Black History, Black Struggle, a recent issue of the journal Race and Class, offers an important opportunity to reassess past struggles against racism in the UK and the US, argues Faduma Hassan.
The riots of August 2011 have awakened a raging debate in the public consciousness over whether the riots represented a political protest from the underprivileged youth of Britain or, as others see it, merely criminal behaviour which should be clamped down upon harshly. The opening article of the October-December issue of Race and Class demonstrates how very similar arguments appeared over the Spaghetti House siege of 1975, a largely forgotten episode in the history of black protest in Britain.
The story is of three politically-conscious young black men, who went armed in order to undertake a fairly small-scale robbery, intended to fund political causes. The act turned into hostage situation lasting five days. The men sent out a statement signed as the Black Liberation Army, but were not taken seriously by the authorities. Moreover, Sir Robert Mark, the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, was quick to dismiss any political association by stating it was an ‘ordinary armed robbery with no racial or political connotation’ (p.2). It seems the likes of Sir Mark deemed it important not to give these seemingly desperate black men any political standing. Nonetheless, as Sivanandan has written ‘the line between politics and crime, after all, is a thin one’ (p.5).
It is instructive to analyse the parallel between the Spaghetti House siege and the August riots because in both cases any political motivations or grievances were dismissed in an attempt to depoliticize the narrative. Yet looking at the statistics released by the Home Office it clearly demonstrates that Britain’s disadvantaged youth are being failed by our society. The statistics are not only shocking but clearly demonstrate the devastating root of the riots. The issues of 1975 and that of the August riots are nevertheless not exactly correlated, and certain traditions of black politics were more prominent then. The author of the article, Jenny Bourne, puts the siege clearly in the context of the time, highlighting the importance of various black groups who were able to encourage political reactions in a context of daily confrontations, and the general prevalence of racism.
Today, the circumstances might be different but what cannot be ignored is the underlining race and class issue. The fact is that 46% of recorded rioters identified themselves as being black. Two-thirds of the young people involved were classed as having some form of special educational need, compared to 21% for the national average. More than a third of the young people involved in the riots had been excluded from school during 2009-10, whilst more than one in ten of the young people appearing before the courts had been permanently excluded. On the other hand, the three men of the Spaghetti House siege were all from different backgrounds. Nevertheless the common element was the fact they were black and importantly they shared the same political ideology. Bourne makes clear the initial hesitancy of the black community to show solidarity with the three men. However various black activists felt it was important to argue for the political nature of the action, and to explain the mitigating factors, as ‘the social context within which these youths have had to exist ... normal avenues to other members of society were closed to them ... the action of the brothers symbolises the plight of the black community and suggests government action be taken on ... miseducation of black children ...’ (p.4).
The political consciousness behind the action was also clearly evident when each man turned his back to the judge throughout the trial and sentencing. Paralleling the August riots, the three men also received punitive sentences of 17, 18 and 21 years, in a clear case of political judging. One of the prisoners, Shujaa Moshesh, maintained his political commitment throughout his time in prison. This was done through his various campaigns for equality within the prison system, as well as in his poetry, several examples of which are published here. Perhaps most significantly, Bourne highlights his political nature by emphasising the fact that he refused to appeal against his excessive sentence. This was because, as Moshesh explained, ‘we set out to use our trial as a form of protest and I’m going to stick to that’ (p.9). Although many black activists agreed at the time that the actions of the men needed to be put within a political framework, nonetheless, others were quick to dismiss them as criminals in search of easy money. It is for this reason, Bourne explains, that black folklore has largely forgotten this story.
If history is to teach us anything it is that we should not dismiss or distort some of the signs and declarations of political motivation coming from the August riots as was the case to a great extent in 1975. As mentioned, today’s climate is different to an extent, yet crucially at centre stage there are still the mostly young, dissatisfied people who have nothing to lose within a society which has not included them. The injustices of the Stephen Lawrence case, for example, and the evident presence of institutional racism within the police, as stop and search patterns show, continue to push many to the margins of society.
Bourne acknowledges that the 1975 siege was a hold-up, but it is important not to dismiss it as merely criminal ‘for many young black people at that time on the margins of education, the margins of work, the margins of family life, the margins of housing, everything was about hustling. Hustling was about making money wherever you could’ (pp.5-6). How much has that changed in the last forty years? It cannot be disregarded that during the August riots there were certainly many who were opportunists. At the same time, it has to be put into a social context not very dissimilar to that which was described by black organisations and communities in 1975 in an effort to explain the Spaghetti House siege.
The co-incidental timeliness of this article alone is a demonstration of the importance of the forty-year-old journal Race and Class for our understanding of these issues. The larger theme of this issue, the history of black struggle, is demonstrably still relevant to today’s struggles, even though the momentum towards an organised black movement has significantly died down since 1975. In a society where the race issue is largely marginalised in mainstream discussion (as if the one Macpherson enquiry has eradicated all forms of racial prejudice) it is vital to continue to develop an understanding of the intersections of race and class struggles in Britain today.
Another particularly significant article in this October-December issue is Avery Gordon’s interview with the veteran US prison activist, Stephen Jones, coupled with the re-print of the ‘Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto of Demands’ of 1971. As an introduction, Gordon gives an account of Stephen Jones’ extraordinary life in prison and thereafter, as well as of the Attica prison rebellion, while making clear the role of incarceration within the capitalist state. In the course of the interview, Stephen Jones explains that the uprising was framed as ‘a spontaneous riot’ which as a description is another way of de-politicizing the protests of this era. As George Jackson is quoted as saying here, ‘the holds are fast being broken. Men who read Lenin, Fanon and Che don’t riot, “they mass”, “they rage”, they dig graves’ (p.22). Stephen Jones’ quotations from Jackson illustrate how the prisoners were active in a culture of self-education and political radicalisation. The purpose in addition to changing the prison system was ‘so that you could stay connected to the outside world because we understood that one day some of us was going home, and we had to give voice to the voiceless’ (p.22).
While in some respects the politics of this moment in time of the black struggle could be described as ultra-left, it was born out of an intensity of conflict, and an urgently-felt need to raise consciousness and create political organisation. Even so, the immediate demands for prison rights and the betterment of their conditions were absolutely pivotal to the struggles described here.
The Attica uprising occurred when prisoners took control of the prison and consequently issued a series of political demands as the Attica Liberation Faction. The prison seizure ended with 39 dead as the Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered 1000 National Guard troops, state police and prison guards to storm in and retake the prison. The Attica manifesto claimed that the prison system played no role in rehabilitating prisoners but had turned into a ‘fascist concentration camp’, therefore it was the prisoners’ duty to fight for the fundamentals of what a prison service should provide (p.28). As the manifesto stated, ‘the programs which we are submitted to, under the facade of rehabilitation, is relative to the ancient stupidity of pouring water on a drowning man’ (p.30).
One of the most interesting aspects of the manifesto for today is the demands regarding the conditions of the prisoners as workers. This included the right for industries to enter the prison and employ them within ‘scale wages’. This went further to demand the right for those who go on to the scale wages to be able to support their families financially, as well as to join trade unions within prison. Moreover, the eleventh demand clearly points out the need for the institutions that will use the labour of the prisoners to ‘be made to conform with the state and federal minimum wage laws’ (p.32). Of course, prison labour today, whether in the US or the UK, is not paid remotely at the minimum wage.
This series of demands is particularly intriguing given the fact that Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, has in recent months discussed the doubling of the number of prisoners who work forty hours a week. This is because Clarke deems non-working prisoners to be wasteful. The work the prisoners will undertake will be for private companies that transfer their operations to prisons around the country. Yet these working men, who are expected to work up to forty hours a week, will not get paid but will instead receive miserly credits which enable them to shop within the prison. This means there is no way of supporting a family outside the prison in any way as the Attica Manifesto demanded forty years ago.
Ken Clarke says, ‘the public wants a penal system that properly punishes offenders, and protects the law-abiding citizen’. It seems Mr Clarke seems to have forgotten the importance of rehabilitation, and his statement brings to mind George Jackson’s point that ‘we’re all familiar with the function of the prison as an institution servicing the needs of the totalitarian state’ (p.17). His coining of the concept of ‘prison industrial complex’ remains as relevant today as it was at the time. Prisons are there not for rehabilitation but for money making-schemes as Ken Clarke’s initiative demonstrates.
The full contents of this issue of Race and Class can be viewed here.