The anti-racist movement has lost one of its foremost fighters.
Steve Cohen was not the easiest of men or the least controversial of campaigners, but he has left behind him a host of tangible achievements that few can rival. Unusually for today, he extended his notion of personal oppression, as a Jew, into an understanding of the racist treatment of all migrants in a globalised world. And, yet more unusually, he married theory and practice.
In 1983 Steve was one of the first to suggest in the UK the surreptitious emergence of a form of anti-Semitism on the Left and, though I could not agree with many of his interpretations in the pamphlet That’s funny you don’t look anti-Semitic (he was always one for a jokey aside), it was certainly a brave broadside.
But it was in the field of fighting immigration controls that Steve’s legacy really should be celebrated. Numerous individuals from Nasira Begum and Anwar Ditta to Viraj Mendis and Florence Okolo owe much to his campaigning and even to the fact that we remember those names even today. What he realised very early on when working (he was a trained barrister) at the North Manchester Law Centre was the need to combine community campaigns with the legal battle. It was this understanding that led him to help establish and coordinate the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit for many years.
And it was from his experiences there that he began to extend his writing and campaigning on immigration. He was one of the first people to connect immigration controls with welfare exclusion and later with nationality. His writings, The Thin End of the White Wedge and Immigration Controls, the Family and the Welfare State were prescient and pioneering. He saw very early how immigration control’s tentacles reached across the whole state machinery and how other agencies were being drawn into the fight against migrants – illegals. Little wonder that he was, despairing of any beneficial form of immigration control, to write a booklet No One is Illegal. It was this that informed the manifesto of the No One is Illegal Group and the No Borders Network.
Steve might, with an eye to the future, have been far-sighted in his writings, but he was also, simultaneously, keened to history and the parallels he found there with contemporary events. (Maybe this dialectical approach was a hangover from his youthful dalliance with Trotskyism from 1968-1974.) His researches into the Aliens Act of 1905 and the antics of the neo-fascist British Brothers League at the turn of the century were to inform his writings on anti-Semitism and immigration. One of his most recent publications (again with an ironic title) Deportation is Freedom reflected history in today’s battles, as did Standing on the Shoulders of Fascism.
A prolific writer and an unflinching fighter, Steve continued his tenacious struggling even as his health gave way. And what a legacy he left us.