Socialist Worker

Films show a history of black unity in Britain

Yuri Prasad takes a look at an inspiring series of films made in the 1980s about the struggles of black people in Britain against racism

Issue No. 2133

Bengalis protest against racism outside Bethnal Green police station in east London, July 1978 (Pic: John Sturrock)

Bengalis protest against racism outside Bethnal Green police station in east London, July 1978 (Pic: John Sturrock)


Shortly after the 1958 Notting Hill “race riots”, the notorious British fascist Oswald Mosley announced that he intended to become MP for the west London neighbourhood.

On hearing this RAF veteran Baron Baker knew he had to act. Born in Jamaica, he had come to Britain during the Second World War to join the fight against the Nazis.

As Mosley attempted to mount the podium of his election rally in west London, Baker wrestled him off. He shouted that he had fought for his country in the war – while Mosley had been in jail for supporting the other side.

No one was going to tell Baker that he did not deserve a place in Britain. And just as he had fought in Europe against Hitler, he was prepared to fight racism in London.

Baker’s story is just one of many brought to life in a DVD collection put together by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

The four short films, originally made in the early 1980s, depict black and Asian communities in Cardiff, Leicester, Notting Hill and Southall. They are essential viewing for all anti-racists.

The great strength of the films is how they let a variety of locals and activists relate their stories without the need for narration. We hear elderly residents of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay remembering the 1919 anti-black riots that tore through the mixed areas next to the docks.

Young Asian activists in the late 1970s formed the Southall Youth Movement. Through them we learn how second generation immigrants took up the fight against police racism and the fascist National Front (NF).

From Leicester we hear Asian workers talking of how they fought both their bosses and the leaders of their own unions. Strike action won them rights at companies such as Imperial Typewriters and Mansfield Hosiery.

The theme that unites this collection is how the struggle against racism generates political unity among all those who suffer from it – and how this leads to an understanding of “black” as a political description that unites Asian and African-Caribbean people.

By the early 1980s this understanding of the term “black” and of “communities of resistance” was widely held across the anti-racist movement.

Waves of increasingly harsh immigration controls separated migrant workers from the Commonwealth from their families. They bore down on all those with darker skin. Police racism and harassment of second generation immigrants created a simmering anger in both Asian and African-Caribbean areas.

Threat

The NF was a threat to all those who did not fit into its vision of an “all white Britain”. The IRR films capture how a desire for a united black response arose and overcame the religious and cultural differences that could act as a barrier between those who suffered racism.

They also show how in many areas, black organisations developed to provide support, representation and education among communities whose needs were being deliberately ignored.

Most of these organisations were initially run on a shoestring without any government funding. They became centres for intense battles against the racism of the Nazis and of the state.

The film about the west London suburb of Southall tells the story of People Unite, a centre that sought to use music to bring local young people together. Reggae band Misty In Roots were based there, as were punk band The Ruts.

April 1979 saw a huge demonstration in Southall against the NF, during which the police killed anti-racist teacher Blair Peach. Uniformed officers battered their way into the People Unite centre. They smashed the equipment and badly beat the occupants.

Misty’s Clarence Baker was hit so hard he slipped into a coma. In the aftermath of the attack, the local council ordered the group’s eviction – and then demolished the building.

The films in the IRR collection were made at the high point of black organisation, before a later period of decline. As the IRR has documented, in the years after the 1981 Brixton riots the state moved increasingly from a strategy of confrontation with black organisations to one of incorporation.

Government grants were offered to those who would provide centres and offer “leadership” in their communities.

Those organisations that participated in such schemes found themselves trapped into dependency. This worked against them playing a central role in future struggles against racism.

The black leaders that emerged in the early 1980s were faced with the carrot of seats in the council chamber – and the stick of losing funding if they failed to play by the rules. Some of them quickly downplayed their earlier radicalism.

For them, these films should serve as an uncomfortable reminder of how every new wave of struggle against racism sees the oppressed forming new organisations to represent them – sweeping aside those who are no longer relevant.

Struggles for Black Community, directed by Colin Prescod, can be ordered on DVD from the Institute of Race Relations website – go to » www.irr.org.uk


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Features
Tue 6 Jan 2009, 18:40 GMT
Issue No. 2133
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