On 18 April, a celebration event of the work of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and its Director Emeritus, Sivanandan, turned into a serious discussion on how to unite and strengthen struggles at a time of globalisation and austerity.
Divided into three sessions – past, present, future – the packed afternoon covered a conspectus of IRR’s work and links to community and international struggles. It began with a look back to the ‘coup’ in 1972 which ousted the super-rich and powerful Management Board and its monopoly on defining ‘race relations’. It went on to a session which showed how the lessons of that struggle were still employed today as two new reports, on deaths in custody in UK and deaths of asylum seekers and migrants in Europe, were launched. Finally, the meeting asked where we would take those perspectives into the future, under Liz Fekete’s able leadership, so as to tackle new problems and unite constituencies and campaigns against austerity and cuts at a time of Left decline.
Those who lined up to pay tribute to the IRR and Sivanandan came from diverse areas and epochs: Professor Lee Bridges, who used the IRR’s library in the 1960s, playwright David Edgar who researched Destiny at IRR when
the National Front was strong in the 1970s, John Pandit of Asian Dub Foundation who had Siva perform on an album track in 2000, young Tamils who had been influenced by the novel on Sri Lanka ‘When memory dies’ and the fact that ‘Siva Mama’ was for them a unique anti-racist role model. Activists Suresh Grover (The Monitoring Group) and Phil Miller (Corporate Watch) who took the final session forward as a call to arms, both played tribute to IRR and Sivanandan’s importance.
Ill-health prevented Sivanandan (now 91) from attending, but he was very much present! Recordings by him and a new film made by Prasanna Ratnayake of Siva in conversation with Colin Prescod, Catching history on the wing were broadcast. Many of his pithy sayings, (such as ‘we are here because you were there’, ‘who you are is what you do’) scattered through his talks and writings over almost fifty years were, for a first time, gathered together as ‘Siva’s aphorisms’ and, judging from tweets and reactions there, captured the mood in the hall. His final words to the meeting, ‘the spaces are there for us to fight back in, and the time is here to be seized’ were a fitting end to a positive day and a signal that the next phase of the struggle for justice is waiting in the wings.
Read some of the tweets from the day (#IRRch)