By Malick Nythern Doucoure
Growing up in multicultural suburban London as a black male in the early 2000s, Race was never a concept at the forefront of my mind. It was only after an instance of what I believe to be racial prejudice, in which I was suspected of shoplifting and invasively physically searched – bearing in mind the fact that I was aged only 11 – that I started to wonder if my race affected people’s attitude and behaviour towards me. Being a rather peculiar and curious 11 year old, I went home that day and went down a rabbit hole of researching racism and its causes, optimistically – and foolishly – thinking I could ‘cure’ people of it.
What strikes out the most was, to my memory, the fact that 99% of what I read that day was related to African American racial resistance and black power movements. I don’t remember spending a second on reading about the British Black Panthers or other civil rights groups on this island, but who knows, maybe my researching skills were sub-par when I was aged 11. This fed into my misguided teenage belief that racism was non-existent over here, or was miniscule when compared to the racism experienced by my black American counterparts. The fact that I had neither learnt of the British civil rights movement at school nor heard of it in the media, did not help my misconception either. Admittedly – and I really do apologise for this – it has taken me 18 years to realise that the civil liberties and rights I enjoy today as a minority are only there because of the heroic struggles and actions taken by groups like the British Black Panthers, rather than being a result of the inclusivity and liberalness of British values and culture. Looking back at myself aged 11, I still had a lot to learn!
Fast forward 7 years and the 1st April 2017 marked the death of Darcus Howe, a British broadcaster, writer, and civil liberties campaigner. Darcus Howe arrived in the UK aged 18 in 1961, full of optimism and hope, but found himself in a nation where for many, the colour of his skin defined who he was. With a lack of unbiased mainstream media coverage regarding systematic racial abuse and prejudice – things Darcus knew too well – he quickly entered a career in journalism that saw him work with magazines spanning from an editorial position at Race Today to becoming a regular columnist at the New Statesman. Darcus Howe used his positions in journalism to air major concerns of Britain’s west Indian community and found himself as a voice for the voiceless. He gained notability for his involvement in the case of the ‘Mangrove Nine’, a landmark case in the British Civil Rights movement that not only constituted a success for the British Black Panthers, but also public ally highlighted racial prejudices held in the police force and more importantly, the Home office.
Labelled as ‘Britain’s most influential black power trial’ (The Guardian), the Mangrove Nine case came about after repeated instances of police brutality against Britain’s West Indian community in Notting Hill, frequently ransacking and raiding a restaurant frequented by West Indians, named ‘the Mangrove’. Despite raiding the restaurant over a dozen times, ‘the police stuck to the story that the Mangrove was a drugs den, despite the fact that their repeated raids yielded not a shred of evidence’ (The Guardian). This culminated in a civil protest with hundreds of protesters – including the likes of Darcus Howe, Frank Crichlow, the British Black Panthers and other civil rights groups – demanding an end to the racially targeted raiding of the Mangrove and the police brutality that often accompanied those raids.
The first of many publicly known prejudices held by the government – the Home Office in particular – came to light with the Home Office’s strategy to turn a rather peaceful protest into a violent one with ‘heavy handed policing’ in order to discredit the ‘British Civil Rights’ movement. This is eerily similar to cases in the United States in which violence – often prompted by heavy handed policing – at Black Lives Matter protests is used to discredit the movement there. The Conservative home secretary even considered ‘accusing the protesters of inciting racial hatred under the Race Relations Act’ or even using ‘provisions of the Conservatives’ 1970 Immigration Act to deport Crichlow and other Black Radicals’.
The fact that the Conservative government of the time saw opposition to police brutality and prejudice as nothing more than ‘Black Radicalism’ speaks volumes of the injustices faced by minorities in the 60s and 70s. This, however, doesn’t surprise me, as this was during an era where a Conservative candidates campaign included electoral posters like this:
In the end, the leaders of the protest were brought to trial under the charges of ‘Incitement to riot’ and with the odds against them, instead of bowing down to a judicial system that always worked against them as minorities, they decided to fight for their rights in a highly publicised trial. Police witnesses were intimidated by the Police Force and more often than not, made biased and incorrect statements, with one police officer even being ordered to leave the room after being spotted making signals to a witness. The charges were thrown out and the case was dismissed but that wasn’t the end of it, as even more charges were brought upon the defendants by the public prosecutor. Now, armed with an experienced legal defence as well as the backing of the nation’s minorities as well as liberally minded white Brits, the defendants – labelled as the ‘Mangrove Nine’ in mainstream media outlets – set about proving the government as well as the hearts of many wrong by showing that the Judicial system COULD work for minorities and were ultimately successful in doing so. They were all acquitted of their charges of ‘incitement to riot’ and embarrassingly for the government, ‘the Judge concluded that the trial had regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides’ (The Guardian), thus highlighting racial prejudice in the police force.
According to Dr Robin Bunce, Darcus Howe’s biographer, “the Judges’ words were electrifying. Horrified, the Met’s assistant commissioner wrote to the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) seeking a retraction of the Judge’s statement. The statement was never withdrawn” (The Guardian).
Thus the case of the Mangrove Nine was a landmark British civil rights case that simultaneously highlighted police prejudice and brutality while showing that the Judicial system could work for anyone, in an era where racism and prejudice was widespread in British society.
Strangely, I only ever found out about the case with the passing of the heroic Darcus Howe, on the 1st April 2017. Was this because of my ignorance of Britain’s civil rights movement and racial history, over the last decade? Or was this because of a lack of coverage on the issue in the British education system and in the media? Well, that’s a question for another day, but for now, If before reading this article you had never read up on Darcus Howe, the Mangrove Nine and the British Black Panthers, well now you have no excuse.