I have been doing some community work in Reading, at the request of a project called Blue Sky Arts. Reading has pride of place in the history of race relations. It was there that the late Michael X became one of the first people to be prosecuted under the Race Relations Acts. A black Trinidadian, he made a speech in Reading that included the following advice to black citizens of the town: "If you see a black man with a white woman, kill him." He was charged with inciting racial hatred and sentenced to 18 months.
Blue Sky Arts is not in that extreme, maniacal tradition. It is rather mild and staid. The speech with which I launched the project was quite different from Michael X's.
The project's first activity was a film week. I introduced a documentary on the life of the black liberation leader Marcus Garvey; that, and the subsequent discussion on the art of documentary, held the attention of a packed audience for more than two hours.
Another planned event was a Devil's Advocate type programme, which I was due to present on 1 May. It would be on some current affairs issue, and invited witnesses would speak for and against. All this was in a programme that Reading council had funded and approved.
Blue Sky Arts decided that the most attractive issue concerned the guns which surround black groups in garage music. Gunshots had interrupted a dance at which the lead entertainment was So Solid Crew. Thereafter, the group was banned from public performances. Lee Jasper, Ken Livingstone's race relations expert, argued that So Solid Crew had glorified the use of guns in their songs, though the group denied the charge furiously.
We invited So Solid Crew into the hot seat. They were tardy in replying. Meanwhile, a similar group, Heartless Crew, performed at the Matrix Club in Reading, and there was a shooting incident in the crowd outside the club on the night. A national issue now had a local angle.
So we invited Heartless Crew, and they readily accepted. Their manager, a young and intelligent man, insisted that they be thoroughly examined and cross-examined by me. He wanted no sympathy, no favours. I should make the seat as hot as possible. We also invited the parents of the two boys who were shot, along with Lee Jasper and the Thames Valley Police. All seemed set for an evening that would inform, educate and entertain. There was not a hint of rabble-rousing in the advertisement and none was intended on the night.
But the Blue Sky Arts office received phone calls from Jane Griffiths, the Labour MP for Reading East, who said she had reservations about the event. The local police questioned the organisers again and again about security. Blue Sky Arts explained that it was a debate, not a dance; there was no attraction for gunslingers.
Then a council official phoned. "Who gave permission for such an event?" he demanded. Politely, he was told that Blue Sky Arts did not have to get permission from anybody. Then he pointed out that council elections were due the day after the debate. The event, he said, would cause enormous difficulty with the elections. How? He did not explain.
And then the final blow. "We are reviewing grants to groups shortly," the official said. This implied threat to withdraw funding was the last straw. Blue Sky Arts has decided to postpone the debate until after the elections. But I think the reference to the elections is just a smokescreen. The council wants to stop the event entirely.
We black savages, you see, cannot be allowed off the leash. From the philistine Lee Jasper to the cultural Stalinists of Reading council, all are consumed by this view.