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Old Bill of rights…

Newly republished, a collection of Darcus Howe’s essays traces the black community’s relationship with Britain’s law enforcement agencies

29 May, 2020 — By Farrukh Dhondy

Darcus Howe. Photo: brixtonblog.com

DARCUS Howe, one of the leading figures of the post-war political movement of the new communities of Britain, traces the troubled history of the relationship between the law enforcement agencies of Britain and, in the main, black British youth in From Bobby to Babylon.

Originally published in 1988, the book is a collection of Darcus’s essays for Race Today, the magazine he edited from the early 1970s till 1985.

As the introduction tells us, the essays were commissioned by the Race Today Collective whose observations and deliberations in 1980 told them (or, I should say “us” as I was a member of the collective) that the bad blood caused by police policy and action among the black community was about to take historical centre stage.

And so it came about. The country saw destructive, or empowering (?), riots in Brixton in 1981 and then in Liverpool, Manchester and other cities in succeeding years.

Every state, dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, has active enforcing arms of the law. In the case of states such as East Germany, the brutal Stasi, and in Britain the normally unarmed “Old Bill”.

Darcus begins this series with a historic overview of the democratic control that Britain exercises over its police force.

The very name “Bobby”, adopted from the first name of the founder of the modern police force Robert Peel, establishes the affectionate distance between the enforcers and those they are entrusted, through the activation of democratic law, to protect.

The word “Babylon”, borrowed by black youth from the biblical traditions of their West Indian origins, metaphorically reflects the Imperial Assyrian cruelty towards the chosen people.

From the early years of the post-war immigration from the colonies and ex-colonies of Britain, Darcus gathers evidence of police assaults on black individuals that were judged unjustifiable and unlawful.

By 1966, the West Indian Standing Conference, in a report aggressively entitled Nigger Hunting In England, reports a deluge of complaints about such random attacks in South London’s Brixton.

Darcus Howe addresses a rally for the Mangrove Nine in Notting Hill, 1971. Photo: Horace Ove

Official police victimisation of black people sought justification in the allegation that black houses, parties and places where they gathered were actually brothels and dope dens.

The unofficial victimisation, when individual or gangs of policemen went out to specifically arrest and possibly frame a black victim, was characterised by the phrase “nigger hunting”.

The political establishment and the mainstream right-wing press not only turned a blind eye to this growing, brutal, unwarranted, purposeless, racist phenomenon but in very many instances sided with it.

In the face of a tsunami of justified complaints, especially from black professionals such as teachers and lawyers who had been blatantly framed by being planted, for instance, with the keys of stolen cars, the BBC made a documentary in its series Cause for Concern.

The documentary picked up evidence from victims and from ex-policemen who were disgusted by the racist attitudes and activity of their erstwhile colleagues. In Darcus’s words, the documentary and the attempts by the police to suppress it “had important consequences for the struggle being waged by the black community to throw the burden of police oppression off our backs…”

The book traces the growth of the organisation of black power groups in Britain through the influence of the civil rights struggle and beyond it in the USA into black militant organisations.

The frustrations of black youth in Britain, manifested in disillusion gave rise to black power in Britain and its vociferous demands for civil rights and equality on all fronts. Foremost among the demands was an end to police victimisation.

The book charts the origins of the watershed Mangrove trial. The restaurant of that name in Notting Hill was subject to constant harassment and pointless drug raids by the police of Harrow Road and Notting Hill cop-shops. Fewer than 200 people marched in protest. The police, unused to such organised action, arrested nine of the protestors and charged them, absurdly, with conspiracy against the state, affray and assault.

The Mangrove trial resulted in every serious charge being defeated and the acquittal of Darcus, one of the nine who flamboyantly defended himself.

Darcus analyses the Scarman report which followed the Brixton riots which took place near and around our offices of Race Today, giving us a rings-side view and direct access to the events leading to them.

The following chapters are an insightful interview which Darcus gave to the Village Voice which distances his stance from that of black nationalists, sterile academics and the meritocratic opportunists of “race”.

A chapter by the dedicated and dynamic barrister Gareth Peirce outlines, in conclusion, the court cases that were instrum­ental in the struggle against Babylon – where the black community didn’t sit down and weep, but fought back.

  • From Bobby to Babylon: Blacks and the British Police. By Darcus Howe, Bookmarks, £8.
  • Farrukh Dhondy is an Indian-born British writer, playwright, screenwriter and activist since the 1970s.

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