Black Lives Matter Part 2: Is Britain really that great?

The imperialist age from 1870 to 1914 saw the British Empire divide people into the racial groups according to the laws of colonisation. These divisions were also influenced by the class system we know all too well in present day (one glance at the so-called royal box at Wimbledon will show you placements in order of ranking and importance.) Today; the countries Britain once reigned are free from our law and orders and Britain stands more or less alone, but we are not completely free of the racial divides which were drawn so long ago and the effects of the past reverberate in these modern times.

The UK is not known as ‘blood shed Britain’ we do not have the same overt racism and violence resulting in police gunning down unarmed black people in broad daylight, in the past 15 years only 9 people from the black and minority ethnic community (BAME) have been recorded as losing their lives in police shootings, in the U.S in 2015 alone 1,134 black men were killed in shootings by the police a rate five times higher than the amount of white men killed. In the past 15 years in the UK 83 people from the BAME community have died in police custody, a number still lower than the total number of fatal police shootings in just 1 year in the U.S but a statistic worryingly higher than the loss of lives due to police shootings. Britain’s problems are not as overt as the U.S’ but there is a history of suspected police cover ups and riots dating back to the 1950’s when the first influx of West Indians (including my grandparents) came to the UK by way of invitation from the queen to help re build Britain after the second world war. As a colony of Britain, the West Indies and its people had essentially grown up with the British way of life ingrained into their, education, legalities and culture. The colonial countries were like little Britain’s and its inhabitants were honoured to be invited by their leading country and saw the UK as their ‘motherland.’ The colonials felt duty bound to help their ‘parent’ in her time of need just as they were proud to fight alongside Britain in the war. The Caribbean people had an unshakeable loyalty to the country and the queen as they were an extension of the British Empire and were raised by its ruling, they looked up to Britain as a parent and they wanted to be embraced by Britain’s bosom as its children. The Caribbean people boarded the boats to the so-called promised lands but they were not only met with the promise of plenty of work and instant British citizenship once they disembarked from the boats after a month-long journey; they were also met with something completely unexpected considering they were welcomed warmly when they came to help fight the war and were now back to help rebuild Britain – they were met with hostility. The majority of white communities refused to embrace their new neighbours believing they had come to steal their jobs, houses and women.

The UK has a heart breaking history of racial unrest, race riots began in Notting Hill from 1958 which culminated in a battle between the racist ‘Teddy Boys’ (A gang of white males who used to beat black men with bicycle chains) and West Indian men who fought back in an act of defiance against the beatings and mobbing’s they had endured, the black communities were tired of being taunted and attacked and with no protection from the police they decided to take matters into their own hands. To the attackers surprise the black community fought back just as hard which showed the teddy boys they were not a community to be messed with. As well as police cover ups there have been racially motivated murders with no one being held accountable, many deaths within the black community remain a mystery on record but common knowledge off record. One of the earliest racially motivated murders to be documented saw Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan immigrant who was training to be lawyer, lose his life in 1959 when three men white men fatally stabbed him in an unprovoked attack as he walked home, he was a 32. Kelso’s only ‘crime’ was being black. His racially motivated murder united a large number of the black and white communities as more than 1,200 attended his funeral in a show of solidarity. For the first time since West Indian migrants were invited back to the UK it seemed as though the division between black and white had narrowed and they were starting to come together to try to understand each other’s frustrations. After the dark period of riots culminating in Kelso Cochrane’s murder, day break dawned from the darkness with the creation of the Notting Hill carnival by activist Claudia Jones to “Celebrate Caribbean culture in the face of hate.”

It wasn’t just London experiencing racial tensions, in Bristol it wasn’t unusual to see pub windows displaying signs stating “No dogs, Irish or blacks allowed” during this time there were no laws to protect black and ethnic minorities in effect leaving citizens and officials to treat brown, black and Irish people like sub humans. The Bristol bus company – ‘omnibus’ stated they would not employ black people to work on their buses as it wanted an all-white workforce and did not want to risk losing its current workforce by employing black people. Inspired by the civil rights movement taking place in the U.S spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, a young black man named Paul Stephenson staged the Bristol bus boycott in 1963 which was the first political protest of its kind in the UK. Black and white people marched in protest against the Omnibus companies’ racist policies and they listened – Not only did the bus company relent and employ its first black conductor but it also highlighted the need for laws in Britain to protect non-white people as it had become apparent ethnic minorities were particularly vulnerable to mistreatment. One man’s voice amplified with other voices of all races brought about a much-needed significant change.

By the time the labour government came into power in the 1960’s they had promised to introduce racial equality laws immediately, instead they introduced a law to stem the flow of immigrants coming to the UK and only after this they introduced anti-discrimination laws clearly displaying their priority was to stop more migrants from entering the UK rather than protect the ones who were invited to the UK. Despite the introduction of race legislation to encourage equal treatment as always with politics there were MP’s who seized the opportunity to campaign against immigrants ‘taking over’ the UK echoing the sentiment of the majority of the country at that time. It was commonplace to see “Keep Britain white” slogans painted on walls and national front groups agreed with the opposing political message to rid the streets of immigrants otherwise they’d be drowning in “The red seas of their own blood” this incorrect and preposterous prediction caused fear amongst an already territorial white Britain and they vowed to “Take their country back” from the non-whites they felt were littering the streets. Note the parallels between the U.K and U.S, during this time period the people of the U.S were convinced black people wanted to “Take over the country and steal their jobs and women”

1970’s Britain saw a confident second generation black community emerge, owing to the fact this generation were born on UK soil and felt they had every right to be there as much as white Brits, this sense of belonging was also supported by the fact their parents were granted British citizenship on arrival in the UK. The second generation ethnic minorities DID have a right to a peaceful life in Britain and although their ethnicity was West Indian their nationality was resolutely British therefore they had the same rights as their white counterparts but just like their parents they too faced the challenge of unacceptable, this hurt the new generation deeply as they were not settlers in the UK like their parents, they were born British and the UK was home. The police nor the education system agreed with the notion of equality for all and suspicion person laws (shortened to sus laws) a law introduced in 1824, enabled police to stop anyone they felt looked suspicious without any evidence the person was about to commit or had committed an offence. A law purely based on suspicions leads to profiling a person and is bound to tie in with pre conceived notions and judgements. Unsurprisingly this led to the general sense that if you were a young black man innocently walking down the street you were profiled. Many young black men were arrested under sus laws and were detained for hours sometimes days even when police could not prove they were doing anything wrong. The education system also played its part in treating ethnic minorities improperly by assuming all black children were incapable of simple reading and writing skills, they were often put in the bottom sets in classes without their abilities being tested so that they could be placed in a class which matched their intellect and abilities. Black children in schools at this time were not encouraged by their teachers to progress (my own mother confirmed this to me from memories of her school days in the UK) but instead it was presumed they were incapable and discouraged from trying. By the time black and Asian kids left school, the oppression of the education system they faced then repeated itself in their adult lives from police and their insistence on arresting innocent youths via sus laws. The constant harassment of young black men by police came to a head at the 1976 Notting hill carnival when police tried to arrest a black youth and tempers flared between the police and the black community who refused to let the police hound them any longer and were once again forced to fight for equality.

At the dawn of a new decade it didn’t take long for violence to erupt again leaving race relations severed at the seams. On 17th January 1981 a group of teens attended a house party to celebrate Yvonne Ruddock’s’ 16th Birthday. Due to the fact that black people were isolated from mainstream Britain any party or dance organised for the black community was met with excitement and anticipation as most of the time was spent living in fear from attacks. Teenagers travelled from all over the UK to attend the party to be amongst their own where they would be accepted and to escape the harsh realities of the outside world for a while. The hostility of the outside world soon found itself inside the party as a fire raged through the house just as the party was winding down claiming 13 young black lives including the birthday girl and her brother Andrew Ruddock (eerily whilst typing this my mum informed me that we lived next door to one of the victims of the fire -Humphry Brown, she was 6 months pregnant with me when he died.) In a home supervised by adults there was no protection from the hatred which swirled within the surrounding community. Police told Yvonne’s mother the attack was racially motivated as they had recovered homemade petrol bomb materials near the home, but once the police started to feel racial tensions brewing they swiftly discarded the motive and replaced it with one which suggested the fire started inside the house after a fight broke out. A catalogue of insults followed – the first being government officials did not extend their condolences or sympathies (which is the norm when a tragedy of this size occurs) yet travelled to Dublin to offer condolences to a group of white teenagers who had lost their lives in equally horrific circumstances, the families of the dead black teens back at home in England wondered why they had not received so much as a letter let alone a visit when the tragedy occurred on English soil; the heart of the community was deeply hurt. Secondly no one was ever charged with arson or murder as it was widely (and wrongly) accepted the party goers brought it on themselves, some members of the white community callously remarked “It doesn’t matter they were only blacks anyway it’s a shame there wasn’t more who died”, the mother of one of victims received a letter stating “It was a great day when all the nig*ers went up in smoke”, Other members of the white community rallied round in support and empathy for the victims grieving families. The black community felt ignored, hurt and helpless because it appeared the lives of their children did not matter because they were black, from the hostile reaction the black community received they felt that black lives did not matter to the queen, the country, the police and the majority of the local communities, but black lives DO matter…too.

The lack of sympathy shown towards the black community from officials while the black community watched sympathy being offered to the white families in Dublin who lost their children, saw tensions reach fever pitch on the streets of London which eventually resulted in the 1981 Brixton riots. In the aftermath of the New cross fire which claimed the lives of 13 black teens a protest march was organised from the scene of the fire to the centre of London. The march was marginally peaceful and without incident but the national press attempted to vilify the black community and focused on an injured policeman in a small isolated incident which took place away from the heart of the demonstration, but the press grabbed the opportunity to paint the black community as thuggish people bringing violence and chaos to the streets, as we discovered (In Black Lives matter Part 1: America, Land of the free or land of the fractured) The press manipulated the public with the fabricated reports of a ‘negro’ on the rampage gunning down white people, as we saw with the vilification of the black panthers, the misinterpretation of Malcolm X’s message in his solemn black and white picture and most recently the demonization of the victims of police shootings in America, so too here in the U.K the narrative was set by the media. Although the press were negative towards the demonstration and failed to detail why it was taking place which took away from the plight of a grieving community desperate for justice, it captured the attention of politicians who could no longer bury their heads in the sand and ignore the voices of a community torn and tired from neglect, police harassment, public hostility and alienation; for the first time the collective cries of black voices demanding change were finally breaking through the barrier of deafened ears or so it appeared.

Unbelievably the systems response was to launch an even more vigorous police operation (operation swap 81) which acted as a super-sized sus law, the objective was to combat street crime by deploying even more officers and conducting double the amount of stop and searches; the problem with this ‘clean up’ of a ‘swamp’ viewed as contaminated by the government, was that racial profiling was still commonplace. In its first week operation Swamp 81 resulted in 943 stop and searches with over half stopped being black youths and less than half of these stops resulting in arrests. The years of being targeted coupled with the dismissal of the teenagers who died in the New cross fire saw the community snap and rage against the police and in April 1981 there were a series of riots in Brixton; Buildings burned, cars were set a light and years of mounting anger at being treated like second class citizens whose lives held no value spilled onto the streets in an explosive cry for help.

You would think that all the years of pain, suffering, marches, protests and cries for help would see an end or at least a long lull of unfair treatment by the police but almost 2 years to the day of the New cross fire a black man named Colin Roach was driven to his local police station in 1983, as Colin entered the station he was shot to death with a shotgun. The black community believe he was murdered by police, the police claimed he had mental health problems and committed suicide in the entrance of the police station. Colin had no history of mental health issues and forensics proved he did not commit suicide. There seemed to be reluctance from the police at the station to speak up and there were many details that didn’t add up in their stories. The coroner at the scene later gave evidence at the inquest into Colin’s death which swayed the jury towards an open verdict – case closed, justice – denied. Colin’s family asked for a public inquiry, their requests were rejected. To this day there are many unanswered questions regarding Colin Roach’s death. Just two years after Colin’s’ death the mother of a man the police were looking for was shot to death by police officers during a raid on her home in 1985. It took 29 years for police to acknowledge what they had done and in 2014 they issued an apology for murdering Cherry Groce. With the police seemingly targeting and picking off a community one by one and getting away with it due to the police powers which protected them from prosecution; frustration and distrust were reignited and this sparked the second wave of Brixton riots in 1985 borne from contempt for the police from a community who felt no one cared about them and history points to the fact that sadly they were right.

Cammy Thomas

Part 3 next week – ‘Black Lives Matter: The Lawrence legacy and Grime’s response to BLM’



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Picture credit:

Nyansapo, The pan African drum, Toyin Agbetu of Ligali –Human Rights Natural Justice