04.14.2017
  • UK

The Real Guerrillas

A new show offers an alternative history of Black Power in Britain, reminding audiences of a neglected era of radicalism.

Black Power demonstration and march, Notting Hill, London, 1970. The National Archives

Black Power first grew and flourished in the United States, but it came to envelop much of the world.

For a decade after 1967, the specter of Black Power terrified officials at the highest levels of the British state. Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants feared that black radicals, along with the Irish Republican Army, the Angry Brigade, and increasingly militant unions, might be strong enough to bring down Her Majesty’s government.

London once sat at the center of a slave-trading empire, which, after abolition, imposed colonial rule over much of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. A movement determined to resist “White Power” didn’t struggle to find support in the nation’s capital.

The history of Britain’s Black Power movement has been largely forgotten, but John Ridley’s new miniseries Guerrilla will help dispel this collective amnesia. Set in 1971, Guerrilla tells the story of a group of black and Asian radicals as they fight British racism: challenging the Metropolitan Police’s brutality, launching a campaign against the 1971 Immigration Act — a law that hardwired racial categories into national law — and coming up against the secretive and corrupt Black Power Desk, a section of Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch tasked with surveilling, infiltrating, and decapitating the movement.

The characters, portrayed by Freida Pinto, Idris Elba, Zawe Ashton, Babou Ceesay, Nathaniel Martello-White, Sophia Brown, and Wunmi Mosaku among others, may be fictional, but the show’s events closely follow history. The anti–Immigration Act march featured in the first episode mirrors a rally that took place in April 1971 against the Tory government’s new bill.

The police response bears an uncanny resemblance to the Mangrove March of August 1970, which launched the most significant Black Power campaign in British history. The authorities’ willingness to use lethal force against radicals engaged in peaceful protest will remind viewers of when police shot two Pakistani activists protesting in the Indian Embassy in early 1973 and when the police murdered thirty-three-year-old teacher Blair Peach in 1979 as he demonstrated against the National Front.

Likewise, the all-female protest for decent housing, which appears in episode five, reflects the movement’s genuine strategies — British Black Power saw overturning racism and empowering women as two aspects of the same fight. Finally, the characters’ primary antagonist — the Special Branch’s Black Power Desk — wasn’t invented to give Guerrilla a conspiratorial flair. Created in 1967 by the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, the desk did everything it could to destroy the movement. Despite the Met’s and the Home Office’s full backing, this campaign ultimately failed.

Black Power Comes to Britain

Black Power arrived in Britain in 1967 with Stokely Carmichael, the longtime Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader. Carmichael spoke at the Dialectics of Liberation Conference, which attracted both laidback hippies and serious revolutionaries to hear from some of the era’s most radical thinkers. Carmichael accused the conference’s other speakers of “intellectual masturbation,” quickly becoming the most controversial speaker.

There was no escaping the power of Carmichael’s oratory. Angela Davis, in the audience that day, later described the impact it had on her. “As I listened to Stokely’s words, cutting like a switchblade, accusing the enemy as I had never heard him accused before,” she wrote, “I felt the cathartic power of his speech.”

Carmichael’s appearance raised alarms, and, soon after his speech, Special Branch agents “advised” him to leave the country. Concerned that he might be the harbinger of a Black Power revolution, the home secretary banned Carmichael from re-entering Britain. Thirty of Britain’s former colonies quickly followed suit, including Trinidad and Tobago, his country of birth.

But these cautions came too late. Within a week of Carmichael’s speech, the Universal Coloured People’s Association became the first British organization to adopt Black Power ideology. Less than a month later, Michael X, who had become the face of black radicalism in Britain, was arrested for inciting racial hatred. And less than a year after that, London-based radicals organized the first Panther chapter outside the United States.

The police met the rise of British Black Power with a swift counterattack, taking Michael X — born Michael de Freitas — down first. The activist had come to public attention when he acted as Malcolm X’s guide during the latter’s 1965 visit to Britain. De Freitas got his new name thanks to a classic British misunderstanding. Approached in a hotel bar by a white journalist, Malcolm X introduced Michael as his brother. Not understanding the vernacular, the journalist assumed that X must be their common surname. It stuck.

Due to Malcolm X’s influence, Michael converted to Islam and set up the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS) — it apparently amused Michael to hear well-spoken white journalists say “raas,” not realizing it was a Jamaican obscenity, meaning “arse cloth” or “sanitary towel.”

Unlike the media, younger black activists such as Darcus Howe and Althea Jones-Leiconte didn’t take Michael X’s high-profile faux-radicalism seriously. Unfortunately, the police did. Within days of Carmichael’s departure from Britain, Michael X became the first person charged with inciting racial hatred under the 1965 Race Relations Act. This irony — that a law designed to protect racial minorities from discrimination was used to prosecute “the most famous black man in Britain” — was not lost on radicals. Nor was the blatant double standard, when no charges followed Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech less than a year later.

The police and media didn’t just focus on flashy figures like Michael X. Obi B. Egbuna, a Nigerian-born playwright and member of the group that had organized Malcolm X’s 1965 visit, had worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the United States and experienced Black Power first hand.

In 1967, Egbuna and the Guyanese-born radical Roy Sawh wrote Black Power in Britain, the first British Black Power manifesto. Egbuna also founded a British chapter of the Black Panthers. He intended his group to become a secretive, tight-knit organization that would use guerrilla tactics to take on the British state.

He and Sawh defined blackness universally, arguing that all people oppressed by white racism could identify as black. For example, Egbuna classified Mao Zedong and Che Guevara as black leaders. Because black was a “political color” under Egbuna and Sawh’s definition, migrants from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan joined the movement alongside people of African descent.

Egbuna, like Michael X, enjoyed the media spotlight, which also meant that the Black Power Desk could keep tabs on him. Its files, partially declassified a few years ago, contain detailed notes on Egbuna, copies of his publications, and even the manuscript of an unpublished novel seized in a police raid.

Egbuna’s writing proved to be his undoing. An informant passed one of his essays to the police, who subsequently arrested Egbuna and three of his fellow Panthers, charging them with conspiracy to murder police officers. The offending essay advocated self-defense — perfectly permissible under English law — but the Metropolitan Police and much of the British judiciary worked on the assumption that black radicalism was essentially criminal.

After several months in custody, Egbuna was found guilty and given a three-year suspended sentence. As far as the Special Branch was concerned, the police had won. Commending his officers, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Kenneth Thompson wrote, “The arrest of Egbuna . . . at this stage anyway, put the [Black Panther] party in confusion and it is not likely to resurrect for many months to come.”

Black Power's Resurrection

Egbuna saw things differently. His autobiography Destroy this Temple evoked Christ’s words before his crucifixion: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Egbuna was right: in 1969, the Black Panthers were reborn. A year later, Althea Jones-Lecointe had become the movement’s central figure. Neil Kenlock, the Panthers’ official photographer, recalls, “Althea never called herself the leader, but she led us.” Jones-Lecointe herself remained committed to democracy: “I don’t know how I’ve suddenly become ‘a leader,’” she recalls “we didn’t recognize those categories . . . we believed in collective leadership.”

Jones-Lecointe and Kenlock belonged to a new generation of black radicals that also included Darcus Howe, Leila Hassan, Frank Crichlow, Mala Sen, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Barbara Beese, Harry Goulbourne, Olive Morris, Farrukh Dhondy, Vince Hines, Winston Trew, and Alrick ‘Ricky’ Xavier Cambridge. While some associated with the Panthers, others belonged to the Black Unity and Freedom Party, the Black Eagles, or the Fasimbas. In fact, Black Power groups sprang up all across London from Notting Hill to Lewisham.

The new generation rejected Egbuna as, in Howe’s words, a “Hyde Park revolutionary” whose radicalism consisted of little more than giving bellicose lectures at Speaker’s Corner. The new generation wanted to address genuine issues facing black people in London.

Many of the Panther’s leaders were intellectuals — Jones-Lecointe was completing a PhD in biochemistry at the University College London, Howe had studied law at London’s Middle Temple, and Dhondy had studied English literature at University of Cambridge — but they were committed to building a working-class movement. While they emphasized study, collectively reading Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, as well as The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James (Howe’s uncle), their platform spoke directly to working-class needs.

Jones-Lecointe explains that they demanded “better housing . . . better education [and] . . . the end to police brutality.” Similar convictions motivated Farrukh Dhondy, who became part of the Panthers’ leadership. “I knew that walking around in berets and black gloves was not the point of the exercise. The point of the exercise was to get immigrant rights.”

The radicals had good reason to be angry. A survey of British attitudes dating from the late sixties found widespread and deep-rooted racial discrimination in housing, employment, and social services. Yet the government refused to address these issues or the harassment and violence many immigrants endured.

While these radicals largely spurned Egbuna, they agreed with him on the need for self-defense. Leila Hassan, a member of the Black Unity and Freedom Party, explains that, in this sense, Malcolm X had a much bigger influence on the British Black Power movement than Martin Luther King:

In the black movement there was a contest between Martin and Malcolm, and we all went for Malcolm. You couldn’t be radical and be a part of Black Power if you followed Martin Luther King. Malcolm made a famous speech attacking non-violence, you can’t be non-violent when people are attacking you.

By the early 1970s, the London Panthers could call upon as many as three thousand members and supporters. Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson joined its youth league as a teenager and recalls that becoming a member required showing dedication to the cause. “In those days you couldn’t become a Black Panther just like that. . . . You had to . . . show that you were serious and be involved in the organizational activities and then someone would nominate you for membership.”

The movement continued to grow under the radar. This second generation of radicals did not want to draw attention to themselves and led the police to believe that the movement had been defeated with Egbuna.

Global Reach

In the late sixties and early seventies, Panther chapters and Black Power organizations sprang up from India to Israel, from Australia to the Caribbean. The movement’s hallmarks — self-organization, style, and cultural pride — united youth across the African diaspora.

Darcus Howe’s revolutionary activities help illustrate Black Power’s global reach. In 1968, fresh from the Parisian barricades, Howe traveled to Montreal, joining Carmichael, CLR James, and Walter Rodney at the Congress of Black Writers, a de facto Black Power International. Next, he clandestinely crossed the border and worked for several months in New York with H. Rap Brown and other radical organizers on a school strike calling for community control of education.

Howe returned to London at the beginning of 1969 and launched a campaign against police brutality through his newsletter Black Dimension. Predictably, the authorities raided Howe’s flat and ran him out of town.

This run-in with the police, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Howe returned to Trinidad and became assistant editor of The Vanguard, the militant oil-workers’ trade union’s newspaper. Here, Howe participated in the Black Power Revolution of 1970, a series of uprisings that prompted a section of the armed forces to mutiny and almost overthrow the government.

A Resting Place in Babylon

Despite its global footprint, Black Power often grounded itself in local concerns. In London in 1970, activists focused on police persecution in the black community. Officers attacked youth clubs, political groups — anywhere black people called their own. Raids on the Mangrove Restaurant became a flashpoint that united the whole community.

Frank Crichlow established the Mangrove at the end of the 1960s, and it soon became the beating heart of Notting Hill’s Caribbean community. There, black people gathered for support and advice, to source ingredients for their favorite dishes, or to simply escape the racism that defined London’s culture. The restaurant acted as a “resting place in Babylon,” as writer and activist Ambalavaner Sivanandan wrote. At a time when a group of police officers nicknamed the “heavy mob” patrolled Notting Hill like a colonial army, the Mangrove served as a small patch of liberated territory.

As far as the local officers were concerned, Crichlow was a troublemaker. The members of the heavy mob thought Crichlow — a black man with a successful business, a good reputation, and a white girlfriend — simply did not know his place. So they took it upon themselves to remind him that he was a second-class citizen who had no right to prosper in a white man’s country.

Local police officers tried to close the Mangrove, raiding the restaurant and driving away its customers. It and Crichlow’s earlier venture, the Rio Café, were raided twelve times between January 1969 and July 1970. The police claimed that both operated as drug dens, despite the fact that their repeated raids failed to yield a shred of evidence.

Fortunately, Crichlow did not have to fight the police alone. On his return from Trinidad, Howe got a job at the Mangrove. Finding himself once again in the eye of the storm, Howe urged Crichlow to mobilize the community to defend its institution. Working with the Black Panther movement, Howe organized a march. On August 9, 1970, 150 protesters marched to the three local police stations, demanding the police get their “hands off the Mangrove.”

Police over-prepared for the demonstration, making sure that more than seven hundred officers were available that day. The Black Power Desk and undercover photographers monitored the march, and protesters faced rows of police five-deep on Portnall Road.

An altercation gave officers a pretext to charge the demonstrators. They attacked with what Howe described as “pure, unadulterated, unlicensed brutality.” He went on:

“The niggers” were beaten into the ground. “How dare we,” they seemed to be saying, “take to the streets in opposition to them?”

Nineteen arrests were made during the “Battle of Portnall Road,” and more raids followed.

Home Office and Special Branch files, made available under Freedom of Information Act, reveal that the police response belonged to a deliberate strategy to decapitate the emerging movement. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling demanded a “complete dossier” on the radicals from the Metropolitan Police within forty-eight hours of the protest. The dossier came with legal advice on how to deal with the “problem” of Black Power. The options presented to the home secretary included using the new Immigration Act to forcibly repatriate Crichlow or charging the march’s organizers with incitement of racial hatred.

Fearful of creating “martyrs,” the government decided to charge nine leading figures with conspiring to incite a riot. Initially, the public sided with the government, as newspapers ran lurid stories based on police sources. Papers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Sketch described demonstrators as “a Black Power mob,” as terrorists and fanatics intent on “Black violence.” The Telegraph was more measured but it emphasized that black Londoners’ violence highlighted the need for tighter immigration controls.

Black Power on Trial

The Mangrove Nine, as the defendants quickly became known, decided to turn the tables on their accusers and adopt a radical legal strategy that would refocus the court’s and public’s attention on police racism.

They began by appealing to popular opinion. In the months before the trial, the Nine spoke at packed meetings and rallies across the country. The grassroots movement this built came to Old Bailey on the day of the trial to picket in support of the Nine.

The trial itself began with the defendants’ application for an all-black jury, a demand inspired by the American Black Panther movement. Howe used his legal expertise to ground their request in the Magna Carta, but the judge dismissed the application.

The Nine had anticipated this move and used their right to challenge jurors to maximize the number of sympathetic members. They believed that black and working-class people were more likely to have experienced police harassment and therefore would be more likely to believe their testimony over that of the police. Further, by challenging sixty-three jurors, the Nine asserted their authority over the court from the very start.

The final element of their defense was Howe’s, Jones-Leconite’s, and Rhodan Gordan’s decision to represent themselves. Barbara Beese, another of the Nine, recalls:

The idea of black people actually defending themselves was quite extraordinary, that had not happened before. It was followed avidly. In fact we hadn’t realized the extent to which there was interest across black communities in the country.

Unencumbered by the rigors of legal procedure and with the support of radical barrister Ian MacDonald, these three defendants tried to expose the trial’s political nature and the extent of police brutality in Notting Hill.

Their focused cross-examinations of police witnesses began to unravel the state’s case. In one memorable exchange, Howe pointed out how many times Police Constable (PC) Lewis, one of the three officers who monitored the protest, could not answer his questions:

Thirteen times you don’t remember or can’t say. PC Pulley said thirty-three times that he did not remember. PC Rogers said so twenty-eight times. . . . You were put in the van to observe and record. . . . I suggest you failed distinctly in your responsibility to the court.

The jury took eight and a half hours to return the verdict, acquitting all nine of the main charge of incitement to riot and five — including Howe, Beese, and Crichlow — of all charges. The jury had spoken: the Mangrove Nine had not engaged in criminal conspiracy to incite violence.

The judge’s comments at the end of the case became the most shocking aspect of the Nine’s victory. He explicitly acknowledged that the case had “regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred” inside the Metropolitan Police. This incendiary verdict marked the first judicial acknowledgement of police racism and underlined the skill with which the Nine had made their case.

The outcome sent shock waves through the establishment. Senior officers struggled to understand how a majority white jury could have acquitted the Nine and how a conservative judge, well known for disliking radicals, could have condemned the police.

Senior ministers also reacted with horror. Remarkably, given Britain’s much-vaunted tradition of judicial independence, the home secretary intervened in an effort to get the judge to retract his comments. He never did.

The trial represented a breakthrough for the British black community. In Barbara Beese’s words:

[It] actually gave real meaning to Black Power, in the sense that, here we were taking this stand and taking on the establishment and winning, and not through the artifice of or words of defense barristers, it was actually black people doing it for themselves.

Police and Thieves

The Mangrove Nine verdict became a watershed moment. Never again could the police claim that racism did not exist in their ranks. Despite all its success, the trial did not fully expose the scale of police corruption, which extended far beyond London and did not restrict itself to racial harassment of black businesses and institutions.

In November 1971, a case in Leeds further demonstrated police brutality. The trial focused on the death of David Oluwale, a Nigerian-born migrant who had been sleeping rough in the town center. An investigation discovered that at least two officers had subjected Oluwale to “systemic, varied and brutal” violence, proving that Oluwale had been assaulted four times within seven months. Further, the violence “would often occur in the presence of other [officers], who made no effort to intervene.”

The defendants, Geoffrey Ellerker — a former inspector already serving time for another offense — and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching, were charged with manslaughter and grievous bodily harm. Unfortunately, evidence of some of the most damning instances of police racism, including a charge sheet that recorded Oluwale’s nationality as “Wog,” was never presented in court.

The defense team tried to discredit Oluwlae, presenting him as “a menace to society.” The judge sided with the police and called the murdered man “a dirty, filthy, violent vagrant,” directing the jury to find the defendants not guilty. For those seeking justice for Oluwale, the trial seemed like a lost cause, yet the jury found both officers guilty of the lesser charge of assault. Ellerker received three years imprisonment and Kitching twenty-seven months.

Meanwhile, back in London, a trio of investigative journalists had been looking into the Metropolitan Police’s corruption. Barry Cox, John Shirley, and Martin Short uncovered illegal activities in the Flying Squad, the Criminal Investigation Department, the Obscene Publications Squad, and the Drug Squad.

One aspect of police corruption that directly affected London’s black community was drug recycling. Officers would seize drugs, report a fraction of what they took, and pass the remainder through their network of informants within the black community at knock-down prices.

During his investigation, Cox spoke to black radicals — including Howe — who confirmed that the police were supplying drugs to the black community. This practice had caused incredible tension between the police and black activists, who condemned the criminalization of young black people. Indeed, the police persecuted Crichlow in part because he refused to collaborate with or pay police informants.

Five major trials came out of these investigations. Officers were found guilty of extortion, fabricating evidence, perjury, and complicity with criminals. In London alone, a score of detectives went to jail, and hundreds more were disgraced. When DCI Vic Kelaher, who led the Met’s Drug Squad, was medically discharged in 1974, a government minister told parliament that serious disciplinary allegations would have been brought against him had he not resigned.

The “fall of Scotland Yard,” as it was known, together with the revelations from the Mangrove trial, irrevocably damaged the image of the “honest British bobby.”

Black Power Today

Guerrilla dramatizes this history of police violence, institutional racism, and activists’ will to resist. The show tells the story of relationships forged in the crucible of struggle for justice and freedom. It imagines a version of recent history in which black radicals armed themselves, posing the question: “What would have happened if armed radicals had confronted the police in 1971?”

For American audiences, much of Guerilla will resonate with today’s polarization. At the same time, however, the series focuses on uniquely British features of Black Power.

For example, historians of the American movement may be surprised to see an Indian woman, Jas Mitra (Freida Pinto), depicted as a leading Black Power revolutionary. But this character points to the importance of South Asian migrants within the British movement. Black Power in Britain successfully united South Asian, West Indian, and African migrants into what historian Rosie Wild has called “blackness as a unifying political identity.” Young intellectuals including the artist Vivan Sundaram, Farrukh Dhondy, and the Bengali women’s rights activist Mala Sen were prominent members of London’s Black Panther movement. Dhondy, a member of the Panthers’ Central Core, recalls:

The role of Asian people was very different in British and American movements, because of the history. Migration from India to America is a more recent thing. But people from India were sent to the Caribbean, places like Trinidad and Jamaica, as indentured laborers. So they had big Asian populations as well as African populations. We said, “we should work together,” divisions between the communities were seen as a result of the Colonial policy as divide and rule.

For British audiences too, Guerrilla‘s story parallels current events. The anti-immigrant prejudice that animated government policy in 1971 still moves policy today. The police, then as now, work with the media to stigmatize the black people who die at their hands. Indeed, the police’s response to the shooting of Mark Duggan looks far too much like the violent assault on the Mangrove march.

But there is hope. In 1971, Black Power led the fight for justice, exposed racism, and held the authorities to account. Activists continue this work today.