I said the police were racist, and nearly went to jail

A young reporter from one of the broadsheets called. It was the first anniversary of Sir William Macpherson's report on the Stephen Lawrence case, and the reporter wanted to know if anything had changed over the past year. We are now stuck in the culture of the anniversary, with newspapers running features about the 1,000 days of this and 100 years of that.

But things don't change much in a year, and sometimes not even in four decades. In the 1950s, on the Harrow Road, west London, a young Antiguan called Kelso Cochrane was stabbed. No one was charged with the offence, just as no one was convicted of Stephen Lawrence's murder on the other side of the Thames some 40 years later.

Another set of facts, however, would suggest a different conclusion. In 1968, I edited the journal Black Dimension in which I turned my attention to the Notting Hill police. I singled out a couple of police officers, described them as racists and summed up the Met as a racist institution. The Special Branch, with local police officers, ripped my front door off the hinge, seized unsold copies of the journal and left a message that I should report to the local station. The Department of Public Prosecutions would be considering a charge of criminal libel.

I was away in Trinidad at the time. I did not return until two years later. Now Macpherson has appropriated my description of the police in his own distinctive language. What was designated a criminal libel three decades ago is now the slogan of official society. That, I would have thought, is a huge change.

In the last months of 1971, I was involved in the Mangrove trial at the Old Bailey. A group of us had organised a demonstration in Notting Hill to protest against police harassment of a local restaurant. Only 150 of us attended. I delivered the only speeches. The slogan of the demonstration was: "The pigs, the pigs, we have got to get rid of the pigs." The march ended in a battle between the demonstrators and the police. This was a completely new phenomenon. The docile immigrant had begun to break his self-imposed chains.

Every newspaper told the nation in front-page headlines that "the riot" was a weapon now in the hands of the Caribbean blacks. Reginald Maudling, the then home secretary, described us as "black power agitators", determined to undermine the good name of the British bobby. We were charged with inciting members of the public to riot and kill police officers, and with making an affray. Our lawyers thought that if we were found guilty - and the odds were against us - we would be sentenced to around five years' imprisonment. No such fate awaits Neville or Doreen Lawrence for mobilising the national conscience against corrupt policing. Another huge change.

I think also of the much-criticised Jack Straw. Compared with Maudling, he is positively revolutionary. Then I remember all those West Indians who once warned me that we could not win. This was not our country, they said. That sentiment is now dead.

So, in 30 years the changes have been enormous. Always, there is the possibility that we could revert to square one, another Austria so to speak. It is that ugly reversal that we need to guard against. Asylum-seekers are the targets of abuse today; who will it be tomorrow? In spite of his healthy attitude on the race-relations scene, Straw's approach to asylum and immigration evokes serious racial connotations. No one talks about Australians or white South Africans; it is always about those of us with dark skins and long beards.

This virus can easily infect the body politic, particularly in those areas where there has been systematic urban neglect. Dover is a case in point, where race riots appeared - albeit sporadically - for the first time in decades.

Throughout the globe, ethnic violence has accounted for millions of lives. We have done rather well here. But the central task remains: "We have got to get rid of the pigs."

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul