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Do we need to have a new type of activism? part 1

INFLUENTIAL: The Black Lives Matter movement

THIS YEAR marks the third year of the UN’s International Decade For People Of African Descent (IDPAD) initiative. IDPAD recognises that people of African heritage, wherever they are on the planet, face discrimination and racism.

The aim of the decade, which runs from 2015 to 2024, is for member states and civil society organisations to put systems in place to address the discrimination, racism, and other injustices and inequalities experienced by people of African descent, particularly in areas such as employment, housing, health, education, and the justice system.

Often, the only way to resolve or highlight systemic racial discrimination and disadvantage is to take to the streets by protest marches or riots. The violence or destruction that comes with riots is unfortunate, but even Martin Luther King Jr – the famous non-violent advocate – empathised, and described riots, which are often responses to unaddressed social ills, as “the language of the unheard”.

In Britain, the history of the black experience is heavily punctuated with racism.


Not surprisingly, there is also a history of conflict on the streets which goes back a long way. But is it time to change tack in dealing with the disadvantages, grievances and injustices faced by people of African descent, particularly as we are in the third year of IDPAD?

In order to answer this question and move forward we need to take a look at what has happened in the past. A good starting point is the year 1919. For much of that year, particularly between April and August, there were race riots not just in London, but also in Liverpool, South Shields, Salford, Hull, Glasgow, Newport and Barry.

The riots were mainly a consequence of the acute unemployment and housing shortage immediately after World War I, and the hatred felt by some men at seeing local women fraternising with Africans, many of whom were seamen, who were perceived as taking jobs away from the British.

PICTURED: Claudia Jones

On August 23, 1958 race riots kicked off in Notting Hill, and continued for nearly a week. The new arrivals to the area, mostly recent immigrants from the Caribbean, responded in kind to the violent attacks by young racist local men. To improve community relations after these riots, Claudia Jones, the Trinidadian-born political activist and editor of The West Indian Gazette newspaper, organised an annual indoor, cabaret-style Caribbean Carnival from January 1959 until her death in 1964.

Whilst the Jones-organised carnivals had a political bent, judging by its ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom’ slogan, today’s Notting Hill Carnival, which started after Jones’ death, has become Europe’s biggest annual street event and a space for cultural expression for people of African descent.

In the years after the Notting Hill riots the black response to racial discrimination would follow a similar theme. They were ad hoc protests to police brutality, deaths in police custody and ineffective police investigations where black people were the victims.

The biggest protest of this kind was the New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NC-
MAC) organised Black People’s Day Of Action, which took place on March 2, 1981. The march started from New Cross in south east London, where on January 18, 13 young Africans died in a house fire which many believed was the result of a racially-motivated arson attack.

Many in the black community were disappointed with the police for treating the fire as an electrical accident instead of pursuing the perceived perpetrators, and with the Establishment and media for their failure to publicly express sympathy over the tragic deaths.

INSPIRED: Darcus Howe

Some 15-25,000 people of African descent marched through Fleet Street and the Houses of Parliament, where the organisers managed to get an Early Day Motion on the day, which enabled some MPs for the first time to publicly express sympathy and condemn racist attacks.

Presently the only street- based activism that regularly garners mainstream media coverage are the guerilla-style stunts by Britain’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Disrupting city centre traffic through marches, protestors chaining themselves across streets to disrupt passengers travelling into airports, or even getting European supporters to get on an airport tarmac to disrupt flights, are some of the tactics that have raised their profile.

On one hand I applaud the adoption of the BLM movement in Britain, as a pan-African show of solidarity with our African-American kith and kin. I admire the energy of the social media-savvy young Africans leading this movement, which also has support from young, liberal, college-type Europeans.


However I worry that there does not seem to be a clear politically focused strategy following on from the BLM protests against deaths by police. My concern is that it takes only one little incident for the media to turn against them, which could result in this dynamic, youth-led movement imploding.

There is no doubt that taking to the streets has the potential to publicise causes. But to achieve the real goals, activists in 2017 perhaps need to also engage with decision makers.

Considering some of the political and economic gains made by other minority groups, such as the Jewish and Asian community, without having to regularly take to the streets, activists of African descent should also engage more with people with power who reside within the corridors of the political establishments.

For example in March this year, 51 years after the UN resolved to mark March 21 as the International Day For The Elimination Of Racial Discrimination in remembrance of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, Brent MP Dawn Butler moved a debate on the UN initiative in the House of Commons.

It provided another opportunity for activists to push the politicians to turn the fine words of concern from the Prime Minister and others into programmes that meaningfully mitigate racism.

In her maiden speech last July as Prime Minister, Theresa May highlighted some of the discrimination faced by black people when she said:

“If you are black, you are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you are white.”

Read part 2 of 'Do we need to have a new type of activism?' on Sunday 1 October at 7am.

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