Black British identity was forged in black power”, remarks Leila Hassan Howe in a recent Guardian interview with Kehinde Andrews. Reflecting on the “fantastic” BLM uprisings this summer, Hassan Howe, a stalwart of British Black power movements, reminds us that “there were people before us… a black radical tradition that made a change in Britain”.
This Black History Month, working class black and brown people will endure one of the toughest periods in living memory, hounded by persistent inequalities in workplaces, schools, and health and criminal justice systems. This is a moment that demands massive change, but to summon it we need to learn from the history of British black politics, past and present.
Next year will see the release of Warner Bros blockbuster Judas and the Black Messiah, a biographical film about the revolutionary Fred Hampton, who the FBI feared as the “Black Messiah”. At 21-years-old, Hampton became the chairman of the trailblazing Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and began to fulfil the “rise of a messiah” the FBI so deeply feared, placing him squarely in the crosshairs of their sweeping surveil, subvert and sabotage program: COINTELPRO.
Hampton earned this title not just because of his fiery brand of revolutionary socialism, or his rousing speeches, but primarily for his role in the “Rainbow Coalition”, a powerful union which embodied the BPP slogan “All Power To The People”. The coalition, an alliance of black, brown and white activists, was led by the Young Patriots, Young Lords, Black Panthers and many more.
There’s a strategic lesson to be drawn here: that which the American government feared most at the height of the revolutionary 60s, was the coming together of different oppressed groups.
The same year as the FBI issued the fateful directive to seek out and neutralise black leaders, a black radical newspaper, Inner City Voice, was born, from the ashes of one of the largest urban rebellions in American history: the 12th Street Riot. Reflecting on the state of affairs in Detroit just months after the uprising, which feel as apt for us today here in Britain, an article in the paper read:
“We are still working, still working too hard, getting paid too little, living in bad housing, sending our kids to substandard schools, paying too much for groceries, and treated like dogs by the police… Think about it brother, things ain’t hardly getting better. The Revolution must continue.”
The carousel of #BlackLivesMatter uprisings over the last six years have rocked the Western world and inaugurated a new iteration of black struggle. It has immortalised new names lost to state violence, and lifted up stories we should never forget: Amadou Diallo, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, Joy Gardner.
From within and without, with every new celebrity and popular brand claiming solidarity, it can seem like progress is the wind beneath the wings of this ascendant movement. However, we deceive ourselves if we equate hashtagged names, media fanfare, corporate takeovers and bent knees for real progress.
Rich white lives matter more than ever, and appealing to their reactionary, divisive, fearmongering ethno-nationalism remains profitable. Black migrants, workers, students and parents remain among the hardest hit by a persistent economic downturn only accelerated by the pandemic.
For all the incremental legislative changes over the last half-century, the overall material condition of poor black communities remains largely the same as when Tommie Smith raised his fist in the 68’ Olympics, and when six months earlier, renowned British racist Enoch Powell made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech.
This year, more than ever, we should use this time to question ourselves: how will we overcome racism, how will we win? In answering this, much like Hassan-Howe and many of the new youth-led groups from this summer suggest, we might need to look back to look forward.
The mobilisations in Britain earlier this year are influenced by movements in the US, but they are also encircled by a wider, longer tradition of British black politics. This is the very same tradition which 39 years ago also drew people to the street during the Black People’s Day of Action in response to the New Cross Massacre, where 13 black people died in 1981.
It was the largest black protest in British history. And the politics surrounding it was articulated most clearly by the British Race Today journal, published by the Race Today Collective and last edited by Hassan Howe before shutting shop in 1988. Many would argue Race Today was one of the vital organs of Black British politics in the 70s and 80s.
Importantly, the activists and artists who contributed to and edited it were often the same people out on protests and picket lines, people like Olive Morris and Hassan Howe – in fact, it is they who led in organising the Day of Action. The journal constantly provided rigorous analysis from a black power position, and leant organisational backing to many grassroots campaigns such as the Black Parents Movement and the Miners Strike.
If Race Today were around now, it would surely have leant all its weight to the urban uprisings against police and state violence this summer, and provided, as it always did, an uncensored voice for the dispossessed.
One of the hallmarks of this British black politics was its ability to pull together political struggles into a unified outcry, much like Hampton and the Chicago Black Panthers. The Race Today journal could in any given issue feature a submission from the likes of Irish civil-rights hero Bobby Sands, Grenadian revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop or an analysis on the Imperial Typewriters Industrial Strike, undertaken by Caribbean and South Asian Women in Leicester.
This was an organic home-grown Black politics which called for Black Power and liberation – just as this year’s protests did – but in the same breath organisers would demand justice for all those at the sharp end of hostile immigration policies, and for those still living under the yoke of British neo-colonialism . Does this radical, internationalist approach hold weight in today’s environment?
“One thing about Shukri, is the fact that she’s a refugee, a Somali, and a Muslim”, Amin Mohamed, also known as Chunkz, said to a crowd of thousands who had gathered to remember and demand justice for Shukri Abdi this summer, “all three of them in one, that couldn’t be a good combination for the government.”
One of the striking features of the uprising earlier this year, was that protestors made connections between forms of racism often held apart. In any given conversation or interview, Shukri Abdi, Belly Mujinga, George Floyd and Grenfell were being referenced by young people as a common source of their rage. In relation to Shukri, Belly and the Grenfell victims, the scope of struggle was being pulled wide open.
It was about being black and simultaneously a conversation about the workplace; about being an asylum seeker and Muslim; about being a working class migrant family from any of the 19 nationalities in Grenfell tower that night.
I grew up among Albanians, Afghans, Somalis, Pakistanis, Indians, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Polish people, travellers and many more. We were very aware of our differences, of our prejudices, but playing ball at the youth club, we recognised that our lot was our lot; we all bleed red, we all face, mostly, the same structural constraints.
We all get free of these constraints together, or not at all. The uprisings this summer were a reflection of this – they were multi-ethnic and working class, they were a collective outcry, and in that united front multiple voices became a roar.
The best of this new British black politics uses an intimate knowledge of anti-black racism as a springboard for passionate calls out for a greater humanity, for all lives to finally matter, for everyone to take the invite and fight together, the gift of black struggle has always been its restless moving towards freedom, for all of us.
Hassan Howe, in the introduction for a newly released anthology of Race Today’s writings, says that the “militant black struggles of the black working class, youth, and women against the state and employers had the potential to inspire the wider working-class movement to fight for power”. Perhaps the times are not so different after all.