If I pleaded guilty, said the lawyer, I'd only get five years
As I write, it is almost 27 years to the day that I and eight others walked out of the Old Bailey, freed by a jury on charges of riot, affray and a mixed bag of assaults on police. Those were primitive days compared with what transpires now.
Notting Hill police station was dominated by a police constable whom the community believed to be a detective inspector. He patrolled, always in plain clothes, always in his personal vehicle, an Austin Cambridge. He was not particularly racist. He had a reputation for being fond of blacks, even generous I was told. He knew black men by name, their wives, too, and their offspring. But he was the colonial governor incarnate and if for some reason he did not like the cut of your jib, then life was made pretty hard.
By the late 1960s, Notting Hill had become the black culture capital of the UK and perhaps the headquarters of radical chic. At the centre of it all was the Mangrove restaurant; West Indian cuisine was served to the likes of C L R James, Richard Neville and the Oz pack, radical lawyers and so forth. I worked for a tiny community newspaper, the Hustler.
Our local bobby just did not like Frank Critchlow. No one ever put a finger on it. Frank had moved upmarket from the Rio to the Mangrove, from a sleazy cafe to a proper restaurant, and that was all. I worked at the till and no one in their right mind could have described the Mangrove as a drugs den. It was well run and obeyed the rules that governed such institutions. But the police seemed determined to close it down, and time and again they raided it for drugs.
Critchlow complained to every institution known to man and eventually decided to call a public protest demonstration. It sounds pretty ordinary now, but then it was heresy to demonstrate against the best police force in the world. The security services were alerted that I and some black power troublemakers had met in the Mangrove basement to draw up plans to invade Notting Hill police station and burn it down.
So, on 7 June 1970, a fine English summer's day, no more than 150 demonstrators gathered, guarded by police three times our number. The placards - not official ones, but home-made efforts brought by demonstrators - were lurid: "Kill The Pigs"; "The Guns This Time"; "Fire Next Time".
With hindsight, what happened was inevitable. On our way to the police station, there was a pushing and a shoving and then the demonstration exploded into violence. There were several arrests for assaults on police. Reginald Maudling, the home secretary, described us as black power conspirators determined to destroy the British police and called for a Special Branch report. Six weeks later, nine of us were arrested in dawn raids on our homes and charged with inciting members of the public to kill police officers, making an affray, and a whole range of charges from GBH to common assault. I was bailed to appear at Marylebone Magistrates' Court.
A solicitor advised me to plead guilty, promising that I would then get just a five-year prison sentence. He was trying to be helpful. I snatched the transcript of evidence off his desk and skipped out of his office. He was in hot pursuit, forgetting for a moment that it was my property. I decided to defend myself.
Then I learnt that the establishment has its dissenters. The magistrate asked for the evidence that we had incited people to kill police officers. The prosecution quoted "kill the pigs" which was chanted by the demonstrators. "If the demonstrators had chanted, 'fuck the pigs', would you have taken it literally?" asked the beak.
Yet the authorities persisted with the riot charge and for 55 days at the Old Bailey we fought for our freedom. A jury of ten whites and two blacks freed seven of us on the main charges; those who were convicted got suspended sentences.
Those were the days of the wild west. Today, race relations is dominated by the jacket-and-tie brigade who do not intend to take a single risk.