It is 1971, London. Black people are facing police brutality, discrimination in jobs and housing, and a vocal fascist presence to “keep Britain white”. Additionally, the 1971 Immigration Act will mean that British Commonwealth citizens will lose their right to remain.
This is the backdrop to new TV series Guerrilla. Poignantly it screens after the unexpected death of Darcus Howe, who collaborated on the series.
Howe was a spirited and formidable anti-racist and an active member of the British Black Panther movement.
He was also one of the Mangrove Nine, who in 1971 were arrested and put on trial for crimes, including conspiracy to incite a riot. They were eventually acquitted of the charges.
Set in Brixton and Notting Hill Gate at the time, Guerrilla explores the response of black people to the experience of racism through the love story of a couple, Jas and Marcus.
Their social network represents the Commonwealth immigrant communities thrown together—Irish, Caribbean, African and Asian.
The brutality of the police and the ease with which they could physically attack these communities is portrayed with shocking accuracy.
A Special Branch unit called the Black Power Desk was tasked to destroy all forms of black activism. Cops working with the unit target Jas and Marcus’s friend and beat him to death on a demonstration.
Marcus and Jas decide to take action. This leads them to liberate a political prisoner called Dhari and form an underground cell to take on the Black Power Desk.
“Forget the doctrine of good blacks that is propagated by the white right wing press. Nothing ever came from being good,” said Dhari.
Their relationship and the movement’s direction are tested as the police scour the community in search of them.
The opening episodes are a reminder that the Black Power movement had strong women in its leadership and was part of an international movement against colonialism.
Some Black Lives Matter activists’ criticisms of the casting of Freida Pinto (an Asian woman) as Jas reflect historical ignorance of the makeup of black resistance in Britain. The character references Indian author and activist Mala Sen in London in the 1960s.
Sen and Howe were part of a defence group to protect a community under attack from racists, and they formed the Bengali Housing Action group.
In effect it established Brick Lane as the centre of the Bengali community in east London.
In the words of South African black consciousness leader Steve Biko, “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation—being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.”
Guerrilla is a timely series. It lifts the lid on a period of struggle that has been otherwise hidden from history.
Some in the movement chose to use guerrilla tactics to overthrow the British state while others wanted to develop a mass movement and use direct action to bring about change.
In the 1970s there were 3,000 members of the Black Panthers based in Notting Hill Gate and Brixton.
Guerrilla raises questions about the most effective ways to challenge the institutional racism of the state, while emphasising the right of black people to defend themselves.
I look forward to the series developing and how it depicts the rise of the mass movement to challenge racism. It’s certainly a series worth watching!
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