Britain’s Gulags

First published in New Socialist (November 1985) also in Race & Class 27/3, Winter 1986.

Racism is as English as Shakespeare and as old as slavery – and the British police force is not only riddled with it but accepts it, tacitly, as a structured line of its macho culture. In a monetarist social order, such attributes are prime assets in enforcing the lines of demarcation bet ween the haves and the have-nots and the never-will-haves. To have allowed a handful of blacks to enter into middle-class Britain through Scarmanite policies of positive discrimination and urban aid says nothing to the youth trapped in the benighted inner cities — and  forgotten. To then make periodic law and order incursions into whatever life they have made for themselves comes across not as an at tempt to ensure law and order for their own communities (the police are never there when blacks come under fascist attack) but as a muscle flexing exercise on the part of the police on behalf of the society outside recalling thereby their own condition and provoking a spontaneous uprising against it. A degenerate press then whips up racial (and now inter-‘ethnic’) bigotry, a repressive government sets afoot yet more authoritarian law enforcement, and the Labour Party draws even further back from the regenerative politics of socialism into Scarmanite policies of patch-up and make do. Handsworth is a classic example of the syndrome, Brixton and Tottenham its variants. 

If the blacks who were deposited in the port-towns of Liverpool and Bristol and Cardiff were the result of slave and long-distance trade, those who were brought to shore up the heavy industries of the Midlands and the North and the service and light industries of the South in the post-war years signified an industrial era, albeit in decline. And as industry began to recede before the advance of technology, or simply died of the silicon age, it left once vital inner-city areas mired in poverty and decay, and peopled largely by a black under-class that had stemmed their decline for a while. But Thatcherism has accelerated that decline by knocking out even the meagre underpinnings of the inner city with the policies of a thousand cuts and the politics of the stick. 

Handsworth lost its foundry and engineering industries by the late 1960s, and by the end of the decade banks and businesses had moved out. The urban programme, instituted by Labour in 1968 and directed to largely white working-class communities (like Saltley), did not reach the black ghetto till after the White Paper of 1975 spelt out the anxieties of the state vis-à-vis disaffected black youth. And even then, such aid was directed not at building houses or schools or hospitals but at subsidising and buying up black self-help groups which had sustained emergency housing, supplementary schooling and legal assistance, and had in the process built up a militant black politics. Since then, the devastating cuts of the Tory government in housing (by 65 per cent since 1979 in terms of capital allocation to local authorities), in health and, through other cuts in grant aid, in local authority spending on schools and social and welfare services – compounded by the creation of unemployment (40 per cent of Handsworth is unemployed, and half its youth never-employed) have eroded the infrastructure of the area. And to prop it up, Handsworth was granted £20m in urban aid which failed to trickle down into the black community. To patch it up, Handsworth, like other inner-city areas, was provided with a rag-bag of voluntary organisations and Youth Training Schemes which, in reproducing racial discrimination within their own structures, have become self-defeating. And to keep it in place, Handsworth got a community policing scheme (1979) in which the police played fairy god mother and godfather, both at once – providing young blacks with a well-equipped and expensive youth centre and then coming down heavily on those who did not want to use it. The Lozells Project, as the youth suspected, turned out to be an information-gathering and keeping-tabs exercise. 

A similar pattern of neglect and decay obtains in Brixton and Tottenham, though the decline in these areas – given over as they were to distributive trades and services rather than to heavy industry was more gradual and prolonged, stretching back to the 1930s. But Tory cuts — and now rate-capping – have had an equally devastating effect on them. Brixton has the second largest number of sub-standard dwellings in the city, and “200-300 young blacks’ were discovered by Scarman in 1981 to be homeless, sleeping rough or squatting’. Half the single parent families in Lambeth were ‘non-white’ and ‘the two wards where the April disorders were centred … contain some 22% of all the single parent households in Lambeth’. If Scarman were to extend his enquiries to Tottenham today, he would find that almost half of the Broadwater Farm estate consists of single-parent families and some 70 per cent of its residents are on one sort of benefit or another. 

But to Scarman, convinced of the tangled pathology of the West Indian family, these are not indicators of poverty or of how racism structures such poverty as to make for black over-representation. And although he made some glancing remark that unemployment and social deprivation may be the cause of the riots’, he failed to see that racism was also the cause of unemployment and social deprivation. He could not understand, that is, that racism is so institutionalised in British society as to defy solutions based on changing prejudiced attitudes and inter-personal behaviour. Hence, his recommendations did nothing more than put new gloss over old policies. A police-community liaison committee, for instance, had existed in Brixton long before Scarman, but had collapsed under the impact of heavy up-front policing which preceded Operation Swamp ’81. All that Scarman’s consultative committee served to do was to mask the change in police tactics from reactive policing to surveillance, intelligence-gathering and targeting — all of which accounts for the breaking and entering into the Groce and Jarrett homes. The consultative committee, like the liaison committee before it (and those elsewhere), has proved to be a one-way street – from the community or, rather, its state-sponsored ‘elders’ to the police, pretending to go some way towards police accountability, but leading to a dead-end of police arrogance and inflexibility. Or, where was the consultative committee between 7am when Mrs Groce was shot and 5pm when the first attack on Brixton police station was mounted? It is that same arrogance that failed to acknowledge that, despite all the dereliction visited on them, the blacks on Broadwater Farm estate had made a bearable life for themselves and the other residents — with a play group, a youth centre, and an old people’s club (for blacks and whites) – which could not be lightly invaded. But as in the case of the Lozells Project, the police feel threatened if any black scheme in the ghetto is not controlled or approved by them. Broadwater Farm, like Handsworth or Brixton, has a history of such incursions, most notoriously in November 1982, when a riot squad occupied the estate for two whole days. 

The distrust, if not hatred, of the police is common to both Afro Caribbean and Asian youth of the inner city, except that the one is harassed and criminalised directly, while the other is left vulnerable to the harassment of the National Front before being criminalised for defending itself. The story of black struggles in the 1970s has almost always been the story of confrontations with the police — Notting Hill, Chapeltown, Cricklewood, Southall, Burngreave, the Oval, Liverpool 8 and the names of police stations – Thornhill Road, Brixton, Moss Side, Hornsey, Stoke Newington – have passed into black legend as the castles keep of racist police. To allege in the light of this history that out side agitators caused the ‘riots’ is not to understand the deep animosity that the police have generated in the black community and the way that its members automatically defend each other when set upon by the police. The incident that set Handsworth afire according to the youth of the area was the brutal police treatment of an Afro-Caribbean woman who had gone to the aid of an Asian man, who was himself being harshly treated for a motoring offence. 

The popular press, however, chose first to play down and then to ignore this sequence of events when the ‘riots’ proceeded to unfold a possible scenario of inter-ethnic conflict more to their liking. And so the looting and burning of shops qua shops became the looting and burning of Asian shops — and not by youth in general (Afro Caribbean, Asian and white), but by Afro-Caribbean youth exclusively, who deliberately caused the death of the two Asians in the Lozells’ post office. But little was made of the fact that a white youth was later charged with their murder. Nor in all the clamour about the death of a policeman, on duty, was there more than a whisper of protest from white press or politician to mourn the death of a black woman, in her home. And when a black politician did speak her name and give voice to the grief and rage of his constituents, not even the ranks of Labour could scarce forbear to damn him. Nor, again (over Handsworth), was any attention paid to the statements put out by the African/Caribbean Community of Handsworth and the local Asian Youth Movement asserting that ‘the rebellion was not racially motivated’ but ‘directed against property and the police’. The Asian Youth News also pointed out that ‘African youths ran from shop to shop getting the shop-keepers and their families out of the buildings and to safety; one Asian shop was defended by the African youths because there were children in bed upstairs’. The paper also referred to a statement that the ‘small shopkeepers of Lozells Road’ had made to the effect that there was ‘no enmity whatsoever between African and Asian’. 

But even without these statements, it should have been clear to an un prejudiced or, at least, an enquiring press that these small Asian shops are to Handsworth what Barclays and Burtons are to Brixton. Ironically enough, it was they, when the banks and the businesses and the insurance companies fled the place, who stayed on to prop up Thatcher’s ghetto economy. But at the point of ‘rioť they, too, or rather, their meagre shops proclaim them as a class — not a race — apart. 

Once again, the black communities’ view of the press as liars and bigots who fit up stories to their preconceptions and then, pooling them, present a phalanx of opinion which passes for truth has been reinforced. (Very little, incidentally, was made of the fact that the police in Tottenham had let themselves into Mrs Jarrett’s home with a key taken from her son’s possessions when he was arrested for stealing his own car.) The press is also, for young blacks, the legitimating arm of the police, serving to stigmatise them as thieves and muggers and orchestrating public opinion on behalf of indefensible police actions — which, in turn, helps to further distance them (the police) from their accountability to the public, to the point indeed of putting the public itself ‘on notice’!* The more genteel press is then seen to turn out the same views in more literate and crafted garb, but attacking this time not ‘the people of the street’ (Scarman) but the ‘subversives’ who speak up for them. The top people’s paper finally finds a name for such subversion in ‘marxism’ and a habitation in ‘the enemy within’. 

What has occurred in Handsworth and Brixton and Tottenham are no more riots than the uprisings of the unemployed in London a century ago – only now it is the never-employed black underclass, interned in the workless gulags of Britain, who have taken up that tradition of protest. And what they, like the miners, point to is the combination of ideological, political and economic forces that Thatcherism in extremis has begun to mount against the people.