A reflection on the impact personal black histories of struggle have made on the movement for racial justice in the UK.
In the official account of black British history, there are a number of individuals whose lives and accomplishments have for a long time formed the backbone of black history teaching, their names now synonymous with the story of black presence in the UK over the years. From Mary Seacole, to the arrival of the S.S Windrush, much time is dedicated to the celebration of these established and influential markers of blackness in the UK.
Setting aside the obvious absurdities of allocating one month of the year in which to engage with black history, it is important to remember that Black History Month was originally intended to redress the significant racial imbalance in the interpretation of history, to make visible the contributions of black people, black politics, black culture and the black voice to British history. It strikes me, however, that black history, which is so profoundly infused with a political struggle for rights and recognition, cannot solely be told via the accomplishments of a few pioneers. There are hundreds of individual stories of struggle and sacrifice that have been hidden underneath that well-known narrative that demonstrate how the history of black politics, in its fight for racial justice, equality, and representation, can be told via the lives of a great number of people and communities.
Take, for instance, a story recently investigated by IRR News about Michael Jarrett Lowe. A 17-year-old from Islington, London, whose body was found in the chimney of a disused shop in 1974 after he had been missing for a number of months, Michael had been harassed continually by the police and physically beaten by them on a number of occasions. As a young black man facing open hostility from police, his was a story perhaps so ordinary at the time that people barely thought to record it. Amongst dusty files, his name lay hidden until the energies of an old friend and a determined journalist were finally able to piece together the details of his life and death. It is histories like these that are indispensable for our understanding of community policing as one of the most volatile issues for black struggle at the time.
Michael Jarrett Lowe is one of numerous individuals whose case has been resurrected by IRR researchers over the years. It is part of a broader attempt to preserve the memory of forgotten individuals in the history of anti-racism in the UK. It is not a new process – the IRR has for over three decades set about collecting memories, both of oppression and resistance.
Collected and chronicled in the Black History Collection at the IRR are many personal stories like this one. Glimpsing through it, one realises it is an essential historical map – through which we can begin to build a picture of how black history has been defined by stories of both injustice and resistance. Responses to police violence and the criminalisation of the black community in the 1970s, developed to defend the community against precisely what Michael suffered in the last months of his life, were diverse in strategy and designed to forge some form of justice where there was no legal means. Self-defence committees sprang up across the country to patrol the streets; one Black Power group, the Black People’s Freedom Movement in Nottingham, produced a leaflet in 1972 entitled, simply, ‘SURVIVAL’. It contained a ten point list of steps to take for everyday street survival, including ‘Never walk alone at night’ and ‘If the Wicked want to search you, don’t let them put them hands in your pocket’. The leaflet is defiant in its militaristic language – and necessarily so; the police were becoming what has been called a ‘standing army' in some urban areas of the country, with the Special Patrol Group (SPG) carrying out street operations. In Lewisham in 1975, the year after Michael was found, the SPG stopped 14,000 people and arrested 400.
Racist violence and police indifference to such crimes was also fast becoming an important political issue around which community groups and solidarity movements began campaigning. And again, self-defence was often the only means of protection. The case of the Virk brothers, in Newham, East London, is one such example. Four brothers, Joginder, Mohinder, Balvinder and Sukhvinder, all aged between 18 and 27, were attacked while repairing their car in front their home in April 1977 by a group of white youths. They began shouting racist insults; one then picked up a spanner and started to fight. The brothers fought back with whatever tools were at hand, and in the ensuing brawl, one of the attackers was stabbed. Having fought in self-defence, the Virk brothers called the police but on their arrival, the police arrested the brothers and charged them with assault. They were tried at the Old Bailey where the Judge immediately dismissed the defence case that the initial attack was racially motivated, and sentenced the Virks to between two and seven years in prison – sentences that fell far outside the Home Office’s advised limits. In the absence of judicial redress or police support, the Steering Committee of Asian Organisations took up their campaign, organised and collected funds for a judicial appeal and a demonstration.
Small and localised campaign groups were crucial in making visible to the wider public how routine racism, in its many incarnations, affected black lives and communities. The Black Unity and Freedom Party, was one such organisation. Out of its makeshift offices in London and Manchester, this group of radical black activists published the journal Black Voice, which exposed evidence of police brutality towards the black community, and became integral in campaign against these crimes. Their pamphlet ‘Who killed Aseta Simms?’ exposes the suspicious death of Aseta, who died at a Stoke Newington police station in 1971 in circumstances that the police doctor apparently could not determine. She had bruises to her face and swelling to her brain ‘consistent with someone who had been beaten’, but the inquest into her death came to a quick conclusion: death by misadventure.
Perhaps these histories are not unique enough to be remembered often, perhaps the sadness of them is too difficult for us dwell on. But in order to redress the imbalances of how history is interpreted, perhaps the struggles of the ordinary is what is most useful. Inherent in them is the fight of people and families against the kinds of injustice that affected them and their communities most directly. The voices of some pioneers have spoken louder than others over the years. But it is not necessarily from those experiences that we can measure most truthfully how the realities of racism have infused black experience in Britain.