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International Socialism, October 1977


Tony Bogues

Black Youth in Revolt


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 102, October 1977, pp. 12–15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The last few months have seen a number of major confrontations between black youth and the police, most notably at Lewisham. Ladywood and Notting Hill Carnival. The radicalisation of black youth presents socialists with new opportunities and new problems, which are discussed in the following article by TONY BOGUES. It is intended as a contribution to discussion, rather than a finished analysis, and hopefully others will contribute to the development of that analysis

The events of Carnival, Lewisham and Ladywood have highlighted the question of the political role of black youth.

The ruling class press reacted this way: ‘Must the lawless win again’ (Evening News editorial 30 August 77.) The right-wing elements in the West Indian community, led by the West Indian World wrote:

‘The gang of 300 youths who defied Carnival stewards and wantonly attacked innocent and peace-loving people as they joined in the happy scene are an embarrassment to the Carnival organisers and the black population in the UK, and should pay the penalty for their actions. We will not extend any sympathy to these thugs, and we advise other black organisations to come out strongly against them’.

The Daily Gleaner was unequivocal:

‘There is no getting away from the simple truth of the violence at the end of the Notting Hill Carnival on Bank Holiday Monday, a bunch of stupid black youth are to blame. The police should be commended for the way in which they handled the situation under great provocation’.

However, what is the reality? Are black youths simply a part of the lumpen-proletariat, that strata which Engels and Marx in the Communist Manifesto called ‘dangerous scum’? Or is what we have seen at Lewisham, Ladywood and Carnival a section of the proletariat who, subjected to the daily beatings and harassment of the police and faced with deep-seated racism in Britain, have decided to attack society in whatever way they can.

The answer to this question is extremely important, since, for revolutionary Marxists, the question for our strategy is how to connect up with the ideas and consciousness of the masses, and to assist that in developing into class-consciousness. But, one thing is clear whatever the answer – black youth, because of their experiences in Britain, developed a life-style of their own independently of any revolutionary organisation, and in which a key element is the identification with each other in their struggles with the police.

Black people arrived in Britain looking for a better life. Many were from rural areas in the Caribbean. There, they had a history of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles against domination by Britain. But when they came here they were forced into accepting jobs that the white working class would not do. In reality they became part of the reserve army of labour here, working in the lowest paid, unskilled jobs.

Bringing with them the traditions of the struggle against imperialism, the black workers were not disturbed by the racism of the employers, but by the racism which they encountered from the British working class. In the Caribbean, their experience was of solidarity messages sent to them by the labour movement. But in Britain, this same labour movement behaved quite differently. As the reality of discrimination amongst the white working class

itself became felt, an organisation called the North London West Indian Association changed its symbol of a black hand clasping a white hand. The same organisation picketed London Transport in the 1960s to get black inspectors, while white workers went on strike to try to stop black workers being employed.

This feature has meant that black youth in Britain today have understood the question of racism from birth.

However, black youth, seeing their parents still at the bottom of the social system, have broken out in open rebellion against this system.

‘I am not going to work at a place for 40 years and not have anything to show for it. After 40 years they just have a little watch. And one man owns a house and he alone lives there, and the house is so big with all 200 rooms, and I have to walk the streets. That’s not right. Because if a house has 200 rooms it means that 200 of us can stay there.’ (Race Today April 1975)

The above quotation says it all. Black youth have no interest in shit work. For them the question is both lack of work and the nature of work. In other words, a rejection of the capitalist labour process.

Just listen to the words of another youth:

‘My ambition is to get my father off London Transport and that is what my ambition has always been since I know myself. I don’t feel ashamed because he works there. It is just that he is on that bus collecting tickets all day and it’s uncool.’ (Race Today April 1975)

This rejection of the capitalist labour process is not strange. When a situation exists where your parents slave at 2–3 jobs just to keep above subsistence level. When society puts black children into racist schools. When you face the racism

of the employers. Then it is no wonder that black youth will not participate in that process. This is not to say that black youth will not work. But in these days of 1½ million unemployed the tendency not to take part in the capitalist labour process is strengthened.

‘Those at the bottom of the bottom don’t have the liberty to choose the own battlegrounds.’

Along with the question of working in the capitalist labour process goes the refusal to be further dehumanised on the steps of the social security office:

‘You walk down the street and you are an ordinary person. But once you step into the social security office you are not that person any more. The person behind the counter treats you as if you are just a layabout, a tramp, someone you don’t have to have manners to, someone you don’t say “can I help you sir” to. They just ask you what you want, come at such a time, don’t do this, don’t do that, where do you come from, who is your girl, how many dogs you got, what do you eat, where is your doctor, – and you get fed up, man. And this is why a lot of guys don’t bother to sign on. They would rather just hustle. Not that they enjoy stealing money. But the state wants you to work. And they tell you the best way is to sign on and while signing on they will get you a job. But it’s not like that. It’s totally different. And you just say “well fuck it man”, and you go and start hustling, and you are independent again. And everyone wants to be independent.’ (Race Today April 1975)

It is clear then that black youth are not the ‘dangerous scum’ who can be swung one way or the other. It is clear, for example, that black people could not join a fascist organisation. Their anger and frustration cannot be channelled rightwards. Black youths are therefore not part of the lumpenproletariat. They are part of the strata in the working class that is exploited and oppressed, and have reacted to their oppression not in an organised overt manner, but in spontaneous outburst against individual aspects of their oppression.

‘To drive a car anytime in Lewisham or New Cross is a big joke. You might as well walk. And when you do that, you might as well stay inside, and me no friend of the wicked. I driving from Lewisham to New Cross and get stopped three times. The whole place full with road blocks, transit vans, police cars, the lot. Curfew in this town’ (Black youth at Moonshot Youth Club in Lewisham)

Police harassment of black youth is one of the most striking features of being black in Britain. The recent Operation 39 Police Nigger Hunt in Lewisham, which resulted in the arrest of twenty-one black youths, the rampage carried out by the police on the Foster family, the Islington 18, all demonstrate that for blacks the police are seen as the main oppressor.

The police are now known for their open racism. The now infamous Commander Randall of P Division in Lewisham, on releasing the first set of figures for ‘mugging’ in January 1975 said: ‘Various people have advanced reasons as having helped create the problem of mugging. But these are lazy, little criminals’. It is the same commander who was responsible for Operation 39 PNG!

‘Mugging’ has been the cry of those who have called upon the police to deal with black youth. Racist hysteria soars to a pitch when ‘mugging’ is talked about. The real question for he ruling class however, is not mugging. It is a strategy for the containment and chanelling of the anger of black youth. The 1976 Carnival demonstrates this.

Here was an occasion, the only one in the life of the black population here when they can feel on ‘safe’ ground in this country, but where the police turned it into a ‘police Carnival’ with their massive presence. The police said that their presence there was to arrest pickpockets – 16 arrests were made for theft in 2 days. But the real reason was to control the Carnival, to disallow any freedom of expression of the West Indian masses on the streets of London. What happened is now history. The youth took on the police and defeated them. On this occasion even the ruling class had to recognise this. The Financial Times commented:

‘Those who steal or assault must be classed as criminal. But those who crowd round to prevent the police from arresting them must surely be seen as expressing a kind of social or political anger, however inarticulate.’

For the black population, the blue uniform represents brutality. There is one section of the working class that harbours no illusions about the role of the police.

Recently, at Ladywood and Lewisham, the police came under attack from black youths. In the minds of many young blacks there is no difference between the police and the NF. It is clear that the reason for this is the racism of the police. The latter, however perform a function in the strategy of the ruling class – the containment of struggles. The fascists on the other hand feed off the despair in the society, the defeats of the working class and their struggles.

There is no doubt however that in the struggle against the Front, when it comes to confrontation with the fascists, that the police will be on their side. However, what was demonstrated in the Battle of Lewisham and Carnival 77 is that the level of police brutality is at such a peak that black youth will organise themselves to inflict defeat on them whenever there is an opportunity. Increasingly, the prospect is of open confrontations with youths and police.

Three charges are used against young blacks by the police. The charge of ‘affray’ or ‘fighting to the terror of the Queens subjects’, as the law so nicely puts it.

Introduced in 1970, it was first used against blacks in the Mangrove restaurant trial. More widespread and actually more effective has been the use of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, the ‘sus’ law. This empowers the police to arrest any ‘suspected person or reputed their frequenting or loitering ... with intent to commit an arrestable offence’, and is the most frequently used method of harassing and picking up young blacks on the street. More recently, the conspiracy charge of ‘conspiring with persons unknown to rob persons unknown.’ has been used in both the Islington 18 and Lewisham 21 trials.

Black youth in Britain today have understood the question of racism from birth.

The use of this conspiracy charge in fact shows how successful the police and the state have been in their role vis-à-vis black youth. They have succeeded in isolating and stigmatising a layer of young blacks, many of them unemployed and sometimes homeless as well, labelling then public nuisances, anti-social elements, troublemakers, and so on. They have used misguiding and distorting ‘statistics’ to build up this image of black youths, such as the notorious assertion that seventy per cent of all assailants in what they call ‘mugging’ cases are black, and eighty-five per cent of those attacked are white, and mostly women. What they failed to make clear in these figures is how many of those arrested were actually convicted. And if you look at the figures for charges of ‘loitering with intent’, you can see why – out of 2,112 arrested,887, i.e. 42 per cent were black. Could this be something to do with the police’s willingness to arrest anyone young and black and on the street as someone who just looked as if they might be about to or have at sometime committed ‘crimes unknown’ with ‘people unknown’ in ‘places unknown’?

This image of all young blacks as actual or potential troublemakers or petty crooks was eagerly latched onto by Enoch Powell and his racist and fascist friends, who began using the American term mugging to denote assaults on whites by blacks. They created an atmosphere of racist hysteria, claiming that there was emerging within British society a dangerous increasing crime ‘mugging’ committed by a growing number of young black thugs. In other words, ‘mugging’ came into use as a specifically racist term. Because of its usage in America, it simultaneously was associated with violent crime. And so all young blacks began to be identified in this atmosphere as ‘dangerous criminals’.

It was fairly easy when the time came therefore, for the police to bring much more serious charges against their young black ‘suspects’, such as been done in the Islington 18 and Lewisham 21 cases.

One cannot deny that young blacks are involved in petty crime such as pickpocketing. But let us be clear as to who are the real victims and who are the criminals. We have outlined briefly the inhuman racist conditions that young blacks face from the police. This combined with the dismal prospect of no work, therefore no money, therefore, in this society of wage-slavery, no real chance of meeting any human needs, leaves one no alternative but to seek other means.

In all this hysteria of ‘petty crime’ by young blacks, we forget something Engels wrote in 1845 about the British working class:

‘Want leaves the working man the choice between starving slowly, killing himself speedily or taking what he needs where he finds it – in plain English stealing. And there is no cause for surprise that most of them prefer stealing to starvation.’ (Engels, Condition of the English Working Class)

For many blacks therefore, it is not a question of morality. Indeed the hypocrisy of bourgeois society is its total ‘amoralism’ in pursuit of its own interests. Suddenly however, when the poor and oppressed are caught stealing then a righteous ‘moralism’ prevades the press of the bourgeois.

The other issue is that of stealing from the other sections of .the working class. No revolutionary socialist can condone stealing from the poor. However, what is crucial for us is whether we will condemn the youths and therefore brand them as criminals, or rather seek to involve this anger into revolutionary politics. In other words, whether as revolutionary socialists we see that the real criminals are the bosses and the ruling class who are responsible for massive exploitation of the working class and oppression of minorities.

One other point must be made. At Carnival 77 some whites, including a few socialists, were attacked, and their pockets picked. Some of them have now thrown up their hands in despair and brand the youths as ‘lumpen’. But again, a lumpen consciousness does not lead people to attack a pawn shop or organise themselves to fight the police. Nor do lumpen fight the fascists the way black youths have done at Lewisham. A lumpen consciousness is individualistic, will refuse to go to Lewisham. Instead that person would prefer to go to Ladbrokes.

White people came under attack at Carnival for the simple reason that all whites in a situation of high tension with a majority of blacks around will be identified as the enemy. In such situations the most elemental aspects of racial oppression appear. Getting back at the white man/woman becomes a way of hitting back at the depth of your oppression.

Lewisham went some way to forging links between black and white, but the links have not been cemented. Many more struggles will have to be fought before we can see any real cementing of this unity. Blacks’ experience of racism goes back hundreds of years. One day cannot eradicate that. For the revolutionary socialist the task is to assist the activity of the most oppressed strata, in this case the young blacks. The ruling class have been noticably successful in using the mugging issue to attempt to block solidarity actions by the working class and its organisations. It must not become a red herring to the revolutionary socialist party.

The ruling class have sometimes tried to draw parallels between the activity of black youths and ‘football hooligans’ (’Or do they, like white soccer hooligans, simply relish trouble for its own sake’ Evening News). While there is a certain similarity in the action, the difference is the depth of the black youth action and the consistent militancy against the police. This means the willingness to take on the police wherever it is possible. Black youth going to Carnival had weapons which were solely for attacks against the police.

The battle between police and black youths has long-term implications for the struggle of the working class. The scenes of ‘bobbies in goggles beating a war tattoo on their riot shields’ means that any activity of the working class, e.g. another Grunwicks, will bring home the reality of the nature of the police.

The resistance of blacks to police oppression has taken the form of various defence campaigns. So far they have proved a good political vehicle for the mobilisation of a particular community. In the recent period the Islington 18 Defence etc has shown what can be done. The weakness of the Committee is the weakness of the stage of overt political organisation among the black population. Indeed, with the increasing scale of harassment by the police, then the Defence campaigns will become vehicles by which as mass organisation in the black community can be built.

Nowhere else does the pain of being black in Britain show itself more acutely than with the police. It is from this confrontation that the beginnings of an organised mass movement may emerge in the black community. The police recognise this. Hence their tactics at Carnival was to split the black community between parents and youths. To have the parents condemning the youths is what the police wished. They almost succeeded with the help of the right-wing leaders in the community.

Black people are oppressed and exploited. The nature of their oppression is racial. The ‘black question’ is not one of blacks as a nation. It is the oppression of a racial minority – an oppression, however, which combines with the general class nature of the society to place blacks at the bottom of the social system.

Someone you don’t say ‘can I help you sir’ to. They just ask you what you want.

The struggle of blacks is therefore twofold. It is the issue of racism which leads young blacks not to accept the notion of ‘right to work’. For young blacks the question is the right to what work. Given the nature of racism in the trade unions the spontaneous reaction is ‘the unions are reactionary’ and at its starkest level ‘why should I work for a white man anyway’. The point is that it is because of racism that young blacks are unemployed, but the system then guarantees a reaction which begins to question the process of capitalist labour. This questioning is not objectively ‘subversive’ of capital. Indeed without the power of the organised working class, then the ‘unconscious’ rejection of the labour process remains at the level of individual rebellion.

The problem therefore becomes how to link up the struggles of the organised working class to the momentum of the movement of black youths.

Firstly, because of the racism blacks will struggle independently against racism. It is absolutely essential for the confidence of blacks that we wage struggles on our own behalf. Secondly, the movement that is now developing in the community is primarily against police harassment. And self-defence from racist attacks. It is here that the working class has to show most solidarity. It is here that the energy and anger of black youths will be demonstrated, as at Lewisham. Organising against the police will be the testing ground for the real solidarity of the white working class.

The task facing us therefore is of connecting that anger and energy into organisational forms, linking that with various struggles at the workplace. In the increasing attacks on the communities, the right to fight back is recognised. Those at the bottom of the bottom don’t have the liberty to choose their battlegrounds’. As revolutionary socialists we should stand in solidarity with those at the bottom. Our strategy should flow from this standpoint.

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