'Guerrilla' and the real history of British Black Power
‘Black Power’ is a term most associated with the civil rights struggle in America. But 1970s Britain was also a battleground for racial equality, witnessing protests, trials, activism and violence. Ahead of new Sky Atlantic drama Guerrilla - which is inspired by emergence of British Black Power - we spoke to Paul Field and Robin Bunce, historical consultants on the show, to find out more about the real movement that inspired the series…
Can you give us an idea of what the climate of 1970s London was like for people from ethnic minorities?
PF: Racial discrimination was pervasive in 1970s Britain. While only a minority of British people may have openly subscribed to the extreme views of Enoch Powell or the National Front, evidence suggests that many did discriminate against the black and Asian immigrants they encountered.
In April 1967 the most extensive social study of discrimination ever conducted was published in the Political & Economic Planning (PEP) report. In wide ranging 'situation tests’, a white Briton, a white Hungarian and a black West Indian were sent to apply for the same jobs, housing and commercial services. The responses they received were compared, with the report revealing that racial discrimination in Britain ranged from “the massive to the substantial”.
The 1971 Immigration Act played directly to this racist sentiment. Although it substantially increased the numbers of people who could enter the country from the Commonwealth, it also ensured that these immigrants were white. It did this by distinguishing between “patrials” (the children and grandchildren of people who had migrated from Britain to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and parts of Africa), who were welcome, and “non-patrials”, who were prohibited from entering the UK.
Some MPs were unapologetic about the racial nature of the act. In the House of Commons on 8 March 1971, John Hunt, Conservative MP for Bromley, said that by non-patrials, "what we mean are those born with black or brown faces. It will enhance the honesty and credibility of our debate if that fact is freely and frankly acknowledged. It is possible in some circumstances to justify control of immigration on a racial basis... This is not the first immigration bill to be based on a deliberate policy of racial discrimination.”
Police brutality and corruption against black and Asian immigrants was also a major factor in the growth of the Black Power movement in Britain. Drug recycling within black community was an especially pernicious part of this corruption, as highlighted by journalists Barry Cox, John Shirley and Martin Short in their 1977 book The Fall of Scotland Yard. Some officers would seize drugs, report a share of what was seized, and use the rest to supply their network of informants within the black community, who then sold them at knock-down 'police prices'. Investigations into police corruption that took place from 1969 to 1972 led to five major trials. In London alone, a dozen detectives were gaoled, and many more disgraced, including senior officers with Met’s Drug Squad.
What were the aims of the British Black Power movement?
RB: Black radicals had differing opinions on the question of what Black Power meant and what the movement should look like.
One important figure in the early days of the British movement was Obi B Egbuna, founder of the British Black Panthers and the main author of the first British Black Power manifesto. He believed that Black Power should be a secretive, Leninist style party of dedicated, highly trained revolutionaries, launching a revolution on behalf of the black working class.
More like this
For Althea Jones-Lecointe, a radical who played a big role in the Panthers’ later years, Black Power was a grass roots things – it had to come from young black people, black workers and black unemployed people, and reflect their concerns.
By the late 1960s Darcus Howe had emerged as an important figure in the movement. Involved in the 1970 Black Power revolution in Trinidad, Howe had also spent time with leading activists from around the world such as Stokely Carmichael, Gwendolyn Patton, Walter Rodney and H Rap Brown. He brought this experience and understanding of the global movement to bear on campaigns in the UK.
Leila Hassan, who was involved in the Black Unity and Freedom Party, told me that within the movement there was a distinction between those who followed Martin Luther King and accepted non-violence as an article of faith, and those who advocated Malcolm X’s argument – that self-defence was wholly legitimate. Accepting self-defence was an important aspect of Black Power. If you want a shorthand for Black Power, Hassan puts it like this: “integration on our terms”, not separatism, or assimilation as second-class citizens. Instead, Black Power was a movement led by black and Asian migrants determined to replace white domination with a truly equal society.
One thing that was generally agreed was that British and US Black Power was the equivalent of anti-colonial movements in the developing world. While Ho Chi Minh [in Vietnam] and Nkrumah [in Ghana] were fighting white power in the former colonies, the Panthers were fighting white power in the metropolis.
Another issue that black radicals tended to agree on was that black people should play the leading role in their own liberation: Black Power was incompatible with allowing white people to frame the debate, or lead the struggle for black rights.
How serious did black activist violence get in Britain?
PF: Guerrilla is rooted in a history of police violence, institutional racism and a will to resist. It’s a fictional account which poses the question: “what if the London’s Black Power movement had taken up arms” in the climate of police and public racism which existed in 1971. The story may be fictional, but the historical context in which it is situated has been meticulously reconstructed by the writers and producers.
Although they followed developments in the US closely and discussed the legitimacy of ‘armed struggle’, Black Power groups in Britain never armed themselves. Instead they chose to protest peacefully and avoid the use of guns and explosives.
However, this didn’t mean the groups were pacifist. Rather, they believed that black people were entitled to defend themselves from racist violence and police brutality, and helped organise community patrols that put an end to such attacks in their communities. In 1967, a string of racist attacks on Pakistanis in the London’s King's Cross area prompted the Pakistani Workers' Union to set up defence patrols which brought them to an end. In 1970, a spate of skinhead attacks on Tower Hamlets’ Bengali community, which left several people injured and one dead, prompted the formation of similar defence squads, which again stamped out the attacks.
How did the British establishment and media view the Black Power movement?
RB: The media were perplexed! Liberals recognised that racism was a problem, but couldn’t see what the movement wanted – usually because they didn’t bother to ask. Some journalists even claimed that, like the Nation of Islam (the African-American religious/political movement led by Elijah Muhammad), British Black Power wanted a separate black province in the UK! Not one of the main Black Power groups in Britain campaigned for that.
Elements of the right-wing media used Black Power as a stick to beat liberals with. Bill Deedes, editor of The Telegraph, argued that its emergence demonstrated that multi-culturalism was an impossible, utopian idea. For Deedes, Black Power showed that tough new immigration laws and repatriation were needed to save London from becoming Balkanised.
That said, there were some supportive voices in the media. Vince Hines (a serious radical who was part of the Black House, a collective formed in north London) covered black protest for The Guardian. His journalism remains an important source for understanding what was really going on at the time. Barry Cox also did a great deal to expose police corruption in the early 1970s – not just in terms of race, extortion and corruption, but also the police selling drugs into black communities.
How was the movement connected to the US Black power movement?
RB: In various ways – there was a strong feeling that Black Power was a global movement. Egbuna and Darcus, among others, travelled to the US and worked with black radicals. They also rubbed shoulders with Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael when they visited the UK. London activists held protests to free American activist Huey P Newton in solidarity with the US, and black radicals in Britain organised an Angela Davis Defence Committee to support efforts to get the American political activist freed. And when African-American writer James Baldwin gave an impromptu press conference protesting against the shooting of black American activist George Jackson, the British Panthers and Black Unity and Freedom Party organised a march of an estimated 1,500 people from Trafalgar Square to the US Embassy in protest.
Radical publications such as Hustler and Black Dimension, written and produced by black people living in London, also carried news from all over the world: the US, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent.
Can we draw any parallels between any of the characters or events in the TV series Guerrilla and real life people or events?
PF: While all the characters in the drama are fictional, some parallels can be drawn. For example, Omega Moore (played by Zawe Ashton) has a murky past, but in a chameleon-like fashion, reinvents herself as an icon of British Black Power. Her charm allows her to move easily between the radicals and the white middle class. One real figure in the movement, Michael X had a similarly murky past as an enforcer to a slum landlord. Always a hustler, he reinvented himself as the media face of British Black Power. However, he was always taken more seriously by rich white liberals and celebrities (like John Lennon) than by Black Power activists, who avoided the spotlight in favour of sustained activism and political work within black communities.
RB: I think it’s fair to say the writers were inspired by Olive Morris when writing the character of Christine (played by Sophia Brown), who organises a black women’s campaign for decent housing. While the script was being written we were doing a lot of research on Olive Morris, who was born in Jamaica and moved to London in 1961. She founded the Brixton Black Women's Group, and turned squatting and resistance to the police into a science. Morris organised housing campaigns and staged sit-ins by black women and children in council offices.
PF: There are also parallels between the character of Kent Fue (played by Idris Elba) and the iconic black photographer Neil Kenlock, who came to Britain from Jamaica in early 1960s. Like Kenlock, Kent seeks to document the personal and political struggles of black and Asian immigrants through his art. However, unlike Kent, who eschews militant struggle in favour of working with white liberals to advance the interests of immigrants, Kenlock became a member of the British Black Panther Movement, as well as its unofficial photographer.
Finally, Jas Mitra (played by Freida Pinto) is similar to several South Asian women activists – such as Bengali women’s rights campaigner Mala Sen – who played crucial roles in the movement. Farrukh Dhondy has estimated that there were at least 20 Asian women in leadership positions in Black Power movement. They later went on to form black feminist groups such as the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent and Southall Black Sisters. These organisations led struggles against domestic violence, virginity testing of Asian women migrants by British immigration service, and the NHS’s perceived neglect of sickle cell anaemia [which mainly affects people of African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Eastern Mediterranean and Asian origin].
You’ve recently written a book about activist Darcus Howe and the Mangrove Nine Trial. Why was that such an important moment for British black activism?
PF: The Mangrove campaign aimed to defend Notting Hill’s Mangrove restaurant, and its owner Frank Crichlow, from police harassment. However, it culminated in the trial of nine Black Power activists. The incident has been described as ‘the high watermark of the Black Power movement’ in Britain, and its significance is multi-layered.
The Mangrove, the first black restaurant in Notting Hill, was a unique enterprise that acted as a kind of community advice centre. However, the thriving restaurant came under attack. A group of officers who policed the area, known as "the heavy mob", raided the Mangrove (and its predecessor the El Rio café) 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970, driving away customers. They claimed that Crichlow’s establishments were drugs dens, although repeated raids never yielded a shred of evidence.
The response to this police persecution was audacious. Darcus Howe, who worked at the Mangrove, urged Crichlow to mobilise the community in his defence. Together with the Black Panther movement, they organised a demonstration. On 9 August 1970, 150 protesters marched to local police stations demanding the police get their "hands off the Mangrove". More than 700 officers policed the march, including those in observation vans, plain clothed officers of CID, and Special Branch photographers. Heavy-handed policing prompted violence and the authorities began to build a case against nine leading activists, who they charged with incitement to riot. Home Office documents disclosed under Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that this was a deliberate strategy to target and decapitate the emerging black power movement.
The police were very successful in spreading their narrative. They presented the Mangrove march as a terrorist attack organised by foreign radicals, working with local criminals.
Against all the odds, the ‘Mangrove Nine’ decided to turn the tables on their accusers. Darcus Howe, Althea Jones-Lecointe and Rhodan Gordan dismissed their defence counsel and represented themselves during their 10-week trial at the Old Bailey in 1971. According to a leading lawyer quoted in The Sunday Times, “they gave the jury their view of police methods, race relations, colonial history, council politics and so forth. The brilliance with which they defended themselves showed for the first time that barristers, for a political trial at least, are not indispensable...”
All nine defendants were eventually acquitted of the principal riot charges and five of the nine, including Howe and Frank Crichlow, were acquitted of all charges.
The trial was significant in that it forced the first judicial acknowledgement of racial prejudice inside the Metropolitan Police, more than 27 years before the MacPherson Report recognised institutional racism.
What was the “Black Power Desk” (which features in the series), and how did you find out about it?
RB: Our first inkling that there was an official campaign against black radicals came from Darcus Howe, who knew some of the officers who kept tabs on him. We did some fishing in government archives, and put in a freedom of information request for some promising classified files. After a lot of wrangling with the Home Office we got a huge number of documents from the Black Power Desk declassified.
The Black Power Desk was established in 1967 by order of Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary. Based in New Scotland Yard, it was staffed by as many as six officers. It was one of a number of such desks, alongside others keeping tabs on the IRA, Trotskyites or Marxists.
The desk had a lot of early success, playing a role in Egbuna’s 1968 conviction for incitement to murder police officers. After that success, senior figures in the Met mothballed the operation – probably cutting back to a skeleton staff of two, who were working mostly on other things. However, in 1970, as the desk started to see an upturn in black radical activity, their resources expanded and they went into overdrive ahead of the Mangrove trial.
They shared information with the Joint Intelligence Committee and MI5, and reported directly to the Home Secretary. A close reading of their reports shows that they presented information extremely selectively. The reports that reached the Home Secretary made black radicals out as drug dealers and terrorists – both allegations were baseless.
The Black Power Desk remained active into the mid-1970s, keeping black activists under surveillance for many years.
PF: The Desk appears to have eventually become a part of Special Demonstration Squad, which spied on, infiltrated and disrupted various social justice movements, including black civil rights groups, well into the 1990s.
Why do you think we don’t hear more about this aspect of British history?
RB: To my mind, it’s because Black Power doesn’t fit with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as a nation, or our current pre-occupations. Acknowledging the history of black resistance to racism in Britain highlights some unpalatable truths. It might blow a hole in the cherished myths at the heart of our nation: that Britain ‘invented’ individual rights, and that racism was never widespread in the UK. The idea of a movement to challenge systemic racism doesn’t fit with that story.
All episodes of Sky Atlantic’s Guerrilla are available now.
Paul Field and Robin Bunce were historical consultants on the series. Dr Robin Bunce is a historian based at the University of Cambridge, specialising in the history of political thought. Paul Field worked as a journalist, specialising in issues of policing, asylum and institutional racism, before becoming a lawyer specialising in discrimination and employment.