“How could they? They done it. These people are vicious boy. They are vicious!”
Lucas all but spits this harsh response to his son Tony’s questions about police injustice. The scene titled ‘The White Dream’ in Horace Ove’s Pressure (1976) opens with the real and symbolic destruction of tatty trinkets, which pay poor homage to the collection of migrant wealth in a loved and equally loathed typical Caribbean ‘front room’.
Shrieking and comically tearing at her wig, her housecoat barely concealing her ample flesh Tony’s mother cries, “Oh God Anthony how you could do this to your father and me?!… How they shame we!” Pressure vividly exposing the deep generational fissures between African Caribbean immigrants and their children.
Featuring protest against police lies and brutality, Pressure begins to chart the harsh realities of black British life… from a black perspective.
After the death of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, as the sounds of beating drums, loud cheering, whistles rang out and numerous mobile phone devices flashed away, The Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton saw masked revellers update its film titles’ façade to: Margaret Thatcher’s Dead. The poignant irony; where the Ritzy sits in Windrush Square and its surrounding Brixton area saw bloody battles between police and the mainly black inhabitants exactly 32 years earlier. It mattered not that many at this party-like atmosphere weren’t born during Thatcher’s reign, but they’d experienced their lives, perhaps unknowingly, in the shadow of her entrenched ideology and legacy.
As ‘The Iron Lady’ transcended her political arena to inhabit popular culture in music such as Elvis Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down, endured savage satire through TV’s Spitting Image and cruel cartoon lampooning from Gerald Scarfe, black British artists made their own commentary upon that political terrain to include literature, music, art and film.
Upon their arrival, initially from the liner Empire Windrush in 1948, they nestled, where they could, but the mainly African Caribbean communities found themselves annexed. Children born of these immigrants had no intention of ‘going back home’ as was their parents’ tarnished dreams. Perhaps because of the incessant longing for ‘home’, vital cultural communication ebbed, destabilising any foundation for a collectively prosperous British life. However, as British citizens and children of the ‘Mother Country’, these new generations expected equal treatment. Instead they were policed with impunity through the use of hostile government policies.
In a recession African Caribbean communities struggle with socio-economic disparity. The National Front and The British National Party, at their height at this time, regularly terrorised areas of south London creating no-go areas for black people. Issues of abandonment included marginalisation, higher rates of unemployment, and disproportionate black deaths in police custody. Perhaps most hated of all was the indiscriminate use of ‘stop-and-search’ also known as SUS and Operation Swamp 81, deployed in London’s Lambeth. The areas of particular neglect; London’s Brixton; Toxteth, Liverpool; Handsworth in Birmingham; Manchester’s Moss Side; Chapletown, Leeds; Broadwater Farm in Tottenham; all suffered cycles of deprivation and intermittent uprisings for over 30 years.
With such violent public disorder, specific incidents festered prior to the exploding powder keg. January 1981, southeast London saw a house fire in New Cross, which resulted in 13 black teenage deaths. Once again, police intervention in solving crime against black victims was negligent at best. Throughout, the monarchy and the Margaret Thatcher led Tory government maintained silence over the tragedy. The community felt ostracised, believing the fire was set by racists – and without any sight of justice, began to organise into politicised groups to include the New Cross Action Committee and the National Black Peoples’ Day of Action. This proactivity and defiant response to injustice culminated in a solidarity march from New Cross to central London (something, it has to be said, could not be mustered today!) In many accounts, the 1981 Brixton uprising was ignited by one too many incidents of police brutality of black men who were held with little cause, and years of festering anger over the continued oppression of black communities. This violence was the worst seen on peacetime mainland Britain since WWII.
“…We can’t take no more of that…We can’t take no more of that”
Blue’s dancehall call and response, expresses a defiant resolve which says ‘no more, we will fight back against our oppressors’. Through blaring sirens police storm into the stairwell, using sledgehammers to beat down the doors, Blue and the remaining men boldly stay their ground. These are the closing scenes of Franco Rosso’s 1981 Babylon, perhaps the most iconic film of this time. Blue (the charismatic Brinsley Forde) is MC/toaster of sound system, Ital Lion. With their rivals the legendary Jah Shaka, they’re entering a sound-clash competition. The film follows Blue and his friends as they encounter formidable structures of racism, which thwart their attempts at self-realisation.
Replete with ripe racist dialogue, we’re treated to a derogatory litany in a scene where Blue and friends return to their lock-up – after receiving the precious vinyl dub-plate which later revealed in the film helps them win the competition. The unapologetic baseline of Aswad’s Warrior Charge lashes out as they jubilantly rejoice the record’s winning potential. Hearing the celebration, racist neighbour (Maggie Steed) arrives banging the doors. The group’s one white friend Ronnie, (Karl Howman) fails in his attempt at pacification as she begins to curse the men, telling them that the area was “lovely” before they’d arrived. Reprimanding Ronnie by calling him “a traitor to your kith and kin…” Finally, she ends the tirade with “…you fuck off back to your own countries you jungle bunnies…” Volatile Beefy (Trevor Laird) can no longer suppress hiss anger and explodes, “This is my fucking country lady and it’s never been fucking lovely…” Through Beefy we see how this generation will no longer turn the proverbial cheek to racism.
Documentary in style, Blood Ah Goh Run (1981) maps the route of the aforementioned National Black Peoples’ Day of Action march. Thousands of mainly black people demonstrated solidarity in their quest for justice. Its director Menelik Shabazz states some of his reasons for making the film were that media of the time was biased in reporting fairly of black communities; he took it upon himself as a filmmaker and activist to document the historic event. Remarkably Shabazz released in the same year the identity themed film Burning an Illusion. Whilst it was not primarily about civil unrest, there were similar oppression undercurrents, which engaged its character Del (Victor Romero Evans). It also attempted to observe the differing ways that black men and black women responded to racism.
The district of Handsworth, Birmingham had an additional uprising in 1985, which is documented in Handsworth Songs (1987) directed by John Akomfrah. Media reporting maintained its descriptions of ‘mobs’ on the ‘rampage’, citing no justification for rage. These were not ‘race riots’ according to media, but ‘criminality’. Akomfrah manages to capture the frustration about the authoritarian brutality, but also the resistance of those taking part.
The findings of the subsequent Scarman report into the uprisings were of no surprise to black communities: indiscriminate use by police of SUS, the exposure of racial disadvantage and inner city decline. Scarman fell short of finding racism in the police force, though years later in 1999 ‘institutionally racist’ was coined to describe the police in the Macpherson Report’s investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
With an opening montage of popular culture and documentary footage, 1979-based SUS (2009) provides some of the raging disquiet beyond the claustrophobic interview room of a police station. Clint Dyer’s Leon believes he’s been held in custody through SUS laws, but ploughs through a gamut of emotions as he learns of the death of his pregnant wife Georgie – and that he is being questioned as a suspect in her killing. The historic general election saw racist policemen, characters D.S. Karn and D.C. Wilby, near orgasmic at the prospect of a Conservative government headed by Margaret Thatcher. “Election night. A new dawn” Karn (Ralph Brown) delicately whispers. Robert Heath’s SUS is sombre in its analysis of police interrogation of black men and hints at how some died as a result of being in police custody.
With a legacy, which stretches internationally, Lovers Rock (does what it says on the tin!) was first generation, black British musical navigation of love and relationships. This wholly unique British Caribbean genre has followings from Japan to the USA. There are too many artists to mention here, but legends include Carroll Thompson, Sandra Cross, The Investigators and Louisa Marks. Once again Menelik Shabazz with 2009’s The Story of Lovers Rock gives us our most recent and continued expression of defiant resistance.