Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee, Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Antiracism (Pluto Press 2022), 192pp. Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee, Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Antiracism (Pluto Press 2022), 192pp.

Race to the Bottom reminds us of the anti-racist movements of working-class Black communities, in the 70s and 80s, and hopes for their resurgence, finds Tayo Aluko

Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Antiracism was published barely months before Rishi Sunak became prime minister of Britain. Also to come was the coronation of King Charles, which saw one of the biggest one-day police operations in British history, interestingly being led by, among others, a Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Nigerian parentage. Antiracism, some would argue, had now demonstrably, finally, arrived in Britain.

What authors Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee very lucidly help us to see is that what was witnessed in Downing Street and at the coronation was the triumph of what they describe as ‘Antiracism from Above,’ which was the response by the state to the emergence and flourishing of several Black Power organisations of the 1960s and 70s. These organisations’ struggles against the ‘hostile environment’ of their era were rooted in socialism and internationalism, and both emerged from and were deeply invested in the racialised, working-class communities that bore the brunt of the inequalities and injustices that the state had to offer. At the forefront of these assaults by the state were the police, the three arms of which were the various individual forces, immigration control, and the counterterror units.

What made many of the Black Power organisations particularly effective was on the one hand, their embracing of the concept of ‘Political Blackness,’ which created alliances and solidarity between non-white groups, recognising the unity of their struggle, and on the other hand, linking their struggles here in Britain with those of people resisting imperialism and neo-colonialism around the world, including South Africa and other parts of the continent, Latin America, South Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East, particularly Palestine.

Among the myriad Black Power organisations recalled were the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD), Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA), Black United and Freedom Party (BUFP), the Black People’s Alliance (BPA), the Black Workers Movement (BWM), the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs)and the Indian Workers Association (IWA). The significant strikes and demonstrations that punctuated the1970s included the Mansfield Hosiery Strike (1972), the Imperial Typewriters Strike (1974), the Notting Hill Carnival Riots (1976) the Grunwick Strike (1976-8), and the Battle of Lewisham (1977).

Mass movements in the 1980s

Heady times indeed, and the 1980s started with a bang, literally. First off, in January there was the New Cross Massacre, in which thirteen Black teenagers lost their lives in what many believed was a racially motivated arson attack on a house in which a birthday party was happening. Regardless of subsequent inquest verdicts, the prevalence of racist arson attacks and fascist activity in the area at the time makes this cause all too likely. The political indifference, the police mishandling of the case and the press antagonism against the victims and the community drew an angry response from Black communities around the country which culminated in a Black People’s Day of Action on March 2, 1981, organised by the New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NMAC), which saw 20,000 people march across London, on a weekday. Seemingly in revenge, the Met instigated Operation Swamp 81, whereby stop-and-search operations rose to an all-time high, and unsurprisingly, Brixton erupted in a rebellion against this police repression on 10 April. In response to similar repression elsewhere, others followed: Handsworth in Birmingham; Chapeltown in Leeds; Moss Side in Manchester and Toxteth in Liverpool.

Police crackdowns on Black communities only increased, with heavy support from politicians and the media for the introduction of paramilitary equipment – including rubber bullets, water cannons, riot guns and CS gas – all ‘battle-tested’ in Northern Ireland on protesters against British occupation.

Into this mix came the affair of the Bradford 12 – members of the United Black Youth League (UBYL), which was a splinter group from the Bradford Asian Youth Movement (AYM). On hearing that skinheads were planning an attack on them, they prepared to defend themselves with Molotov Cocktails – milk bottles filled with petrol and rags– only to be arrested and charged with offences under the 100-year-old Explosives Substances Act 1881. Following a very public year-long trial that drew support from around the country and abroad, they were finally acquitted.

This victory by another Black Power organisation marked a high point in Black communities’ struggles against the state, and echoed a similar victory in by the Mangrove 9, eleven years earlier. In that case, the defendants (some of whom represented themselves in court) were acquitted of inciting a riot in protests against police brutality, focused on the popular Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, London.

Shafi and Nagdee describe the New Cross Massacre, which preceded the arrest of the Bradford 12 by a few months, as a turning point in the fortunes of the Black Power struggles against the state. The defiance of the NMAC in refuting the Establishment’s narrative of the events of the fateful night, and their success in organising the Day of Action in March marked the beginning, or intensification, of additional strategies to the simple use of brute force in their battle against the organisations. Infiltration of groups by the police (spy cops) was one strategy, and the other (similarly subtle) one was the ‘domestication’ of the various radical groups and individuals.

Decay of the struggle

The success of this latter strategy is perhaps best illustrated by the story of Marsha Singh, a leader of the Bradford Asian Youth Movement, from which sprang the Bradford 12. Singh went on to become a Labour MP, but lost all his youthful radicalism in Parliament, if not before. Outside of Parliament, there was the encouragement of a Black entrepreneurial (middle) class, which created a buffer between the Black working class and the unemployed and the Establishment, and the incorporation of racialised people into civic institutions, including even the police itself, and race relations and multicultural services within councils or NGOs, as part of the ‘domestication’ process. The expectation on these people was that they would conform to ideas of mainstream non-radical politics. This tendency was at the root of the turn away from the collective, anti-capitalist politics of the past to the individualistic identity politics of the present.

The result of this process in politics is the absence today of any radical Black figures at the forefront of either main party (with the likes of Diane Abbot currently suspended from Labour), as evidenced by the 2021 London Mayoral election being between Sadiq Khan for Labour and Shaun Bailey for the Conservatives, neither of whom represents a threat to the status quo in the way Jeremy Corbyn, for example, did. The authors say of this development: ‘for the dispossessed of London, the promise of the next four years was clear: whether the future was brown or Black, their future looked bleak.’

To add to this bleak picture, the internationalism that informed and motivated the Black Power organisations of yesteryear, with its understanding that oppressed people in the so-called Third World were struggling against the same capitalist, imperialist enemy, has been replaced, Shafi and Nagdee argue, with an internationalism that now furthers the imperialist agenda. There is now, outside the Stop the War movement, little significant resistance to the narrative that Western governments need to continue to prosecute wars and create conflict abroad in the name of an ongoing war on terror, not least thanks to Islamophobia being firmly baked into the collective consciousness by years of media and political bias. By contrast, support for Palestine is now increasingly criminalised and weaponised against radicals of any race or creed, with accusations of anti-Semitism absurdly leading also to the expulsion of numerous radical Jewish members from the Labour Party.

New beginnings?

Having surveyed and tracked the slow undermining and dismantling of Black Power organisation and activism in Britain, the authors however approach the conclusion of their book by pointing to the rays of light and hope that have begun to puncture the darkness recently (and somewhat unexpectedly) since the pandemic. These all suggest the resurrection of the solidarity that characterised the 1970s and 80s that the state effectively broke, with its Antiracism from Above strategy. The shared outrage at the murder of George Floyd was the first indication of this. The second was the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard (a white woman) by a serving Met Police officer, and the fury of the public not just at that but also at the violent treatment of protestors by the police.

Finally, it seems, more and more of the public are coming to the recognition that police behaviour is an expression not just of state racism (as racialised people have argued for decades), but of ‘state violence writ large’. Then there is the solidarity, self-help and community care shown by the public to each other during the pandemic. Shafi and Nagdee also point to the effectiveness of direct action by the likes of Palestine Action not just in drawing attention to a cause but also in achieving results and showing the potential of self-organising.

There is one source of frustration and irritation with this book, which may be a budgetary decision by the publishers, and it is the absence of an index. Having said that, in presenting such an excellent socialist analysis of the Black Power organisations of yesteryear and the methods (self-inflicted or employed by the state) by which they were compromised and neutralised, the book is a powerful tool with which to prepare, inspire and arm antiracist activists for the struggles that lie ahead.

Tayo Aluko is a playwright, actor and singer, known for his performances of one-man musical plays on Black resistance: Call Mr. Robeson, Just An Ordinary Lawyer and forthcoming, Coleridge-Taylor of Freetown.

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