Blog Archive

Monday 9 July 2012

Tackling Racism in the UK in the 21st Century, written by Lee Jasper, Joint Chair of BARAC

I read with great interest the recent article by my friend and comrade Liberal Democratic Councillor Lester Holloway entitled “Putting the movement back into the anti racist movement”.

Lester’s article bemoans the demise of a once vibrant anti racist movement. Reflecting on the anti racist struggle for race equality and justice in the mid 1980’s and 1990’s he harks back to a more passionate age where activists were found on every street corner, bold conferences were held highlighting and exposing racism and people were not afraid of speaking truth to power.

He contrasts this with the reality today where most black organisations are politically emasculated and remain largely silent on the issues of the day.

He points out that during the last 20 years, institutional racism and its effects has worsened whilst we as a community have become increasingly politically marginalised and ineffective.

The article had particular resonance for me as I was involved in many of the black/anti racist organisations he cites in this article. There is much truth in what Lester says and I for one am hoping that it will kick start a much needed debate as to where we go from here. There are some points I disagree with but it would be both churlish and lead to an unnecessarily sterile debate to rehearse these points by way of response. Much more important is the substantive issue raised by his article that the anti racist movement, once vibrant has now lost momentum.

Lester points out that we have failed to nurture young talent. I could not agree more: that is the real reality that now needs to be both accepted and dealt with. There is an urgent and burning need to nurture and educate new leaders in how to more effectively challenge racism and injustice.

Our failure to do so has cost us dear and the August riots of 2011 bare testimony to the fact that we have failed to provide the necessary leadership and succession planning to facilitate the emergence of young leaders capable of organising and representing youth in crisis.

I would argue that the profound economic crisis in the black community, exacerbated through the powerful magnifying lens of racism, is tearing our community apart and has led to a weakening of our resolve to fight racism, a decimation of the black voluntary sector as a result of public sector cuts and as a result a virtual silencing of our strong political voice.

The public hi-tech racist media lynching.

As most people will know, others and I were the victims of a sustained and ruthless campaign led by the London Evening Standard. From Dec 2007 until May 2008 both Ken Livingstone the then Mayor and I as his political adviser, were subjected to a relentless and deeply racist media smear campaign. The length and breadth of this campaign was and remains unprecedented in British political history. For nearly 7 months the media whose real agenda was to defeat Ken Livingstone, used London’s black communities and me as their whipping boy to undermine Ken. Effectively we were nothing more than political road kill in Boris Johnson’s remorseless drive for power.

Initially many from our community defended and publically supported me. But as the campaign intensified and month after month those attack increased so that support began to wane and fall away. As time wore on I saw people physically wilt under the weight of continually defending me from scurrilous and unfounded allegations.

To be attacked for a week or a month is one thing to be attacked for nearly 7 months on a daily basis took its toll on that support. Quite simply it was beyond the experience of most black people and organisations. It was one of the most sustained racist media campaigns ever seen in British political history.

Supporters were threatened with similar ‘exposure’ by the press and understandably as a result were increasingly reluctant to speak out. Organisations concerned for their funding for the most part kept quiet. As the months passed it became clear that the Standard was intent on targeting anybody who spoke out in my defence.  Others seeing an opportunity to make good their own political fortunes or settle old scores began to feed the racist media firestorm with more smears, lies and innuendo.

In the end all but the most principled and strongest stood by me.  Tribute needs to be made to those like Lester Holloway and others too many to mention here who were resolute and unflinching in their support. Many paid a price for doing so, some losing work, some being targeted and marginalised and others were simply exhausted with continually publically defending me from a barrage of allegations.

Most damaged were those innocents who were caught up in the initial media campaign by association with me. The press attacked them leaving families psychologically damaged, politically marginalised and financially ruined as a result. To see peoples lives destroyed in such a callous and malicious media driven racist attack was excruciatingly painful for me. It is that pain of family, friends and colleagues that will remain with me all my life. More than 17 people were arrested and had their lives ruined.

I lay claim to being the most forensically investigated black man in Britain having endured 18 month investigations by Boris Johnson’s Forensic Audit Panel, Metropolitan Police Services, Financial Services Authority, DLA Piper Forensic Accountants, London Development Agency, the London Assembly, Companies House and the Charity Commission all of whom declared that  “there is no case to answer”.  Not that you saw that in the news to any large extent. Such things are routinely ignored or relegated to a small paragraph next to the horse racing results.

Despite a myriad of serious accusations being made not a single person was charged with any offence.

As a hardened activist even I was taken a back at the ferocity, length and forensic nature of the campaign. This continues to pain me most, to have witnessed the dire physical, emotional and financial effects on close friends and colleagues. To witness great black organisations who had done nothing other than defend me and challenge the racism of the press and to see them driven into the ground watching helplessly as their funding evaporated like the morning dew.

Under attack we don’t fight back.

The consequent effect of this campaign was to frighten and intimidate black and anti racist organisations from speaking out against injustice. Ultimately it was an exercise in control, intimation and discipline.

In addition during the last 4 years we have seen massive cuts to the black voluntary sector that has substantively reduced our capacity to organise effectively.  Organisations have closed, services lost, staff and client teams dismantled and management committees disbanded.

Why the ant racist movement has run out of steam.

In addition, we have seen a sustained and on going political attack led by the PM David Cameron and his Cabinet on the principles of multiculturalism and anti racism. Race equality as a policy priority has been relegated and marginalised. A new crop of Tory Black right-wingers have conspired with the press to pathologise black communities, identifying black people as the authors of our own misfortune and dismissing the reality of racism as a fiction.  Our networks were wiped out and those that do remain are much reduced in their capacity to do anything meaningful and sustained.

Meanwhile post 9/11the left in general has focused on Islamaphobia at the cost of campaigning on wholesale institutional racism of the state. The immergence of the racist English Defence League targeting Muslim communities reinforced that trend. As a result the issues of stop and search, school exclusions, deaths in custody, racism in the workplace and in recruitment have been ignored.

In 2008 during and after the elections I was asked to resign as the chair of Operation Black Vote and Equanomics both mentioned in Lester’s article. The 1990 Trust board refused to consider my return as a Trustee. All argued that politically I was a ‘toxic’ brand. Having been asked to stand down by people I respected I had no choice but to comply. In essence they were right although I disagreed with them at the time I came to value their counsel, allowing me more time with my family and to recuperate from the battering I had taken.

Since then attempting to rebuild new movements such as Operation Hope & Recovery and Black Activists Rising against the Cuts (BARAC) has been hugely difficult. Personally challenged financially as a consequence of legal costs associated with clearing my name, and carrying the burden of being politically marginalised, makes this task comparable to climbing Everest without any shoes. 

Despite this I have sought to continue to support families suffering injustice and represent black people struggling to confront racism and injustice. Without the basic requirement of an office and resources this becomes a task of herculean proportions.

We need fresh leadership.

Where I do agree with Lester is the need to help facilitate the next crop of young black radical leaders. We must do more in helping that young talent onto the national stage and provide the necessary support, advice and guidance that will allow them to benefit from the experience of seasoned activists.

Comparisons with the USA and leaders such as Reverend Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are unfair. African Americans are more homogeneous and have the benefit of Affirmative Action legislation that created a black middle class that has more political leverage than we do here in the UK. That is in addition to their huge numbers, their iconic civil rights struggle and their political and economic power developed over 300 years of campaigning.

Black communities in Europe and the UK have been around in significant numbers for a significantly shorter period. Most are relative newcomers who are much more culturally and religiously diverse than the African American community. This means the shared political, historical religious, cultural narrative and understanding of the lived experience of racism in the UK differs for many Diaspora black communities. This lack of a national single shared political narrative is disabling and makes building consensus among UK’s black communities much more difficult as a result.

Our most fundamental weakness, our real Achilles heel if you will, is the absence of a strong black economy capable of funding and sponsoring our own struggle. I cannot emphasis this enough, without our own financial base our fight for equality and justice is comparable to carrying water in a basket.

The future: Where do we go from here?

My thoughts are that there is an urgent need for a unifying national anti racist conference that can inject some greater level of organisational cohesiveness to a movement shattered and broken as a result of a sustained attack by the ascendant right and their allies in the press.

I have argued for the adoption of an admittedly defensive ‘circle the wagons’ strategy for at least two years. In 2009 I wrote to all national black organisations and suggesting a joint meeting to discuss how the cuts would impact our communities. Suffice to say that such was my fall from grace in some people’s eyes that I did not receive a single reply. Despite that I remain convinced that UK black organisations need to be unified and working together on a shared political agenda for radical change.

These organisations made the political calculation that they would be better off financially working with Government rather than building mass movements to radically challenge state racism. I can understand that they had employees with families and mortgages to pay. The real tragedy was, as a result of them keeping silent nobody heard them scream when the cuts eventually came.  Ironically today most of these black organisations have closed, are on the verge of closing and politically muzzled on a short lead.  Throughout the last decade the black struggle for race equality and anti racism became depoliticised: reduced to nothing more than a safe series of ‘diversity management frameworks’ devised by consultants.

With racism in the UK getting worse as the economy declines, the need for a fresh impetus and new tactics is abundantly clear. BARAC has joined hands with the Occupy Movement and UK Uncut in recognition of the need to develop new alliances in the struggle for equality.

We have established these strong alliances in an effort to recognise the need to reach out to young people. 

My real fear is that we will be the first UK black generation that bequeaths to its young people a society that is more, not less racist, than that gifted to us by the Windrush generation.

They self sacrificed to ensure we, their children, had real opportunities that they did not. As we contemplate the future for our children we must consider what is the legacy we wish to leave them?  I say the only legacy worth leaving is a strong commitment to achieve equality in our lifetime, not in 50 or 100 or 300 years but now. As British citizens our children deserve no less and if we fail then so we shall be rightly cursed as the generation who abandoned their prime historical and moral imperative to push their children on. 

Moving on to the future and how we no respond to the challenge we face as outlined in part in Lester’s article I do think it important to outline a possible way forward in the struggle for race equality.

BARAC has agreed a major discussion framework for a major push next year to address some of these issues and take this debate forward.

Equality in our Life Time: A National March on for Jobs and Justice

2013: The 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther Kings famous “I have a dream” speech.

On August 28th 1963 Dr Martin Luther King led the historic civil rights Jobs and Freedom March on Washington. The march attracted over 300,000 people in a unique and historic effort to end racial segregation, racial prejudice and Jim Crow legislation in the United States.

Dr Kings now legendary “I have a dream” speech was the most articulate and urgent clarion call for justice envisioning the future arrival of a just and non-racial America. The March on Washington with Dr King has become the most defining and resounding image of the US civil rights struggle and the reference point for international campaigns for the adoption and promotion of global human rights.

50 years later and here in the UK racism and prejudice continues to plague human relations and violates human rights across the world. The dream of a world where the antiquated and ideas of racism and irrational prejudice were consigned to the dustbin of history have yet to be realised in the 21st Century.  That’s why we have to march again to revitalise a new anti racist movement and ensure we push our issues back onto the political and media agenda.

Racism and injustice continues to blight the lives of millions of British citizens and as a result of the current economic is both exacerbating and increasing rates of racism. We are in real danger that yet more generations of our people will be subject to a lifetime of discrimination.

The challenges for this generation are to embark on a sustained national political campaign to end structural social and economic racism and deliver the dream of real race equality in our lifetime.

We are calling for a recreation of that famous iconic march on Washington with a march in 2013 in London. 50 years after Kings enigmatic speech we are free but not yet equal. Racism in 2012 is on the rise and the very future of our children and grandchildren is at stake. Our community cannot afford to see its black voluntary sector demolished, we cannot afford to see more of our young people unemployed, rotting in jails or becoming depressed with mental illness nor can we be denied justice at the hands of the police and the courts.

Lester’s article has ignited a debate of which this response is but one part. BARAC is suggesting this discussion continues within the context of the 50th Anniversary of the historic 1963 march on Washington. We want to move the debate onto where we go from here in the run up to a general election due to take place on the 7th May 2015.

BARAC is inviting black organisations nationwide to sign up to a broad discussion that explores the potential of reaching consensus agreement to:

  • Attend the National Coordinating Committee for the March and help us develop the main anti racist demands and produce a mobilisation strategy for the march. 

  • To join with us in helping to formulate a national set of demands for jobs and justice.

  • To explore the possibility of holding major black organisations AGM’s and or national conferences during one week in 2013. We are suggesting a National Black Convention to be held during one week at a residential venue in early September 2012.

This initiative will be presented and discussed at the forthcoming BARAC public meeting on 27th July. Speakers include Marcia Rigg, Sean Rigg Justice and Change Campaign, John McDonnell MP (invited), Zita Holbourne & Lee Jasper, Joint National Chairs of BARAC and more speakers to be confirmed.  We hope you will join us.

Venue: Stratford Advice Arcade, 107-109 The Grove, Stratford, London, E15 1HP, 5 minutes walk from Stratford Rail, Tube and Bus stations.

Lee Jasper


Image: an original painting by Zita Holbourne

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