In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist Policing, Resistance & Black Power in 1970s Brixton

Part 2 of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

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“It is no exaggeration to say that thousands and thousands of young blacks have grown up in British society having little contact with any other section of British society but the police and courts. They have developed in the shadow of the SPG, the Vice Squad, the Flying Squad, the Starskys and Hutches of the panda car brigade, the Old Bailey, Inner London Sessions etc.” (Race Today, 1982)

In the early 1960s, Brixton experienced a swelling of the West Indian population, mainly in the form of the children of the first generation, who had begun to settle in the area from the late 1940s. Numbers of the original migrants had left young kids in the Caribbean, with relatives, partly thinking they would soon be returning from the UK. For most, forced into low paid jobs, any thought of saving up and moving back were largely scuppered. The ’50s had been a time of sparse isolation and discrimination for many, and the expense of sending money back home for support was biting. Gradually many came round to the idea of bringing their offspring over; an added urgency was given by the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. The Act aimed to restrict non-white migration into Britain by setting quotas for workers with particular skills or lack of them; basically it was aimed at West Indians and Asians. As economic boom times began to come to an end, fears were being whipped up about competition for jobs.

Many young Afro-Caribbeans then arrived here around this time, often just coming into teenage years or a bit older. Many couldn’t get school places, or went into very different schools when they arrived; older ones found it hard to get work. The experiences they had, in education, on the dole, with the police, were to create a generation that began to go beyond mere existence, survival, endurance, and fight back…

The Coach and Horses pub, Coldharbour Lane, the earliest Black-owned pub in Brixton, & its owner George Berry, after a racist firebomb attack.

Racial harassment was a daily occurrence for Brixton’s black community in the fifties. “In those days, there was a lot of racism was the teddy boys. I used to work in Effra Road, and one day I was going to work and it was very foggy. I knew these chaps behind me were white. The one of the came up alongside me and felt my hair. My hair was straightened at the time, and he said, ‘This one’s hair feels white, so leave her alone.’ Then one of them shouted, ‘There’s a nigger over there.’ Whoever it was, she really got some kicks – you could hear her screaming. But things like this helped us to band together. We were all West Indians! When the teddy boys beat up a Black person from another island, some people would wait until a white person came into our area, pick up the milk bottles and beat them up. It was vicious but they were desperate times.”

Thoughout the 1950s and 60s, the gradual withdrawing from the empire and loss of the colonies led to a falling back for many white British people on their feeling of racial superiority to “the coloureds”. Hence the rise of racist attacks, race riots, as in Camden in 1954, Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959; and support for fascist groups like Oswald Mosley and co. In some areas tenants & residents groups organised to keep blacks out of social housing, afraid “they” would spread into ‘white’ areas. Public health laws were also invoked to attack multi-occupation, hitting West Indian families in the large crumbling Victorian homes in areas like Brixton.

In response to racism many Black Communities kept their heads down and tired to simply weather the storm. Others stuck their heads above the parapet. In March 1958, the West Indian Gazette was founded in Brixton. Their office was above Theo Campbell’s record shop at 250 Brixton rd, and later at 13 Station Avenue (now Station Road). It was founded by Claudia Jones, a communist deported from the US, and Amy Ashwood, widow of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The Gazette was produced monthly, with very limited resources, though supported by international Black communist superstar Paul Robeson and other black radicals. The paper covered race relations, discrimination, police harassment, campaigning all the time for equality for the new migrants, but in the context of a wider sense of social change and justice… It was Claudia Jones, who did most of the work, as manager, editor, main writer and fundraiser.

Claudia had been born in Trinidad in 1915, moving with her family to Harlem in 1926. Claudia grew up in poverty, facing racism and inequality, which led her into a life of campaigning and journalism. In 1936 she joined the US Young Communist League, a hugely brave step when even the CP was heavily chauvinistic. Claudia became Negro Affairs Editor on the US edition of the CP paper the Daily Worker, and became involved in campaigning on wage freezes, voting rights, lynching, poll tax, women’s conscription… she was imprisoned on several occasions. As a result of her sterling work in the land of the free she was deported in 1955, and chose to come to Britain. On arrival she joined the Communist Party here, (though she had a fractious relationship with the party, being sidelined and virtually ignored – the CPGB was even more racially backward than its US counterpart) and set to work campaigning here for the same causes… As well as setting up the Gazette, she became active in the Coloured People’s Progressive Association, and also helped to set up first Notting Hill Carnival in 1959. Claudia sadly died too young in 1964 aged 49. She is buried next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

SUS and SPG

As early as the 1960s, police attitudes towards local black people were openly hostile, and this expressed itself in violent persecution. Police openly labelled their operations against black people in Brixton ‘nigger hunting’.

“If things go on like it is going on now, twenty years time, or forty years time, our children may be marching from Liverpool and Birmingham coming to London singing ‘We Shall Overcome’…” Nameless Jamaican, during a 1964 conversation in Brixton about prejudice and the US civil rights struggle. Quoted in Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion‘).

It took less than 20 years, and they weren’t singing we shall overcome…

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids.  The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname  – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…” Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.” In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

In Brixton, to this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

National Front paperseller in Brixton

At least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Loughborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road  – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewisham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

State Paid Gangsters

“War…War… All we doin’ is defendin’…”
Linton Kwesi Johnson

On top of the day-to-day community policing of the type just described, Lambeth and Brixton in particular was regularly graced by large-scale invasions of the Special Patrol Group (later re-branded the Territorial Support Group or TSG, after its operations had aroused massive outrage); basically the paramilitary unit responsible for large operations and responding to/policing public order situations.

“Between 1975 and 1979 there were six attacks by the SPG on the people of Lambeth.  Every time the same general pattern was followed – roadblocks, early morning raids and random street checks. In 1978 over half the total strength of the SPG, 120 officers, supplemented by 30 extra officers from Scotland yard were drafted into the Lambeth police area because of its alleged ‘high crime rate’. Over 1000 people were stopped on the streets and 430 people arrested; 40% of those arrested were black, more than double the estimated black population of the local community. The SPG operation was concentrated around four housing estates, all with high black populations.”

On top of this several CID, Serious Crimes Squad, Flying Squad and Fraud Squad officers would be drafted in to take part in operations. SPG activities were heavily influenced by policing tactics in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Occasionally SPG could be seen walking the streets, eyeing up black people and hanging around outside squats and blues clubs; more often they cruised the streets in their transits, up and down the Frontline, stopping cars and searching, setting up roadblocks, swooping onto estates, hauling in groups of kids under ‘sus’, raiding, intimidating. One SPG operation centred around an alleged Bomb Squad car that had been stolen and supposedly pursued to Railton road. The area was sealed off. More than 30 police, including the Bomb and Anti-Terrorist Squads, were involved. Although the official story was that there were detonators in the car for controlled explosions, is was widely suspected at the time that this was in fact a dry run for a counter-insurgency operation. Many SPG ops at the time consisted in no small part of low-level intelligence gathering, ie collection of names, addresses, details, of people who for one reason or another the police believed to be suspicious.

Grandiose claims were made for the SPG’s affect in reducing street crime, the main excuse given for their presence. Figures were bandied about, Reports issued, but little real hard evidence could ever by brought to bear. The anger the squad’s heavy-handed tactics created built up throughout the decade. Across the country, the SPG were increasingly being used to police (attack) strikes & demonstrations; they had evolved from an anti-crime unit into a paramilitary force. Police methods in Brixton more and more seemed to be the actions of an occupying army against the local people. And this wasn’t just a Conspiracy theory  – that’s how the cops themselves saw things.

Commander Adams hit the nail on the head when asked (on TV) about an SPG operation in Brixton: “No good general ever declares his forces in a prelude to any kind of attack.”

As an ex-police officer revealed: “You are told that you are the Law, you control the streets, you don’t give way to others. You make them give way. You’ve got to demonstrate your authority.” The police believed for many years in Brixton that they were involved in a war for control of the streets – a view mirrored on the other side. A statement from a social worker claimed (around 1979-80) that “When talking to these young people one gets the impression of guerrilla – young people believe they are winning the war.”

Raids got worse when the SPG came to town: “During November 1978, when the SPG were in Brixton, the activities of the Youth Project were severely affected. Our chief club night, on Thursdays, was reduced to a handful of attending members. Through January and February, it recovered to the usual 100 mark.”

SPG operations in 1973-5 led to the creation of Lambeth Campaign Against Police Repression; in 1978, All-Lambeth Anti Racist Movement, the Black Parents Against SUS, the Trades Council, the Anti-Nazi League and other groups campaigned against the SPG presence, culminating in a demo through Brixton In November ’78.

If there was a war going on for the control of the streets, clearly Brixton Police/the SPG saw community spaces and youth centres as an extension of the battleground. The effect of continuing attacks on clubs drove more young people ONTO the street, where confrontations were increasing.

… And the Resistance

“those days of the truncheon and those nights,
of melancholy locked in a cell…
were well numbered,
and are now at an end…

All we doin’ is defendin’…”

Linton Kwesi Johnson

“The revolt of Brixton’s young blacks against the police did not begin when the media and the rest of British society discovered it on the weekend of April 10th to April 13th [1981]. In the last ten years, young blacks in Brixton engaged the local police in minor skirmishes, organised protests, violent street confrontations and hand-to-hand fighting in youth clubs and other social haunts. Add to these the string of one to one incidents, characterised by the hostility and violent outbursts of the participants. Much of this history has taken place behind the backs of the rest of British society, often unrecorded.”
(Race Today, 1982)

From the late 1960s on, this constant war between black youth and the police was fought not just physically, but politically. In November 1969, black people protested in the market, after a Nigerian diplomat was attacked and arrested by Brixton Police (who accused him of nicking his own car, an old old tactic familiar to any black person who dared to own a vehicle); predictably, the rozzers steamed into this demo: “three brothers and a sister were again beaten, one of them (Bro Tex) received a broken arm.” Olive Morris (later a Black Panther) had been arrested during the diplomat’s own arrest.

Many first generation West Indians who moved into Brixton, responded to racism, police attacks, discrimination, by trying to keep their heads down, not making a fuss, putting up with, (if not completely accepting as fair) shit jobs, overcrowded housing and constant abuse, hoping it would gradually disappear over time. (This is not true of all, witness the self defence organised in 1958 against racist rioters in Notting Hill.) “Those of us who came here in the late 50s and early 60s were constrained by the myth that we were going home sooner or later, that we would earn some money and go, and therefore tended to put up with things that we knew were wrong – but there are young blacks who were born here, who have grown up here, who eat bangers and mash, egg and chips” (Darcus Howe)

This generation reacted to police oppression with a completely different attitude: this was their home, they had little intention of “returning” to islands they barely knew if at all, and were determined to make space for themselves in Britain.

“British rulers had maintained that young blacks, who were born here or grew up here, would follow the social pattern laid down for their parents. Young blacks, they hoped, would meekly accept those jobs that refused to do; they would bow, bend before and make accommodations with their employers; they would be hesitant and cautious in their opposition to police malpractice. Undoubtedly some did, but the major tendency among the youth was a rejection, a total and militant rejection to these established ways of immigrant life.”  (Race Today, 1982)

Many young blacks opted not to enter into crap low paid jobs,  even if they could beat the constant low-level racism of employers; but drifted into permanent unemployment, and the street life that was increasingly taking over central Brixton.

This rebellious generation produced community organisations that gathered the anger in the area together and forged it into a weapon.

Earlier organisations had taken on institutional racism – the League of Coloured People, etc… In the mid-1960s, a number of groups had federated to form the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), but the alliance of older black organisations, newer and more radical groups, had foundered on political differences, soon splintering.

“What the Black panther movement did initially was to give people, mostly the children of working immigrants, a place to belong, an identity and a feeling that we are a force; we are somebody, we are a dimension in the world, we’re not just somebody’s servants.”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Younger black activists were increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, CARD and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967 by Nigerian playwright and poet Obi Egbuna in Stoke Newington, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. The UCPA politicised black young people through meetings and study groups. Ogi Egbuna had been a speaker at Speakers Corner: “he was also giving these kind of militant speeches at Hyde Park Corner. We were quite impressed, we thought, ‘At last somebody is standing up and, you know, not just taking it, not just taking the crap.’ “ (Farrukh Dhondy).

Egbuna had travelled in the US and met some of the Black Panthers there. Heavily influenced by Marxism, he stressed the importance of an international struggle against capitalism, as a part of the global struggle against racial oppression. In a speech from 1967 at Trafalgar Square, London, Egbuna stated: “Black Power means simply that the black of this world are to liquidate capitalist oppression of black people wherever it exists by any means necessary”.

The UCPA’s early activity focused around support for the struggles in Rhodesia, Vietnam, liberation struggles in Africa, and the Chinese Cultural revolution… At home it became increasingly active around police racism and harassment. In 1969 the Association held a black poser rally against ‘organised police brutality’ in Brixton, as well as joining in protests against paki-bashing in the East End. While not directly advocating violence except in self-defence against racist attacks, UCPA speakers did urge direct action to paralyse the economy. Roy Sawah, in a speech 1968 at Speaker’s Corner, urged “coloured nurses to give wrong injections to patients, coloured bus crews not to take the fare of black people and Indian restaurant owners to ‘put something in the curry’.”

Speakers denounced ‘white devils’, ‘anglo-saxon swine’ and the like, and were prosecuted… Egbuna himself later that year ended up in prison accused of threatening to kill police and certain politicians – charges that were dismissed when it came to court. They had been prosecuted under the new Race Relations Act – ironically at a time of increased racist attacks and violent incitement against black people. This was the year of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. He wasn’t prosecuted (though he was sacked from the tory government).

The UCPA only lasted from 1967 to 1971. It foundered on the lack of a unifying idea of its purpose. “Within that single organisation, there were members who believed that the answer to the black man’s problem lay in the overthrow of the capitalist system, and there were others who felt it lay in the Black man going to the House of Lords; there were some who saw themselves as part of the international Black revolution, and there was a faction who believed that the Black man in this country should concern himself only with what goes on in this country… in short, it became all too clear that what we had was not one movement, but movements within a movement.” (Egbuna).

Egbuna resigned from the UCPA, together with others dissatisfied with the disunity of the group he formed the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the  British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the dissolving UCPA.

The Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

Education, self-education, was at the heart of the movement. “The Black Panther movement wanted first to educate black people, you know, let them know where they’re from. In those days people like my parents, you know, that generation didn’t believe that they came from Africa… deep down they believed but they just cut that off… in schools, like in my school, Tulse Hill here… we had history from 1066 and the Normans and the Stuarts… but there was no history about Africa, how we as black people left Africa and end up in the Caribbean and America into slavery… So the Black Panther movment wanted to educate people about where they from and their culture, and they also wanted to tell us about capitalism, and communism, and socialism… why we work as slaves, why slavery was abolished…”

Increasing educational opportunities for local black children was one of their most practical activities:

“We had a Saturday school. During that Saturday school, the parents had a chance to do other things. They were very happy to have us. We were so idealistic. We’d go and collect the children and take them off their parents’ hands all day. We would feed them. I still see some of the parents of those children. They were very grateful for that. I don’t know how supportive they were of us but they certainly tolerated us. I think they understood what we were trying to do. I think those were the first supplementary schools. After that they became increasingly institutionalised.”  (Beverley Bryan)

Beverley Bryan, a teacher at Santley Street primary School in Brixton’s Acre Lane, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, to become a pre-eminent dub poet, were two of the early panthers particularly involved in the supplementary education classes, often held at 38 Shakespeare Road – picking up Black kids from their homes, holding classes in english, maths, black history, drama, and more…

Groups of black activists formed Black Studies groups, sometimes in schools: “We went to the Head and asked her to let us set up a Black Studies debating society. She was really shocked and upset by it all. She kept saying, ‘But why, we’re all one here.’ So we went off to join the Black Studies programme at Tulse Hill School, until she gave in. That’s we began to come into our own. We started with the black berets and carried it through, right down to black socks and shoes! That’s also when I went to my first Black meeting. I heard a Black woman there, and I was really impressed with her. Seeing a Black woman up there on the platform made me feel even more enthusiastic.”

Such groups fed into the Panthers; while the debating society at Tulse Hill School drew pupils Linton Kwesi Johnson into the Party youth section, after Panther leader and lawyer Althea Jones-Lecointe came to speak to a debate.

The Black People’s Information Centre

“Well in those days black people wouldn’t be allowed to meet in public places like the Town Hall in Brixton, and other public places, so the only way they could meet is if they were to meet in their own homes. So the Panthers decode to buy the building…”

Barred from meeting in most public spaces or buildings, the party moved into 38 Shakespeare Road, a 3-story building they had managed to buy, with help from donations; some of it money given by sympathetic left figures: “leftwing intellectuals, you know, like Vanessa Redgrave was a donor”. The party also had a HQ in North London, a building in Barnsbury Road, which was replaced later by a house in Seven Sisters, 37 Tollington Park, bought with money given by author John Berger.

The Panthers also regularly met and organised social events at Oval House, the arts centre in Kennington Oval.

To understand who I am

“I had the idea, right at the beginning, that culture was the only way out of this mission to complain. The mission to complain was, you know, ‘we are poor, sad blacks, beaten down, you discriminate against us, racism, racism, racism, complaint, complaint, complaint”, and that wouldn’t end until one said ‘Look, forget about the sadness, here’s what I can do.’ We could have an intellectual culture, and I’ve always thought that was the way forward…”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Militant as it was, Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups… The cultural element helped to draw people in, but also participation in the movement opened people’s eyes to their own cultural heritage, as Linton Kwesi Johnson relates:

“My real interest in poetry began when I joined the Black Panthers. Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered black literature, because going to school here I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that black people wrote books.

In the Black Panthers they had a library and all of a sudden I discovered all these wonderful books written by black people. One book in particular was a book called ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ written by an African American scholar by the name of W.E.B DuBois. And this book was not a book of poems, it was prose, but it was a very poetic prose and the language was very moving, And that book just stimulated my interest in poetry, and made me went to discover more poetry, and made me want to try and articulate in verse how I felt, and how the black youth of my generation felt about our experiences growing in this racially hostile environment.

I learnt a lot about my culture and I was able to locate myself in the world, and to understand myself more fully. Who I am, where I am coming from, and why I am where I am now.”

Here to stay, here to fight

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists  – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into the Black Panthers.

A notable campaign was launched in November 1970, in support of Joshua Francis, a middle aged West Indian, whose house in Brixton was invaded by four white men, one an off-duty cop, who beat him up so he needed 30 stitches; upon which the police arrived and nicked Francis for assault (for which he was later sentenced to nine months inside).

Danny Dacosta and Neil Kenlock, who were taking on the role of movement photographers, in fact had to sneak into the hospital past the police, to take pictures of Francis’ injuries.

In contrast to most previous cases of police violence, the mould of silence was broken: Joshua Francis’ case was taken up, and made into a high profile Joshua Francis Defence Committee, later renamed the Black People’s Defence Committee, which met at the Brixton Neighbourhood Centre, at 1 Mayall Road, bringing together black community activists from the more moderate flank as well as strong presence from the Black Panthers, the Black Unity & Freedom Party and others. The Committee organised demonstrations in central Brixton, as well as fundraising for Francis and his family, and later similar cases of police violence.

And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants’ and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In 1970 four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by Sgt. Ridgewell,  at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested.

Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment

However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Apart from state repression and everyday police hassle of this kind, the Panthers also experienced its unofficial reflection – the racist attack. In 1973 the group squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, Freedom News and so on.

“So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building… So [we] put in toilets and showers and we made it decent.” (Farrukh Dhondy). Dhondy and two others were living in the building as well as the bookshop. “On 15th March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking…. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick…” Dhondy managed to jump out of the building in his underwear: “by that time some neighbours had had gone and called the people at Shakespeare road… and they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he put a coat around me… The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass.”

Five other similar targets had been fire-bombed that night, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another. “the police never did anything about it.” Shock. “the place was a shell, it was burnt out.”

Inevitably the constant repression had its effects: membership of the Panthers dwindled.

“it was like a meteor. It just rose and then by 1973 it had just fallen apart. Some people went to prison. At those demonstrations some people were picked out by the police and there were trials. We had big trials, publicity trials, which we attended. There were also smaller cases where people would get nine months. So people were getting records out of that period and people were beginning to ask questions.” (Beverley Bryan)

The Panthers evolved into the Black Workers’ Movement, around 1973; part of the impetus for this was a change in some people’s analysis of how class and race fitted together, and a developing Marxist consciousness: “The Black Workers Movement were organised around issues to do with racism within the workplace: equal opportunities, equal promotion, equal pay and so on…” Not only fighting the employers, but also in many cases, fighting to get recognition from established trade unions here, many of whose members saw black workers as a threat to pay, and conditions, thinking they would drive them down through competition. “So we had to fight, for example, to get ourselves into the trade union movement, and to be involved… and to build solidarity with white working class people…” (LKJ)

Though the BWM later fizzled out around 1975, in hindsight, some saw the Panthers and BWM as a movement that had served its purpose, that its decline allowed people to move on to other projects and stages of the battle. But others do point out that some of the groups taking a direction towards co-operation with white working class or left organisations didn’t carry a big section of the early activists with them; people who had come in to a black power movement, and saw white working class support for Enoch Powell, the National Front, or how trade unions etc had excluded black people, weren’t always convinced of this new turn, that this was where black people’s interests lay.

The Race Today office

Among the other Black organisations and spaces that arose in the 1970s, there was the Collective around the magazine Race Today. Originally linked to the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today moved to Brixton, and was taken over by a group of mainly former Panthers, who had started to drop out of the party. Operating from 165 Railton Road, (above Brixton Advice Centre), became a strong voice in the 1970s and ’80s, a fighting magazine reporting on black community struggles and burning issues of the day, and helping to build black organisations, eg the British Black Panthers, and other organisations like the Northern Collectives up in Bradford and Leeds. The journal was involved in several important campaigns that helped to transform both the political and cultural lives of black people in Britain. Many former Panthers became involved in Race Today, including editor Darcus Howe, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy, later commissioner/editor of Channel Four’s cultural programs.

Living above Race Today from 1981 till his death in 1989 was a man who had a most powerful influence in its politics: CLR James, (Darcus Howe’s uncle), Trinidadian Marxist, writer, and cricket correspondent! Politically he had moved through anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism to Trotskyism. During the 1930s he wrote the classic ‘The Black Jacobins’, about the 1790s Caribbean revolutionaries who fought off the Brits, the French and the Spanish.  James broke with Trotskyism when he rejected Trotsky’s ludicrous theory of the Soviet Union as a ‘degenerated workers state’. Gradually he had come to reject the idea of a vanguardist party, and was more enthusiastic over autonomous struggles developing among oppressed minorities and encouraged support for black nationalism.

James exercised a practical influence on some of the Panthers: “We used to write all this stuff [in Freedom News], theoretical stuff, in the magazine, about… what black people or immigrants in Britain need and so on, and one day Darcus brought his uncle, CLR James, to the meeting and James said, ‘Who is it, writes all this newspaper…. Why are you writing all this theoretical stuff, nobody cares for that. Why don’t you write about what you do?’ Then he asked somebody in the room, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m a bus conductor.’… ‘What goes on at the garage? …What disputes are there? What fights are there? What day-to day stuff goes on?… Write about that, it’ll instruct people.’ …” (Farrukh Dhondy)

Like the Black Panthers, the Black Unity and Freedom Party emerged from the earlier Universal Coloured People’s Association (after the Panthers had splintered off, the core of the surviving UCPA forming the BUFP). Although stronger in the early ’70s in other parts of London – notably Peckham – and in Manchester, the BUFP also had a presence in Brixton, and unlike the Panthers, survived the period,  continuing their activity into the 1990s at least. Founded in 1970, (45 Fairmount Road in Brixton Hill was an early contact address) the BUFP adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology – unlike the UK Panthers, they “sought more actively to work with white radical groups than most black groups did, not because they were white but because these groups shared or had similar ideological orientations as the group, that is to say, they placed the emphasis on class, not colour/race or gender.” Whereas the Black Panther Movement ‘placed the emphasis on cultural awareness and the unity of all blacks, and were therefore regarded  –  using the American term popular at the time  –  as ‘cultural nationalists’.  This meant that African history, culture, dress, hairstyle and so forth were of predominant importance to them.  So too were events in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Third World.

Looking back, ex-members could see how this manifested in a more rigid format:

We were much more Marxist and we had a different ideology. Our discussions would be about the Russian Revolution and about things which were completely alien really to who we were… We chose Russia and then China as the way. Whereas the Panthers didn’t have that much of a Maoist ideology.” (Leila Howe).

Perhaps the difference in emphasis partly explains why the Panthers had largely fragmented by the mid-70s, and the BUFP lasted a couple of decades longer; a question Harry Goulbourne considers in Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain. ‘Cultural nationalism’ perhaps had a stronger appeal at the time, but its susceptability to being co-opted, funded, and institutionalised by the leftwing element of the local state was maybe much greater than the more uncompromising class positions of the BUFP. Did the latter survive by refusing to be gradually assimilated into the local authority-GLC supported hinterland? But on the other hand, it’s also true that sometimes the most exciting and forward thinking projects do rise up and collapse quickly; there’s a role for refusing to concrete yourself into a long, rigid existence, but instead moving on to other battles and pushing new boundaries.

The BUFP were still going in Brixton in the 1990s, still involved in community organising, for instance in the Orville Blackwood Community Campaign around 1993-4, protesting the killing of local man in a mental health prison and supporting similar cases.

The onslaught of government funds

Hand in hand with the stick of state repression, came the carrot of state funding:  “The government had unveiled their Urban Aid program in 1968, at first, without much impact. Slowly, they filtered small sums of money into the black community, aimed, they said, at ameliorating the problems of young blacks. The programme was conceived in the home office Children’s Department, and its major thrust was the social control of young blacks in revolt. The funds cascaded, eventually, under the Inner City Partnership and the Community Relations Self-Help programme. Millions of pounds have been poured into the black communities. By 1973, these radical Black Power organisations, now considerably weakened by state repression, crumbled before this onslaught of government funds. Young cadres, once headed for the Panthers, now gathered around government financed projects. Organisations, which were once autonomous and politically vibrant, were now transformed into welfare agencies which extended the crippling welfare state into every area of the black existence.”
(Race Today)

A plethora of black organisations emerged in Brixton, some operating in complete rebellion against what they saw as racist white society, some attempting to make their way within the existing structures, and numerous shades of opinion in between. Many eventually gained recognition, and official funding from either Lambeth Council, the GLC, or other bodies. This caused its own problems and dilemmas: there’s no doubt many worthwhile projects survived longer and expanded, doing much useful local work, through these grants. There’s also no doubt that it caused fierce divisions (as Race Today‘s comments, below, illustrate); council funding did tend to handicap activity that challenged the council, eg on its policies regarding black people, re housing, jobs etc., as well as the thorny questions of who gets the money, and who doesn’t – not in itself unconnected to class relations and ambitions within the black community. But another abyss remained, that autonomous projects that started with nothing, became used to operating with state handouts, and was in many cases unable to carry on or return to a hand to mouth existence when the moneybelts tightened. This applied across the board, with black, women’s, gay projects, and much more. It is also however true that the funding often ceased in the 80s or 90s, when wider change had overtaken many of these schemes – their struggle to survive was as much about a radically altering social landscape, with a gradual decline in the hope and grassroots autonomy that the 60s and especially the 70s has seen spring up.

Just some of the local alternative/radical black groups that emerged in Brixton specifically included Melting Pot, whose squatted HQ in Vining Street helped hundreds of black youth to squat locally among other projects; the black radical bookshop, Sabaar Books, which initially ran as a squat at 121 Railton Road in the late 1970s, then in 1981 moving to 378 Coldharbour Lane, having gained council funding.

There was also the Abeng Community Centre, in Gresham Road, which is still there. In the late seventies, the Abeng hosted an important national conference of black women. It was the first such event of its kind, which hundreds attended.

Later, in the 80s, there was Meridian Bookshop, at 58 Railton Road, another Black bookshop, and the Ujamaa Centre at 14 Brixton Road…

“Three paces behind the men”

Women were vocal and active in this movement; from the first the Panthers, the Fasimbas and others had included a strong and confident caucus of black women. The UCPA had established a Black Women’s Liberation Movement. But this was the late 60s and early 70s – not only was a new black consciousness emerging, but a new women’s’ movement was also questing gender relations, and especially the roles of men and women in political organisations. Women in the Black Panthers began to meet and discuss male-female relations, later feeling the need to organise separately.

“The attitude of the ‘brothers’… often undermined our participation. We could not fully realise our full organisational potential in a situation where we were constantly regarded as sexual prey…”

“every new woman was regarded as easy prey. Some of the brothers were called ‘flesh heads’ because people knew what they were about… The men certainly didn’t understand anything about women’ oppression… Nearly every one of them was a die-hard sexist… things were dominated by the men. We had very little say in anything, to begin with… There was this romantic image of African womanhood around at the time, although a lot of us were beginning to take on the idea that black women were strong and had a role to play, many of us hadn’t reached the stage where we could challenge the idea that we should walk three places behind the men. That’s why Angela Davis was such an inspiration to Black women at the time. She seemed to have liberated herself mentally and fought in her own development…”

Black women’s caucuses began to be formed in black organisations in the early 70s, working on women’s issues, but also enabling women to come together as women, and address common experiences of both racial and sexual oppression. To some extent white feminism was a influence, but some in the black women’s movement attributed far more influence to people like Angela Davis, to the role of women in developing world liberation movements like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and so on…

Black women pioneers included the legendary Olive Morris, who had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. Fro it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of the Nigerian the police were harassing (mentioned above), was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton; she was one of two original squatters of 121 Railton Road, in the building which later became famous as Sabaar Books, and then 121 anarchist bookshop.

Olive Morris climbing into the back of 121 Railton Road, from the cover of the Squatters Handbook

Liz Obi: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out. The building was then re-squatted by others and was used as a black bookshop…’ 121 was to be squatted more or less continuously until 1999, when the anarchist centre was finally evicted by armed police. (But that’s another story.)

Initially the Panther leadership was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…”

After the Panthers fragmented, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, (based at 121, then 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to Stockwell Green).

“We formed the Black Women’s group in 1973… We came mainly out of Black organisations. Some had left and some were still there, but on the whole the organisations we came from were in the process of disintegrating… Straight away we got accused of ‘splitting the movement’, of weakening organisations which were already on the way out… But for most of us setting up an autonomous group for Black women was really necessary at that time… there were issues that related to us as Black women, like women’s work, our economic dependence on men and childcare… it was a chance to put them at the top of the agenda for a change… We didn’t want to become part of the white women’ movement. We felt they had different priorities to us…

We help to set up and maintain the first Black bookshop in Brixton, and joined the Railton 4 Campaign over police harassment. We also mobilised the community in Brixton against the practice of setting up disruptive units, and helped in the campaign for parental rights.  As the first autonomous Black women’ group of its kind, certainly in London, there were no models for us to follow… We just had to work it out as we went along. We were very wary of charges that we might be ‘splitting the Black struggle’ or mobilising in a vacuum, or imitating white women. These were the kinds of criticism Black men were making all the time. We couldn’t be… anti-men… but it felt good to be in a group which wasn’t hostile and didn’t fight all the time… We would not have called ourselves feminists by any means – we didn’t go that far for many years. It took us a very long time before we worked out a Black women’s perspective, which took account of race, class, sex and sexuality.”

The links the Brixton Black Women’s Group made with other developing groups, led on to the founding, in 1978, of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, a national grouping which brought together large numbers of black and Asian women.

Later on Olive went to study in Manchester, where she also became heavily involved in community organising and student politics, and visited China – like many of the early Black power activists (and white leftists too!) she was heavily influenced by admiration for the Chinese revolution (as well as ‘national liberation’ movements in the developing world).

Olive died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Hundreds of people came to her memorial ceremony a few weeks later, testimony to the impact she had on people’s lives.

Lambeth Council in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department. An insult to her memory? A radical remembered by a Bureaucratic Hellhole, where many of us have withered many weary days trying to get them to sort out our HB claims… Ironically, however, this was one of Olive’s battlegrounds: “The first time Olive made a real impression on me was during my early days in the Movement. It was on a demonstration of residents from the the tenants concerning housing conditions – there had been a lot of fires Ferndale Road flats. Beverley Bryan and Olive had been working with in the flats caused by the use of paraffin heaters and the tenants were demanding that the Council install some form of heating. A demonstration of about 30 tenants made up mainly of women and children, together with members of the Movement, set off one weekday morning from the
flats in Ferndale Road to the Housing Office on Brixton Hill. It was the first demonstration I’d been on. When we reached the Housing Office the tenants demanded to see the Head of Housing to discuss the issues and were told by the housing office staff that this would not be possible and we were to leave the premises or they would call the police. The tenants were unsure about what to do next until Olive spoke to the women and told them that, yes, we
would leave the premises but that they should leave the children behind, saying that if the Council would not meet with them then the Council had better look after their children because it was not safe to take them back home. The women were naturally nervous about this course of
action as they feared the Council would take their children into care but after further persuasion from Olive they agreed to do so and all the adults left the building leaving the children in the care of the Housing office staff. We were not outside the offices for more than ten minutes
before the head of the housing office agreed to come and meet with the demonstrators and the outcome was that the issue of heating provision would be looked into as a priority.” (Liz Obi)

(This building was actually demolished in 2020) The small park in Myatts Fields estate also named after Olive was a slightly less ‘orrible memorial, though it has now been destroyed by the building of a new health centre.)

Dem a Black Petty Booshwah?

dem wi´ side wid oppressah
w´en di goin´ get ruff
side wid aggressah
w´en di goin´ get tuff

dem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flawdem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flaw……..

dem a seek posishan
aaf di backs of blacks
seek promoshan
aaf di backs af blacks…

(Linton Kwesi Johnson, Di Black Petty Booshwah)

A whole subculture of state funded black organisations sprang up, according to some observers forming a buffer layer, attempting to impose quiet solutions on the rebellious youth. In Brixton as elsewhere, elderly conservative self-appointed ‘community leaders’ took the queen’s shilling to ‘keep the peace’, ie channel anger and reaction into complaints to MPs, cases to corrupt solicitors, to dissolve rebellion. Race Today condemned them roundly:

“Failed business men and women of the older generation, they have sought social elevation by way of government grants; ruthless in their fraudulent acquisition of government funds for personal use; official society needs them and is willing to use them.  And then, there are the born again blacks who are distinguishable from the mass of blacks by educational attainment. Plunged into the fiercely competitive world of the meritocracy, they cry racial discrimination at the slightest opportunity in order to cover up their individual inadequacies, “they sound radical enough, but on close inspection their hostility to the white working class disguises an even greater hostility to its black counterpart._ Instead of campaigning against police repression, they sat on Police Liaison Committees, but ” It is the most vulgar whitewash. The police representatives are not representing the police and black representatives are not representing the black community. It is merely a cloak to cover up the continuing escalation of the struggle”.

But it’s also fair to say that one decade’s radical can easily be the next outbreak’s respected community leader, co-opted by the police or the Council to help pacify rebellious youth (the next generation…) Early 70s Brixton activists turned up as effective mouthpieces for the police in 1981.

Though repression had been a factor in the demise of Brixton’s Black Panthers, internal divisions had also played its part. Apart from the tensions between men and women (see above), some former Panthers pointed out that class divisions had always been present in the organisation. A number of the founders had been children of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, some of whom had come here a it older, to study; some of these did have a tendency to see themselves as an intellectual leadership, heading up a larger mainly working class membership. “It was started by these middle class children from the Commonwealth and they only came here to get a degree so that they could go back to get very god jobs in their country… So the Black Panther Movement wanted a revolution, but of course, we couldn’t do a revolution in this country… once we were educated and get to a level to understand the system, people wanted to go further, and those middle class children didn’t want to go any further, because they had their jobs to go back to, you know, they had their life cut out for them unlike us who were left here being a plumber, bricklayer, whatever… So they just said look, we don’t want this anymore, and they just went back to their posh position, in Jamaica, in Soto, in India… and that is why it dissolved.”

Tensions had grown up between leadership and membership, sometimes over what seems like disapproval and ‘morality’, attempts to control the behaviour of some of the members, over issues like sex: “you have to be very careful you do not become what you’re fighting against… They [the central committee] would summon people from the organisation who were kissing in the back of Shakespeare Road, and have them before the central committee and suspend them… The youth group, within the panthers, were always very hostile to the central committee…” Some of the core leaders left, partly in opposition to  ‘kangaroo courts’ of members for what seems like either sleeping with the wrong people, or of being too interested in sex.

According to another ex-member: “you know the idea of young people who are doing all the kind of grassroots work but you also had the leadership, they start to fight amongst themselves…”

Another factor was the pressure to increasing militancy. The glamour of the US Panthers, who had made a great play of going armed, wearing uniforms, posing with guns, in military formation and giving themselves grandiose titles, exercised a strong pull; understandable, perhaps, when back people were facing attacks and police repression (though the fate of the US Panthers,  large numbers of who were shot and killed, and hundreds jailed, would show that it is difficult to take on a highly organised and militarised state on its own terms in this way… not to speak of the elitist, macho and authoritarian dead end you can end up). “Some of the young people in the movement wanted to turn militant like the IRA… some of them wanted to wear berets and uniforms… they wanted to arm themselves with guns and raid places… A guy called Wesley… he got hold of two other guys who were on the fringes of the movement, they got hold of guns and they held up a Knightsbridge Spaghetti House on a Friday afternoon (wages day)…” After a six-day siege, with the three armed men (calling themselves the Black Liberation Army) inside, holding several hostages, they were forced to surrender and received long sentences (17, 18 and 21 years each). Allegedly the money they hoped to seize was intended for the setting up of a black school (at least one of the men had been involved in the panthers supplementary schools program.) The fallout from this event also helped to disillusion Panther Party members about the work they were doing.

With the collapse of the BPP, some ex-members allege both of the buildings owned by the party fell into the hands of leading members, in whose name it had been registered legally, who took personal control of it… “Two of the central committee people… we didn’t even know they’d bought houses where we had parties and changed it to their own names and they took it. They’re still renting one, the one in Shakespeare they sold.”

Many of the Race Today collective also went on to do very well for themselves – eg Farrukh Dhondy, even LKJ and Darcus Howe, became very successful cultural figures and/or pundits in themselves. Farrukh Dhondy also sees a consistent trajectory in the early 70s activism and later work inside the cultural establishment. Which is obviously debatable! Was there a difference between the path they took and that taken by some of the less prominent organisations around Brixton that grew up in the 70s? There’s a measure of truth in the accusation that black groups ‘took the man’s money’ and sold out – but another way of looking at it is that they survived into a harsher economic era, became stable, and used some of those state/GLC/local authority grants in ways that did enable lots of grassroots and radical projects to make more space and autonomy for people. If some grants did buy off radicalism and temper anti-council actions; others used that cash to carry on the struggles they were involved in., for as long as the money lasted.

A more pertinent question might also be; who got the money, who controlled the purse-strings? Class, self-confidence, the ability to work the system, knowing your way around the knotty corridors of funding applications, played a part in how certain groups and individuals ‘rose’ in those years. As did a certain amount of lefty back-scratching; witness the connections at grassroots between Labour activists, community activists, some black radicals and feminists, even squatters (or more accurately, a section of all these), in the early ’70s. Grassroots links in the early ’70s evolved into networks of power in 1980s/90s inside councils, the Labour Party, the charitable and NGO sectors…

Activists shared not only demos and meetings, but also a language, and often a perception of the world and how things worked. If moderation as you get older, or a more realpolitik approach, is somewhat inevitable, those connections can also help the right people find comfortable niches in the structures that they began by fighting… To some extent people see this as achieving something of the change they demanded (and in small ways this may even be true); but change sometimes means only change for YOURSELF. For those without the connections, much of daily life remains the same.

The moderation of aging, being convinced that compromise sometimes can allow you to do some good, the urge to get on, ambition for a cushier number, simply being tired of constant aggro or unpaid social work – the offers of what seem like useful positions on police consultative committees – many factors draw people from one side of a barricade to another. It happens gradually in most cases, people are often not aware of the shift in their own dynamic; though Race Today weren’t wrong to point out that some people are always out to rise on the backs of others.

Living on the frontline

The Black Panthers may have succumbed to police repression and internal tensions; but their militant and organised opposition to the police reflected, and itself, influenced, the culture that had grown up, a culture based in the street and the blues clubs of the Frontline; a culture of opposition to the repressive machinery of the state and largely of disregard to the traditions of employment and respect for the Law, work and ‘getting on’ in life.

As the economic recession hardened, young people of all colours increasingly saw less and less hope in ‘the system’_; for black people especially even the promise of dead end jobs vapourised. The strong street culture that the first West Indian migrants had recreated in the 50s grew and grew, until it became the dominant hallmark of the area – a constant to and fro of young blacks, hanging out, dealing, talking, playing heavy dub, smoking spliffs and drinking.

Increasing numbers of people hanging out on the streets increased the number of confrontations with the filth, who could be relied on not to be major fans of this type of streetlife. Each skirmish wound the tension up a notch.

There was the case of the Railton 4, arrested in Railton Road in June 1971, and brutally assaulted by the police; this provoked large pickets and street meetings in response.

On June 19th 1973, after the Brockwell Park Fair, a running fight broke out between 300 youths and the police. Cops had aggressively steamed through the fair “looking for a black youth who had stabbed someone in a Dulwich road chip shop”. An angry crowd gathered and it kicked off. In response, cops swarmed in from all over South London. Robin Sterling, Lloyd James and Horace Parkinson, were nicked at random, beaten in the copshop, charged with affray, Assault on Police, Possession of offensive weapons. They were found guilty in March 1974, and got three-year sentences. There was an  outcry; especially about Robin Sterling, who was only fifteen. While community leaders like Rudy Narayan and Courtney Laws launched appeals and mitigating pleas, a mass meeting of 70 schoolkids, very militant, aged 9-15, called by the Tulse Hill Students Collective (based around pupils at Tulse Hill School), organised a 1000-strong kids demo from Kennington Park past Camberwell Magistrates Court, through Brixton, past Tulse Hill School to Brockwell Park, and sparked a strike in several South London schools. The Tulse Hill Collective was influenced by the local Black Panthers; including the school’s most notable radical ex-pupil, local Dub poet, former Black Panther, member of the Race Today Collective  – Linton Kwesi Johnson… Other former Tulse Hill pupils include ’80s reggae legend, the Cockney Translator, Smiley Culture, deceased in 2011 in dubious circumstances while being arrested at his home in Surrey, and former Lambeth Councillor, GLC supremo and London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

Robin Sterling of the Brockwell 3 was later freed on appeal.

Throughout 1974 there was battle after battle: hand to fighting at the Railton Youth Club, as the cops raided it; in September, at the Swan in Stockwell, cops stoned windows, then invaded the Swan Disco Club, resulting in a running battle. Seven young black people were nicked, charged with affray, assault on police, possession of offensive weapons. three were found guilty, four got off. A month later there was yet another bundle at Stockwell Tube: a group of black teens coming back from a disco at Caxton Hall were forced off the train by cops who then nicked youths at random, which led to a fight. They were charged with affray, possession of offensive weapons; nine were acquitted, one found guilty of possession of an offensive weapon.

During the 1975 SPG campaign in Lambeth, a pitched battle broke out, after cops beat up a fourteen-year old boy, leading to several arrests.  Police harassment of individuals regularly provoked reprisal. On Tuesday June 1st 1976: Mr Johnson, a 61-year old West Indian, was stopped by police after shopping at Railton Road Cash & Carry. They accused him of nicking the shopping. As he reached for his receipt they pushed him and jostled him; several passers-by intervened and were also assaulted and abused. This led to a confrontation as a crowd of a hundred black youth protested and police reinforcements poured into the area.

During August Bank Holiday 1978, a number of black youth setting off to Notting Hill Carnival were  assaulted and frisked by plainclothes cops, who neglected to introduce themselves before wading in.

In November 1978, the SPG nicked 10 kids on trumped up charges at Stockwell Manor School.

In response to all these events, a politically very moderate Council for Community Relations in Lambeth was set up, to try and bridge the gap between police and the black community. This attempt to shore up normality ended in farce, when in February 1979, the police even raided this Community Council’s office, and fitted up three members of its staff for the stabbing of two cops and a barman in a bar brawl several days before, on the basis that the three men wore sheepskin coats, as did a suspect in the incident. Case solved! As a result the embryonic Police-Liaison Committee collapsed, sparking a Lambeth Council Report into police-community relations. These were the days of the first Ted Knight administration: a leftwing Labour Party group, dominated by young energetic councillors who had emerged from the activist scenes of the 1960s and ’70s, had taken seized control of the Council. As a result, the Council was taking on a left aspect, funding and supporting black organisations, and being critical of the police forays into paramilitary head-cracking.

“Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said!”

On the 18th of January 1981, 13 young black people aged 15 to 20 were killed in a fire at a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road, in New Cross, Southeast London. The police initially stated that they believed the fire was caused by a firebomb, though they later backed away from this, instead targeting black kids present at the party. The fire was widely thought to be a racist attack, and that police were covering up evidence and dragging their feet in the investigation. Family members of the dead received abusive racist letters afterwards.

Black people were enraged at the lack of official action, or even  attention or recognition of the tragedy; politicians and worthies ignored the dead and the relatives. As the banners said: “Thirteen dead: Nothing Said”.

The following Sunday a mass meeting of 1000 people at the Pagnell Street Community Centre (formerly the Moonshot), a black youth centre in New Cross (often raided by police itself, in similar fashion to the SPG antics in Brixton) led to a demo to no 439, which blocked the A2, the main road out of Southeast London, for several hours. From weekly meetings of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, came the Black People’s Assembly, which organised the Black People’s Day of Action on Monday 2nd March 1981; 20,000 black people and supporters marched from nearby Fordham Park through Peckham, Elephant & Castle, across Blackfriars bridge and up through the West End to Hyde Park. There was some minor skirmishing; nothing especially unruly, but the press went ape, splashing headlines about ‘Blacks on the rampage’. The police, in particular, felt large demos of angry black people to be a challenge to their control of the streets. London’s Black population felt they could be burned to death, without much comment, but god forbid they take to the streets in anger.

After the Day of Action, police operations in Brixton (as elsewhere in the capital) were stepped up. The police presence throughout March and early April ’81 was unusual. Even ‘respectable’ residents commented on it. In the first week of April, the police launched Operation Swamp ’81, timed for completion at the weekend. This was intended to foreshadow Operation Star, a London-wide production. Brixton had been chosen for the experimental run. Uniformed police officers were pulled out and sent in again in plain clothes. 943 people were stopped and questioned in the four days immediately prior to the riot, 118 nicked, 75 charged. The police claim that Brixton was chosen because it has high figures for street crime. But to young blacks in the area, the operation was a show of police strength – a boast (partly a response to the New Cross march) that no one but the Met would rule the streets.

It was obviously calculated that the people of Brixton would accept it. The boys in blue were winding things up to an unbearable pitch. At one youth club, the general view was put into words: “Retaliation MUST come soon, this is too much.”

The inevitable result was the April 1981 Brixton Riot.


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More Reading

This is an admittedly inadequate article, conceived as a chapter in past tense’s so far unfinished project on the past and present of rebellious and underground Brixton. It’s a work in progress, which was put aside in 2007, and is yet to be finished. A longer, more researched version is hopefully to appear in the near future, though we haven’t yet completely worked out in what form.

For now, people interested in reading more about police-community relations in this period, would benefit from looking up:

  • The Final Report of the Working Party Into Community/Police Relations in Lambeth, London Borough of Lambeth, January 1981. (A ‘Final Report’… produced 3 months before the April ’81 Riot…the irony!).

Periodicals

  • Race Today magazine, numerous issues.
  • The Leveller magazine.

Newspapers

  • South London Press.
  • Brixton’s Own Boss, a radical community newspaper in the 1970s.

Books

  • Do You Remember Olive Morris? produced by the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, 2010.
  • Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, Trevor & Mike Phillips
  • Heart of the race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, 1985.
  • The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An oral history and photography Project, published by Organised Youth. Produced for a exhibition in Brixton 2013 – some audio and photos from this project are online here
  • A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance, A. Sivanandan.

Articles

  • Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain, The David Nicholls Memorial Lectures, No.2, 2000, Harry Goulbourne.
  • Writing our own History: Talking Personal, Talking Political (on history of the Brixton black Women’s Group), in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife no 19, 1990.

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