- Interview by
- Joe Lowndes
The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the US launched the largest protest movement in the country’s history, growing to encompass an ever-larger confrontation with the institutions and symbols of white supremacy. The movement soon went global, with demonstrations from Senegal to Sweden, Brazil to South Korea.
The largest protests after the US have taken place in the United Kingdom. The UK protests highlight what in particular has become a transnational moment of antiracism and anticolonialism, underscoring the historical roots of racial capitalism and Black-led resistance to it. As activists in the US are pulling down symbols of the American slave regime, activists in the UK are pulling down statues of the wealthy slave traders who made the regime possible.
Neither structural racism nor spirited protest are new to Black Britons. The so-called Windrush Generation, which began arriving in the country from around the former British Empire in 1948 to fill labor shortages in the post-war era, endured substandard housing, low wages, police abuse, and racial hostility from their new white neighbors. The children of these migrants—who came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s—were inspired by the Black freedom movement in the U.S. and informed by their own legacies of colonial resistance.
In 1981, anti-police riots that began in the largely Jamaican district of Brixton, in South London, spread up and down the country, from the working-class Caribbean urban areas of Birmingham and Manchester to predominantly white communities, igniting in more than 40 cities in all, a pattern that has repeated in decades since.
The British magazine Race Today was the leading force in chronicling the struggles of immigrant communities in England. As an antiauthoritarian Marxist organ, Race Today reflected its mentor Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James’s orientation toward independent political action, self-organization, and the democratic proposition that “every cook can govern.” Indeed, James was a mentor to the collective, spending the last decade of his life above the magazine’s offices in a squatted building in Brixton.
Race Today members were pivotal in organizing community defense against the fascist National Front in London’s East End, and in promoting labor struggles from Caribbean nurse’s aides to South Asian assembly line workers. They interviewed dozens of participants in the 1981 riots and helped frame that uprising for the larger British public. One of Race Today’s most well-known members, the reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, memorialized the Black Britain’s struggle against police brutality, fascist attacks, and systemic racism.
I spoke with two members of the Race Today collective, Leila Hassan and Farrukh Dhondy, about the current protests, the legacy of antiracism and anticolonialism in the UK, and international antiracist action. Hassan was a member of the Race Today collective from its beginning, eventually becoming editor of the magazine. As frequent writer for the journal, Hassan examined topics ranging from international Black movements to the lives of Black women in the UK Dhondy was a writer at Race Today who organized Asian workers in labor, housing, and community self-defense. He is a prolific author, playwright, and television producer.
The protests and rioting that began in Minneapolis quickly became widespread multiracial demonstrations and direct actions in the US, and then the UK and elsewhere. Is there anything that strikes you about the protests that brings to mind the uprisings that happened in Brixton and then up and down the country in 1981?
Well, for the first time in the whole world we have seen the two nations that live together and have a shared history, only one has been the oppressor and one has been the oppressed. We’ve seen that in the United States of America, and we’ve seen that in the immigrant population of the United Kingdom, because we are the inheritors of colonialism, having immigrated to the colonialist country. Whereas, of course, in the US slavery brought Black people from Africa through the centuries. But they are, in a sense, two nations in the same country.
It is extremely unusual. In both the US and in the UK, there have never been huge demonstrations like this before. There have been for certain causes, but this is, on the racial question, this is the biggest demonstrations we’ve seen. And they are white and Black together. Of course, we live with our history. You can’t get rid of that. But we can get rid of the symbols that represent that history. And that’s why in Bristol they took down the statue of [Edward] Colston and threw it in the river.
Here in the US there is a revolt against the symbols of slavery—the Confederacy, the Civil War and the slaveholding founders like Washington, Jefferson et cetera, and there in the UK with Colston it is the symbols of colonial wealth generated from the slave trade that are being attacked.
There is no doubt that Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol … these are just a few of the cities that were built on slave inheritance, on the money made out of slaves. Edward Colston’s history is actually very, very nasty, right? When he came to Bristol he built schools, he built hospitals, he benefited the whole town, was its benefactor. But, they say that 8,000 to 10,000 Black people died out of neglect, hunger, ill treatment, and whatnot on his plantations.
The difference with Brixton in 1981 is that these protests [today] have defined slogans and aims, whereas in Brixton, it was a strictly a reaction to policing. This was an out and out insurrection or riot or whatever you want to call it against what the police were doing in Brixton at that particular time, which then spread to other communities.
In ’81 what happened was it started as an incident between police and Black youth, and when they fought back the police came in larger numbers and then it was heard that they gathered in the streets to bash us. So larger numbers of Blacks came out and then looting and rioting started but mainly people came out to fight the police.
Yes, Our Race Today offices were just there on the corner of Railton and Shakespeare Roads, which is the heart of Brixton.
What sorts of people participated?
Mostly Black youth. When they spread to the other areas of the country like Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester then white youth joined them there, it was more multiracial once it got outside. In that time Brixton was a strong Black community and largely populated by Black people, when that kicked off it was Black kids against the police.
Leila, I remember you telling me that in the inquiry that you did with participants they had also some support from Italian anarchists in the area.
That’s correct, yeah. In fact, the anarchists inhabited the place where Farrukh used to live, on the corner of Railton Road, so when Farrukh moved out it became a squat and the anarchists moved in. And I remember in the heat of it all, the anarchists introduced the Molotov cocktail. I remember that quite clearly, and that they were being made on that corner.
When the debriefing happened with the rioters in Brixton, when we spoke to them, they were quite clear that they had worked out a plan of how to tactically fight the police, which roads they were using, how they would go on one road and then retreat down another and then attack the police from another angle down another road. So that was kind of the level of self-organization as well, it wasn’t just people on the streets, they actually had worked out ways in which they could defeat the police by knowing the streets of the area. And one thing that hasn’t been publicized is that when some of the youth were injured by the police, some of the houses in the area opened their doors and sort of worked as little, mini first aid centers as well, and would patch them back up to go out and fight again.
Right now in the US antiracist activists are fighting a kind of multi-front battle against police, a right-wing national government, and growing proto-fascist movements on the streets. Does this resonate with what was happening with antiracist struggle in the 70s and 80s in the UK? I’m thinking of the National Front and Thatcherism, as well as the police.
There were isolated incidents—one of which I suffered. On the March 8, 1973 they threw a bomb into the ground floor of my house because it happened to be the Black Panther movement’s book shop, Freedom News. I lived on the second story, and I woke up when the fire was … it was blazing. I thought somebody was choking me then noticed it was smoke and I jumped out of the window, with the glass blowing out to the street.
It was quite an episode in my life and the police never caught anybody, but five places belonging to Blacks and Asians were bombed that same night. Neighbors said that they saw a scooter passing by and a man throwing a firebomb through that window. It was most probably the National Front.
And in the East End they…
And in the East End, my God. They used to … they had random acts of “Paki-bashing,” right, beating up Asians, lone Asians, somebody who’d be walking on the street coming back from work in the evening or the night, they’d catch them and beat them up for no reason but racism. But they weren’t active in so far as they didn’t affect national politics in the way that your right-wing groups in the US actually do.
And as far as the Asians were concerned, with the leadership of Race Today in a particular instance, we started a movement called the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London, and we started vigilante groups to fight off the National Front. So between the Asian groups and the National Front there was certainly an antagonism and it came to battles, right?
But, with the Black population, I don’t think they dared to enter Brixton to try the same thing. They didn’t do it. The National Front wasn’t significant nationally and they dissolved and they gave rise to three or four other extreme right-wing movements, who were openly fascist, openly racist, but they don’t amount to much, they don’t amount to the Ku Klux Klan, for instance.
During the course of Race Today, our campaigns were more against the police than they were against the right wing, I mean our occupation was the police oppression, more than fighting the National Front, I have to say.
And its institutions. With race activism basically one is trying to get the police off one’s back, and then say that the meritocracy of Britain has not succeeded in promoting the numbers of Asian and Black immigrants into professional positions, business, this, that. Exceptions abound, right? Johnson has Black and Asian people in his cabinet, I don’t like them, but there they are (laughing). The two or three of the richest people in Britain are Asians you know.
That raises an important point about Race Today, which is that you always kept together issues of race and class, and insisted that these had to be understood together.
Yeah, most definitely that was our philosophy. I mean partly from (Race Today founder) Darcus Howe and our connection with (C.L.R.) James, we were very clear that the movement we represented was the working-class movement. We understood that there would be different initiatives to make people join professional classes and then to [join ]politics, say, the Black section of the Labour Party. But our concern was always the people at the bottom and how we could take forward their issues and have national attention as to what was going to those communities.
We would assist the spontaneous activity, which was, in that day and age, happening. Of course it’s happening now much more. You don’t need a Leninist party to begin a protest against George Floyd’s death. And I believe that with modern communications, we are all connected in that sense. We mentioned the UK and the US but there are Black Lives Matter groups, movements, statements in India for God’s sake. They are only associated in kind of brotherly and sisterly solidarity with the US Blacks. Their Indigenous problem would be Lower Caste Lives Matter or Muslim Lives Matter and that’s going to be set off, I absolutely believe, by what has happened in the US and in the UK.
Let me go back to an earlier question you asked about racism and class. Darcus [Howe] always insisted that the lumpenproletariat was a wrong thing to call people who are unemployed. They were the people who the capitalist system had not let through the bottom drawer of class, and Race Today always took that on and insisted that the people who were unemployed, the people who were dealing in the underground economy of a country were not in the old sense lumpenproletariat. They were people who could not enter the working class with the skills and the opportunities that were necessary to so do.
Yes, I remember reading Darcus Howe on mass unemployment in Jamaica for instance—that joblessness was kind of an existential condition that produced a particular kind of radicalism.
Yes, see what happens in societies like the Caribbean Islands is that they become capitalist by large, right? They used to be agricultural and used to have a culture of growing tobacco or sugarcane or bananas or whatever. Then they turn into capitalist companies even with the cultural base, and then they can’t become completely capitalist because they don’t have the bloody resources, and if they don’t have the resources a vast amount of the population falls outside of the new system of production. Then they have to subsist by allowing cocaine to pass through from Colombia, or any damn thing, right? And then they get classified as the fallout from imperfect capitalism, and that’s going on all the time.
C.L.R. James used say these are pieces of dirt in the Caribbean. This was not a nice way of putting it, but what he meant by that was you can’t be self-sufficient in the capitalist global world if you have places like, say, St. Kitts, where you depend upon other people to come there as tourists, otherwise you’re finished. Even bauxite in Jamaica and oil in Trinidad is not going to solve your problem. A Federation of the West Indies … that could have been extremely powerful federation, including Cuba, including Martinique, Guadeloupe. You know, it would have been a fantastic nation. I’d love to live there.
That is one thing that was extraordinary about Race Today. You were situated down near the front line in Brixton and among the Black working class and …
And the Black unemployed, yeah.
And, then, speaking with activists and radicals, and throughout the Caribbean and India and Africa and elsewhere, it was kind of a nodal point for broader trends and anticolonialism, antiracism, and anticapitalism. You had Maurice Bishop and Walter Rodney and others writing for the journal …
Yeah. For the journal, definitely yeah. That connection was real then. I’m not sure it’s so strong now with this generation who go just back for holidays. But then there was a really strong link between Britain and the Caribbean, and Britain and India, and the movements that were going on, we did feel very connected to them—as if we were part of those movements as well.
Could you talk about the concept of “political Blackness?”
I was discussing this earlier with Leila and I said the slogan was “Black is a political color” right, so even though I’m very fair-skinned, it was no doubt that we were part of the same movement and there was not one hint of any kind of tension between one section and the other. And within Race Today we represented India, represented the East End of the Bangladeshi community in great numbers, represented the Punjabi strikers in the Midlands yeah?
Do you think there is something lost with the breakdown of political Blackness? It’s not in fashion now I take it.
Not at all. And it’s gone right down to the nth degree of your individuality, or what they call your sectionality. I mean right down now to where no one is even a Nigerian anymore, they are Igbo or Yoruba, and people often introduce themselves like that, “I am Nigerian Yoruba,” “I am Nigerian Igbo.” You just think, “So what?” basically. What does it add, what does it bring, you identifying as that?
There is that falling away. You know, “We are Muslims and we don’t want to join the Black struggle,” or some nonsense, it has actually damaged the movements. But I think that in the recent weeks after the BLM movement, there’s going to be a change. I really believe that.
Are people looking back to the Black People’s Day of Action (and other important moments of antiracist history) in the UK?
Well I think because it’s two generations on now, a lot of people don’t know about them. That’s why different organizations like Goldsmiths University are going to do a big anniversary for the Black People’s Day of Action, because it will be 40 years. But it’s a generational thing because the immediate generation has no idea of this history. I mean we found that when we published the book Here to Stay, Here to Fight: A Race Today Anthology, and when we spoke about the book people said they had no idea this had gone before. So part of our role is to get that history known and to see what it can contribute to the debate today.
There are lots of movements for Black studies to be introduced. Of course, lots of people are doing it, lots of groups, lots of academies and so on. We just want to influence it by saying there is an archive that we have, which might inform you about this. For instance, the one book that has been written about Blacks and the police struggle in the UK is the compilation of Darcus Howe’s essays, From Bobby to Babylon. It is the single book that actually tracks the history between Blacks and the police force here. That’s why it’s called From Bobby to Babylon.
Any advice to readers of Africa Is a Country in this moment of upheaval?
The central advice is that what you want to do is demonstrate the possibilities of action through the spontaneous movement of the working classes generally. That’s what’s happening, right? Carrying that moment into some organized action can be certainly done by activist groups who say, “Now that we are all gathered together here’s the possibility of action.” Yeah? Here’s what can be done, with the possibility of action opened up in our era by that democratic demand. So let’s see.
I think one of the things that Race Today did, toward the end of the Black Power movement, was analyze whose interest that movement really served. If just certain people get jobs in high places, there is no real fundamental change. I think that is the goal of the activists, to ask how do you stop that from being the end game. I watch CNN, I see there’s a big drive about people voting in America. Voters are being suppressed in America and that is why it’s important. But there’s that movement underneath—activists who want to make sure that some of the demands are met, and that it doesn’t just end up in voting people into office.