A week ago I attended from afar the streamed New Cross Fire 40th anniversary memorial service. Through my close friendship with Malcolm Ball, a leading Lewisham youth worker and activist across the decades, my frequent visits to Deptford and indeed the St Andrews Centre, I felt I had an inkling of the grief and anger sparked by the tragedy. A week ago too Gus John was interviewed on BBC radio. You will find below his passionate, perceptive and uncomfortable account of the issues raised by the encounter. As Gus argues, ‘There is a serious debate to be had about all of these matters.’ Responses encouraged and welcomed to firstname.lastname@example.org
From ‘Nigger-hunting’ to ‘Paki-bashing’ to Police Murders….Very British Pastimes.
On 18 January 2021, on the 40th Anniversary of the New Cross Massacre, I did an interview with Robert Elms, BBC Radio London
At the start of the interview, I was setting out the background to the New Cross Fire and the history of neo-fascist activity in London and the country generally and said that there had been years of neo-fascist activity in our communities including ‘Paki-bashing’ as the perpetrators themselves called it’…. And before I could complete the sentence with ‘and ‘nigger-hunting’, Elms interrupted saying ‘please don’t use that language. We cannot use such language on the BBC’. I determined that it would be more productive to move on to the core subject rather than remonstrate with him, but after the programme I wrote to the producer as below. His reply was both instructive and deeply concerning. What I said and Elm’s objection to my saying it have been elided from the recording in the link above.
I believe the BBC’s position is untenable and to invoke the potentially hurt feelings of their own black staff in support of dodgy editorial decisions is just disgraceful.
I joined the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) in 1965 and a couple years later I was one of those going around London and Leicester gathering evidence of the most vicious race discrimination, evidence which helped in no small measure to convince Harold Wilson and his government of the need for the 1968 Race Relations Act.
I saw my father stumble into our house that same year, bloodied, cut and bruised all over because he had been set upon on his way from work just after 06.00 on a winter’s morning and nearly beaten to death by a group of racists with baseball bats, motorbike chains and sticks. They seemed to come from nowhere and all he heard was ‘one less nigger’ and they were all over him. He had the presence of mind to run into somebody’s yard, pick up a bottle of milk, smash it and cut off the ear of one of his assailants, at which point they saw that he was ready to kill or be killed and they all ran off.
A matter of weeks later, my 16 year old brother was arrested for riding his bike in the park not far from our home. The police took him to Acton police station because he was ‘lippy’ and one of them defecated in a toilet and then pulled him out of a cell (he had not even been charged), took him to that same toilet and two of them held his head down in the faeces while they flushed the toilet. He nearly drowned in that filth. They then kicked him out of the police station. He arrived home totally traumatised and couldn’t eat for days. He remained traumatised for the rest of his short life. He went to prison for assaulting police a couple years later and was constantly having problems with them. He took to drink and died aged 49. Having drunk too much on his birthday, he fell down the stairs in his own flat and broke his neck.
My father came here in 1957 and by 1972 he and my mother were back in Grenada, having vowed never to set foot in England ever again. They both passed on without ever visiting the UK thereafter. They must have been among the earliest returners of their generation.
I fought off ‘nigger hunters’ in Notting Hill in 1968, especially after what had happened to my father and was angry at how nonchalant the police were about their activities, while being ever ready to frame us for having offensive weapons. As a youth worker in Ladbroke Grove at the time, I and other youth workers constantly walked young people home or to their bus because of the relentless harassment and provocation they suffered at the hands of the police.
I of all people therefore do not need the BBC to tell me how offensive terms like ‘nigger hunting’ and ‘Paki-bashing’ actually are. I conducted the Burnage Inquiry into the racist murder of 14 year old Bangladeshi student Ahmed Iqbal Ullah with Ian Macdonald QC and colleagues. Having stabbed Ahmed to death, his 14 year old white student attacker ran around the school shouting hysterically ‘I killed a Paki, I killed a Paki’.
There is a serious debate to be had about all of these matters.
One disturbing feature of the New Cross Fire story is the number of people in our communities and in the country generally below the age of 50 who have no knowledge of it. They have no knowledge either of the firebombing of premises in New Cross, Deptford, Ladywell and Lewisham generally and attacks on Asian families in their homes and on the streets that had been perpetrated by white terrorists and neo-fascists for more than a decade before the New Cross Fire. Such activity had a history that dated back to the 1919 racial attacks upon black service personnel demobbed from the First World War, through to ‘nigger hunting’ in London and elsewhere in the 1950s and ‘Paki-bashing’ right up to the present.
Throughout that period, also, hundreds of black people have been killed by the police with none being brought to justice since the murderers of David Oluwale in Leeds in 1969 were charged, not with murder or manslaughter, but with grievous bodily harm.
British historians have typically airbrushed the history of the barbarism of African enslavement and of British imperialism across the globe. Now, the media is leading the way in sanitising the barbarism of British racism, even as the police continue to kill black people indiscriminately while enjoying the full protection of the state and the judicial system. One could justifiably conclude that black people, males in particular, have an unnatural propensity to die of natural causes while in the custody of the police.
So, in a society where it is deemed offensive to spell the word ‘nigger’ and the word ‘Paki’ in full in any context, black people are routinely killed by the police without the state or the nation batting an eyelid. That is why this nation and its institutions reacted as if they needed a George Floyd event to trigger their epiphany, oblivious of the fact that we have ignored hundreds of British George Floyds, despite years of campaigning for justice in plain sight across the country. The hope is, no doubt, that it would soon be forgotten that there was a time when black people were called ‘niggers’ and ‘wogs’ and anyone who looked like they might be from the Indian subcontinent attacked and killed on the streets or in their homes with impunity.
Racism has been sanitised and recast as ‘unconscious bias’. British social history is being sanitised to expunge un-British activities such as ‘nigger hunting’, ‘Paki-bashing’ and police murders of black people. The expectation no doubt is that history will absolve the nation for this induced amnesia.
The email exchange following the broadcast:
From: Gus John <email@example.com>
Sent: 18 January 2021 15:18
To: Jamie Collins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: BBC Radio London / Robert Elms
I am glad I had the opportunity to help put the events of 40 years ago in New Cross in proper historical and political perspective and I have full admiration for the way Robert conducted the interview. Please pass on my thanks to him.
When you reminded me to watch my language, I did not for one moment imagine that you meant I should not mention what the NF, Column 88 etc called that barbaric activity they indulged in up and down the country against the South Asian community. I am not naive enough as to expect you and Robert Elms to change BBC policy, but as a social historian, I do worry about the full scale attempt by broadcast or for that matter print media, to sanitise the nasty and unadulterated racism to which black people are subjected in this country by not reporting such phenomena as historical fact. In my writing and my lectures, I remind people of campaigns in the 1960s by myself and others against landlords and hoteliers who posted signs saying: ‘No Coloureds, No Dogs, No Irish’, or ‘No Wogs, No Dogs, No Irish’, or against what the neo-fascists themselves called ‘Paki-bashing’ and ‘nigger-hunting’. To report the barbarism of the Far Right and the atrocious terminology that they used AND THAT THE MEDIA REPORTED at the time is important in my view because Britain needs to be reminded about that history and about the fact, as I was saying in the interview, that the state did not react proportionately, or at all, to those barbaric attacks which left scores of people of the African and Asian diaspora dead. If I say that the activities of such Far Right groups resulted in the deaths of people who were targeted only because of their ethnicity and that the perpetrators called their actions ‘Paki-bashing’, I am neither appropriating that language myself, nor using it to inflame passions within the Pakistani or Bangladeshi communities. Context is everything, even in broadcasting. I cannot understand why the BBC should want to so infantilise its listeners as to assume that they cannot tell the difference between describing neo-fascist activity and what that activity was called by neo-fascists themselves on the one hand, and the same term(s) used contemporaneously by myself or anybody else.
The murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959 was a consequence of the routine ‘nigger-hunting’ that black communities in Notting Hill and elsewhere endured at the time. What is of consequence it seems to me, is not the fact that that terminology was and remains deeply racist, offensive and oppressive, but that white neo-fascists were allowed by the state and its police to indulge in those murderous activities with impunity. That fact is incontrovertibly more obscene than the words themselves.
The question is though, where in the BBC is this debate taking place and whom does it involve?
Turning to matters over which you do have some control, please send me a recording of the interview and a link to it so that I can share with others here in Wales and elsewhere.
From: Jamie Collins
Sent: 18 January 2021 16:43
To: Gus John <email@example.com>
Subject: RE: BBC Radio London / Robert Elms
I thought you were great – extremely important and poignant considering to this day many of the issues faced by those then are still having to be fought against and survived to this day. We received several messages and calls from listeners that appreciated the way we highlighted the anniversary on the show and you were integral to this.
We as an editorial team and the wider station have had numerous conversations on the use of words such as the n word or p word in full – even for illustrative purposes as you did. While I fully understand and accept why you feel it is important to say it – many of our listeners of colour and indeed staff members are offended by the full use of the word and can find it triggering. And so the reason we do not use such words is so as to ensure it does not offend those minority communities- but we also recognise that this in itself divides opinion.
I fully understand the worry that by censoring the words in this context might dilute the threat, violence and racism faced by the Black and Asian community at the time by those groups. I also recognise that a white person using the words for illustrative purposes is hugely different to a person of colour who is doing the same.
The editorial decision has been made to edit out that portion of the interview when it goes live in iPlayer/BBC Sounds and I’m planning on clipping the interview separately for our BBC Sounds page and will send you the link as soon as it’s up.
If you would like I would be happy to refer you to the Editor and Assistant Editor if you would like to discuss further – and I would sincerely like to thank you once again for your contribution – it made a real impact.
Professor Augustine John
International Consultant & Executive Coach Visiting Professor – Coventry University
Honorary Fellow and Associate Professor The UCL Institute of Education – University of London