By Weyman Bennett
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Black and fighting back

This article is over 11 years, 11 months old
The riots that happened last summer highlighted the gulf that exists between many young black people and mainstream black political figures. Brian Richardson and Mark L Thomas spoke to Weyman Bennett about the new mood of anger among black people.
Issue 365

“There is a significant change taking place among young people. The people involved in the riots generalised politically much more than in 1981 and 1985.”

But there were signs of this even before the riots, argues Weyman. The demonstration a couple of months earlier over the death of the black musician Smiley Culture during a police raid on his house attracted several thousand people – the biggest protest over a death in custody for a number of years.

“At the Smiley Culture demo you noticed there were older people coming back and a whole set of new people coming forward. I’ve also been to meetings organised by the rappers Lowkey and Logic – the Equality Movement – and they were very mixed and black. There were people who had been on the student fees demonstrations who linked what happened in the riots to what happened to the students when they protested.”

What does this reflect? “I think there’s a much greater tension among young people. Young black people are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people. Overcrowding has gone up. People’s conditions have got worse and that also has a knock-on effect on young people. Institutions that used to challenge racism are facing cuts and are under less pressure to tackle racism. And then it’s almost denied that there is any discrimination taking place. Institutional racism is going up.”

“I remember that if you wanted to do A-levels in the 1980s you could sign onto the dole and you were allowed to study up to 28 hours a week, paid for by the state. These things have all gone and this has a sharper effect on those from lower income families. People are being cut off from bits of the welfare state that they used to have, and that has increased the impact of racism.”

Weyman also recalls, “When I went to university in Hull in the 1980s, I got an extra grant of £1,000 from my local authority in Waltham Forest – a lot of money then – because I was black and I was going out of London. The further away you went, the more money they gave you, so you could travel home every other weekend if you wanted, because you might be in a place with no other black people. It was to stop the feeling of isolation forcing you to drop out of university. Now you can’t even get a £1,000 grant to go to university!”

Another shift is increased levels of stop and search of young black people by the police. In the late 1990s, the inquiry under Lord Macpherson into the police handling of the racist murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence put the police onto the back foot.

“I remember going along to the Lawrence inquiry and being cynical about it. Macpherson was a former SAS man expected to be a safe pair of hands. But there was a groundswell of revulsion about this racist murder. The state even lost the Daily Mail – which put ‘Murderers’ on its front page over pictures of the suspects. Part of the state said there had to be a shift.

“There was a multiracial response and it was sharpest among the working class. The fact that the TUC campaigned over it made a massive difference. Every single union pledged its support to the Lawrences’ campaign. It was an enormous shift and it meant explanations of what had happened went much deeper into society.

Pandora’s box

“The mood came from below and it opened up a Pandora’s box. They gave it to a judge they thought they could trust – but he was horrified by the blatant way the police didn’t even bother to cover up what they were doing. It reflected a mood of integration in society, a new generation coming through with rising expectations.

“When Lord Scarman wrote his report into the 1981 Brixton riot, he talked about the ‘unwitting racism’ of the police. Macpherson was forced to go much further. He came out with something that only revolutionaries had really said before – that the state was ‘institutionally racist’.”

The shockwaves from the Macpherson report led to a widespread feeling that racism had to be rooted out of all institutions. Probably the biggest demand was to address the way the police’s stop and search powers were being used to target young black people, and the high level of school exclusions among black pupils.

But then the Labour government moved to shut down the pressure for reforms to be carried through, explains Weyman: “When David Blunkett became the Labour home secretary, he turned round and said he didn’t want to hear any more about the Stephen Lawrence campaign. He buried it as deeply as he could. He was loved by the police and other sections of the state. It was a shift away from challenging racism back towards talking about being ‘tough on crime’.

“Suddenly we saw an explosion of black people going to prison under Labour, particularly young black people, even though, ideologically, the state remains embarrassed about racism.

“And the police haven’t fundamentally changed. Stop and search and the treatment of young people have, if anything, got worse. Stop and search figures are so high that they want to stop collecting the figures because they are an indictment, and they know they are going to get worse. That’s a sharp change. Before they wanted to show us how they were progressing. Now the state wants to pretend it’s not happening.”

This has been coupled with arguments that place the blame on individual behaviour rather than the impact of racial oppression and poverty. It’s an old argument, but Weyman notes an important shift in who expresses it: “In 1981 there was a backlash against the riots, but it was much more muted. The backlash this time was articulated, unfortunately, by Labour politicians. Last time it wasn’t, people blamed the Tories. It’s the argument put forward by the black Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy – I came from a poor background and I didn’t riot. That strips out any social explanation.

“Behind this are ideological arguments articulated by the rising black middle class that we need more religion or more role models, but also more reactionary ideas that the problem is fatherless children, and that we need more stop and search. These arguments have helped shift politics to the right.”

Weyman points to the contrast between Lammy’s response to the riots and that of Bernie Grant after 1985 Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham. Grant, then leader of Haringey council, said, “the police got a bloody good hiding”. Grant went on to become one of the first black MPs.

“The current crop of black MPs are a million miles away from articulating the anger that exists. Bernie Grant didn’t just articulate the anger over the riots – he articulated the anger of young people about unemployment. They used to put the unemployment figures up outside the town hall and Grant would be photographed in front of the figures, saying it’s was a disgrace that there are so many young unemployed people, both black and white.”

But, says Weyman, “I don’t think most people simply accept Lammy’s arguments. Why didn’t people riot in Kensington? People instinctively know that racism plus class and crisis increases the pressures on people. It’s a common sense understanding.”

The younger generation is looking for new explanations of the world, argues Weyman: “They don’t have any connection to the 1968 generation or even to the generation of 1981 – there isn’t a sense of a continuity of radical traditions. But they feel they are being mistreated. And one difference is that they don’t have the same level of black nationalism. It doesn’t make sense to them, because while they don’t forget they are black, everything around them is quite integrated.

“For example, there are a large number of young people now who are mixed race – they weren’t there before, it reflects the level of integration in British society. It’s quite difficult when you’ve got a mixed race network around you to say it’s only about race. You have to articulate what’s happening in a much more sophisticated way. You can’t be angry at your white grandma! So it’s much more generalised than before.”

A key argument over the last three decades has been that better education is the key to overcoming racism. But this doesn’t fit the reality of many young black people’s lives: “They are more qualified and better educated than ever before. So they know that that’s not the problem. They are educated but still can’t get jobs, even the ones their less educated parents got. This reflects the fact that the system has shut down opportunities for people.”

“From college to college you can see this layer of people. Their rage at the system is much greater than the generation that came before them – and so is their despair. All of them have experiences of the way they’ve been treated by the police, of friends being stopped and searched and they have a cynicism towards official council politics and so on. People feel much more dispossessed.”

There is also a huge political vacuum that exists. “There is a rapper from Hackney who was on Newsnight discussing the riots. I was in Hackney and saw him and there were all these people cheering him. He was articulating what people felt. It wasn’t the politicians doing it. That’s the gap. They come from different worlds.”

But it’s not just young black people who are looking for more radical ideas. Black workers are facing the brunt of the government’s austerity and this is having an impact.
“The public sector has large numbers of black workers. These people are facing cuts at both ends, as workers and as users of the welfare state. They are supposed to be the success stories – the black nurse, the black teacher – and they are being pushed to fight. I thought the demonstrations when public sector unions struck on 30 June and 30 November were very mixed.”

“I think these people are going to come to the forefront. The youth workers that were cut in Tottenham before the riot were mostly black. The cuts are going to hit black workers hard.”

The battles waged by black and white workers in the 1970s and 1980s forced through reforms that opened up some space for black workers to advance: “The way the state dealt with racism in the past was to say that, where they had control over jobs, people would have be dealt with equally. So they introduced racial assessments of jobs, to find out if no black people were being short-listed for a job. So if you were racist you were found out. This happened in the public sector, but it flowed into the whole atmosphere in society, including parts of the private sector.

“People’s lives really changed. My mother went from being a nurse to being a senior social worker in the space of two or three years. Your material conditions changed straight away because you were better paid. But that’s going to go.”

The impact of cuts can also lead to anger among older, more established black workers, “I’ve seen social workers in Haringey suddenly appear at meetings of hundreds, with older black women saying to the council officials, ‘What’s your response to the cuts?’ – ‘We’re not accepting this.’ Some of the old radical language is coming back.”

The argument that just getting some “black faces in high places” will change things is being undermined, and with it people’s faith in Labour Party politics.

Old loyalties
“Lots of the older generation of black people, often through their trade unions, are members of the Labour party. But you’ve got Labour politicians with no idea or sense of struggle just being parachuted in to be the next MP. So you are starting to see a breakdown of old loyalties. And the new generation coming through have got even less loyalty to Labour. There is a potential for a new leadership to develop, one much more fused with class struggle.”

Global politics also plays an important role in fostering a new radicalism: “In the 1960s and 70s many black activists looked to anti-colonial struggles in the ‘Third World’ for inspiration. But then there was a decline in these movements. The onset of the economic crisis that hit the peripheral parts of the world economy in the 1970s led to the first IMF-orchestrated structural adjustment programmes. There was a sense of disappointment with many of the new regimes in Africa, some of which turned into dictatorships. Having been a source of inspiration, they turned into a quagmire.”

The other influence was the US – from the Civil Rights movement to the black rebellions of the late 1960s. But by the late 1970s radical movements were in decline. There was a shift towards a new reformism which reflected the rise of a black middle class. “Look at what happened with Reverend Jesse Jackson – he talked about moving away from the movement towards standing for the US presidency. It implied that what we needed was elected black politicians.”

Weyman argues that the situation is different today: “I think people are open to new ideas. You can’t simply say to people we’re going to get you a few more jobs, we’re going to get more black policemen – people know that this won’t work.” What are the influences on those looking for more radical ideas? “I think it’s the Occupy movement – and the Occupy movement across the world is racially mixed. I think it’s the Egyptian Revolution. It’s not an accident that a black musician like Logic and Lowkey, whose parents are British and Iraqi, come together.”

The search for new ideas sometimes leads to unexpected places: “Some people have not gone into organised politics. There has been a rise in what I call religious politics, which plays a part in black politics. Socialists have to engage with this. One pastor called a meeting about the riots in Tottenham and 2,000 people turned up. The churches say we shouldn’t turn on one another, but they don’t offer any real answers about what caused the riots. We need to be there to offer proper explanations – the audience is open to all sorts of ideas. There’s a battle for explanation going on between the left, MPs, the churches and so on.”

One example of this is the debates over crime: “There has been some growth, without exaggerating it, of young people being involved in crime as the only way they can survive. And crime is an unregulated business – they don’t ask what qualifications you have. It’s led to an intensification of competition, this is what gives rise to the postcode gangs and so on.”

“If you’re living in the midst of this and your kids are walking through the middle of it, then it’s understandable that you focus on these problems. The difficulty is that there has been a split in the black community about dealing with it – with some people saying crime is due of problems within the black community, fatherless kids and so on. But actually it’s a class question. For an older generation you could go to university, but that door has been shut for many. But I think the riots have forced people to look outwards. A new generation is emerging that hasn’t gone to the Labour party, and there’s a space opening up. Socialists have to relate to that.”

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