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

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

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health. 

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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