the workshop was a scrutiny of the archives of the Caribbean Parents Group which Willis Wilkie and his wife Edna formed in 1975 and the background to the group’s formation. At the insistence of Jessica Huntley, LMA had organized themselves and managed to speak with Willis Wilkie and secure his archives even as his heath was failing. Those archives are an important contribution to the history of the supplementary school movement and of independent organization by black parents and students in the UK.

This year’s Youth Forum Debate was stimulating and like last year’s (which I helped to facilitate) raised a series of highly topical issues around inter-generational approaches to tackling black underachievement and the experience of African heritage children and young people in the schooling and education system. There were challenging presentations from Akala (video – above), teacher, mentor, motivational speaker and MOBO Hip Hop Award winner, and Femi Martin, poet.

A recurring theme during the debate was the charge that young black people today are disengaged, passive, are not getting involved in political activity and are generally unaware and disinterested in the struggles waged by their parents’ and grandparents’ generation in the UK. The justification for that claim seemed to be purely anecdotal.

My intervention from the floor reminded the meeting that:

  • We need to be careful not to believe that we are getting a full picture of the entire world as we observe it through our own narrow little lens. My experience tells me that there are many conscious, politically active young people doing purposeful things up and down the country, from running their own business to music, art, poetry, mentoring, political activism on education and employment issues, etc.   The fact that they are not doing many of those things within the context of our narrative, or without regard for how we think they should go about , does not mean that they are passive or a-political.  Each generation has its mission to fulfil, as Fanon famously said, but they do not do so necessarily within an identical frame of reference to our own, nor using our own tried and tested methods. There are many people who do not believe in activism for its own sake.  They need an issue that can motivate them and get them committed to a particular goal.  Despite the fact that in 2011, some folk held the same view about young people as disengaged, disinterested in organization, political or otherwise, when they were confronted with an issue, i.e., the Metropolitan Police treatment of Mark Duggan’s family, later to be followed by the alleged manhandling of a young girl who had been picketing outside the police station, they voluntarily spun into action and eventually orchestrated massive destruction through the use of Blackberry Messenger and other gismos.
  • The charge of inaction and disengagement could also be laid at the door of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. For the last 60 years we have had evidence that the schooling system is failing our children and many of those students have had their life chances ruined. Successive administrations have introduced various schemes, e.g., Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant, Aiming Higher, Raising the Achievement of Black Caribbean Boys, etc.  Yet, our children remain at the bottom of the pile.  The only group performing worse than them is gypsies and travellers.  Yet, we have not succeeded in building a mass movement of parents and of students in London, let alone in the rest of the country.  People can only take liberties with you for as long as you let them.  By our lack of collective action, by finding our own private solutions to the crisis in schooling, rather than working together to challenge unjust practices and policies, we have acquiesced in our own exploitation.
  • It has been suggested that we need to form our own school and use Mr Gove’s Free Schools  construct to make it happen. I disagree totally.  On what evidence is the assumption based that parents would engage with that school and treat it differently from the way they have treated all the others?    We already have what is ‘de facto’ a number of black schools in London and elsewhere.  Some of them have virtually 100% black students, but with white management. How are the 100% black students and parents exercising some authority over how those schools are governed?  What say do they have in setting priorities and holding the management of the school to account?  Maybe, once we have cracked the business of collective action to ensure that we have a greater say in how those black schools are run, we could think of spending our energies supporting the development of a new family of schools.

Until then, let us concentrate on working out with our children strategies for surviving schooling and getting the best out of themselves.

Picture (home): “Riot police“, by Chris JL (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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