Sixth Huntley Conference
London, February 19 2011
We owe a mighty debt of gratitude to all those people who came before us. The martyrs Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Dulcie September, Steve Biko – who gave their lives so that we could be free. The heroes and sheroes, including Mary Seacole (the Black nursing heroine of Britain's Crimea War not the historically renowned snow white Florence Nightingale) and Rosa Parks – whose refusal to give up her seat for a white man in the year of my birth changed American race relations.
And, of course, Jessica and Eric Huntley, the redoubtable campaigning Black couple for whom this conference is named. Congratulations to both of you for achieving 60 years of marriage – and as many years of campaigning. The Huntleys had already begun their lives of commitment to the struggle before they left what was then British Guiana and they continued in the same vein after they migrated to Britain in the late 1950s.
It is more than 40 years ago that this feisty Guyanese couple started publishing as an extension of their political activities. That's a little later than when my father came to the UK as a 17-year-old Royal Air Force recruit to keep this country free from Nazi domination. My father was a Pan-Africanist and Socialist - politics he gave to me.
And our Nigerian brother Toyin, of Ligali, who bravely stormed the Westminster Abbey gathering of white folk who were celebrating the 200th anniversary of the "abolition of the slave trade"; patting themselves on the back for "freeing" us. He rightly spoilt their celebration that was based on a lie.
Toyin powerfully reminded the smug VIPs, with his courageous, one-man, direct action protest, that we, Black people, are our own liberators. He suffered arrest and police harassment afterwards. I salute Toyin, an African giving solidarity to Caribbeans whose forebears were enslaved. We need more people like him.
The book company the Huntley's founded, Bogle-L’Ouverture, took its name from two heroic individuals who fought for freedom against oppression: Paul Bogle, of Jamaica, and Haiti’s Toussaint L’Ouverture. And the very first title published was Walter Rodney’s seminal Groundings with my Brothers in 1969, the year after Rodney had been banned from returning to teach in Jamaica.
I bought that book as a young man and was struck by its fearlessness at a time when Black people in the Caribbean were still deferential towards the white people who ruled them.
Rodney the intellectual giant challenged Jamaica’s motto, “Out of many one people”, by asking how it could be when 96 per cent of Jamaicans were of African descent. The motto was there to appease the white minority. Curry favour with them.
I feel the same about the African National Congress’s pledge about a “non-racial” democracy rather than it taking a stand to proudly proclaim Black majority rule after the ending of apartheid in 1994.
We should stop apologising when we get power. Black people like myself who joined the Labour Party at the beginning of the 1980s to change it felt the same way. Almost 90 per cent of African Caribbeans and Asians who go to the polls vote Labour. We saved the party from being wiped out in the May 2010 elections by voting en masse for it in London and the big metropolitan areas of England.
But what have we got in return? Very little in terms of representation and a paltry amount of policies for us. And that's because we're longer organised to make our demands. To push forward the Black agenda. And the Labour leadership do nothing because they know we're stuck with the party; there is no such thing as "the Black vote" - an electoral bloc that can be moved from Labour to Liberal-Democrat, for instance, should our leaders say Nick Clegg's party offers us a better deal.
Most Black Sections activists were British-born and, unlike our migrant parents, constantly reminded of the host nation’s charity and how grateful-to-be-in-Britain they should be, we were defiant and angry. There's nothing wrong with rage directed at the oppressor by the oppressed. We should rediscover it.
A few thwarted middle-class careerists with parliamentary ambitions were the prime movers behind the founding of the Labour Party Black Sections, I’ll be frank.
But it was not long before younger leftists, more keen on working with community campaigns as well as campaigning for greater African Caribbean and Asian representation in the party, sidelined them and took over the movement.
My manifesto for becoming chair of the Black Sections was titled Campaign Black Links. A founder member in 1983 with the likes of Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Russell Profitt, I was elected leader two years later.
I juggled the job with being a Thames reporter/presenter and trade unionist at the London television station. Management would have relished sacking me to remove a thorn in its side but feared if it did so this would have become a cause célèbre and publicly embarrass the company.
Abbott, Vaz, Grant and Boateng created history getting elected to parliament in 1987 – each of them paying tribute to the role the Black Sections played in getting them there.
Boateng’s famed: “Brent South today, Soweto tomorrow” speech could have been made by any Black Sections activist, so concerned we were to give solidarity to our sisters and brothers at home and abroad. The setting up of the Parliamentary Black Caucus in 1988, the same year the Black Sections published its milestone Black Agenda, was a political leap forward.
Its membership comprised Abbott, Grant, Vaz and Lord David Pitt. But “I’m not mono-chrome” Boateng’s refusal to join sowed the seeds of the caucus’s demise. Added to that, its leadership did not want to work with Black Sections activists on an equal footing. They wanted to do their own thing. It’s an age-old problem. The grassroots versus its leadership.
Activists versus the members of parliament they helped to create. It’s not confined to Black organisations. Look at the state of the Liberal Democrats today. Its opportunist leadership has torn up the Lib-Dem’s noble and progressive manifesto commitments to policies like no student fees and an amnesty for non-documented migrants in order to be in government with the right-wing Conservatives.
The rank-and-file membership has tried to pull back its leadership, for instance, to stop the multi-billion-pound cuts in public expenditure that are an attack on the poor, elderly, young, sick, Black and vulnerable in our society when the fat-cat bankers, who caused the economic crisis, should be made to pay.
No one can fail to have been shaken up by the scenes of fury on TV from the student demonstration that turned nasty in London last year. Lecturers at Goldsmith's College strongly supported the protestors and as a fellow member of their union I back what they said.
They congratulated staff and students "on the magnificent anti-cuts demonstration" and added: "We wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by NUS [National Union of Student] and [national] UCU [University and College Union] concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ.
The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts."
The passion of the protestors was a timely reminder of the riot 30 years ago when Black youth rose up against police harassment in a rebellion that sparked uprisings throughout Britain’s inner cities.
African Caribbeans, Asians and their white working-class allies in Bristol, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and several towns across the country forcefully sent home the message to the authorities that “enough is enough”.
Youth had suffered years of humiliation at the hands of police who misused the notorious “Sus” stop and search law. Their parents had also been criminalised at christening and wedding parties that officers raided on the pretext that they were illegal shebeens. Thirteen young Black people died in the New Cross fire in suspicious circumstances. Jessica, Eric and Darcus Howe, who are here with us, founded the New Cross Fire Massacre Action Committee.
They raised the slogan: “13 dead, nothing said.”
Black children were failed by an education system that put them in the dustbin. Remember Bernard Coard’s book, How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system, published by New Beacon Books back in 1971. Our parents faced the colour bar in employment and housing.
They had to form their own churches because white churches spurned them. Vicars would tell Black worshippers not to come back because his white congregation wouldn't come back if they did.
Liverpool community activist turned academic Wally Brown told a Black History Month meeting at the British Library titled Our memories of the uprisings: the 1980s revisited: “The police hated Black people and, because of their criminalisation by them, Black people hated the police.”
Racist immigration barriers affected Asian newcomers whom Margaret Thatcher, as a curtain-raiser in 1978, cast to the fascist National Front and their sympathisers in the Conservative Party with her “swamping” remark on TV.
In 1981 – a year after St Pauls, Bristol - the biggest and most ferocious uprising came in Brixton after police launched a paramilitary-style stop and search operation against Black youth called “Swamp”.
The uprising – TV images of which were flashed around the world - made politicians and news media sit up and notice the previously ignored grievances of Black people. Eminent judge Lord Scarman was drafted in to hold an official inquiry.
But, though he identified race discrimination by law enforcement officers and economic disadvantage, Scarman lamentably refused to recognise the “institutional racism” of the police that the post Stephen Lawrence murder Macpherson report declared two decades later.
As a result of Scarman, government money was poured into inner-city projects allegedly aimed at tackling unemployment and inequality. But white businessmen and one or two Black entrepreneurs benefited. The people who had rioted remained at the bottom of the pile.
Yes, through the struggle of Labour Party Black Sections activists, there was a three-fold increase in Black councillors in the UK, four Black MPs put into parliament and three Black council leaders in London.
But these gains, constantly undermined particularly by the white supremacist Labour leadership, were rolled back once Black activism was parked by its beneficiaries. Powerful Black Sections has been replaced by the poodle dog Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) for Labour that should be called lame not BAME.
Keith Vaz represents it on Labour’s ruling national execution committee. After the May, 2010 General Election, we now have 27 African and Asian MPs – fairly evenly spread in the Labour and Conservative Parties. But they are not Black MPs. They are MPs who just happen to Black.
Their allegiance to party leader, in the hope of preferment based on patronage, is more important to them than promoting the interests of the Black community. They’re on the parliamentary gravy train. No longer is there a Black tribune like Bernie Grant. The Black perspective is not represented and this does not bode well for us or the establishment. As Dr Martin Luther King once said: “The riot is the voice of the unheard.”
Or, my favourite author James Baldwin’s foreboding: “The fire next time.” If we’re not heard in the Mother of Parliaments we’ll be heard in the street.
Successful Black and anti-racist campaigning and reformist race laws have driven the overt racism our parents suffered underground. So, Islamophobia has become the new racism. According to a 1997 report by the Runnymede Trust, a UK race think-tank, Islamaphobia is defined as:
“Unfounded hostility towards Islam and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims”.
For 10 years, I have taught journalism at London’s City University, where there is a large and well-organised Asian student body. I asked a Muslim student of mine to comment on Islamaphobia in preparation for this speech.
She wrote to me: “The Muslim world is a focal point of attention as a result of world events portrayed by the Western-dominated mass media. Subsequent to September 11 (the attack on America in 2000) Muslims have been pushed into forefront of political disagreements concerning identity, rights and allegiance to country, whether Britain, other nations in Europe like Germany and France, and America. Effectively, since 9/11, Muslims have been under siege.”
We’ve seen that in Britain with English Defence League poison. The League are skinhead, British National Party rejects. But they are disturbingly drawing support from disaffected white working class people with their bogus claim that parts of Britain are now under Sharia and "it's time to get our country back".
Alarmingly, when they descended on Luton last month, so I was told by a Black Sections comrade who lives there, the League had 2,000 demonstrators and anti-racists opposing them could muster just 1,500. Coaches taking anti-racists to Luton were half full. Why? What's happened to the anti-racist movement? It seems the heart has been ripped out of it by infighting and splits caused by the failure of movement's white key players to accept that Black people should be in the leadership.
The Runnymede Trust noted that in 1981 there were 7,000 racist attacks reported to the police. By 2008/9 racist and religion-based attacks had risen to 160,000 – only 10,000 of which were reported to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Educationally and economically Black people are faring better than in the 1980s. But in the criminal justice system Black people have taken a hammering.
Shocking facts include that the proportion of Black people in British jails today is much greater than in the US and that Black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people. The unpunished deaths of Black people in police custody is a national scandal. Remember Roger Sylvester, arrested naked by police in north London on one of coldest nights of the year in January 1999, and thrown into the back of a van. Killed by heartless officers like so many other people.
Former Commission for Race Equality Chair Lord Ouseley told me: "One can look back to 20 years ago and say that there were Black council leaders and local government executives, whereas today there are very few. In some town halls it's an all-white structure at the top."
Bernie Grant called it “the Guinness effect”. I did a special report for the The-Latest and the Guardian newspaper about it in 2010.
Ouseley said: "It's inexplicable why talented Black and minority ethnic people are no longer in key decision-making positions."
Black leadership has gone on the Wanted list. As Black parents and mature citizen we have to take ownership – responsibility for the problem. We spread love not hate.
We shouldn't feel alone in Britain. The October 2010 edition of Ebony magazine said: "Save for a few shining examples, Black American leadership has been in a state of arrested development since the days of Malcolm X, Dr King, the Student Non-Violent Coodinating Committee, Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party."
It added, poignantly: "And, no, Barack Obama is not a Black leader; he is the president of the United States of America."
Upstart Obama upset veteran campaigner the Rev Jesse Jackson when he chastised Black fathers. Famously, Jackson, who thought he was off camera, said he’d like to rip off a part of Obama’s anatomy for what he considered was a slight against Black men by a prominent Black man in front of white folk.
I sympathise with both men. I have two troublesome sons. Their mother and I have given them a good upbringing. But both have fallen foul of the law. But I’m not alone. I know of two other parents, prominent in Black politics – one of whose sons ended up in jail for arms offences and the other mixed up in drugs.
“Send them to Africa,” or “Send them to Jamaica, that’ll straighten then out”, is the refrain from elders in my extended family. But, is that the answer? Can we come up with home-grown solutions?
Discipline. Boundaries at home are important. The rewarding of study and good behaviour with access to a Playstation or computer. But, in the West, our children’s peers have become their parents – when it comes to dominant influence. And, in such circumstances, popularity is more important than respect. Instant gratification is more addictive than gratification earned and deferred.
Margaret Thatcher’s divisive philosophy that there is no such thing as society has infected the Black community. The cult of individualism has replaced collectivism. Bling, bling materialism promoted by reckless rap stars – hapless victims of Black music for white profit – rules among our misguided youth. What happened to the positive, socially and politically conscious lyrics of Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder?
Bob Marley's Redemption Song quotes a Marcus Garvey speech from 1937: "We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind."
I pay tribute to people making a difference in our midst. The Black Music Congress is an organisation run by Kwaku, which is a forum for discussing Black music issues, networking and a pathway to music industry education. I was a panellist for its 2006 debate held at City University entitled Has Black Music Lost Its Politics? One of the panellists was Aki Nawaz of Fun-da-mental, probably one of the most politically charged groups to come out of the British Black music scene.
The fact is that although much of our music seems to concentrate on love, entertainment and chasing the pop pound and fame, there are some politically aware artists out there.
But like Linton Kwesi Johnson, HKB Finn and Best Kept Secret they tend to be under the radar – not mainstream, and as much as we need them, they seldom get enough airtime to impact on our psyche to the extent that they ought to. We as consumers need to be proactive in searching out for them.
Kwaku and Ms Serwah run another voluntary organisation Beyond The Will Smith Challenge, that organises a range of activities. However, whether working with young people or adults, their ethos of no-swearing and keeping lyrics positive in order to empower, is a thread that runs through what they do.
I, like Eric Huntley, happen to be one of those featured in their latest project Naming And Role Model, which highlights people from Marcus Garvey to Linton Kwesi Johnson, Henry Sylvester Williams, George Padmore and John La Rose.
Our world today can be a mad. My son was stabbed, aged 15, in a dispute over post codes in south-east London. So I know what it’s like to sit in the emergency room of a hospital fearing for your child’s life. My son lived. Others needlessly die.
Metropolitan Police recorded crime and the British Crime Survey indicate that the number of teenage murders increased significantly in 2007, from 17 to 26. Furthermore, the problem became worse during 2008, with 27 cases between January and October. Of the 27 victims in 2008, 22 were stabbed, three were shot, and two were beaten to death.
The under-20s murder trend has seen a substantial increase since 2006/07. While teenage murder is by no means peculiar to London, it does appear to be more prevalent in the capital. There were 32 of them in the UK between January and July 2008, 18 of which were in London, 56 per cent of the British total. This is disproportionately high considering that London only accounts for 11 per cent of the UK teenage population.
The Black disproportionality of youth victims for murder alone is particularly pronounced. From April 2004 to end of March 2008, 65 per cent of youth murder victims were Black African or Black Caribbean. Twelve and a half per cent of youth murder victims were white European.
I chaired an anti-gun crime public meeting at the Damilola Taylor Centre at Peckham where I’ve lived for more than 10 years. Before that I was 20 years in the Brixton area. I witnessed the uprising there of 1981 first hand.
Research by the Department for Education and Professional Studies, of King’s College London, published in 2010, found that Black and Muslim boys faced the greatest problems at school. Even within the same family, parents described how their sons experienced more conflict and problems than their daughters at school due to gendered, racialised stereotypes of Black boys as "bad boys".
These stereotypes were an issue even for African Caribbean and Asian boys from a middle class background, but especially where they were a tiny visible minority within a predominantly white school. This was confounded with peer pressure to live up to the "hard", "bad boy" image.
That we have gone backwards can be explained. The end of Black rebellion has resulted in a loss of ground. Maybe we handed the baton of dissent in 2010 to the student movement.
The challenge for us is to be where Black youth are at and not where we would like them to be according to our old fashioned ways of campaigning. They don’t do demos like we used to. They’re smarter and more switched on than that. They use “social networking” on the internet. Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Their Apple iPhone or BlackBerry mobile.
We have to be politically nimble. Versatile. Adapt to new means of communication that are unfettered by Rupert Murdoch’s evil empire, the BBC, ITV, Fleet Street or Simon Cowell’s culturally corrosive X-Factor.
Wasn’t it great when young people decided enough was enough and stopped a Cowell puppet artist becoming the Christmas number one in 2009 by a Facebook, Rage Against the Machine internet a campaign to stop his chart domination.
And, since 2006, when I founded Britain’s first citizen journalism website The-Latest.Com, that’s where I’ve been with like-minded colleagues. It’s the way forward and its potential is huge and exciting.
The site has been ahead of the pack, being the first news media organisation to challenge police brutality at the G20 protests of April 2009, and the killing by officers of innocent bystander Ian Tomlinson. Unlike big media, we also covered the student demonstrations of 2010 in a supportive way.
Whistleblowers have been crucial to investigative journalism since time immemorial. The Watergate scoop of the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that brought down President Nixon in August 1974 is a famous example. Leaks from off-guard, disgruntled and dissenting officialdom can let the public know, through the optic of journalism, what politicians and their hugely influential advisors really think about issues and policy that affects them.
In its own small way The-Latest has made a contribution.
The website revealed City Hall mendacity when it exposed the racist views of the Mayor of London chief political advisor James McGrath in 2008. The scoop was followed up by national media – print and broadcast – and McGrath was sacked as a consequence. McGrath’s right-wing supporters, including Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle, ex-Editor of BBC Radio’s Today programme, unleashed a torrent of abuse on The-Latest editor and the website itself.
The publication in 2010 of the Wikileaks Cables, of communications between US embassies around the world, was journalistically earth shattering. It was a bigger story than the leaking of details of British MPs’ expenses to the Daily Telegraph that was also a huge story in 2009. Wikileaks, until then, had been a small but very useful website trawled by editors such as the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger.
The Wikileaks Cables catapulted the site and its boss Julian Assange to mega-fame status. This was alternative media’s greatest moment – a scoop by the public for the public. It was so big that even Assange, Wikileaks’ editor-in-chief, could not keep control of the dissemination of the highly damaging (to the US, other Western governments and their allies) material.
We've seen Western politicians and commentators shed crocodile tears about movements for democracy in the Middle East (but we mustn’t mention Saudi Arabia, the most oppressive of them all). But what about democracy here in Britain? Who ever elected our head of state, the queen?
We need an Egypt here to complete the democratic process.
On the up side, there are more Black students in further and higher education – and doing better – than ever before. More Black lawyers and leaders in the criminal justice system (new inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service is Mike Fuller, who was Britain’s first Black police chief constable). Go to a trial at an inner London court.
At one, I witnessed the best advertisement for equal opportunities: Chair of Magistrates, legal advisor and probation officer – all of them Black women – conducting the case. Good or bad? The Spook Who Sat By The Door, Sam Greenlee’s inspirational book of 1969. A blueprint for what Black people “in the system” should do?
Is what I saw in the court room the pinnacle of successful British multi-culturalism? The very word "multiculturalism" has so many definitions it almost requires translation. It's not black and white. Which is ironic.
As a result it was possible to draw almost any conclusion from David Cameron's speech on the subject, from "segregation is unhelpful" to "send 'em back".
Delivered in Munich, in February 2011, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel clapping approvingly, the speech went down well with the BNP's Nick Griffin, who interpreted it as a "huge leap for our ideas into the political mainstream".
The speech was also welcomed by Tommy Robinson of the English Defence League – and Stephen Lennon of the English Defence League. Who are both the same person, Robinson being Lennon's pseudonym. Mr Robinson-Lennon claims he's opposed only to extremist Muslims, not moderate ones, although how he hopes to tell them apart when he seems unsure of his own name is anyone's guess.
But then certain elements of the EDL seem confused by names in general. Several of them have been heard chanting "Allah, Allah, who the f*** is Allah?" If they don't know who he is, perhaps they ought to read that book they want to ban.
Robinson-Lennon appeared on BBC television's Newsnight, up against tough interviewer Jeremy Paxman. Not a classic battle of wits, but nonetheless the EDL's man came out on top: while middle-class viewers may have chortled at Robinson-Lennon's relative inarticulacy, others may have seen a member of the establishment sneering at a working-class white guy.
Returning to young people and protest, the famed French student rebellion of May 1968 was one of the biggest social movements in the country’s history. Workers in trade unions followed the example of the students and mounted strikes to improve their conditions. The French establishment thought it was a second revolution and it was about to be overthrown. It was a revolt against consumer society and capitalism.
In Italy students staged a sit-in at the University of Rome in February 1968. German students rioted in April of the same year. Students were killed by riot police in the USA, And there were the Japanese student riots of 1968-70.
Students in French-speaking Senegal and Congo, in Africa, also rose up. Senegal with strike movement of the students and worker around May 68 under Senghor’s regime. This event lead to one of the first creation of student assembly in Senegal - the Dakar student union and the Senegalese Student Democratic Union.
Congolese students, under the dictator Mobutu’s regime, staged demonstrations against the regime in June 1969 and created the Congo Student General Union.
These days the organised rebellion of Black youth cannot be found. Is it because they prefer individualism to collectivism? Or, that they lack role models? Youth probably don't know that a Ghanaian Sir Bernie Ribeiro was President of the Royal College of Surgeon until 2008. I’d never heard of him, until a researcher told me, just like most of our youth have never heard of the Black inventor of the light bulb Lewis Latimer. Or that Black people invented the shoe-making machine, traffic lights, open heart surgery and blood transfusion.
What lessons can we learn from the youth-led net generations that elected a social change Black US presidential candidate and toppled an African (Egyptian) autocrat?
The internet offers massive and wonderful opportunities to spread democracy and make sure that voices that big media ignores are heard. I am proud that The-Latest is part of this youth-led social networking that includes Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Let’s harness the power of the social media and its uses in expressing grievances and mobilising democratic dissent.
There is a huge future role for cyber-organisers and radical cyberactivists. It is a privilege to be a journalist and editor of a post-leafleting, post-protest songs 21st century citizens’ journal that is increasingly such a strong voice. Think Huffington Post and Wikileaks.
Through our charitable partner, the Citizen Journalism Educational Trust, we train ordinary people from disadvantaged background to make their own news. I’ve just completed one such course at Kids Company.
So, what is to be done? Quite rightly Al Sharpton says: “How dare you call yourself an activist if you’re not active.”
The internet has opened up a brave new world where we can be active – young and old – and make the powerful fear people power that they can’t control.