The Mangrove was a West Indian restaurant with a radical reputation long before I was involved in defending it.
Set in one of the poorest and most ethnically mixed areas of late 1960s London, it was a meeting place and a beacon of resistance.
Everyone in the area knew it as somewhere where radical celebrities wanted to be seen, but they also understood it was more important than that.
It was a place where black and white people came to debate, discuss and organise.
“The Mangrove was an oasis for black people. It was like coming home,” as a local postal worker put it to me.
That’s why the police raided the Mangrove 12 times between 1969 and 1970, and why they subsequently put nine people from the restaurant on trial for crimes, including conspiracy to incite a riot.
Despite the police and the justice system coming badly unstuck when all were acquitted of incitement in a 1971 trial, the harassment and fit ups continued through the decade.
By the late 1980s the cops were at it again.
An ambitious deputy assistant commissioner, Paul Condon, who would later feature in the Stephen Lawrence story, used sledgehammers to break into the Mangrove allegedly to seize drugs.
They arrested owner Frank Crichlow and 11 others and charged them with supplying heroin, despite Frank being known for his tough anti-drugs stance. The police banned him from going near the Mangrove for a year.
Like many others, I joined the campaign to defend Frank and stop the annual police raid on the Notting Hill Carnival. But as a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), I wasn’t welcomed by everyone.
Some of the younger leaders, such as Lee Jasper, were heavily influenced by black cultural nationalism. They wanted a campaign that only involved other black people, or one in which whites could only offer passive support. This layer of people used a lot of radical rhetoric but in reality they were reformists.
That is, they wanted the campaign to help them win government and council funding for black projects, rather than concentrate their fire on the system.
And I, as a black South African, was said to have betrayed the cause by becoming a Marxist. This, they claimed, was a Eurocentric ideology.
There were rarely full blown rows in the campaign meetings but the exchanges afterwards could be brutal. But neither I, nor the other party comrades were to be put off.
Our starting point was that there was massive support for Frank and the Mangrove among black and white workers who lived or worked in the area. So, we set about raising the issue everywhere we could.
We wanted to prove in practice that whites could fight against racism.
In the process, we got support from local hospital workers, teachers, council workers and students. We printed leaflets and posters and distributed them everywhere. Whenever there was work to be done, you’d find us helping to do it.
Despite some difficulties, we worked alongside all the other political forces in the campaign—from the churches, to the Labour left to the liberals, to the black nationalists—despite the disagreements.
As the campaign developed, we won a lot of respect in the local community. Notting Hill was known as a black area but it also had a large Irish community and many other poor whites.
The SWP’s call for black and white working class unity fitted with lots of their experiences. And, we also got a hearing among a section of the campaign, particularly the longer established leaders, such as Trevor Carter.
Like Trevor, some had a background in the Communist Party or the broader radical left, and wanted to engage with us.
The discussions could involve hard arguments. But I learned quickly that you don’t win people’s respect by pandering to them, or brushing differences aside—you do so by standing up for yourself and telling people what you believe.
The Mangrove trial started in 1989 and the cops’ story unravelled spectacularly.
Despite 36 police officers, including Condon himself, giving evidence, the jury acquitted Frank of all charges. Other juries also acquitted the rest of the defendants.
In 1992, Frank sued the Metropolitan Police for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution and won.
He was awarded £50,000, a relatively small price for a man whose life was so often torn up by the state.
In my view, the legal campaign could only be successful as part of the campaign in the community and workplaces.
We tapped into the widespread feeling against racism and discrimination—and the radical spirit of resistance that infected the poor of Notting Hill, both black and white.