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Diane Abbott on Darcus Howe: “A living embodiment of the struggle against police racism”

The MP recalls being in the Old Bailey for the “Mangrove Nine” trial in 1970, in which the great black activist and intellectual walked free. 

Speaker's corner: Howe (left) rallies anti-fascists, in Lewisham, 1977. Photo: Syd Shelton
Speaker's corner: Howe (left) rallies anti-fascists, in Lewisham, 1977. Photo: Syd Shelton

Darcus Howe: a Political Biography
Robin Bunce and Paul Field
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £54.99

This biography of Darcus Howe is undoubtedly a labour of love. Robin Bunce and Paul Field have made a creditable attempt to chart postwar black activism through one man’s life. And there can be no other person more appropriate to build the story around – because Darcus Howe is one of the standout activists and public intellectuals of his generation.

I first saw Howe in person in the Seventies. He was in the dock defending himself in the Mangrove Nine case at the Old Bailey, one of the most notorious postwar political trials. Nine black activists had been charged with incitement to riot for organising a demonstration in defence of a café in Notting Hill, the Mangrove, that had been raided 12 times in 18 months and subjected to a sustained campaign of police harassment. Bunce and Field make clear that the police did not just stumble into the trial. The British state was in a condition of advanced paranoia about black activism. Special Branch even had a “black power desk”. The charges against the activists were a “deliberate strategy to target and decapitate the emerging black power movement”. And yet, despite a high level of collusion between government ministers, the police and the criminal justice system, the strategy failed. The charges were thrown out and Howe left court a free man and walked into history.

When I attended the trial, I was just a young onlooker, too insignificant to be introduced to the great man. But I have never forgotten the sight of him in the dock, a living embodiment of the struggle against police racism and injustice. Even more importantly, he was the embodiment of the idea that police racism could be challenged successfully. As he said in a recent interview, “It was a time of vulgar racism. The everyday abuse black people would get from strangers on the street and the police alike would shock you today. But I never once believed what they wanted us to believe – that we as black people are inferior to whites – and fighting my corner at the Mangrove trial was part of that.”

To understand Howe, it is important to put him in context. He is part of a generation of black activists who lived to see that they had altered reality for generations yet to come. There is a tendency in the press to believe that black activism began with the Stephen Lawrence case. I bow to no one in my respect for Doreen Lawrence, her courage and fixity of purpose. I was the first person to raise the case in parliament. But the issues she raised had been articulated and campaigned for 20 years earlier by Howe and his peers.

Black leaders in Britain then were mostly Caribbean in origin, which gave their politics a particular character. They had emerged from the post-colonial struggle in their respective countries – so they were a mixed group with a genuinely international perspective. African-Caribbean and African leaders worked easily together, as many of them had been fellow students at the same time in postwar London.

The biggest mass political entities in Britain’s overseas territories were the sugar unions (and oil in Trinidad) – something that is rarely understood about Caribbean politics at that time. Michael Manley was a highly educated member of the Jamaican elite whose father had been the first prime minister of independent Jamaica (he, too, went on to be PM), but even he had to make his name as a sugar union organiser at the beginning of his career. The unions were so important that collectivism came naturally to Caribbean-origin political figures such as Howe. And, in an era before state funding for black organisations in Britain, collective organisation was vital for survival.

Howe’s generation of black leaders had a strong intellectual streak. It is no coincidence that the favoured project of black activists of the time was to run a bookshop, as with New Beacon Books in north London. So with Howe – as with most other black political leaders of the time – his political activism marched in step with his work as a writer, journalist and public intellectual. As this biography points out, he was not a member of an uneducated black underclass. He went to an exclusive school in Trinidad and travelled to London to study law at the Middle Temple. All his life his chief mentor was the great Caribbean writer and intellectual C L R James.

The biography describes some of the big political campaigns in which Howe played a central role, which may not be familiar to those who know him only for his television appearances. He was also the editor of the monthly Race Today, required reading for any black activist of the time, and played a crucial role in the Race Today Collective. In March 1981, after a suspected racist arson attack caused the New Cross Fire, killing 13 young black people, Howe helped organise the Black People’s Day of Action. I was on that march and it was electrifying – over 20,000 people, the largest black demonstration I had ever seen. I remember our chant: “Thirteen dead; nothing said.” The following month, in the aftermath of the original Brixton Riots, Howe was again at the centre of the community’s response.

He went on to have distinguished career as a journalist for national publications, including the New Statesman, television presenter and commentator. And yet, for many of us, he will always be that man in the dock at the Mangrove trial, standing up for himself against the might of an institutionally racist state – and standing up for all of us. This meticulous biography sets out facts about a life and an era that should be far more widely known.

Diane Abbott is the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, London