Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Ministry of Justice or dystopian fiction?

Olivea Ebanks
Olivea Ebanks (picture by BBC)
When I think about justice or better still ‘the quality of being just’ a number of obvious things come to mind: balance, proportionality, fairness, impartiality. Yet try as I might when I consider the case of Olivea Ebanks and the restrictions placed on her book ‘Almost British,’ I find it impossible to apply these terms. By way of background ‘Almost British’ is about the events that led up to Ms Ebanks representing herself in court for 15 days alleging direct racial discrimination, harassment on racial grounds and victimisation. She won rulings across each area of discrimination against the prison service and named perpetrators and was awarded compensation for their breaches of discrimination law. The book revolves around incidents as recorded in the witness statement Ms Ebanks presented to court, the evidence presented by the prison service, the judgement and its aftermath. ‘Almost British’ covers the experiences that contributed to Ms Ebanks’ feelings of harassment and victimisation. The book is quite detailed and contains excerpts from emails presented to court by both sides and her personal diary. Additionally her book looks at her heritage as a black woman with Caribbean and African roots. The ideology behind slavery is touched upon and considerations about the legacy of slavery after abolition. There are reflections and musings about her childhood, education, husband, parents and siblings, and her Christian faith. 

Ms Ebanks additionally refers to the racist murders of Stephen Lawrence and Zahid Mubarek, and records personal and community reactions to those tragic deaths. She goes on to capture some of the experiences of her friends and the racism and differential treatment they’ve encountered. In summary, ‘Almost British’ is Ms Ebanks’ personal account of racism in Britain and she shares the experiences of the racism that she was exposed to whilst working for the prison service as one of the platforms for discussion.

It is against this backdrop of complex emotions, facts and historical record that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has imposed restrictions claiming that “Ms Ebanks' book is unbalanced and misleading” (the Voice online19 July written by Merrisa Richards). The MoJ argument goes on to proffer that “Ms Ebanks' claims were misconceived and the tribunal upheld only four of her thirty-seven complaints. All four of those matters were found to be isolated acts by individuals in which no malice was intended.”

Let’s take these points in turn starting with the question of ‘balance’. Firstly, to put things into perspective we should look closely at who is talking about balance. In August 2000 Martin Narey was the Director General for the prison service and he described the organisation as “institutionally racist” (The Independent, Ian Burrell 21 Aug).  By 2005 with regard to the Zahid Mubarek racist murder he described Feltham prison as “institutionally racist” (The Telegraph, Sally Pook 8 Feb). In 2010 the Prison Reform Trust reported that “for many [BME prisoners], racism occurs frequently in prison. Whether among prisoners, or between prisoners and staff; over a third said that racist incidents happen often or everyday” (PRT, ‘A Fair Response’ 2010). It is a well documented fact that the prison service as an agency of MoJ is predominately white and male; the MoJ Equality Schemes Annual Review 2009–2010 reported that only 4.64% BAME people were in senior civil service positions. Whilst the prison service as an agency of MoJ has suggested that there is improvement in the world of race relations, they have not yet been able to definitively say that they are no longer institutionally racist. What we have then, with regard to the question of ‘balance’ is an organisation that is still institutionally racist, predominately white and male determined to put themselves forward as the authority on whether or not a black female perspective and experience of racism is balanced.

I am turning my attention now to the statement that Ms Ebanks claims were “misconceived” because only 4 of her 37 complaints were upheld. It is a shame that the MoJ’s best defence seems only to be to play the numbers game, but having spoken to her husband Mr Rudy Ebanks, he assures me that his wife simply did as instructed. Apparently she was attempting to show an overall picture of harassment over a period of 2 years. In order to do this she was advised to detail and link every occurrence she felt would demonstrate an ongoing campaign of abuse. Had she been advised that she should instead focus on the aspects on which she felt were the strongest elements of her case to secure a judgment of discrimination on racial grounds, that’s what she would have done. Mr Ebanks is especially keen for us to remember that his wife is not a lawyer and that she had never before presented evidence to court nor does she have the experience of collating evidence in a way to withstand the scrutiny of interrogation and law. He is very angry that MoJ is using the issue of numbers to diminish the fact that they were found to be racist and instead are making his wife out to be reactionary and prone to complain about everything.

I move on to the MoJ’s apparent capacity to judge the intents of a person’s heart with the view that no malice was intended. My questions are, if no malice was intended why didn’t the discrimination stop after one incident, and why did the 4 rulings (covering 5 acts of discrimination) span 2 years, despite Ms Ebanks raising internal grievances asking for the differential treatment to stop after the first incident? These are good questions, but it seems no one from the MoJ is available to comment.

I come back to my original considerations about ‘justice’ and proportionality. Ms Ebanks went to a public hearing and disclosed what she felt to be wrongdoing. She named individuals as perpetrators of the discrimination law. The Tribunal made some findings in her favour meaning that HMPS (as it was then known) and 3 individuals were judged to have failed in their obligations to uphold the law whilst executing their public duty. Ms Ebanks has since gone on to exercise her right to tell her story and is being refused permission to publish. This is where it all gets a little confusing. How can the MoJ refuse permission to publish something that is already published? I note that the article in the Voice is generating much interest as people are still adding their comments. The responses are overwhelmingly positive and seem to be generated by people who have read the book. When I spoke to Mr Ebanks he was adamant that the Judicial College where his wife works gave her legitimate expectation to publish. He said “Liv went to see her managers who are judges and lawyers before the book was published. They congratulated her and told her to let the press office know what she was doing. A circuit judge, and two senior civil servants were told about the local publicity she had planned and they were fine about everything. In fact Liv was so motivated by their positive responses that she sent the manuscript to the publishers the very next day. We were both on a high after her managers told her how impressed they were with her. Then two weeks later they called her when we were on holiday and said that she hadn’t got permission to publish, that she was to stop everything or face disciplinary action. It was a complete about turn and by then it was too late because the book was out.” Mr Ebanks claims that the Judicial College (which incidentally is also an agency of MoJ) has since gone on to discipline his wife for gross misconduct, told her not to reprint, distribute or promote her book and she is under treat of dismissal for any further misconduct. “They even wrote to her in May [this year], telling her to tell me to cease my activities on FaceBook regarding her story,” Mr Ebanks continued, “--not satisfied with harassing my wife, they’re now bullying her to bully me! Who do they think they are?”

Having read this particular letter it does feel like something out of George Orwell’s novel 1984 which describes a society ruled by an oligarchical dictatorship. Orwell’s book talks about the ‘Ministry of Truth’ rewriting history in order to show themselves as always correct. The MoJ letter that has so infuriated Mr Ebanks claims that his actions if allowed to continue effectively bypass the prohibition that applies to Ms Ebanks. When I read this I was indeed transported to a place where totalitarianism is the goal and controlling and subjugating people the means to achieving it.

I have tried yet I cannot see the behaviour of the MoJ as impartial or proportionate. I cannot see how the MoJ having had the opportunity to tell Ms Ebanks not to publish, instead chose to praise her for her efforts, can then turn around and make Ms Ebanks out to be some sort of reckless militant, flying in the face of her employee obligations. If Mr Ebanks is to be believed and as the person closest to Ms Ebanks I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, all is not as MoJ would have us believe.

The more I look into this – the more questions I have. Why is MoJ wasting time and money in these austere times, to stop a book that is already published and clearly being read by the nation? I am in no doubt that had Ms Ebanks actually broken the law or any civil service protocols they would have had grounds to dismiss her, so why haven’t they? Why have they instead chosen to discipline her for something they initially had no problems with and then proceeded to gag her without recalling the book? It seems that proportionality has given way to clumsiness and heavy-handedness; perhaps something more sinister is afoot.
Having got hold of my copy of ‘Almost British’ very early on I find that Ms Ebanks has perhaps touched a few nerves and made some connections and disclosures that perhaps the MoJ would rather we remained ignorant of. Whilst she has not shared anything material to her key point that is not readily available from multiple sources, what she has done is conveniently put such information in one place.

Firstly and most importantly Ms Ebanks’ win at Tribunal successfully widens the debate about racism only emanating from prison officers towards prisoners, to include racism in the senior management grades of the prison service. This is historically and politically significant. Up until now racism has been relegated to the officer ranks and between prisoners themselves but now we have proof that the leadership of the prison service have had allegations of racism about them upheld.

Another point raised by Ms Ebanks’ book is she quite rightly drives home the fact that racism does not respect boundaries; one cannot simply suggest it is in one part of an organisation and not in another – racist officers after all (however few and far between) have opportunity to become managers. The book juxtaposes the rhetoric of MoJ officials in their steps to eliminate racism with the actual increases in disproportionate outcomes for black prisoners. In so doing we get an uncompromising and unadulterated glimpse of prisoner treatment that is both worrying and disappointing.

One of the most illuminating aspects of Ms Ebanks’ book is that she gives covert racism a face. We get to see its many dimensions and nuances. We get to see how MoJ policies presumably drafted to help the victim are used to frustrate her efforts at securing a fair and equitable outcome. We get to see how an institution can relentlessly bear down on a single unrepresented person having offered no more than a toothless staff care-and-welfare resource as a way of discharging their duty of care to her.

MoJ says (the Voice online) "We take all allegations of harassment or discrimination very seriously...” yet they conveniently say nothing about what they do with actual real-life judgments proving harassment, victimisation and discrimination as made against them in the Tribunal Reserved judgment dated 14 April 2008. It seems even now in 2011 they are loath to accept that the situation has moved beyond ‘allegations’ to legally binding authoritative judgment.

I wonder if MoJ would be less prickly if ‘Almost British’ could be dismissed as a rambling stream of consciousness and the ravings of a mad black woman. If the book could be dispensed with so easily it would certainly be less of a threat. Fortunately for us it is none of those things. It is intelligently written and quotes MoJ’s facts and statistics back at them whilst asking for explanations for inaction and squarely concludes that the progress made is nothing to boast about. Furthermore, Ms Ebanks’ book is endorsed by Doreen Lawrence OBE, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. Of the book Ms Lawrence says, “I found Olivea’s story disturbing. I found it difficult to believe that things have not moved on enough to enable black employees to be respected and valued...” No one has yet been convicted of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. Eighteen years of campaigning have finally yielded the result that two men are to stand trial in November this year. What is especially poignant is that in the midst of this long and torturous journey, Doreen Lawrence took the time to read ‘Almost British’ and lend her support confirming that this is not a book to be ignored.

It took a lot of courage to do what Ms Ebanks did. She risked her reputation, her employment in a senior position, and then at further peril went on to share her highs and lows to encourage others. And after such forfeit, the Ministry of Justice still thinks all that really happened was Ms Ebanks mostly made allegations that were not substantiated at Tribunal. Because, in her book she is of the view that she can still claim victory the MoJ state her views are “unbalanced and misleading”. What is particularly interesting is that the managers and colleagues who were found guilty of racial discrimination in 2008 were never formally sanctioned yet today it appears that Ms Ebanks has a final written warning for gross misconduct on her otherwise untarnished work record because she thought she had freedom of speech even as a civil servant. Where is the justice in that?

‘Almost British’ is unique and difficult to classify as an autobiography or memoir. It does not sit easily in any genre since it is not a victim piece, it is not purely her opinion; it is evidential and academically structured. Moreover unlike Trevor Phillips’ assertions in February 2009 (chair of Equalities and Human Rights Commission), that “institutional racism as a phrase is a blunt instrument and unhelpful” Ms Ebanks’ story at the very least poses the question that institutional racism has not dissipated; it has simply morphed into something more sophisticated.  This is a timely piece, written with urgency at its core to avert another death in custody.  Its topical nature is one that is generating public interest and the parallels drawn in it should be used to stoke the fires of institutional reform. Everybody wins when equal treatment is more than well-meaning public statements.

In the words of William Wells Brown, a prominent African-American abolitionist, lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian, born into slavery, All I demand for the black man is, that the white people shall take their heels off his neck, and let him have a chance to rise by his own efforts.The MoJ needs to take its foot of Ms Ebanks’ neck. She has suffered enough and deserves to be heard. They have had their say, now it’s time for Ms Ebanks to have hers.

Lee Jasper

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

European Conference Against Austerity & Privatisation & in defence of the Welfare State

'I will be speaking at this conference on behalf of BARAC UK. Please support by attending and promoting to your networks. European activists coming together to talk about how we work together to challenge the European wide austerity measures.' 
 Lee Jasper 

 Fightback against Austerity – Organise across Europe

The economic crisis of 2008 is still gripping Europe. Governments are telling us that we are all in it together. But we are not responsible for this crisis of the neo-liberal system.
The EU Central Bank and the IMF are trying to impose austerity programmes on a scale not seen since the 1930s. This means mass unemployment, wage cuts, reforms of pensions, and privatisation of public services.

Meanwhile the same bankers collect bonuses worth millions. But these programmes are not working. Greece and Ireland are now asking for more help as they are unable to pay back the first financial bail-out.

There is an alternative.

This crisis is not our crisis. We should refuse to pay their debt. Together across Europe, we must take action to resist these attacks and to defend our public services and jobs. And together, we must organise for a society which meets the needs of people and the planet, not private profit.

Join us in London on Saturday 1st October 2011

Delegations and representatives welcome from trade-unions, social movements and progressive organisations from across Europe.

Coalition of Resistance logoConference initiated by: the
Coalition Of Resistance

The conference will include plenary sessions and workshops on the following themes:
    • The Eurocrisis – causes and solutions from a progressive perspective
    • Speakers: Elisabeth Gauthier (Transform,France), Max Bank (AttacGermany), Steffen Stierle (AttacGermany)Facilitator: Hugo Braun (AttacGermany) This workshop covers the causes of the Eurocrisis and opens up perspectives for our movement to counter the crisis. With respect to the causes, we argue along 3 lines:
      • state indebtedness as a consequence of the 2008 financial and economic crisis and a lack of fiscal policy coordination
      • macroeconomic imbalances in the Eurozone
      • speculative attacks on financial markets.
      We suggest concrete policies measures in order to tackle the causes and problems named above:
      • a fiscal union with higher taxes on corporations and property
      • closer macroeconomic cooperation including also the punishment of surplus countries like Germany
      • an effective regulation of financial markets
  • Alternatives to the crisis
  • Economic governance and the crisis of democracy at EU level
  • Taxation and Tax Harmonisation in Europe
  • Military spending
  • Youth and Students
  • The crisis and the debt
  • Mobilising against austerity
  • Migrant workers and Schengen
  • The far right and racism
  • Women
  • LGBT
  • Disability
  • Health
  • Education
  • Privatisation

Monday, 29 August 2011

Press release: How young people are using football to rebuild Tottenham


30/08/11 – For immediate release

How young people are using football to rebuild Tottenham

In response to the riots, young people from across Haringey are using football as a vehicle for rebuilding Tottenham and improving youth, community and police relations.
Youth-led grass roots group Haringey Young People Empowered (HYPE) funded by Haringey Community and Police Consultative Group, will be holding its 4th annual HYPE unity football tournament on Saturday, September 3, 2011.
The tournament will also serve as a public consultation with the young people to consult their views on:
  • The causes of the riots
  • Police powers and relations
  • Solutions and directions for change
The tournament will also run sessions introducing young people to stop and search legislation and literature, how young people can be a part of local decision-making and will be running with the support of the Haringey Community & Police Consultative Group and Haringey Safer Neighbourhood to unite all sides of the community who have a part to play in Tottenham’s rebuilding – the community, young people and the police.
Symeon Brown, a HYPE member, said:

“We have been very fortunate to have had great success over the year with engaging young people. We have some amazing stories where the tournament has broken down barriers between young people from every area of Haringey and young people and the authorities”.

“Last year, our tournament was played in memory of Godwin Lawson whose young life was tragically cut short after being stabbed to death in Hackney, calling for peace on the streets. Godwin had been part of our previous projects”.

“This year we felt it was so important that, in the wake of the riots, we addressed the subject with our young people, really listen and try to inspire positive action at the same time”.

“HYPE has always been about young people being HYPE (a street colloquialism for excited and manic) about changing their community”

How the tournament works:

The tournament is for 15 to 18-year-olds and invites young people from across Haringey to submit a 5-a-side football team.

When teams get knocked out they are offered a chance to have a chance to re-enter if they are willing to form a new team made up of people from different parts of Haringey.

This feature of the tournament attempts to tackle postal code rivalry by encouraging friendships across postal code boundaries to be built.

The event will feature a number of guest speakers, food and entertainment.

Notes to editors:

1. HYPE was founded in 2007 by three young people: Symeon Brown, Saba Kerr-Armstrong and Janay Cochrane to tackle postcode rivalries and improve youth and police relations

2. For more information email or call Erika Lopez on 07506342547

3. Location: Perth Road Playing Fields, off White Hart Lane, N22, between 10am and 4pm

4. Hype in the Media:

Originally published at:

Haringey Young People Empowered [HYPE] is a youth movement in North London founded in 2007 by a group of teenagers from across Haringey We are a positive cartel of young people from 13-23 from who are here to change, first our estate, then the city, then our world. We are HYPE for the right reason.
Via Symeon Brown.
Follow @SymeonBrown on Twitter

Saturday, 27 August 2011

BRIXTON DEFENSE MEETING: Wednesday 7th September 7.30pm

Don't let the government rip up our rights!

Brixton Defense Meeting.

Wednesday 7th September at 7.30pm

Vida Walsh Centre
2b Saltoun Rd, Windrush Sq. Brixton SW2 1EP

The Tory led backlash against the riots is ripping up our legal rights. The sentences handed out are about the Government seeking revenge not justice.
We are holding an open meeting to allow the community to discuss the riots and how we deal with the backlash.
There will be a lawyer speaking and available to talk to anyone concerned for themselves, or others, about their rights.
The riots showed we need to deal with issues of inequality and racism in our communities.
Criminalising a generation is no solution.


Claire Dissington Bindman’s Solicitors (pc)
Lee Jasper
Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC)
Ruby Hirsch
FE Student & NUS Executive (tbc)
Merlin Emanuel
Justice for Smiley Culture (tbc) 

Initiated by Right to Protest and Black Activists Rising Against Cuts
For more information email:

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

International Slavery Remembrance Day

Today 23rd August marks the official 4th national anniversary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

With events happening in the famous Slave Ports of Liverpool and Bristol but not in the nation’s capital, Lee Jasper looks at the significance of the day for the UK and London’s involvement with one of the greatest crimes ever to be committed in human history.

Whenever the subject of Britain’s role in the Slave trade is mentioned you can feel the atmosphere in a room change. White Britons have an almost reflexive gagging reflex when it comes to any discussion on slavery. People get very annoyed very quickly and although this period in British history is rarely discussed any mention of it produces huge emotion, anger, frustration and resentment. Britain suffers from an acute dose of historical amnesia on this issue that can still be detected in the routine denial of all accusation of contemporary or historical racism.

Slavery remains one of the taboo subjects in British history. It never fails to ignite a ferocious and passionate debate between those who think slavery is all “old history” with very little relevance to modern day Britain, they pour scorn on any demand for a formal apology or reparations and others who believe that slavery having defined the concept of modern day racism bequeathed a legacy to the world that is responsible for the deaths of billions.

They and I believe slavery constituted the greatest crime ever committed against humanity in the entirety of human history for which both a formal apology and reparations are due. Slavery was the legalised mass murder of millions of people and the forced and brutal enslavement of countless generations of others whose experience of plantation life was short, sadistic version of hell on earth. The scale and intensity of the violence was unbelievable. Buggery, rape, paedophilia, savage medieval torture, medical experimentation all were practiced on thousands of enslaved Africans on a daily basis for over 500 years.
Whole families and cultures destroyed

Families were sold off and slaves bred like animals with children being ripped from their mother’s breast to be sold at auction. Surely one of the most profound and heinous aspects of slavery was this unbearable torture that saw families torn asunder. Of course for individual slaves in order to mentally survive all of the stress, anxiety, physical and emotional violence inflicted upon them they had to become increasingly indifferent to all that they saw. They taught their children to avoid emotional attachment, to trust no one and that other slaves would betray them to the ‘”slave master” to save their own skin. What is quite literally amazing is that we as a people enduring such a prolonged and brutal period of history survived at all. However although we are still here, the 21st century descendants of those enslaved Africans we a free but not equal and the psychological trauma of slavery can be detected today in our state of mind, mores, cultures and behaviours.

We the historical descendants of slaves continue to suffer as a consequence of this period history. A period lest we forget that was followed after slavery by further exploitation and savagery during colonialisation and throughout modern times by neo colonialisation imprisoning us to an unbroken lineage suffering debilitating effects of both the historical legacy and the contemporary effects of racism today.
No people can survive such prolonged trauma unaffected

The psychological effects of such intense hatred and savagery lasted with various degrees of barbaric intensity from the 16th century right up to the present day. We still suffer the deep psychological trauma of that dreadful time, the largely unresolved extreme anxiety, fear and anger bred into our genes by generation after generation of African mothers and fathers who lived under the lash and in constant and extreme fear breeding children into this maelstrom of hellish racist violence.
Modern Britain was built on the profits made by the slave trade

The economic effects of slavery have left millions of the descendants of slaves with no history, no access to family resources or assets and living in continued poverty. The economic case for reparations is in my view compelling Britain secured her industrial and military dominance of the world as a consequence of the profits derived first from slavery and then colonialism. When slavery was abolished the slave owners were given £20,000 by way of compensation whilst the enslaved Africans received not a single penny. The fact that the profits generated by slavery were unprecedented and funded everything from the scientific discoveries, the industrial revolution and the establishment of Britain’s manufacturing base means that in the 20th century British domestic prosperity the building of the NHS the provision of universal education. Railroads and civic, economic and military infrastructure development were all given a huge cash boost with the profits generated from this bloody trade.

Reparations, a cheque that is very much overdue

The modern day descendant plantation societies and descendants deserve and are entitled too reparations. Britain owes them and their descendants the moral and legal justice that acknowledges and apologises and recompenses modern day descendants by the establishment of a multi billion pound memorial trust for those living in the UK and former colonies should be given reparations too.

The human cost was enormous. Africans died in their millions during capture and removal, as many as five per cent in prisons before transportation and more than 10 per cent during the voyage — the direct murder of two million people. Conditions imposed on survivors were unimaginable. In US state of Virginia it was lawful ‘to kill and destroy such Negroes’ who ‘absent themselves from … service’. Branding and rape were commonplace.

Medieval torture and brutality was routine

Notorious and sadistic Jamaican planter Thomas Thistle-Wood in 1756 had a slave ‘well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth’ for eating sugar cane. From 1707 punishment for rebellion included ‘nailing them to the ground’ and ‘applying fire by degrees from the feet and hands, burning them gradually up to the head’. When in 1736 Antigua found there was to be a rebellion, five ringleaders were broken on the wheel, 77 burned to death, six hung in cages to die of thirst. For ‘lesser’ crimes castration or chopping off half the foot were used. A manual noted: ‘Terror must operate to keep them in subjection.’
Barbarism’s consequences were clear. More than a million-and-a-half slaves were taken to the British Caribbean islands in the 18th century but by its end there were only 600,000. By 1820 more than 10 million Africans had been transported across the Atlantic and two million Europeans had moved. But the European population grew to 12 million while the black slave population shrank to six million.

If the murder of millions, the torture and enslavement of millions more, is not ‘a crime against humanity’ these words have no meaning. To justify murder and torture on an industrial scale, black people had to be declared inferior, or not human. As James Walvin noted, there was a ‘form of bondage which, from an early date, was highly racialised. By 1750, to be black in the Americas (and often in Europe) was to be enslaved.
“The 1774 History of Jamaica argued black slaves were a different species able to work ‘in a very bungling and slovenly manner, perhaps not better than an orangutan”.

Material produced to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 gave the impression that white British people liberated black people. Whilst we acknowledge the first recorded national movement in the UK was the Abolitionist cause and the millions of ordinary white families who boycotted slave grown sugar and forced Parliament to eventually act British history relegates this movement and the struggle of African themselves to a historical footnote.
Black resistance not white philanthropy broke slavery

In reality, slaves rose against the trade from its inception. This broke it. The first recorded slave revolt was in 1570. There were at least 250 ship-board rebellions. Jamaican slave society faced a serious revolt every decade in addition to prolonged guerilla war. In 1760, 30,000 Jamaican slaves revolted. The culmination, recorded in CLR James’s magisterial The Black Jacobins, was the 1791 slave revolt in St Domingue. Slavery in British possessions, after abolition of the trade, was abolished following revolts in Barbados in 1816, Demarara in 1823, and in Jamaica 1831 in which 60,000 slaves participated. For this reason Unesco officially marks August 23, the anniversary of the St Dominque’s rebellion’s outbreak, as slavery’s official remembrance day.

William Wilberforce MP the much-celebrated abolitionist only joined the movement once it became clear just how popular the campaign was becoming. It was militant black resistance, ordinary British men and women and economic development that destroyed slavery, not white philanthropy.
After Slavery we were freed to live without rights and in abject poverty

Even when free, our fore parents were forced to continue to endure great acts of barbarity, political treachery, and denial of justice with no access to human rights. This continued dehumanisation of supposed “free people” rendered us little more than animals with no access to the law or human rights.
Today as we scan those African communities who suffered the barbarity of plantation slavery combined with long term immersion into a culture of poverty we see the transmission of behaviours and cultures that were once valued as survival techniques at a time of slavery that today have become profoundly self destructive. We still live in the long shadow of slavery and the difference between those who are the descendant of plantation slaves and those who endured colonialism but not slavery could not be clearer to those who have eyes to see.

History teaches us that any oppressed peoples that retain access to their own language, culture and historical and familial memory can endure great acts of repression for sustained periods of time and survive and prosper. Those who are denied such important histories cut off from their past, denied their language cultural and familial history, lineage, wealth and traditions will suffer profound psychological trauma.
London and the Slave Trade

Until the 1730s, London dominated the British trade in enslaved Africans. A major slaving centre, it is estimated that over a quarter of all Londoners were involved in the trade in some way and although the capital would later be eclipsed by Liverpool as a slave-trading port, its involvement in the trade was both longer and deeper than any other UK city. The capital, up until 1698, had enjoyed the commercial privileges bestowed on it by the charter of the Royal African Company, and the City and its officials had amassed huge profits through its revenues. Under this monopoly 100,000 Africans had been shipped to the colonies and 30,000 tons of sugar had been imported. No fewer than 15 Lord Mayors, 25 Sheriffs and 38 aldermen of the City of London were shareholders in the company between 1660 and 1690.

Following its decline as a slaving port, London assumed a more permanent and central role as the financial hub of the triangular trade. The City of London provided the money for many slaving voyages and other London institutions insured cargoes and traded plantation goods. Given the risky and long-term nature of a typical slave voyage, new forms of credit were introduced into the British banking system. The need for long-term credit, with bills payable after anything from one and a half to three years, led to the development of specialist banking houses such as that operated by Alexander and David Barclay, whose bank bears the family name to this day. Even more active in this field was Sir Francis Baring, who was reputed to have made his initial fortune as a 16-year-old slave dealer. Baring was to sit as a Member of Parliament for 18 years and died leaving a legacy valued at £1 million.

The Bank of England itself was also to figure largely in this enterprise. Sir Richard Neave, the bank’s director for 48 years, also sat as chairman of the Society of West India Merchants. Neave’s son-in-law, Beeston Long, would follow in his footsteps both as chairman of the Merchants and governor of the Bank of England. The enormously influential body of plantation owners and their representatives sat in the House of Commons and ensured their interests were protected. Given such an unprecedented concentration of political and economic power, it was inevitable that the plantation system would produce England’s first millionaire: William Beckford MP.

In the Caribbean, Jamaica overtook Barbados as the prize colony of the English and by the turn of the 18th century the European population there stood at 7,000 with that of slaves at 45,000. The richest planter of the island, Peter Beckford, was also the most powerful: at his death in 1735 he owned nine sugar plantations and was part owner of seven more. His son, William, returned to London, where he later became an MP as the most powerful businessman in the City of London, for which he would be twice selected as Lord Mayor. His brother Richard sat as an MP for Bristol and his second brother Julines an MP for Salisbury. His son Richard would serve as a Member of Parliament for Bridport, Arundel and Leominster
Economic Legacy

It is undeniable that slavery produced spectacular profits for the British and this transformed the port cities such as London, Liverpool and Bristol. In the case of Liverpool, this city grew from humble beginnings as a small fishing village into a huge dock and the hub of a growing world capitalist system. Many famous institutions in London were built on the profits of the slave trade and these included banks (Barings and the Bank of England); insurance companies (Lloyd’s of London) and hospitals (Guys and St. Thomas’s). The founding collection of pictures at the National Gallery was donated by John Julius Angerstein, who had built up his art collection with money made from the slave trade and his activities as one of Lloyd’s underwriters insuring the slavers

In his seminal book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ Dr. Eric Williams has commented that the origin of black slavery lay with economic, not racial motives: ‘it had to do not with the colour of the labourer, but the cheapness of the labour.’ The economic legacy also points to the origins of Africa’s underdevelopment and the injustices of present day trade rules. The poor economic performance of Africa remains one of the biggest issues facing development and growth economists today. Economic historian, Bairoch has argued that ‘there is no doubt that a large number of the structural features of the process of economic underdevelopment gave historical roots going back to slavery and European colonisation’. It is difficult to see how the UK Government’s recent Commission for Africa could undertake a truly wide-ranging assessment of Africa’s contemporary issues and problems without first acknowledging the devastating impact of slavery, imperialism and colonialism.

Political Legacy

The history of slavery is as much one of rebellion as of enforced servitude. For more than 300 years, slave rebellions and white fears about them were central factors of colonial life. The anti-slavery movement was the first genuine mass movement in Britain and London was the initial focus. The movement employed new methods of mass-communication in an attempt to reach potential supporters. The anti-slavers’ emblem and motto – a chained black man on one knee asking the onlooker: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ – became a common sight. This device designed and marketed by Josiah Wedgwood, appeared on tableware, jewellery, pamphlets and posters all over the country. Brooches and pendants proclaiming adherence to the abolitionist ideals proved essential in garnering support from sectors of society normally beyond the reach of political ideas.

By the last quarter of the 18th century, London had become the largest Black metropolis outside of the Americas. It was home to an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people of African origin among its 800,000 residents. This community of servants, sailors, scribes, beggars and former slaves lent their voices to the clamour for abolition growing through the Black world at large. From the beginning of the anti-slavery agitation in Britain in the 1780s the testimonies of former enslaved and free Africans were crucial in exposing the harsh realities of the slave system and galvanising public opinion against it.

A host of Black activists such as Robert Mandeville, Thomas Cooper, my own namesake Jasper Goree and William Greene made their mark on Georgian and Regency London. 1787 saw the first major Black contribution to the campaign for abolition with the publication of Ottobah Cugoano’s ‘Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species’. For the first time British readers heard the authentic voice of slave witness.

Although Cugoano was the first published African critic of the slave trade, the most widely hailed Black activist was his friend, Olaudah Equiano whose book, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African’ became a crucial text for the anti-slavery movement. Equiano is often referred to as Britain’s first black political leader and he collaborated with Granville Sharp on a number of black rights issues. This legacy of slavery has created cultures and communities of resistance everywhere, based on political ideas about autonomy and self-determination for people of African descent.
Ideological and Philosophical Legacy

There is a direct connection between the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the development of racist theories and the existence of contemporary racism. The philosophy of white supremacy and black inferiority has its roots in the legal, social, cultural, intellectual, political and religious ideologies were created to justify the enslavement, exploitation and oppression of millions of Africans. During and after slavery, racist practices decided who was human and who was not, who could be a citizen and who could not, and who could enjoy the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Today, different types of racisms exist, Islamophobia being the most current and aggressive form but all contemporary forms of racism draw on ideas that were developed during the era of slavery.

Social Legacy

The principle products of the slave trade, principally sugar, tea, cotton and tobacco and the associated ancillary industries transformed the lives of Britons. For many, alongside the new opportunities which came with the burgeoning cities, the middle classes were able to enjoy personal luxuries that they had not mad or grown themselves. Previously this had been the privilege of the aristocracy. Even the landscape of the country changed as wealthy planters brought home their profits to create vast country estates and new stately homes.

Apologies and reparations for slavery

Slavery’s reality has been increasingly acknowledged outside Britain. The US Virginia General Assembly in 2007 expressed ‘profound regret’ for its role, stating slavery ‘ranks as the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights and violations of our founding ideals’. In 2001 the French National Assembly declared slavery a ‘crime against humanity’.

In 1999, Liverpool council became the first major British slaving city to formally apologise. The Church of England Synod followed suit. The British government’s refusal of such an apology is squalid.
Until recently, almost unbelievably, it refused even to recognise the slave trade as a crime against humanity on the grounds that it was legal at the time. It helped block a EU apology for slavery in 2001. London acknowledged its involvement in Slavery in 2007 when the then Mayor Ken Livingstone formally apologised.
Since Livingstone left office we have seen the total denigration of all things African by London’s current Mayor Boris Johnson. He has refused to acknowledge the 23rd August, has slashed all Black History month budgets and has withdrawn all funding for all African cultural celebrations.

Johnsons contempt for African culture and London’s African community borders represents the worst and most popular form of racism. A peculiar mixture of Eurocentric historical ignorance on the history of black people, a white benign paternalism alongside a degree of undoubted bumbling charm combined with political power and patronage provides cover for a man who presides of the most ethnically diverse city in the world.

His contempt although not aggressively expressed still results in the fact that the all-African cultural references and funding have been brutally cut. The real political narrative of Johnson administration in relation to Africans in London is deeply insidious form of racism characterised by a benign paternalism.
His administration funds and acknowledges all other major ethnic communities in London except the African and Caribbean communities. Boris and his team have no problem with this approach believing that “black history” was in fact the central battering ram of the multiculturalists’ project which they despise.

Their simplistic and uniformed view that such a focus is intrinsically opposed by most white Londoners who don’t see black communities as deserving recognition particularly where doing so forces them to confront their past responsibility for racism. White guilt for the racism of the past and present day has produced a virulent hostility to black culture and history.

Here is an example of this dismissive contempt. At a Young People’s Question Time on 17th September 2009, Munira Mirza, Mayoral Adviser on Arts and Culture said “Sometimes, it can get a bit boring, doing slavery every year”. There are no planned memorial events in London and given London’s history that is not only a disgrace but national scandal.

In relation to a formal apology two arguments against such an approach are usually brought forward — not only by the past government but also by the present PM David Cameron. First, an apology is unnecessary because this happened a long time ago. Slavery was the mass murder of millions of people. Germany apologised for the holocaust. Britain must for the slave trade. Second, that apologising is ‘national self-hate’. This is nonsense. Love of one’s country and its achievements is based on reality, not denying it.
Surely a Britain that contributed Shakespeare, Newton and Bevin to human civilisation need fear comparison with no one.

A British state that refuses to apologise for a crime on such a gigantic scale as the slave trade merely entrenches racism. The deep historical reality of slavery impacts today means that people of colour have never fully secured ourselves or been accepted into the fabric of this country. Britain national narrative ignores slavery, our contributions as slaves and free men and women are dismissed. British white guilt and perpetual shame drives the stubborn resistance to properly record and acknowledge this deep and ugly scar on the metaphorical face of the UK today
Our starting place as a nation for a discussion on race and the development of the concept of truly inclusive citizenship and historical narrative that includes slavery at its core must begin with apology, acknowledgement and reparations. Our place in the world in future may well be influenced by the way comes to terms with this past the concept of Britain as a country where regardless of race or faith all are equal before the law can never be a reality whilst such a profound injustice remains unacknowledged. That London the nation’s capital should simply ignore the day is a national scandal but of course in the context of a society that increasingly refuses to recognise racism much less slavery no doubt such contempt will go largely unnoticed as did this historic day.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The audacity of hope and recovery - by Lester Holloway

Lester Holloway

The burning carpet stores, the looting, the photo-oped clean-ups, the CCTV mugshots, the inflated jail terms and David Starkey. Finally, the black community had a chance to gather and debate strategies for “hope and recovery”, the title of a rally in central London last Friday.

And for all the acres of newsprint devoted daily to the riots, not a single mainstream journalist showed up. Fleet Street’s finest were evidently too busy printing articles about the “black supremacy” of menacing hooded youth and the dangers of “street patois.”

As one of the speakers, Lee Jasper, noted on his blog:

This is illustrative of the failure of [the] mainstream press to understand the reality of black communities; preferring instead their own prejudice. Black people doing good things is not considered newsworthy.

The journalists missed an event, held at Friends House in Euston, full of determination to reclaim an agenda which had failed to acknowledge that any of the people taking part in the disturbances might have had genuine grievances. An agenda that had made a YouTube star of a woman scolding the looters, but had ignored this man who spoke his mind at a clean-up event.

Considering the rally was organised in less than a week, the 700-strong audience is an incredible testament to the desire to formulate a black community response distinct from a government and media-dictated one. There was also frustration expressed towards a media that was increasingly blaming youth and black culture for the looting and arson. The underlining fear, I suspect, was that black communities will once again face the kind of negative portrayal and criminalisation experienced from the 1950s to the 1980s.

The mood was summed up by larger-than-life church leader Bishop Wayne Malcolm, head of Christian Life City Church, who told the audience:

It is clear that we will never, as a people, be able to make the changes we so desperately want to see unless we fully, strategically and cohesively engage in the political process. We are going to have to politicise our community and bring the kind of education that informs our community, and inflicts the necessary wounds on institutions that have walked over us so far.

The charismatic pastor went on to call for no less than economic emancipation so that the community no longer relied on “our oppressor” to fund initiatives that uplifted and educated the masses. Strong and brave stuff.

Bishop Malcolm’s call carried echoes of his nearly namesake, Mr X. It is certainly an old idea that is enjoying a revival with the recent news that a leader of the US National Bankers Association is calling for a black bank to lend and invest in a community failed by mainstream institutions.

Such a move would not only elevate the economic empowerment message of Rev Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to a new and higher level, it would also in part fulfil the vision of political and economic independence advocated by Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

Labour MP Diane Abbott, whose Hackney constituency was marred by disorder following the police shooting of Mark Duggan, said that the time had come for the black community to “stand up and support each other.” She commented:

We have to offer a collective leadership; a sense that, as a community, we are going to have to save ourselves. In every generation there comes a time when the community has to stand up; and now we all have to step up and reach out and support each other in a way we haven’t before, because the future of our youth depends on it.

Abbott went on to attack rubber bullets and water cannons, saying that she rejected the “militarisation of our communities” Such tactics “sent out [the message] that… the state is at war with young people.”

The event concluded with a rousing and entertaining speech by Lee Jasper, who talked about the responsibility of parents to keep their children in check. However some of the audience responses in the final Q&A stressed that politicians and the media were wrong to blame mothers who faced a battle for their children in competition with peer pressures, the allure of material trappings and negative influences from gangster rap and video games.

Many of those audience members are right of course, but the reasons for this unequal battle between parents and society needs greater focus. We should not shy away from analysis of the legacies of enslavement and modern-day oppression and racism in understanding the breakdown of the extended family and the dissolving of cultural knowledge and self-pride.

The dominance of coprorate-inspired “urban” music and clothes and the limited horizons and low self-esteem caused by an excluding education system are also part of the underlining issues that cannot be ignored when seeking to understand the current predicament.

Just as important is the fatalism and disconnect from the world of work as a result of government policies and endemic racism in the jobs market, and the disrespect and violence which is a consequence of the absence of spirituality and lack of connection with ancestors and the way they faced struggles with dignity.

After a fortnight’s deluge of newspaper headlines about looters and rioters, it is crucial that we reject any implicit assumptions that ‘we’ (the parents and those that did not partake in the disturbances) are separate from ‘them’ (the youth). If the word ‘community’ is to mean anything, it must accept that all generations are part of one body, however different our outlooks may be. Without this sense of community how can we be part of a Diaspora, where we look beyond our household and neighbourhood and consciously feel our deep historical roots.

What was missing on Friday was a sense that achieving hope and recovery was more than a black response to the disturbances – as important and welcome as that was – but is a process that must be fully owned by the young as well as the older generations. An inter-generational conversation, perhaps including a “people’s inquiry” advocated by Professor Gus John, must surely be the foundation of any serious political and economic empowerment, let alone economic independence.

This article is published on my blog:

By Lester Holloway

Notting Hill Carnival 2011: A world-class festival funded like a parish council event

We can expect huge crowds at Carnival this year for Britain’s premier black cultural event. Each year the crowds grow by an average of 5% and this year Notting Hill Carnival will be policed by 20,000 police officers.
I have had extensive involvement and knowledge of Carnival and the biggest Mass on the road this year will be the Police themselves. Playing Mass with Mangrove Steel Band and as chair of the Mangrove Community Association from 1985 to 1995 and in the decades since, I have had over 20 years experience of policing and providing local stewards and community observers for the event.
The last year we saw this type of ‘swamp” policing was in the mid 1980’s and on that occasion disorder did break out. That year with Sir Paul Condon in charge 13,000 officers hit the street and the atmosphere was very tense, quite oppressive, aggressive and very claustrophobic.  That year relations with the police and community were strained with the illegal and false arrest and eventual acquittal of Mangrove founder Frank Crichlow and the launch of Operation Eagle Eye, Sir Paul Condon’s anti street robbery initiative.
This year Carnival takes place in an environment where police and black community relations are at the lowest point since the 1980’s. For that I blame the Mayor and his Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority Kit Malthouse both of whom have systematically degraded all race equality community relation’s initiatives to the point where they have ceased to be effective or have credibility.
Their other critical failure is that both have presided over a dramatic increase in the number of deaths in police custody and black deaths in particular, in addition to a huge increase in the number of stop and searches targeting black youth. These combined failures along with the recent shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham have resulted in the most dramatic loss of trust and confidence between London’s black communities and the Metropolitan Police Service seen in years.
In the three years since Boris was elected in 2008, black community police relations have deteriorated to catastrophic levels. That’s a remarkable achievement for a Mayor who wears his multicultural credentials on his chest. The fact is things have never been so bad as they are currently. That sets the dangerous context for the Carnival and has to be a cause of extreme concern. It is at these times of acute tension that sensitive policing and excellent community relations are critical requirements and not simply the ‘swamp policing strategy’ that seems to have been agreed this year.
In 2000 after the murder of two young people at Carnival the Greater London Authority under Ken Livingstone launched the Notting Hill Carnival Strategic Review. The review focused on how to ensure the sustainable growth of Carnival whilst addressing issues of public safety and crime.
The overwhelming conclusion of the Review on the specific issue of public safety was that Carnival needed many more Carnival stewards to minimize the need for police interventions. Often police officers are drafted in from all over the UK. Most were unfamiliar with the event and had little experience of dealing with lots of young black people. This resulted in needless confrontations that were all potential catalysts for conflict. Another finding from award winning specialist crowd analysis company ‘Intelligent Space’ (who developed a simulated computer model of Carnival crowd flow patterns based on technology used for the Sydney Olympic Games), was that crowd congestion at Carnival was being made much worse by the arbitrary positioning of ‘sterile police zones’. These zones were both contributing to severe crowd congestion and as a result, lead to unnecessary conflict with the police.
Over the course of 18 months the Review panel consulted key stakeholders and organized many public consultation meetings on the future of Carnival. One of its key recommendations was to vastly increase the number of fully trained stewards. In 2000 there were less than 50 stewards to handle over 750,000 people and by 2007 that stewarding capacity had increased with funding from the Mayors Office to 400.  Our own estimation was that Carnival needed over 1000 fully trained steward over the course of the two days of Carnival.
Carnival stewards received in depth crowd control training, were fully equipped with radios and had a core team of full time professionals who led and deployed these stewards into distinct sectors and as a result Carnival went off largely peacefully from 2001 to the present day. This huge increase in the number of stewards being deployed to cover routine stewarding tasks that were being done by police officers resulted in the lowering of the number of police officers needed and less confrontation.
The Carnival review noted
‘Carnival policing costs totaled £5,781,994 in 2003 with over 10,000 officers being deployed over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Whilst the level of stewarding has increased since 2000 due to the provision of funding from the GLA, the Review Group emphasised the importance of establishing a longer-term strategic funding programme that would develop the Carnival’s stewarding capacity.’
Not only did this make sense in terms of minimising police community confrontations but it also ultimately reduced crime and saved the taxpayer money.
We can now expect a bill of over £10 million as result of the announcement of over 20,000 officers are to be deployed.  Whilst the Notting Hill Carnival Board has virtually no real effective stewarding capability as a consequence of losing funding form the Mayors Office and Kensington and Chelsea.
I have always argued and still believe that the biggest danger to public safety in Carnival was not crime but crowd congestion. None of the lessons learned from disasters such as Hillsborough were incorporated into Carnival planning.
In the event of a crowd stampede there is no real contingency to cope with the potential mass causalities and injuries that would inevitably follow. Carnival needs to reduce crowd density and increase the capacity for emergency front liners to respond to incidents by creating a larger Carnival footprint with more of the activities spread over a larger area.  No chance for this year of course.
I only hope that good sense prevails and the Board even at this late stage is given the necessary funds to massively increase its stewarding capability. Put simply I believe public safety is being compromised at Carnival by a conspiracy of neglect that has lead to failure to recognize the strategic importance of stewards at Carnival.
The Mayor, Kensington and Chelsea and the Metropolitan Police Service have failed to implement the recommendation of the Carnival Strategic Review. In the event of disorder or more likely panic causing a crowd surge the consequences will be profound. In the current context and set against the backdrop of a precipitous decline in trust and confidence between London’s black communities and the Met Police these errors could well be viewed as criminal.

Open Letter to Prime Minister Cameron from Professor Gus John

13 August 2011

The Prime Minister
10 Downing Street

Dear Prime Minister

I write as someone whose contribution for more than four decades to the struggle for quality schooling and education for all and for racial equality and social justice is a matter of public record.  I write as a former youth and community worker, community development officer and director of education and leisure services whose work has been predominantly in urban settings.  I am a social analyst and professor of education.  I am interim chair of Parents and Students Empowerment, an offshoot of the Communities Empowerment Network which for the last twelve years has been providing advice, guidance and advocacy in respect of the one thousand (1,000) school exclusion cases on average we deal with each year.

It is with profound sadness that I write to you.

Sadness at the events the nation has witnessed since Thursday 4th August 2011 when a police operation in Tottenham, North London, resulted in the killing of Mark Duggan.

Sadness at the lives lost and families traumatised as the civil unrest spread across London and elsewhere in the country.

Sadness at the number of young people who are now being taken through the courts, most of whom will doubtlessly end up with criminal convictions, if not prison sentences, thereby compounding the social exclusion that had already engulfed many of them.

Sadness, above all, at the utterances of leaders of state, including you, and the appalling lack of understanding that you and others display of the complexity of the situation underlying the violent civil unrest.

You, sir, have stated, in terms, that ‘gangs’ are responsible for the disturbances that started in Tottenham and spread across London and beyond.  You have also asserted that the conduct of those caught up in the disturbances was indicative of a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society, people allowed to think that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities and that their actions do not have consequences.

You have described the protesters as not just criminal but ‘sick’.

You and others in your government want to see individuals and whole families evicted from Council housing if any member of those households is charged for allegedly taking part in the violent unrest.  Your position and that of the government is also that those in receipt of state benefit should have their benefit withheld.

I would suggest to you that at times of national crisis such as this, the country requires its Prime Minister to show leadership.  Leadership of One, Inclusive Nation.

‘Our nation’, ‘our country’, includes all those who, for whatever individual or collective motives, or for no reason at all, took to the streets on Saturday 6thAugust and in the days that followed.

Some of us may wish to distance ourselves from them, if not banish them from amongst us altogether and for all time.  Others may wish to distance themselves totally from their conduct and not from the individuals themselves.  Either way, the nation as a whole needs to own the events of the last week in all their ugliness, as well as for all the heroism and humanity that was displayed in the face of utterly disgraceful conduct on the part of some individuals.  Only thus will we be able to embrace the responsibility to understand how the society has produced citizens capable of the scenes we witnessed and the conditions that gave rise to them taking to the streets and conducting themselves in those ways.

As I have stated elsewhere in the last week, some of the conduct we saw on our streets during those disturbances was consistent with what communities up and down the country have been witnessing since the late 1980s, including groups of young men and women chasing their peers through crowded streets in broad daylight and knifing them to death, or gunning others down on the street, while sitting in their cars, or in fast food outlets.

Five people are known to have been killed in the course of the recent disturbances.  Scores of people have been killed on our streets since 1988 in incidents in which both perpetrators and victims were of African heritage. In one period, such deaths averaged 27 per year in London alone.  Yet, politicians, the media and the nation as a whole seemed to take it all in their stride.  There was nothing like the sense of national outrage or the urgency with which the government, the media and the entire country are responding to the current crisis.

The task of the ‘leader’, therefore, is to understand and speak to the nation in a manner that suggests you do understand the nuances that give the current situation its complexity and on that basis indicate what the government is minded to do, having regard to all the underlying factors and the way the policies and practices of your own and previous governments have contributed to the crisis.

The task of the ‘leader’ is not to invite and lead a national lynch mob, a lynch mob to which racists, fascists, separatists, assorted bigots and whosoever seeks revenge on behalf of victims or of a hurting nation could feel they could justifiably rally.

Much of what I have been hearing from the police, from crown prosecutors, from national and local politicians, from certain academics, from sections of the media and from various commentators is undoubtedly a recipe for strife, divisiveness and further social unrest.  It encourages a ‘Big Society’ of bullies, self righteous and otherwise, and a spurious moral crusade that can only breed cynicism and discontent and fuel social exclusion.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the response of politicians, yourself foremost among them, and of various other commentators in the last week has been the moral relativity, the relative morality you and others apply to the conduct of those who took to the streets as you presume to occupy the moral high ground.

Over the last eighteen months or so, this nation has witnessed three major scandals:
-          a financial crisis nationally and globally caused, not by the urban poor, the unemployed, or the ‘feral’ and ‘sick’, but by sub-prime mortgage lenders, bankers and other financiers who presumably are considered ‘responsible’ and not at all ‘sick’, who supposedly do not ‘believe the world owes them something’ or that ‘their rights outweigh their responsibilities’, or that ‘their actions do not have consequences’.
-          Ditto, the MPs and Lords expenses scandal
-          Ditto, the telephone hacking scandal and the complicity of the police, not to mention the compromising relationship between successive governments and News International and Rupert Murdoch.

It is truly breathtaking that, despite the fact that the taxpayer was made to bear the burden of the financial meltdown and rescue the banks, with the attendant impact on services to local communities, the obscene bonuses those who caused the crisis in the first place continued to receive and the jailing of MPs and Lords and of journalists for the other two scandals, those who broke into shops and helped themselves to goods in the last week could be accused of ‘greed’, ‘materialism’ and a ‘complete lack of responsibility’.

But I suppose there is a difference between Members of Parliament looting the public purse to buy plasma TV screens, duck houses, ghost houses and various other goods, and ‘rioters’ breaking into premises and taking goods.

One thing is as clear as it was predictable, however, is that the treatment that first set of thieves received from the police was vastly different from that being dished out to those who took to the streets and took from shops and business premises in the last week.  The former were treated to polite and respectful conversations/interviews with the police.  Not for them dawn raids by scores of officers in riot gear bursting into their homes to sow ‘fear in their hearts’ and terrorise their families. Not for them pre-emptive strikes and intimidating searches in order to ensure that vital evidence is gathered.
And then there are the hoary old chestnuts of parent(s) and families, absent fathers (ever in the mix) and the extent of their culpability for where their children were and what they did.

I would beg you to consider that, short of following our children everywhere, not all parents could guarantee that where we think our children are at any one time is where they are actually to be found.

Not all children are the same, even within the same family.  Parents could have three very focused, well-behaved and obedient children and one who is always kicking against the boundaries and defying parental authority.  Those parents might well require or be in the process of receiving support in parenting that challenging child.  The other children might be model students at school and totally happy at home.  What purpose does it serve, therefore, to punish that entire family for the fact that the hard-headed child allowed herself to get caught up in the street disturbances and ended up being charged with an offence?

What is the impact upon those siblings of having their security at home and at school destroyed by being made to suffer the consequences of their elder sibling going off and doing stupid things?

Whether it be in relation to the recent civil unrest or to school attendance and young people’s behaviour at school, it is oppressive, unjust and counter-productive to adopt the default position that ‘the parents’ are to blame, the ‘parents must be made to bear the responsibility’.  This approach usually has scant regard for the strategies that even so-called ‘dysfunctional’ parents use in parenting the best way they can.

In my experience, this accusation is never levelled when white, middle or upper class young men and women congregate in leafy suburbs or attend high end restaurants, drink excessively, indulge in criminal damage and other forms of anti-social behaviour.  Nor is the accusation made when they jump into fast cars and terrorise motorists and other road users up and down country lanes.

There clearly is looting and looting; criminal damage and criminal damage; causing a public nuisance and causing a public nuisance.  In the case of the first, the police, the courts, the media and the nation as a whole seem perfectly capable of making the distinction between criminal acts and criminals.  Not so when it comes to young people from working class backgrounds, black or white.

In the case of the first, there is the automatic presumption that the perpetrators do know the difference between right and wrong but that through recklessness, daring, the desire to have a smashing time, they abandon that intrinsic knowledge temporarily and commit criminal acts.  In the case of the latter, however, not knowing the difference between right and wrong is presumed to come with their white working class and African genes and be a function of the social and cultural capital they do not have and never will have.

In the case of the former, the taken-for-granted presumption is that upbringing, wealth, social and political connections and the automatic validation conferred upon them by this class-obsessed society would see them through even in the rare eventuality that they are made to serve a prison sentence for their criminal conduct.  It even adds to their cultural capital in that they are totally comfortable regaling friends and colleagues in wine bars and dinner parties with their tales of total abandon and hedonistic conduct.

In the case of the latter, criminal convictions translate into compromised life chances, lack of opportunity for employment and progression, added to personal stigmatisation.  Such convictions come to identify the individuals.  They are no longer young people who committed criminal acts.

You and other politicians, some of whom once belonged to the former category, are ever so quick to apply your relative morality and condemn them to the full force of the law and the opprobrium of a disgusted public in whose interest you purport to act.
And then the nation wonders why there is so much moral ‘leakage’ among that revolting class.

Let me repeat that we witnessed some truly disgraceful scenes on our streets since August 6th.  There were deliberate and murderous acts committed by individuals who apparently have long ceased to care about themselves, the consequences for them of the acts they were committing, let alone for others, and the impact upon the community of their chosen courses of action.  This is indicative of a nihilism and hopelessness that cannot be fixed simply by locking them up and throwing away the key.  I doubt that any of them came into the world genetically programmed to cause mayhem and commit murder.

Then, there are those who would have committed arrestable offences for the very first time and who though guilty of criminal acts are not the ‘criminals’ that the police, crown prosecution service, media and sections of ‘the public’ round upon them for being.

At the risk of setting myself up for arrest for ‘hugging a hoodie’ at a time like this and for what some might unkindly regard as ‘interfering with the course of “justice”’, may I respectfully suggest that rather than going down the road of naming and shaming juveniles and creating extra places for them in young offender institutions or in pupil referral units, the crown prosecution service be asked to amend its sentencing guidelines such that restorative justice approaches could be applied in the case of juveniles and of adults charged with less serious offences.

I have long argued that the conduct of many of our young people is indicative of the urgent need for healing and for rehabilitation of the self; for the restoration of value to the self; for the emotional literacy to be sensitised to the impact of their actions on themselves and upon others; for the acquisition and embedding of the values that make us fit for living in civil society.

To a large extent, it is not just young people’s damaged or warped social and emotional development that has resulted for many in the displacement of all those things and in the abandonment of hope and the death of aspiration. It is the fact that many of them have had no experience of others acting towards them in a manner that suggests that they as adults and facilitators of young people’s socialisation, learning and self development are living their values and are exhibiting the behaviours they would wish to see young people emulate.

This is evidently not a failure on the part of parents alone, whether in single or two parent households.

It is also a failure of national leaders, the political class, schools and teachers, leaders of faith groups, the police, the media, advertisers, pop artists, reality TV, producers of computer games and a raft of other people, products and organisations that young people encounter daily.

The established trend to demonise parents generally and to bemoan the absence of fathers in particular, obscures the fact that many parents lose the battle to ensure that the cumulative impact of popular culture, cyberspace and the dynamics of peer groups does not displace or countermand their patterns of child rearing and the values they seek to uphold in the home.  My work in communities, my mentoring of four teenage boys and my research provide evidence that many parents need dedicated support in managing that balance and in equipping their children, teenagers in particular, with the strategies and the understanding to navigate their way through that myriad of influences and pressures and remain rooted and grounded.

That is why in 2010 I wrote The Case for a Learner’s Charter for Schools and argued for its adoption by schools, by all learners irrespective of background and by families, such that each has an understanding of their rights as well as their responsibilities and can sign up to the shared values that could underpin children’s learning and self development.  The charter has been received favourably by many students, teachers and parents and it is my wish that your government will give it due consideration and recommend it to all schools and not just those in ‘challenging’ environments.

In your response to the recent civil unrest, you appear to suggest that the disturbances have their origins in the activity of ‘gangs’.  Reports emanating from the courts thus far do not support that belief.  In other words, I very much doubt that as many as twenty-five per cent of the nearly two thousand people arrested by the police are members of ‘gangs’.  While it might be easier to explain the extent and ferocity of the unrest by placing ‘gangs’ at the centre of it, that does not help us to understand the rapid unleashing of anger and violence and the abandon with which some people destroyed property or helped themselves to goods.

Nor does it take account of the fact that black people had no monopoly of that unrest, nor did they erect barriers to exclude white and other non-African people of all tendencies and political persuasion from joining in.  Those were open, free and fast moving events that any person or group with whatever personal or political intent, including anarchists, could join.

The accused and charged have not all been through the courts.  Even though some have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentence, that does not mean that they have told the police, crown prosecution service and the courts what their political affiliations or motives were.  It is therefore irresponsible of you to focus the nation’s attention on ‘gangs’, on ‘absent fathers’ and on ‘moral collapse’ without presenting the evidence that ‘gangs’ composed of black people from households without fathers were proven to be responsible for organising and spreading the unrest and for torching buildings.

I say irresponsible because it not only stereotypes black young people and their parents, it also provides ammunition to the likes of David Starkey to indulge in the worst forms of racist stereotyping and unfounded generalisations about people of African Caribbean background.

Even you must know that the suggestion that ‘moral collapse’ in the nation originated with the conduct of ‘gangs’ or of black people generally before and during the disturbances is ludicrous and amounts to a dangerous form of racial scapegoating.

But, assuming you are correct in placing ‘gangs’ at the centre of the unrest and the manner in which it spread across London, the questions I ask, again, are:
why this sudden eagerness to tackle the problem of ‘gangs’?
when our children were being murdered week in and week out in London and elsewhere year after year, why did government not look at the causes of the implosion that was so fatally evident in parts of our society?
why did government, media and the nation generally regard it predominantly as ‘black on black’ crime and by implication nothing to do with the rest of us, thus allowing us to get on with business as usual?

Why is it only after the nation saw how destructive of property and disregarding of people’s lives that section of the population could be that there is this determination to deal mercilessly with ‘gangs’?

Why is no correlation being made between the relentless cuts in services for young people (youth and community centres, club based youth workers, detached youth workers, youth counsellors, theatre-in-education programmes, community based social education and outreach programmes, school based community education programmes) since the late 1980s and especially since the introduction of local management of schools, and the growth of opposing youth groups and ‘post-code wars’ in various cities and towns?

Why did successive governments see fit to massively expand police involvement in schools and in youth work and fund the police to do such work, while at the same time getting rid of youth workers and youth and social education provision in schools?

As I have argued in The Case for a Learner’s Charter:

It costs the government roughly £100,000 to keep one young person in prison for a year.  For every ten young people in a young offender institution, the cost is £1m.  Where those young people are looked after children in local authority care, the cumulative cost is considerably higher.
How much more cheaply and in a more humane and children friendly environment could the state provide for such people, before they offend, in a learning environment that acknowledges their emotional and developmental support needs, rather than one that effectively makes them yet one more statistic among the 135,000 children of compulsory school age who are not in mainstream schooling or, worse still, the 85,000 prisoners in the nation’s prisons. (page 14)

Two youth workers or youth counsellors, at least, could be employed for a year for every young person we keep in jail for that year.

As early as 1969, the Birmingham Post and Evening Mail ran a series under the heading ‘The Angry Suburbs’.  The focus of the series was black young people, their unemployment, the quality of their schooling outcomes and, most of all, their response to the treatment they were receiving from the police. That led the Runnymede Trust to appoint me that Summer as director of an action-research project to go and work in Handsworth, Lozells and Winson Green and establish what was going on in those communities.

In that same year, the all-party select committee on race relations and immigration published their very first report entitled The Problem of Coloured School Leavers.  That report argued, among other things, that West Indian parents had unrealistic aspirations for their children and that those children could not be expected to attain the goals their parents had set for them.  From then till now, the schooling system has consistently failed that section of the population and black parents have had the experience of having their parental values and parenting practices undermined by the society.

As a consequence, each succeeding generation of black school leavers have found themselves surplus to the requirements of the labour market and have been stigmatised as the section of the population causing the state and the police the most problems.  Each succeeding generation, they are made the scapegoats during every economic downturn or when the government in power feels the need to gain favour with the electorate.

Such was the process by which young black people came to have the profile that has defined them from one generation to the next:
-          most underachieving in the schooling system
-          most excluded from school
-          most unemployed and for the longest periods upon leaving school
-          most stopped and searched by the police
-          over represented in young offender institutions and prisons
-          victims of market-driven, planned obsolescence, always surplus to requirements and therefore dispensable

You see, Prime Minister, in the absence of such considerations and with your obsession with parental responsibilities and with absent fathers in particular, you rather leave the nation with the impression that the civil unrest and the pock marks on the landscape of London and other cities which it has caused have their origin in the assumed dysfunctional nature of the African-Caribbean community, pure and simple.   Subliminally, at least, in your and Ian Duncan Smith’s preoccupation with ‘absent fathers’ and ‘role models’ for black young men, there are undertones of endemic ‘moral collapse’ within that community itself which, by your logic, is somehow infesting the nation as a whole.  There is therefore a short step from that to the conclusion that the malaise within the society and the ‘breakage’ which you think is evidenced by the civil unrest is attributable, principally, to African Caribbean families and their ‘out of control’ young people.

You do not take care to emphasise, for example, that ninety-five per cent of black young people have no involvement whatsoever in ‘gangs’, street culture, serious youth violence or anything that brings them to the attention of the police, albeit they are routinely stopped and searched as if they were so involved.

I would respectfully suggest that the nation is steeped to its very core in moral turpitude, beginning at the very top, i.e., with those who make (and break) our laws and whose task it is to put systems in place to safeguard the weak and defenceless, children and minors for example, according to the international human rights standards to which this nation subscribes.

But just in case you conclude that I am pointing the finger in every direction other than towards the African heritage community itself, given the incidents on August 4th that triggeredstart of the civil unrest in Tottenham, let me assure you that following consultation with a large number of community organisations in London and elsewhere, I submitted to Home Secretary, Theresa May, on July 4th a proposal for a ‘People’s Inquiry into Gun- and Knife-enabled Killings in the African Community’.

The following extract is from the Executive Summary of the proposal.  The full proposal and my covering letter to the Home Secretary are attached:

Last Friday, 1st July 2011, Yemurai Kanyangarara, from Belvedere, died after being stabbed in the neck as he got off the number 96 bus in Upper Wickham Lane in Welling.  He was 16 and had just completed his GCSEs.
Detective Chief Inspector Mark Dunne described the killing as an act of ‘sheer brutality against a defenceless schoolboy’, adding that the murder carried out in broad daylight on a busy street was ‘as bad as it gets’.....  ‘It’s as bad as it gets.  It’s among the very worst I have investigated in 25 years, the sheer brutality against a defenceless schoolboy’. (BBC News)
Yemurai was the eighth teenager to be murdered in the capital since January.
On Friday 20 May, the South London Press reported that Lambeth Police put into operation Section 60 Stop and Search powers in response to the fatal stabbing of 15 year old Temidayo Ogunneye in Camberwell the week before.
Section 60 empowers the police to stop and search anybody without giving a reason or without having 'reasonable suspicion' of their involvement in unlawful acts.  Lambeth Police were allegedly concerned about reports that young men armed with guns were driving around intent on revenge for Temidayo’s murder.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, gun and knife crime often associated with so-called ‘gangs’ has ravaged the African community in Britain’s inner cities.  In the 1990s, it earned Manchester the moniker ‘Gunchester’.

The lives of hundreds of parents, siblings, families and friends have been wrecked by murders that have traumatised a whole generation in cities across the nation, including London, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool.

In Lambeth alone there have been fifteen (15) such murders since the beginning of April 2010, including 5 since 1st April 2011.

Over 95% of the nation’s youths who are of African descent have no known involvement in activities or groups associated with gun- and knife-enabled crime.  The 3% to 5% who have are in daily danger of becoming either perpetrators or victims, whether in London, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands or Avon & Somerset.  While it is the case that since Operation Trident was established in Lambeth and Brent in March 1998, black communities have been cooperating much more with the police in London and elsewhere in the country where special units similar to Trident have been established, ‘Stop & Search’ remains a vexing issue for the majority of black young people who feel unjustly targeted because of the illegal activities of a small but dangerous minority of their peers.

We desperately need to create spaces and opportunities for our young people to engage with one another in neutral 'territory' and, with the aid of capable and experienced men and women in our communities who have listening, mediation and conflict resolution skills, encourage a dialogue about the matters that preoccupy them and for which they are prepared to kill and to die.  Unlike what was argued at the meeting convened by Councillor Rachel Heywood in Lambeth recently, I DO NOT BELIEVE this is all to do with turf wars about drugs.  This is far too simplistic and grossly inaccurate an analysis.  While that may have been the case at the point at which Operation Trident was set up, it is no longer the main cause of gun- and knife-enabled crime in London or anywhere else.

Much more worrying is the fact that those involved in using guns and knives are getting younger and younger, as compared to a decade ago.

Trouble is that there are too many meetings/forums where concerned adults are talking about young people, often in an undifferentiated and non-nuanced way, and too few where young people are engaging meaningfully with one another, including:
  • those with gripes and grievances
  •  those seeking to control and dominate
  •  those who are deeply disturbed and angry with the world
  •  those who have suffered loss and seeking revenge
  • those who are angry because their siblings have been sent down for ‘Joint Enterprise’ although they were nowhere near the scene of the killing and were not aware that their peers would ‘take things that far’
  •  those (boys and girls, young and older) who are fearful and anxious because of what their siblings are up to or are known to have done
  •  those with knowledge of terrible deeds but who have nowhere to offload that burdensome information
  •  those who live in fear because they are known to be in possession of that burdensome information
  •  those who are still traumatised by the loss of loved ones and friends but have had no counselling or support in dealing with their loss and in healing
  •  those who go into schools with those feelings and are labelled and excluded rather than understood and supported
  •  those who know that their parents are grieving over what is happening to young people in our communities but are unaware that they, their sons and daughters are actively caught up in it
  •  those who are reluctant to engage with projects/initiatives in their local community because they see those as being too closely associated with the Police or as dependent on Police funding.....
  • .... the list goes on.... and on.
Where are young people having meaningful exchanges about those matters and working out strategies for dealing with them?  Whom can they trust to come clean about those issues to?  Where can they go to for confidential counselling and not feel that a death sentence hangs over them because of the “don’t snitch” code and the fear that if they reveal what they know, those in whom they are confiding would feel they have to go to the police?

What makes people believe that you can abolish youth and community work with young people and with it the opportunity for young people to build trusting relationships with significant adults over time and have those adults guide and influence the choices they make about ways of handling their affairs, and then out of panic open up a few facilities in the Summer and expect young people to come and engage meaningfully?

Who is dealing with those schools that, rather than supporting young people who bring their fears, their anxieties, their anger and their grief to school and act inappropriately as a result, exclude if not criminalise them on the grounds that their behaviour is mirroring 'gang culture' and the culture of 'street violence' which 'we simply will not tolerate in our school'?

It is for all of those reasons that I am calling for a 'PEOPLE'S Inquiry'. 

I have not received a response or any form of acknowledgement from the Home Secretary.

Exactly four weeks after I sent her the proposal, however, Mark Duggan was shot in precisely one of those police ‘Stop and Search’ operations I pointed to in the proposal.

It would appear that a firearm was found in the car in which Mr Duggan was travelling.  No evidence has yet emerged from the Independent Police Complaints Commission as to whether the police had established the purpose for which the gun was being transported in that car before Mr Duggan was shot and killed.

Be that as it may, I believe that there is now even more need for the ‘People’s Inquiry’ I have proposed for the following reasons:

  1. Whatever inquiry you might decide to set up in response to the recent disturbances, I would be surprised if the emphasis were not on the civil unrest and its impact upon communities, business and those who suffered loss, rather than on the reasons for so many young people and adults from dispossessed communities taking to the streets.
  2. There is already evidence of sections of the ‘black community’ fuelling the hysteria in the nation in the aftermath of the unrest and wanting the police and the courts to do their worst in punishing those arrested
  3. None of this will address the situation of the majority of young people who remain in the same position as those who took to the streets, especially as they will be further oppressed by the various knee-jerk measures your government appears to be introducing thick and fast for suspect political reasons
  4. The African heritage community needs to have some serious and urgent conversations among itself, in an organised and focused way, about what had been happening to our young people long before the civil unrest and the further challenges and dangers we now face
  5. We need to determine collectively how we reclaim our children from the unashamed and relentless demonising of them in which the whole nation appears to be indulging
  6. You appointed Brooke Kinsella to evaluate the various initiatives across the country that were targeted at tackling gun and knife crime, despite the number of established and competent individuals in the black community who had been engaged in making such interventions and doing preventive and rehabilitation work with young people long before Kinsella’s brother was killed. 
You are now adding Bill Bratton to the mix, without any evaluation of the various measures that police forces around the country, including the Metropolitan Police, have been taking with communities in a joint effort to stop the killings and stem the recruitment of young people to peer groups with negative outlook or to ‘gangs’ committed to violence.
Communities need to examine the implications of that for our children and for the work already being undertaken.
  1. We need to determine how we hold your government and its institutions (the police, the courts, the schooling system) to account and how we hold one another to account.

So, Prime Minister, whatever inquiry or series of studies you may commission in keeping with your agenda in response to the civil unrest, I would urge you to fund a ‘People’s Inquiry’ such as I propose and facilitate the African heritage community that has borne and continues to bear the brunt of the systemic betrayal of generations of our children to look at ourselves and at our ways of helping our children deal less destructively with the condition of being young, black and forever ‘ethnic minority’ on the margins of this society.

This comprehensive response to your and your government’s interventions following the civil unrest is necessarily long.  I would urge you to give serious consideration to every aspect of it, however, and make a timely response.

Yours sincerely

Professor Gus John