When I first got involved in campaigning for race equality the Tories were in power, unemployment was rising steeply and money was too tight to mention. Yet back in the early 1990s there was an energetic anti-racist movement making waves despite a chronic lack of cash.
Whether it was the consistent protests against the BNP’s bookshop in Welling, the marches for victims of race attacks, or the vibrant ARAfests – organised by the Anti Racist Alliance (ARA) – it felt like I was part of a mass movement. The leaders were young, smart and fearless; the campaigning full time. Conferences echoed to passionate rhetoric from around the hall, not just the top table.
Black MPs, Bernie, Diane, Paul and Keith, had only just won their first re-election. It was a time of struggle. Against institutional racism – even before the term entered the popular lexicon. And against the far right, who were still cloaking whole neighbourhoods in fear.
Twenty years on and little has changed concerning institutional racism. Black young men are currently 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched against a background of heightening tensions on the streets that were partially responsible for last years’ riots.
Black unemployed has rocketed during this recession, especially for the youth, and disproportionate rates of incarceration and higher sentences for the same crime continue to rise.
Controversial deaths in custody appear to be back to their 1980s level and still no police officer has been convicted of any offence relating to the death of a black person.
With so much still to campaign over, who is doing the campaigning? The answer is that today there are precious few dedicating themselves to these perennial issues. The truth is, these days there isn’t a lot of movement left in the anti-racist movement.
That united collective voice, that clear leadership, those recognised personalities, have given way to many people pulling in all directions or promoting their individual projects.
Groups like Operation Black Vote (OBV) can still pull a crowd – like they did for the Mayoral Hustings this year – but there is a yearning for a forum where people can genuinely speak out for themselves and participate in a movement for justice that is solid and sustained.
Much campaigning over the past four years has not had the air of momentum. We’ve gathered for a conference on Black Men in the Community only for things to go quiet. We’ve attended a large event, after last years’ riots, on combating stereotypes of black youth only to be disappointed by a lack of follow-through.
We heard what a powerful force Equanomics was going to be in redefining the debate over race and economics… and then we heard no more.
It’s almost as if fads have replaced strategic goals.As if we need to flag up new issues because the old ones – the ones keeping the community down – are just too boring to really interest the community.
Granted, the Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) group continues to hold public meetings, but compared to back in the day I just can’t sense that activists are harnessing a groundswell of protest. It’s not like ordinary people are not suffering.
Levels of frustration at lack of opportunities, oppressive policing and racism – albeit ever more disguised and insidious – are as high as it has been since the 1980s. So why are today’s black leaders seemingly unable to galvanise the community to fight back like before?
Well, the fact is many of them first became leaders in the 80s and 90s. This is part of the problem. The movement has suffered from a lack of nurturing younger talent. Retaining a firm grip on positions has eclipsed succession planning. Yet after 20 years of leadership, those same individuals are now well into their middle age. Diamond-mines of expertise, but less fuel in the tank.
The advent of social networking media has revealed some prominent figures to be locked in a mindset of reacting to events, to news stories, without offering solutions. The pro-active campaigning I was first exposed to appears to have dissipated somewhat.
There are very many highly talented young people – from youth workers to former gang members – with great leadership potential.
We can either wait for them to form national campaign organisations themselves or the elders can tutor them to step up. The latter is clearly the quickest way of filling the vacuum of radical day-to-day leadership necessary to rebuild a grassroots movement.
That’s not to write off the ‘old hands’ – far from it. They (and I include myself in this category) still have much to offer. But we cannot speak for the youth today or fully understand their experiences. Age and time invariably erodes the uncompromising idealism we once felt, and while the outrage at injustice may burn as strongly as ever, the tactics and approach will be different, perhaps better suited to an earlier era.
Years of politicking and the accumulation of friendships and interests can alter outlooks. Middle age alone will blunt appeal to the disaffected youth. It is time that black youth spoke for themselves, not as invited guests on an old platform, but on their own platform inviting us oldies to pontificate before telling us how they are going to do it now!
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of life left in us 40s-somethings! But just as ‘democratic’ governments lose their legitimacy if the same leaders have remained in situ for 20 years, so too voluntary community leadership needs to churn through new talent to remain relevant and fresh.
For every creaking Al Sharpton we must promote a dozen new Toure’s. And let me state clearly, I will get behind a young leader no matter how many years my junior if he or she has the vision, dynamism, intellect, energy and uncompromising bravery that the cause deserves and needs.
Back in 2008, as the London Evening Standard were waging an intense political campaign against Lee Jasper, I wrote an editorial for the New Nation newspaper making the case for a renewal of the anti-racist movement. What was needed was a mass democratic movement not a permanent small elite, I wrote.
We needed leadership that strived to form a broad church not exclude sections of the community because they were not fully signed up to a specific political perspective. And we needed active succession planning that developed and promoted young leaders.
Myself and New Nation were standing full-square behind by Mr Jasper in the face of the sustained assault on black leadership, but I felt it crucial that the black community also thought deeply about the way forward and didn’t just leave the future of campaigning to fate.
That they considered what the long term impact of this assault would be and learnt lessons about creating an anti-racist movement which cannot in future face such an attack – because the level of unity and activism in the community would rise up in strong defence of our leaders.
I was not writing off Mr Jasper or the prominent race equality campaigners in his circle – quite the opposite – but I was seeking to plot future for the movement, or at least ask the questions that will aid such a debate.
Despite Mr Jasper being innocent of the allegations and insinuations thrown at him during the 2008 London elections, it was notable how few people in the community rose to his defence. The biggest anti-racist organisations seemingly crumbled, unable to mount a counter response or to galvanise the masses behind them.
It was a watershed moment. The 1990 Trust, where I had previously worked, entered hibernation and the Black Londoners Forum collapsed. When inquiry after inquiry cleared Mr Jasper there was no revival of fortunes for these groups.
Four years on and the campaigns for race equality are still in deep-freeze. While OBV, another organisation where I’ve worked, is continuing to deliver on its’ shadowing programmes the reality of finances have forced it to slim down.
Largely, Britain’s black community still lack an engine driving a strong anti-racist movement. There is certainly nothing comparable to Rev Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition, or Sharpton’s National Action Network, or indeed the NAACP. And all the while, indicators of unequal racial outcomes in Britain continue to worsen.
Today there is not one organisation taking a lead and mobilising a popular response across the country. Both proactive campaigning and research into these topics has fallen below a level that the crises demands.
And while the United Families and Friends Campaign has done much to draw attention to the increasing numbers of deaths in custody, the vigils and marches could have benefited from the kind of mass mobilisation that the old ARA or a once-funky National Assembly Against Racism used to deliver.
It is almost as if we’re still shell-shocked from 2008. We cannot afford to be. When London mayor Boris Johnson announces an inquiry into race and policing, or when Home Secretary Theresa May talks about an investigation into police corruption in the Stephen Lawrence case, where is the anti-racist perspective in the media? Where is our own black media to work alongside the movement to popularise the journey towards justice and give it social and historical depth?
Where is that voice that speaks for a whole movement of activists? Today, commentators on such matters are an ever-changing collection of talking heads speaking for themselves or a small group they represent. Their agendas are not informed by a constituency of campaigners behind them.
That is why we need a new generation of young leaders to pick up from where the older generation have left off. The class of the 80s and 90s have much to offer and our experience is being put to good use setting up useful social enterprises to mentor black youth, and a range of specific campaigns such as domestic violence.
But we need more, much more. We need to mobilise those that are suffering most, the disenfranchised black youth. Give voice to the oppressed and renew our demands for justice. But in new ways, led by a generation who will take the reigns of national leadership, galvanise the masses and breath new life into the issues that we all face.
We can’t recreate the campaigning of the 80s and 90s but create a springboard for the campaigning of the 10s and 20s.
By Lester Holloway
First published at: http://cllrlesterholloway.wordpress.com