The legendary soul singer Marvin Gaye famously asked, “What’s Going On?” His 1971 album examined the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
In one song, a veteran returning home to find a land riven with injustice and inequality is left wondering what he had been fighting for.
Okay, that war’s over and there aren’t that many black vets returning to Britain from Afghanistan.
But there is definitely something going on in the African-Caribbean community today.
The rapid growth of the campaign group Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (Barac) is one example.
It has held meetings—sometimes hundreds strong—across Britain.
The response to the death in police custody of reggae star Smiley Culture is another example.
A demonstration to demand answers from the police last month drew around 2,500 mostly black protesters to New Scotland Yard. They vowed to return in even greater numbers until justice is achieved.
The growing militancy among black people can in part be explained by the disproportionate impact of the government’s cuts.
We’re being squeezed—both as employees and as users of services. Many of us were already struggling through the so-called boom years.
In London, over half of young black people are already unemployed. Most observers expect that figure to rocket in the coming years. That’s something that to many brings back horrific memories of the 1980s.
But it’s not an economic onslaught in isolation. There is also a political reflex at work here that in the past may have been held back by an allegiance to Labour.
There’s a big question mark over Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s legacy. Many recognise that what Labour gave with one hand it took away with the other.
So they introduced the Educational Maintenance Allowance—but also increased university tuition fees. They increased spending on the NHS—but pushed the market into every public service.
The legal advances that flowed from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry were undermined by a constant stream of concessions to racism. This culminated in the abolition of the Commission for Racial Equality.
Now there’s a sense that Labour wasted its years in power and that as a result we now have the fight of our lives on our hands. For many of us it is far from clear how Labour is going to help us.
That’s not to say that the black working class’s allegiance to Labour has disappeared.
For example, Tottenham MP David Lammy’s vote went up in the last general election.
But the inadequacy of the response from traditional black leaders—Labour MPs and ex-MPs, in particular—is widely noted. Dawn Butler, Diane Abbott and David Lammy were all absent from the Smiley Culture march.
That failure of leadership in the face of attacks, combined with the practical example of working class self‑activity bringing change in Egypt and Tunisia, is creating a perfect storm of politicisation—and a new opening for revolutionaries.
Black trade unionists, very much in evidence on the Smiley Culture march and at Barac meetings, are looking seriously for an effective way to fight back.
The Tories are adding fuel to the fire with their attacks on multiculturalism.
When the establishment says multiculturalism has failed, lots of us believe it really means that they think it was a bad idea to allow all these black and Asian people into Britain in the first place.
Increasingly, many of the positions taken by revolutionary socialists—that we live in a class society where the ruling class use racism to divide us and the state to oppress us—sound like common sense.
Those who point out the need for black and white working class unity generally get a warm reception.
It was no accident that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) made placards with the Smiley Culture campaigners.
And it was campaign organisers who collected up all those placards, including the SWP ones, to be used for the next demo.
Our argument that you have to fight and prepare for a revolution, and that in so doing we can also win reforms in the here and now, is reaching an ever-widening audience in the African-Caribbean community.
As Bobby Seale of the US socialist liberation group the Black Panthers might have said—let’s seize the times.