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