Gus John and the Moss Side Defence Committee

Gus John lived through the 1980s as a community activist and youth worker in Moss Side, having arrived in the UK from the West Indies in the 1960s. In the aftermath of the 1981 Moss Side riots, he was a key figure in the Moss Side Defence Committee, which assisted with legal support to the youths charged by the police, challenged police violence and attempted to convey to the press and public a different interpretation of the events which had taken place. The committee would later undertake a detailed critique of the Hytner Report, established by the government to investigate the disturbances and their causes. Here Gus recalls his experiences of the times, in an interview carried out by Andrew Bowman just a week before the outbreak of rioting across England’s urban centres in summer 2011.

1981 was the year in which British people of African descent protested against racism and police oppression as never before in modern history. The Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981 brought around 25,000 people onto the streets of London to protest against the massacre of 13 young Africans in a fire, suspected to have been caused by racists, at a birthday party in New Cross in South London. Protesters also attempted to highlight the misconduct of the Metropolitan Police force in their subsequent investigation, the bias of the press, the inadequate response of the government to the tragedy and the generalised racial discrimination in British society. Added to the problem of racial discrimination, the Conservative government’s economic programme was making conditions worse in many poorer communities in inner city areas.
Between April and August that year there was violent urban unrest in St Paul’s in Bristol, Brixton in South London, Toxteth in Liverpool, Moss Side in Manchester, Handsworth in Birmingham, and elsewhere in the country.

Gus, what were conditions like when you arrived in Moss Side?

I arrived in Moss Side on the 1st January 1971, having worked on youth and race in Handsworth in Birmingham for the Runnymede Trust. There was a vibrancy about it, in that people had organised themselves around a campaign to do with housing. The local authority was doing compulsory purchases and knocking down houses which were actually rather sturdy – some of them had fallen into disrepair but structurally they were pretty fine. There were campaigns to save these houses because people were not enamoured with what they had seen in Hulme – these deck access crescent buildings, which were not just an eyesore, they became very dangerous after a while.
But the two things that stuck out for me were, first, a lot of young people coming out of school and being unemployed for a long time. It was taking the average school leaver about six months to find any employment, and some of them simply joined an earlier generation of fathers or siblings who had not worked. The second thing that was obvious was the way in which the police operated within the community – they tended to see black people as exotic … and generally formed the impression that the older people were safe and sound: they shared commonly held values, they were disciplinarians keeping the children under control, and it was really the youth which were at odds with the establishment, and the police as the most visible arm of the establishment.
It is true that at that time many parents didn’t want to see the police having cause to come near their home – it was seen as a massive stigma.  It took a long time for parents to understand, based on their own experience, that your child didn’t have to do something wrong for the police to appear on your doorstep. It wasn’t always that young person’s fault that the police got involved in their lives.
In 1972 I had got some money from the British Council of Churches to set up a hostel for young black people, because they were sleeping on their friends’ floors or sleeping rough in Moss Side, the reason being that their parents had been decanted to places like Sale and Partington, as part of the whole so-called ‘regeneration’ business. And they continued to gravitate back to Moss Side, they would be here until after the last bus left, some of them would be in the night time dives – shebeens as we used to call them – and there was generally a sense of drift and disaffection among them. That made them even more in danger of getting involved with the police.

How similar were things in Moss Side to other areas of the UK you had worked in?

The four issues I just mentioned were present in all inner city areas I had worked in. I had just come from Handsworth, and one of the reasons for the Runnymede Trust commissioning the research I did there was that the Birmingham Evening Mail had run a series of stories called ‘The Angry Suburbs’, and one of them I remember was called ‘Must Harlem come to Birmingham?’ There were issues highlighted in those reports of unrest between black and white people which I have to say were not what I found in Birmingham.
Yes, there were tensions, with some white people feeling that black people were coming in numbers, taking homes etc, but what happened in Birmingham as in other parts of the country, was that the newcomers, black people from the Caribbean especially, were coming to find employment in areas where there was already an established working class, a neglected working class. So the quality of accommodation that local whites had was pretty poor anyway. As is typical of these situations, and not just in this country, the incoming black people were blamed for the squalor that had existed for generations.
So there were nuances, but generally you could identify issues which were common to most of those former industrial towns and cities. Many black children were being sent to schools for the educationally subnormal, not because they were in any way deficient, but because the schooling system refused to believe that those children were coming with a language of their own that was not Standard English.
That early period of 1968-73 was also the time when psychologists were propounding theories of scientific racism – suggesting that the intelligence levels of black people were lower than that of whites for genetic reasons. You had to battle against that gunge, especially as it was being taught in colleges that were training teachers – it really was horrendous.

What kind of police harassment did youngsters face in Moss Side?

I remember the first situation in which I personally intervened after arriving here, the police had stopped a young boy of about 13 cycling along Moss Lane West by the Hyde Brewery for riding his bicycle without lights. They were aggressive, and he was frightened. Rather than calming the situation, they started telling him to “stop being cheeky”, and before long there was a confrontation. As you went up and asked what was going on, they would tell you to “mind your own fucking business” or they would arrest you as well, for “obstructing the police in the course of their duty”.
We became aware of how vicious the police were to young people, so that when an incident like this happened, we would begin to gather, because the community wanted the police to know that we were watching what they were doing. The police became very on edge about that, very intolerant of the idea that anyone would witness what they were doing and question their conduct.
Here in Moss Side, as I had also witnessed in Oxford, Birmingham and London, it was not just happening to young people. Caribbean families, the men in particular, were proud of their cars. To own one was prestigious, and these men worked hard and bought their cars, and they were regularly being stopped by the police, for daring to own a vehicle like that: “Is it yours? Can you prove it is yours? What is your address? What is the proof of your address?” Constant petty harassment! There was a level of crime in these urban centres anyway, petty criminals as well as organised criminals – who were white. That criminality had not contaminated the black community in any measure when I came to Manchester.
Yes, some people got involved in crimes, burglaries etc. I used to teach black history at Wakefield Prison, and I was astounded by the zeal and zest with which prisoners there took to an understanding of black history and its relevance to them. They were interested in what was happening in the United States at the time, as they were about the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, the 1968 Race Relations Act.
I told them about the work that I and others who were members of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination did. How I would pair up with a white person and we would go looking for a room to rent or something. The black person would go in first and typically would have the door slammed in their face: “The room’s gone.” Your mate, the white person, would then go and was told, “It’s five shillings, when are you moving in?”
We did the same in relation to job applications. The black person would present a form with the best qualifications, the white person would present a form with lower qualifications, and the white person would automatically be given the job. We did this research up and down the country, and we were able to present the government with incontrovertible evidence of the extent of visceral racial discrimination, and that caused the Harold Wilson government to enact the 1968 Race Relations Act and establish the Race Relations Board which was the precursor of the Industrial Tribunal.
All those people in Wakefield Prison had what I called arrested growth: very bright people. Some could give you the most horrendous stories about their schooling, and why they dropped out of school. In some cases they had had physical altercations with teachers, and were either expelled from school or never went back.
The fact is, there was not a high degree of engagement in delinquency or criminality among the African-Caribbean population … Now relative to our numbers in the population overall, the highest proportion of people in the prisons and young offender institutions are black people.
Ever since the beginning of the 1960s there has been systemic structural and structured exclusion of black people within the society, and that has got certain consequences. It becomes easy to believe that that is because black people don’t have brains, which of course is complete nonsense. All of that is an important back-story to what people in Manchester were experiencing and grappling with in the 1970s and 1980s.

How active were organised racist groups in Manchester during the 1980s? Groups like the National Front?

Very active. In the year of the disturbances in Moss Side there were running battles between us and the NF. They had the temerity to come and hand out leaflets in Moss Side and Hulme, trying to inflame the passions of white people and encourage them to blame black people for whatever social deprivation they were suffering. What was pleasing about that was that the white community determined that they wanted nothing to do with the NF, and joined political activists such as myself, deciding that they as a white community would not allow the NF to get one inch of space within the white community, and physically booted them out.
So you had the harassment of the police, and then you had the planned collective attacks by white racists – people would be physically attacked, have excrement and firebombs put through their doors, or there would be NF signs put up around the place. That didn’t come from nowhere – the neo-fascists became emboldened by the lead politicians gave…

Such as Enoch Powell?

Yes, such as Enoch Powell, but he could be seen as the extreme end of the spectrum. His problem was that he was open and honest about those matters. It was the people who were passing laws in Parliament, one more draconian piece of immigration legislation than the one before, who were constantly conflating immigration and race relations and holding up the spectre of an alien black force destabilising an assumed settled and cohesive society.
It was like a mantra: “You can’t have good race relations unless you control immigration”.  In other words, if you don’t control immigration, the white population will get fed up that you’re expecting them to be too tolerant of these blacks. Or the black population would start creating mayhem. As a consequence, every year at a certain point, even before the Office for National Statistics published their reports; you would find some newspaper, principally the tabloids such as the Sun and Daily Mail, publishing figures about the number of live births to immigrants. It was all scaremongering, a moral panic about black people, and an insistence on keeping Britain white. And people talked openly about the need to keep Britain white.
You have to situate the 1981 uprisings in that broader context, and if you don’t, you fail to understand the structural relationship between the way black people experience living in the society, and the way they choose to resist.
And the resistance took many forms, it took political forms, it took cultural forms, through music, art, publishing or through soundsystems and travelling discos – people find ways of surviving, and not allowing their essential humanity to be debased, and expressing and affirming their creativity. Cultures of oppression inexorably spawn cultures of resistance.
Given all this background, how surprised were you when the riots broke out? A lot of the press coverage at the time, and now in reflection, talks about the riots being a ‘spontaneous’ event.
It wasn’t a surprise to me nor many other people in Moss Side. It could have happened any time before that July. It could have happened in March that year, when a cache of illegal weapons were found stashed in Moss Side police station. Those weapons were found to be knives, hatchets, coshes, clubs, and a considerable quantity of cannabis was also found.
We were alarmed because we knew the police planted cannabis on unsuspecting citizens, and would then throw the book at them for drug possession. They also used to give cannabis to prostitutes to sell, and if they didn’t comply they would be dragged in for prostituting themselves. Typically, when people got arrested and taken to Moss Side Police Station or Platt Lane Police Station, they were likely to get a good hiding from the police, to reveal the names of others or confess to some crime, or just for being ‘lippy’ and standing up for themselves, whether they did or did not commit a crime.
So it was alarming that this cache was found in the police station. What were the police going to do with them? No sooner did the reports come out than everything disappeared. That was on March 12-13 1981. Ten days earlier, six coach loads of people had left here for London, to go to the biggest march black people here have ever organised, the New Cross Massacre Black People’s Day of Action, on 2 March 1981, following the murder of those 13 young people in that Deptford fire.
That massacre did not take place in Moss Side, but it could well have. That became a metaphor for the experiences that we were having at the hands of the racists and fascists across the country, and the way the police dealt with those things. So the events in July in Moss Side could have happened at any point that year.

Gus, what was the reaction among the press and political elites to the Moss Side riots? The MEN’s recent coverage refers to it as ‘an orgy of violence’ and a ‘spontaneous eruption of hatred’. Is there a sense in which there was, and still is, an attempt to depoliticise what happened?

Yes. And it is for that reason that I do not refer to those disturbances as riots, because that is to devalue and detract from the righteous political component of the whole thing. It was a violent eruption of protest, on the part of principally black people, but lots of white people as well, because they too had experienced for generations lots of vicious, disrespectful oppressive forms of policing.
The coverage in the media of Manchester, Toxteth, Brixton and St Paul’s, was just totally racist. The tabloids have a lot to answer for. They were echoing what senior police officers were saying. They were always eager to claim that it was pure criminality – that it came from nowhere. As if these criminals suddenly drank something and decided to go and create mayhem.
I say about that, as I say about the gangs and knife crime now, I cannot believe, I refuse to believe that black people have some kind of congenital propensity to evil. If you don’t believe that, you have to ask some searching questions about what predisposes people to do this, but that’s too sophisticated for these hacks. They display their prejudices, and in a sense mirroring the bigotry of the people in leadership positions in the country generally.
How did you attempt to get your message out about what was happening when the mainstream press was like this?
There is an invention called the Gestetner. Do you remember it? No? That places us in different age bands! The Gestetner was a domestic printing machine. You typed onto a stencil, and attached it to the machine, turned a lever to make sure ink covered the drum, and then you start rolling off your hundreds of sheets of paper. Political activists of my age were friends of the Gestetner. You always knew which people were very active, because they were always covered in ink!
So, we had meetings, for the Moss Side Defence Committee, we produced masses of leaflets and handed them out door to door, outside cinemas, and indeed outside the magistrate’s court. Picketing and handing them out. And we physically hand-delivered our statements to the news media. Some of them ignored it, some of them printed stuff. On a good day, the MEN wrote respectable articles, on other days, they had some very stupid headlines. There were some good journalists at the MEN though – Paul Horrocks was a good staff reporter, more reflective than the others who just wanted to print rubbish and get a story in the paper.
So that’s what we did: loads of community meetings that were very well attended and we handed these leaflets around. And that was our political practice. We organised and campaigned around education issues, we had anti-deportation campaigns. The man in this community, Anthony Brown, who now is one of the organisers of the Manchester Carnival – he was facing deportation in the 1970s, and we launched a campaign and succeeded in having him stay here.
What kinds of people were getting involved in these protests?
Lets differentiate a bit. The anti-fascist demos drew just about everybody: old and young, black and white, as well as people from the Asian sub continent. There were large groups of women, large groups of young people, the core of whom were political activists who were running organisations or members of organisations, who came together to work in solidarity with us to work towards particular ends.
That was a regular pattern. When we established the Moss Side Defence Committee in 1981, we decided there would be a subcommittee called the ‘Labour Movement and Trade Union Committee’. We tried to visit their meetings to get individual unions to pass resolutions and donate funds to the particular campaign.
For some causes, we had university students unions supporting – materially, and with cash. Some union offices allowed us to run off leaflets, some organised coaches to demonstrations. It became a loose coalition of progressive forces, including the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Particularly in the aftermath of the disturbances, when the police were just dragging people indiscriminately off the streets, we, the Moss Side Defence Committee, met the Haldane Society, and got pretty horrific reports about the how the courts were getting the probations service to write quick reports on individuals – used by the judge before he passed sentence. This was being done in a sausage machine mode, and the people were not getting the personal treatment they needed. It was all aimed at demonstrating to the public that the situation was in hand, and in the firm grasp of the state. As a result of protests, they discontinued this practice.
As far as the disturbances themselves were concerned, there was clearly not a conscious political decision made that this would be a form of resistance that we were going to engage in on this particular night. In any event, people would not do that, because they would be too scared of a Guy Fawkes movement: someone squealing to the police. So it was spontaneous, but attracted people who felt that they had been hard done by for a long time, and that they would take on the police.

On reflection, how successful was Moss Side Defence Committee?

We were moderately successful. Many of the people who were arrested trusted us implicitly to go and assist them in putting their case together, and in getting legal representation. We introduced a way of working with defendants where we ensured that the defendant remained in charge of the case. We took statements from people, saying we don’t care what you have told the police, you can make a statement here not under duress but it has to be truthful, and we will use that statement to organise your defence.
It sent a powerful message to the magistrates, and that was that we as a community are watching the decisions you make. We want to see evidence that you are taking as seriously the submissions of people from Moss Side as you are taking submissions from the police, and we will expose whatever endorsement you as a court give of police malpractices.
We organised ourselves and went to the court. Some of us went and sat in, some were outside giving out leaflets, and that worked pretty well. The only other thing I would say is this. We worked with individuals that had been arrested, and I believe the whole programme would have accelerated quicker if we had worked with other organisations to build a wider body of mass support. There ought to have been many more people on demonstrations outside the court.
It was a politically volatile period, but politically rich in a whole number of ways. I really had hoped that given the careful work we had put into challenging the Hytner Enquiry, boycotting the enquiry and writing a critique of his findings, having all these meetings around the place, picketing the courts every time somebody was on trial, I was rather hoping we might have built a mass movement around all of that, in pursuit of justice and against police brutality and harassment.
But I think people were happy to come together from their organisations as an alliance, which was effectively what the Moss Side Defence Committee was, rather than seeing themselves as integrally part of one collective group, seeking to build a movement of working class people around these issues. And I suppose people got tired: it had been an exhausting few months.
It has always been a regret to me that I personally and others didn’t return to our critique of the Hytner Enquiry and look at it more analytically, making the links to all that stuff I have been sharing with you, to make a more complete story that others today could look at. Young people particularly, should not be encouraged to see the so-called riots in isolation from everything else.

What changed after the disturbances?

Many, if not most young people developed – however temporarily – developed a greater sense of their own power. Many had the feeling that even if the state didn’t sit up and take account of the message they were giving on the street through these disturbances, they had made their presence felt. Not least to James Anderton and his Greater Manchester Police.
The fact that William Whitelaw, Heseltine and Thatcher introduced a range of projects around the place trying to consolidate the black voluntary sector and links with business, with the support of the banks, they gave start up grants for small entrepreneurs.
And then there was a large amount of refurbishment … and the regeneration of the centre radiated outwards towards Hulme and Moss Side, but while there has been a lot of physical regeneration, not as much has been spent on rehabilitating people.
And the demography of the community has changed: large numbers of Somalis coming in, Lebanese as well, even before the Polish started to arrive. There has been a process of constant adaptation to that.
I get a sense though that there is much less community cohesion now than there used to be. I just don’t get a feeling that communities are working together, with a sense of common purpose and a vision of the future. It is not that people are defeated as such – though Thatcherism had a toll on us all God knows – it’s that the climate is not necessarily conducive to civil action or protest, or change coming about through people becoming adamant that the status quo must change.
Maybe people don’t have a sense of their own strength?
Exactly. I tell that to young people all the time, I say, “You have got the capacity to be as organised as the teaching unions are, and within your schools you have got to sit down talk about issues, and find ways to hold the school to account. You don’t have to do it in a belligerent or antagonistic way, but simply to assert your right to comment on and influence the way the community of which you are a part functions.”
Headteachers run a mile when they hear that kind of thing. But I do feel that if all those young black people who are knifing and shooting one another on the streets had had their energies directed into serious political activism, where they consciously attempting to get their voices heard and influence policies on whatever issue it is, there would be such a sense of empowerment of the capacity to get things done and of achievements to be celebrated, people would have neither the time or the stomach for the kind of violence within our communities.

What can reflections on the disturbances tell us in the present? For people who are looking at problems of racism and police violence

Let me preface my answer by saying, I believe the greatest disservice the state does to its population is through the crappy schooling system we have. When you consider that there is such an emphasis on high level exam results, as if that’s the only mark of schools’ effectiveness, the debate about schooling is always about providing labour for the market, Britain’s economic competitiveness, and the extent to which schools and universities are churning people out.
It has nothing to do with giving people the tools to take control of their own lives, equipping people to act collectively to bring about change, and it is certainly nothing to do with understanding the evolution of British social history, such that we can as a society learn from our advances and defeats. That kind of discourse is seen as a throwback to the days of ‘red-led’ protests of the past for lefties. The assumption is that it is not necessary to think in terms of class or the individual up against the state, and that we should be counting our blessings. Meanwhile, stratification within society becomes more entrenched. Those who are poor are not just disenfranchised by lacking wages through which they can live dignified lives; they are also denied the tools by which they can organise in defence of their lives.
People fall prey to an opaque sameness, an assumed consensus in terms of the values we commonly share. Which allows clowns like Cameron to talk about the ‘Big Society’.
It is very important that we understand what led to 1981, and what gives rise to the peaks and troughs as far as the emergence of neo-fascist organisations are concerned. I would not be surprised if in the coming period as European economies begin falling in on themselves you have another upsurge of pan-European fascism.
We need to see ourselves as being in a continuity of struggle, and the struggle is never won until we are living in the kind of social democracies that do not place on a pedestal the market, with all the neo-liberal values that come with it; the rampant individualism, the greed, the abandonment of hope, the abandonment of idealism, the sense that the state has no role in regulating forces within society so those who want to prey on the weak in society have full vent to do that.
It has been taken to extreme lengths in terms of the way schooling is going now: the privatisation of everything that moves. Academies, trusts, and Michael Gove’s assertion that you can open schools all over the place, with no concern about cohesion, no concern about social inclusion.
And in due course all of that must implode upon itself, because it is not just in dictatorships that you find people being oppressed, it happens within so-called democracies as well, and we ignore that at our peril.
I’d like to think in reflecting on 30 years ago we can reflect on what happened since: why did the labour movement that had all these giants, why did it all suddenly get eclipsed? What happened to trade union basic education projects and the workers education movement? What are young people in Moss Side today grounding their sense of identity and purpose? What connection do they have with these lessons of the past? How are they being primed and equipped to make their mark in this present age as each generation has a duty to do?
If anyone tells me that those who are educated will find a way to do that because they have the social capital to do that, I would say that is complete nonsense. Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”. The fact is, schooling is dumbing down people’s sense of history, if not their aspirations as human beings working together to shape a future. I believe the country lost a trick when there was a concentration on building a citizenship curriculum, without concentrating on the need to teach British social history: we need to understand the society, how we have come to be as we are, that rich tradition of fighting for rights. Expanding rights in the society, and with that the responsibilities people have in the present, to build a better future for those coming after them.
I don’t get a sense right now, that there is that level of awareness or political literacy.
I don’t know why people don’t ask the question more regularly, if the centralist tendency within the government is leading to the collapse of local government in safeguarding the rights of citizens, then if what matters to me is how my life in Manchester is regulated by those at the Town Hall, then why should I be concerned about what happens in Whitehall? And yet people in Whitehall feel they have the right to cut off local government and leave people to all kinds of forces without understanding that not everyone has the capacity to engage with the market in that way.
I find it a not very hopeful scenario, and that is why I spend a lot of time trying to connect people with that long sweep of historical struggle, and giving them some tools of analysis so they can better understand what is going on around them.

Article by Andrew Bowman

This article was originally published in The Mule online newspaper in August 2011, and is reproduced by permission of the author.

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The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre

Set up in 1999, the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre was named after a Bangladeshi boy murdered in a racially motivated attack in Burnage in 1986. It is a resource centre on everything from the criminal justice system in the United States to the history of the local Pakistani community of Manchester.

Louis Kushnick OBE is the driving force behind the centre and has been involved in race relation issues in Manchester since the late 1960s. It was his personal collection of books, journals, articles and news cuttings that formed the basis of the archive which is located in the University of Manchester campus today. Arwa Aburawa spoke to him about the history of the centre, the projects it has worked on, the changes he has witnessed in the education system and the impact of the recent government cuts on the centre’s future.

Louis Kushnick, who was born in Brooklyn and studied at Yale, came for a one-year scholarship at the University of Manchester in 1963 and decided to stay. Now a retired professor, he has worked as a senior lecturer at the university for forty years, alongside other responsibilities such as chairing the Research Institute for Race Relations and editing the quarterly journal ‘Race Relations Abstracts’. By 1998, he had acquired such a substantial amount of material on race relations issues that it required a separate office to house it.

“It was getting out of hand so the question was well what do we do with it?,” he recalls. “A group of us got together and decided that if we gave all this material to the University of Manchester John Rylands library it would continue to used by academics but that would be it. So what we wanted to do is create some sort of centre that anyone could access.” As there was no money available for a centre, the group approached Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester at the time, to ask for financial assistance. Harris agreed to support the project as it would be located within the university and he hoped it would help encourage a greater diversity of people to attend the university, which had a reputation as a place for white, upper-middle class students.

The group was given a space behind the Blackwell’s bookshop on Oxford Road which had been empty for some time; the rent was paid by the University. Once the premises had been cleaned, the group bought some cheap shelving and started moving books into the archive, categorizing them with the support of MMU postgraduate students.

The Centre Opens & The Macpherson Report

The formal opening of the centre was on February 9th 1999 and in the same week, the Macpherson Report, which identified institutional racism not only in the Metropolitan police but also in the wider criminal justice system, was launched. “I remember that on Radio Manchester that morning, Selina (the oldest daughter of the Ullah family) said that for what it was worth, at least her family got some sort of closure as the boy who killed Ahmed was convicted. She thought the Steven Lawrence family would never get that and she was right.”

When the centre opened there were three people sharing a 0.5 post which was paid for by the University of Manchester. However, the money soon ran out and so the group began looking for more support which they soon found in the Progress Trust, which works to ensure that BME communities in Greater Manchester access urban regeneration funding. The funding allowed the centre to expand its activities beyond its focus on keeping the centre open for visitors, to creating outreach programmes for teachers and working with schools.

Murder and Racism in the Playground

Working in the the education sector, racism in education and the power of anti-racism education are issues close to Kushnick’s heart. It was one of the reasons why he decided to contact the family of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah to ask if they could name the centre in his memory. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah was a 13 year old boy of Bangladeshi origin who went to Burnage High School, where a fair amount of racist bullying went on. In 1986, a fight in the playground broke out and Ahmed came to the aid of some younger Asian boys when a 13-year old white pupil took out a knife, stabbed and killed him.

“The boy [who stabbed Ahmed] himself came from an extremely disturbed background and it was a tragedy all round,” states Kushnick. “but the incident did raise the issue of racism in schools, how whiteness becomes an identity. So we wanted to send a signal and use the material in outreach programmes to teachers in schools with limited resources, a narrow curriculum and encourage an environment where all children could flourish. We wanted to challenge stereotypes that Asians should be doctors or that you don’t expect anything from working class children – we wanted to encourage more inclusive ways of teaching and encourage teachers to expect all their pupils to succeed.”

Breaking Down The Stratified Education System

Armed with funding from the Progress Trust, the Millennium Awards and pro bono support of the University of Manchester (which allowed them to use the premises rent-free and also did their payroll), the centre began to put together materials for teachers.

“At the time, Britain had a highly stratified education system. Working class students were 8 times less likely to pass the 11+ exams than middle class ones,” says Kushnick. “Meanwhile teachers went to school everyday and very few of them woke up thinking ‘another day to mess over some working-class kids, another day to lessen their self-esteem and another day to convince them to have no or very limited aspirations.’ But everyday they went to school thinking that white working class parents didn’t care about education, that girls will go off and work in Woollies for a couple of years, get married and have kids. Meanwhile the lads could get an apprenticeship, settle down, marry the girl who used to work at Woollies and have kids…”

People from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities were also approaching the centre and them asking it about their history in the country and in Manchester. The team quickly realised that whilst they had lots of really great resources on race relations, there was very little primary information or secondary sources when it came to the local level. “The people’s stories about how they came to this country, their experiences, how they created their own religious and housing education, how they dealt with the education of young children – we had very little of that,” remarks Kushnick. The centre decided to tackle both these issues through their outreach work at schools by asking pupils to collect information and stories about their communities. Not only would this help fill a gap in the archive but it would also raise the confidence of BME pupils whilst educating others about the history of the wider BME community.

Collecting Stories from Manchester’s BME Communities

BME pupils interviewed their grandparents and found that some had great aunties who worked in the Land Army in World War Two or family who served in the British Army. The interviews – 144 of them – were transcribed, printed and kept in the archive alongside family photographs and heirlooms. Children from Sikh, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean communities contributed interviews, and four girls from Levenshulme turned these interviews into a book called ‘Strength of Spirit’ which is full of interviews and photos from the Bangladeshi community. The centre also spent a year working with Refugee Action to put together an exhibition and teaching information pack on refugees in Manchester and the hardships they face on their journey to the UK.

Over the years, more and more of the centre’s projects consisted of producing material which would contribute to the archive and also help build a record of the local BME community which was later used for teaching materials, travelling exhibitions and the annual Black History Month. Working with primary schools in Rusholme, Moss Side and Whalley Range, the centre helped to put a book together retelling the story of Olaudah Equiano, an eighteenth-century slave who was freed in London and became one of the leaders campaigning against the slave trade. A book was also published on the life of the former slave Mary Prince (c.1788- death date unknown), who presented her testimony about the horrible conditions endured by the enslaved in the Caribbean, and Noor Inayat Khan who was captured and imprisoned by the Gestapo and was executed at Dachau in 1944. Khan was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the British George Cross in 1949.

Kushnick says that the centre’s future projects will continue to focus on anti-racism education and adding material to the archive. Some of the projects currently underway include school schemes exploring international folk tales as well as a funded initiative looking into the Yemeni community in Salford and documenting its experience. However, the cuts in government funding are worrying for the centre, which will be looking to find new forms of financial support in March 2012. “In this crisis no one is sure how they are going to be affected,” says Kushnick. “Of course we hope everything will be okay and we can keep the centre open but, in all honesty, we have no idea what will happen.”

The Race Relations Archive is located near Manchester Piccadilly station and includes over 8,000 resources available for use by students, practitioners and the general public. For more information and visiting hours see the centre’s website.

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group, part 2

This is the second section of a two-part history of the Manchester branch of the Irish in Britain Representation Group. For the first part, see here.

The axing of the “Irish Line” radio programme

“Irish Line” was a weekly programme started in 1983 and broadcast by BBC Radio Manchester in collaboration with IBRG. All the work done by IBRG presenters was unpaid. It was a mix of music, sport and “What’s On” which also covered some political issues. “Irish Line” was abruptly axed by the BBC in the summer of 1985 without consultation or discussion

Four of the presenters wrote to the Irish Post newspaper, outlining changes which had been imposed after the arrest of a number of IBRG members under the Prevention of Terrorism Act early in 1985. Those detained included Dr Maire O’Shea, a consultant psychiatrist who was acquitted of all charges at her trial in Manchester in 1986. The presenters said that a poster advertising “Irish Line as presented by BBC and IBRG” was scrapped before it was issued and replaced by one deleting all reference to IBRG. It had been usual to introduce each programme as “being presented by the IBRG from the Irish community in Greater Manchester” but the BBC cut out all mention of IBRG. They had recorded an interview with a member of Bolton IBRG who had been on the International Women’s Day delegation to Armagh prison in March 1985, but this had been excised by the BBC from the broadcast programme. The letter ended by stating that “Irish Line” had been given a “summer break” by the BBC and that none of them had been contacted by the BBC as to the future, and concluded with: “We do hope that Irish Line does not become yet another casualty of the British media’s reluctance to deal in any depth with any Irish issue.” This was an accurate prophecy. The BBC brought the programme back in the autumn, renaming it “Come Into The Parlour” and with new presenters. All political issues were dropped.

Relations with Manchester City Council

In October 1984 Manchester IBRG submitted a detailed report to Manchester City Council on the needs of the Irish, entitled “A New Deal for the Irish Community in Manchester”. They wrote that hoped that it would be the start of a “cordial and productive dialogue between the Irish community in Manchester and the City Council”. The report examined the causes and effects of anti-Irish racism, the lack of recognition of the Irish in the school system, the lack of Irish culture in libraries and other cultural spaces, discrimination in housing and welfare, the lack of recognition given to the experiences of Irish women and finally the effects of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It made a series of recommendations aimed at raising the profile of the Irish and recognising some of the welfare, social and legal problems affecting the community.

In September 1990 IBRG wrote to Terry Day, head of the Equal Opportunities Unit, expressing their dismay at the lack of action by the council on the 1984 report or indeed any other issue concerning the Irish in Manchester. In her response, Ms Day pointed out that the numbers of Irish people employed by the City Council had risen from 3.1% to 3.8% and stated that “the fact that this increase has occurred proves, I think, that discrimination against Irish people had been occurring in the past, and that the measures we have adopted to eliminate discrimination have been at least partially successful in stopping discrimination against Irish people applying for Council jobs.”

Manchester Irish Week 1988

As part of its policy on Ireland, Manchester City Council had pledged itself to organise an Irish week in Manchester. Even from the start there were problems of democracy, accountability, and inclusion in the planning process, which prompted IBRG and other groups to contact the City Council asking that all Irish groups should be included. Eventually these issues resolved themselves (or so it was thought at the time) and meetings to plan a programme of events took place regularly at the Irish Centre in Cheetham with two delegates from each Irish organisation in Manchester (including IBRG).

The committee set up working parties to plan particular events such as history, games, community care and women’s events. The Irish Women’s Group decided on a programme of events including discussion of the issue of strip-searching in Northern Ireland using a video, employment, a play and a women-only social. When this programme was put before the main planning meeting it was treated with what the women involved considered was derision and condescension and voted down, at which point the IBRG delegates withdrew in protest. IBRG protested in the strongest possible terms to the Chair of the Race Sub Committee, Councillor Graham Balance, whilst women members of IBRG and a number of other Irish women attended a meeting with him to express their anger. The Council agreed that all events, no matter which Irish group had organised them, would be included in the official programme.

Tom McAndrew, a leading member of the Council of Irish Associations, then attacked IBRG in the Manchester Evening News, accusing the organisation of “tainting” the festival by including an event on the Birmingham 6. IBRG responded vigorously, arguing that in a week when the Birmigham Six case was being highlighted in St Patrick parades throughout the world, “we see no reason why it should not be raised during the Manchester Festival week, nor do we believe it would ‘taint’ the festival. The majority of Manchester Irish people support the campaign to have these innocent men released.”

IBRG worked in cooperation with the history group, the Irish Women’s group (Mna na hEireann) and other organisations to put together an imaginative programme, putting out their own independent leaflet for the Irish Week in March 1988.

On Saturday 12th March Mna na hEireann held a Irish Women’s Day at English Martyrs Parish Centre, Alexandra Road South in Whalley Range, which was advertised as “A day for Irish women to get together and discuss the issues that affect their lives eg emigration, class and education”. There were workshops on creative writing and discussion on issues of education and identity. The speakers were Moy McCrory, Oonagh ni Cleirig, Maude Casey and May Byrne.

On Tuesday 15th March the meeting on “The British Media and the Birmingham 6 Case” took place at the Green Room, organised by the North West Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and co-ordinated by Granville Williams. The speakers were Charles Tremayne ( a researcher on the World in Action Birmingham 6 programmes) and Bob Woofinden (author of Miscarriage of Justice). The speakers explored the role of the media in both convicting innocent people and uncovering miscarriages of justice. There were also the events at the Green Room with Sean O’Neill & Company and The Jacket Potatoes.

The notion of an Irish Week was revived by the City Council in 1996 (although the 1988 events were accidentally or deliberately forgotten and the event was billed incorrectly as the first such week in Manchester). As their contribution to the Irish Festival in March 1996, Manchester IBRG organised the Irish Heartbeats conference. Thereafter IBRG decided to play no further part in the subsequent Irish Festivals, having concluded that the event was designed to annexe the Irish into the burgeoning heritage, leisure and entertainment industry in Manchester.

Prevention of Terrorism Act

Among the cases taken up by IBRG was that of Kate Magee, a young Irish woman charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act with withholding information. In November 1993 IBRG leafleted a Christy Moore concert at the Manchester Opera House with a leaflet on Kate’s case and subsequently provided support and publicity for her during the long legal process leading up to her trial. IBRG Members attended her trial every day and were relieved when the jury found her Not Guilty.

On 25th October 1990 the branch organised a Repeal the PTA Meeting at St Brendan’s Centre in Old Trafford, one of three meetings held in the North West to support the campaign against the PTA. The speakers at the Manchester meeting were Father Bobby Gilmore from the Irish Chaplaincy in London and Kevin Hayes from the West Midlands PTA Research Association.

Prisoners

In September 1987 the branch wrote to Tony Lloyd MP raising the issue of the repatriation of Irish prisoners to the north and south of Ireland. In his reply he enclosed a response from the Earl of Caithness at the Home Office, adding that he had always supported the case of repatriation as a general principle “and tried to pursue this matter without any great success when the Home Affairs Select Committee looked at prisons in England and Wales.” He outlined some of the current problems on the issue and promised to “continue to support attempts to achieve a more acceptable solution in the circumstances both for the prisoners themselves and for their families”.

In May 1994 IBRG organised a meeting for Hugh Callaghan, one of the Birmingham Six, to talk about his book Cruel Fate at Frontline Books. Sally Mulready, who had been active in the London Campaign for the Six, accompanied Hugh and spoke about the effects of the imprisonment on the men’s wives and families and how very bravely they had taken the first steps in campaigning to get them out.

The War in Ireland

The continuing war in Ireland throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s formed the backdrop against which Manchester IBRG operated and was something they consistently drew attention to in many of their activities. This distinguished them from other Irish community groups who were ready to promote culture, history and Irish Studies but extremely wary of any activities relating to the conflict. IBRG’s view was that it was impossible to talk about Irish history, Irish culture and Irish identity without at the same time talking about what was happening in the North of Ireland.

In October 1988 Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd introduced a broadcasting ban on Republican and Loyalist representatives being heard on TV and radio. The justification was that this denied “apologists for terrorism” a platform to propagate their views. In reality it was another in a long line of propaganda moves by British governments (Tory and Labour) to close down discussion on events in Northern Ireland and win acceptance for their analysis ie that it was all the fault of “the terrorists”. The government did not ban Republicans completely from the airwaves, just their voices, resulting in the surreal situation where their actual voices could not be broadcast but what they had said some hours earlier was voiced over instead by an actor. In time, and with practice by the actors, it become almost impossible to distinguish the “false” from the “real”.

On 25th January 1989 Bernadette Hyland from IBRG spoke at a meeting at which a video of a Channel 4 programme, Mother Ireland, was shown to a packed audience of over 150 at the Manchester Mechanics Institute. The film interlaced music, images and historical film with interviews with a number of women including Pat Murphy, Nell McCafferty, Bernadette McAliskey and Republican Mairead Farrell, who was shot dead by the SAS shortly afterwards in Gibraltar.

Mother Ireland was the first programme to fall foul of the Broadcasting Ban. In response the North West Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom organised a public meeting to allow an audience to make their own mind up. The meeting was chaired by the North West organiser of CPBF, Granville Williams. In her speech Bernadette outlined IBRG’s opposition to the ban: “It denies British people the right to the facts behind the conflict in the Six Counties, it denies Irish people the right to learn their own history”. IBRG joined a picket outside the BBC on Oxford Road on the 5th anniversary of the ban.

Throughout the course of the war in Ireland IBRG always defended the right of Sinn Fein elected representatives to visit Britain and put their case. In the autumn of 1986, during an official visit by two Sinn Fein local councilors to Manchester City Council, IBRG organized a meeting for Irish people to meet the councillors and listen to what they had to say.

In January 1995 the annual Bloody Sunday March was held in Manchester, the first time that the march had been held in the city . Local IBRG members joined the march, whilst IBRG National Chair Pat Reynolds addressed the rally in Albert Square alongside Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein. The Daily Express attacked Manchester City Council for allowing the rally to take place in Albert Square. IBRG responded in the local Irish newspaper Irish Echo, defending the right to march.

Conclusion

Looking back, Bernadette Hyland, secretary of Manchester IBRG and also IBRG national chairperson for a number of years, reflected that “IBRG really was a community organisation. At its heart were people who had a strong sense of their own identity, a love of their own history and its people and a strong will to ensure that the inequality and marginalization of the community would not continue. For me personally, IBRG meant in the broadest terms a movement reflective of a socialist ideology, encompassing a better world not just for Irish people on these two islands but a better world for all people.”

Article by Michael Herbert

Manchester Irish in Britain Representation Group

The Irish in Britain Representation group was an Irish community group which campaigned nationally across the UK and had an active branch in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s. The organisation campaigned on a wide range of issues including anti-Irish racism, education , culture, rights of women, history, language, civil rights, miscarriages of justice and the war in the North of Ireland. Membership included both those born in Ireland and those born in Britain.

This is the first of two articles collecting memories of those involved in the Manchester branch of the IBRG.

Anti-Irish “Humour”

The Manchester branch took up a number of examples of anti-Irish “humour”, believing that such “jokes” were racist and attacked the self-confidence of the community. In July 1985 the branch wrote a letter of protest to Granada TV about the programme The Comedians, which routinely featured Irish “jokes”. Writing in response to the complaint John Hamp, Head of Light Entertainment, said that no offence had been intended:

“The Comedians reflects the sort of humour to be heard currently in summer shows, theatres and clubs around the country. No joke is intended to be interpreted seriously, and none are delivered in a malicious manner by the comedians. In fact, it’s usually the impossible or unlikely aspect of a joke which gives it humour, whatever the subject. The series employs several Irish comedians as well as comics from other parts of Great Britain. and they tell gags about themselves, their environment and each other – in a friendly and good humoured atmosphere. We feel The Comedians keeps within the accepted limits of humour and know it is enjoyed by a large audience, but regret that you feel cause to complain, and have taken note of your comments”.

In August 1986 IBRG wrote a letter of protest to the Equal Opportunities Commission over an EOC booklet entitled Do Girls Give Themselves a Fair Chance? It included a cartoon in which a young woman bricklayer on a building site is shown as being smarter and more hardworking than two male operatives who are, of course, Irish and are shown speaking in “Oirish”. In reply, the EOC’s Ann Godwin said that she very much regretted it had caused offence and that it would be revised in a new edition.

Travellers

Just before Christmas 1987 eighty DHSS investigators, accompanied by police with dogs, swamped a travellers’ camp in Salford, demanding to see children’s birth certificates. The “visit” occurred in the wake of a local press campaign which alleged that “tinkers” were flooding into the area and defrauding the benefits system. When they read of the case in the press IBRG members visited the site and offered support and practical help to the travellers as well as writing to DHSS and issuing a press release. IBRG said that it was:

“diabolical that people can be treated in this way. Whole families can be left without money at a time when most people are spending too much and eating too much. It is indicative of the way that in which people who are Irish and travellers can be hounded without any criticism of the methods or motives of organisations such as DHSS”.

Conferences

The branch thought it important to bring together Irish people to consider and discuss the issues affecting their lives, believing that it broke down the isolation many Irish people often felt when it comes to talking about issues of identity, injustice, racism and much else.

The branch’s first major conference took place on Saturday 14th November 1987 at Manchester Town Hall and was entitled “Hearts and Minds – The Irish in Britain Today”. Over 140 delegates attended, both as individuals and also representing organisations such as local authorities and North West Arts. The conference was formally opened by the Chair of Manchester City Council, Councillor Eileen Kelly. She was followed by Desmond Greaves, the noted historian and leading member of the Connolly Association, who illuminated the role that emigration has played in the lives of the Irish. This theme came up constantly during the day in the seminars.

Mary Lennon, author of a book on Irish women in Britain, looked at the pattern of Irish women’s emigration to Britain, highlighting the fact that more women than men have emigrated from Ireland and contradicting the stereotype of the Irish emigrant to Britain as being a male building worker. Moy McCrory used her book of short stories The Water’s Edge to comment on the experience of growing up in an Irish working class background in Liverpool. In her seminar on Irish Dimensions in British Education, Mary Hickman underlined the importance of having Irish studies on the curriculum of all British schools and colleges. Micheal ORiabhaigh also focused on Liverpool and commented on some of the profound obstacles that it faced in realising and expressing an Irish identity.

Pat Reynolds took up the theme of identity and anti-Irish racism. He traced the roots of this racism back to the connected history of Britain and Ireland and in this colonial relationship found the basis of present day anti-Irish racism.

IBRG judged the conference to be a great success with many important discussions in the seminars – and outside in the corridors over cigarettes and tea. It gave the Irish from all over the North West an opportunity to meet and discuss common issues. IBRG ensured that half the speakers were women and provided a creche, which was well-used

IBRG’s next conference was held to coincide with twentieth anniversary of British troops going onto the streets of the six counties and was entitled “Justice for Irish People; 20 Years On” and rook place on Saturday 10th June 1989 at Manchester Town Hall.

Another conference entitled “We Are A River Flowing…..”. took place on Saturday 3rd July 1993 at St Brendan’s Irish Centre. It encompassed a day of discussion and debate on the history of the Irish community. The final speaker Mary Nellis (a Sinn Fein councillor from Derry) spoke on Women in the Six Counties: the Struggle Goes On and On, throwing away her prepared speech after a few minutes and speaking off the cuff about her experiences in Derry in a lengthy contribution that gripped and moved the audience.

The future development of the Irish community was the subject of the next conference which was called “Irish Heartbeats” and took place on 16th March 1996 at the Friends Meeting House.

Culture

IBRG members collaborated with Adrian Mealing at Green Room to put on The Hairy Marys on 13th November 1987. The Hairy Marys were a group of talented Irish dancers from London who had tired of some of the traditions that had encrusted Irish traditional dance and used comedy and cabaret in their performance. The programme described them thus: “The HMs are a madcap gang of Irish dancers. These four raucous women dance reels to ragtime and jigs to jazz. For the past five years they have been entertaining audiences up and down the country with their irreverent mixture of traditional Irish dance, music and comedy. They are Maire Clerkin, Hester Goodman, Carmel McAree and Susan Swanton”. On the evening they went down a storm.

IBRG worked with the Green Room again to present Sean O’Neill and Company in a performance entitled Kavanagh of Inniskeen as part of the Irish week on Friday 18th March 1988. The following evening there was live music from The Jacket Potatoes, an Irish trio from London, who played both traditional tunes and a number of political songs about the situation in the North of Ireland.

The next co-promotion with the Green Room was on 16th June 1988 when Trouble & Strife Theatre Company from London performed “Now And At The Hour Of Our Death”, a play written by Sonja Lyndon. The programme notes read as follows: “It is the year 2000 and life has changed dramatically for the people of Northern Ireland. Four Irish women look back twenty years to a time when they each had a dream. Between them there is an unshakeable bond forged from the shared horror of the No Wash protest in Armagh prison in 1980. The vivid performances explore the complex relationship between women and violence and produce a magnificent piece of theatre which will shock, amuse and move.” The play lived up to the pre-publicity, according to those who saw it. Incidentally, the young women performers in the theatre company arrived a day early due to a mix-up and were all accommodated at an IBRG member’s house.

On 16th September 1988 IBRG put on Toss the Feathers at St Brendan’s Irish Centre This was at the height of the TTF mania and hundreds of people turned up. Members recall that the beerstained proceeds from the evening were carried home stuffed into pockets and helped to fund branch activities for many months afterwards.

The Hairy Marys returned to the Green Room on Sunday 19th March 1989 as part of a St Patrick’s Day Celebration, one of the “Family Fundays” being run by the Green Room at this period, running a dance workshop for children who then performed later in the afternoon.

Manchester IBRG initiated the first Irish Film Festival in Manchester in collaboration with the Cornerhouse in 1988. In all there were six seasons at the Cornerhouse between 1988 and 1993. The aim was to celebrate and showcase past and present Irish efforts in this art-form, but also to use it as a way of exploring contemporary social and political issues through the use of associated day-schools and speakers.

IBRG also organised events during the Manchester Festival in 1991 and 1992 under the title Mise Eire. These included history walks, evenings with writers Moy McCrory, Moya Roddy, Clairr O’Connor and Berlie Doherty, music from Banshee, Rattle and Reel, Red Ciel and The Jacket Potatoes, dance by The Hairy Marys, and storytelling.

History

The branch organised a number of events in April 1991 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an anniversary which was virtually ignored by the Irish government, part of the so-called “revisionist” attack on celebrations of past Irish struggle which were supposedly giving aid and sustenance to the armed struggle in the north.

The first event was on Thursday 18th April, an evening entitled Poetry and Songs of the Rising held at St Brendan’s Irish centre. Actor Sean O’Neill, a good friend of Manchester IBRG, read poems by WB Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonough and others, followed by music from local musicians.

On that Friday evening there was a chance to Rock To The Rising at Chorlton Irish Centre. Music was provided by Tradition, one of West Yorkshire’s most popular Irish groups, who brought a coachload of young and enthusiastic supporters over with them and a good time was apparently had by all. Those who had not indulged too heavily the night before joined a history walk at lunchtime around Manchester City Centre.

The final event was on Sunday 21st April at St Brendan’s Irish Centre at which there were videos, music, bookstall, an Irish history quiz and a talk from Kevin Collins, author of The Cultural Conquest of Ireland. To accompany these events Ruth and Edmund Frow of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford put on an Easter Rising exhibition at the library.

There were many celebrations and conferences in 1998 to commemorate the bicentenary of the 1798 Rising. Manchester IBRG organised its own conference which put the Rising squarely in the context of community history and development. This took place on Saturday 20th June 1998 at the Friends Meeting House

Gaelic Language

On Wednesday 5th June 1991 the branch organised a meeting at St Brendan’s Irish Centre to discuss the attack by the Northern Ireland office on Glor na nGael. The meeting was part of a speaking tour of Manchester and London set up by IBRG to highlight the discrimination being exercised by the Northern Ireland Office against the Irish language. Glor na nGael was started in 1982 in response to the growing demand for Irish language nursery schools in the Belfast area to co-ordinate the schools and train their teachers. Patricia Campbell from Glor na nGael spoke at the Manchester meeting, which was followed by a discussion with a number of Irish speakers.

Article by Michael Herbert

Okasional Cafes

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, anarchists and environmental activists in Manchester organised a series of squatted cafe-social centres around the city, under the name Okasional Cafe. This article is based on interviews with two people – both of whom wished to remain anonymous – who were involved in organising several of the cafes and running events in them.

The first Okasional Cafe, in 1998, was supposed to be in a former kebab takeaway on Peter Street, near the junction with Deansgate, on the site now occupied by Bar 38.

“There was a big row of Victorian shop buildings and a takeaway called, I think, the Topkapi Palace, which had already closed down in preparation for being demolished as part of the redevelopment plans for the huge warehouses behind and Great Northern Square,” recalls one of the people involved in looking at this initial site. “Four of us went in to recce it, which involved a small person having to go through a hole in the brickwork where there had been a heating vent, and letting the others in. It was perfect – the big industrial-scale catering cookers were still there, which would have been great for events. But it stank from the barrels of kebab fat too…”

In the event, the organising group decided that this site wasn’t suitable because the demolition date for the buildings was imminent and, although the organisers were anticipating having to fight eviction orders, they didn’t want this to be the focus of their activity, or for scared developers to take aggressive action to evict them. The second choice of venue was the former Temperance Movement building on Oxford Road in South Manchester, immediately opposite the Manchester University Students’ Union, now Kro Bar.

At this point, the Riotous Assembly open radical activist meetings had not yet started, so the recce teams for both sites had been recruited at the Earth First! meetings which at that time still took place in the Friends Meeting House in Manchester city centre.

“I remember meeting the people who were going to turn it into the pub,” says one participant. “The head of what is now the Kro empire, I remember him saying, well the weekend you moved in we were planning on moving in as well, but we thought well, we can take a bit more time. His brother, who was on the dole, was helping him with the building work, and they had a month’s less rent to pay so they weren’t bothered.”

As one interviewee recalls, the cafes were meant to be “a point where social and political activity could go on reasonably freely and workshops and film showings could happen, but also secondly that it was supposed to be an access point for new people who might not come to a meeting but would be comfortable coming and having a cup of tea and a piece of cake and picking up some leaflets and then might come back again for something else a few days later and actually speak to somebody about getting involved.”

Another interviewee emphasised that “about people having an access point for ‘our’ ways of working – ie anarchist – and forms of actual direct action. I remember it definitely as being for both those purposes, and also that there were actions actually happening at the same time, so people could go to the cafe, hear about an action, go to a meeting about it and get comfortable with the idea and then actually go along on an action and get involved, as well as providing a space for people who were already involved to meet together and have that contact. It’s also in my head as a post-Manchester Airport protest camp thing – lots of people had moved to Manchester, had been active and the EF! Meetings were too big and unwieldy and some people had the idea that everything in the meetings had to be agreed by everyone and others thought they were a forum, a place to go to where you could say, we’re doing this anyone want to get involved?”

“For me,” he continued, “the reason Okasional Cafe came round was that it was a physical point of contact, because people had had the experience of living on protest camps at the Airport together, and that was really important, and there was nowhere for people to meet and spend time together. I was completely sold on the model of squatting a place, holding it for a month, saying ‘we’re going to be here for a month’, not trying to do it for longer or make it a permanent place, not trying to say we’ll keep it for longer but put that burst of energy into it for that month and then do other things the rest of the time, rather than having a permanent centre…”

The first Okasional Cafes were not simply spaces where people could come and talk, but had well-organised schedules of events, including political meetings, exhibitions, film showings and fundraising parties. A distinctive logo was designed, probably by a resident of the ‘Redbricks’ estate in Hulme, and in the weeks preceding the squatting of a new cafe several waves of publicity would take place, starting with the logo being fly-posted around town, followed by posters bearing the words ‘it’s coming’ and then after the building have been occupied posters and bookmark-format leaflets with the address and workshop timetable would be distributed in cafes, pubs, bookstores and ‘alternative’ shops like those in Afflecks Palace.

“I’m not sure I can imagine such organised publicity happening now,” commented one participant. “people rely too much on the internet, they think that when they’ve put something on Facebook they’ve publicised, whereas actually they’ve just told a load of people they’re already in touch with, and they think they can advertise something the day before, instead of having to put in some work to really get word out.”

Okasional Cafes around Manchester

After the success of the initial Okasional Cafe on Oxford Road, a number of other squat cafes took place across South and Central Manchester over the next four years. Sites for these included an old canal keeper’s cottage on Dale Street in the Northern Quarter, a second one at Kro, one on Birch Grove in Rusholme and two at the Hacienda, one of which was a fundraiser for the massive J18 anti-capitalist protests which took place in London in June 1999.

There was also an abortive attempt to hold an Okasional Cafe in St Peter’s House, opposite the Peace Gardens and Central Library. “It was in November one year,” says a participant, “and people hadn’t really thought about the issues around that but it was just before the 11th and the police really cracked down on it because they thought it was an anti-war protest in time for the Armistice Day commemorations, which it wasn’t. So they just smashed their way in through the plate glass windows, using the fact that there was a back staircase which was shared with another building as a legal pretext for evicting the squat.

The Charles Street Okasional Cafe

Another site used was a former auction house on Charles Street, just off Oxford Road next to the BBC. One memorable event held there was a showing of the film Injustice, about the struggles for justice by families of people – mainly black men like Shiji Lapite and Roger Sylvester, but also including Harry Stanley and women like Joy Gardner and Sarah Thomas – who had died in police custody.

The Police Federation had tried to take legal action to prevent the film, which called for the prosecution of several serving police officers, from being screened. Venues were harassed and threatened with having their licenses revoked, and cinemas were told by police lawyers that they might face expensive libel suits. So when the Cornerhouse Cinema on Oxford Road was intimidated into cancelling a showing, people involved with the Charles St cafe, just round the corner, stepped in to offer an alternative.

“But we managed to prime one of the directors, Tariq Mehmood, who lives in Rusholme, so that when they reached the end of their talk and had to tell the audience that they couldn’t show the film there, they announced that the people who had just stood up could lead them to a venue where they could see it.”

The Cornerhouse cinema, according to one of the people involved in the Okasional Cafe screening, event loaned chairs to allow enough audience members to go to the alternative screening, and some of the box office staff had made significant efforts to deliver the coded message to people buying tickets for the event that although the event had been formally cancelled, something else might be afoot…

The Charles Street Okasional Cafe was also the scene for exhibitions giving ongoing information about the mass protests – and police brutality – which took place at the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001. But, despite some of the good events which went on at Charles St, it was also an example of some of the things that could go wrong with such an enterprise.

“My take on what happened.” says one participant, who had been involved in many of the other cafes, “was that a lot of people were involved who nowadays would be curating slightly alternative art galleries or working for the World Development Movement or the Big Issue, but then, because it was the exciting ‘in’ thing they were there. But for the first part of the Charles St cafe, the people putting most time in were people who had less long-term experience or hadn’t made the same connections so the way it was organised was messier and events weren’t publicised. There were also problems because the site was near an all-night Spar and a big homeless hostel, and some people turned up from a protest came and stayed and behaved like arseholes, so there were social problems being dealt with by people with very little experience.”

The solution was to close the squat down for a week, regroup the organising committee and remodel the space. The main room was painted white to give it a completely different feel from the previous dark space, and the cafe was re-opened for several more weeks before it was finally evicted. “The eviction was,” says one of the people involved, “one of those classic developer things where they come to court and say they want to use the building for such-and-such and work will start straight away and the judge says ok, kick them out, and now eight years later it’s still empty, and there is still as Okasional Cafe sign over the door…”

Decentralised organising

As one interviewee who was involved in organising several of the Okasional cafes recalls, the networks and personal connections which had grown up during the protest camps at Manchester Airport were still in place during this era. “Although people were campaigning on different issues it tended to feel more like they were part of the same thing than it seems to now,” he says. “Animal rights people or whoever might be doing their thing, but a lot of the allocating work and responsibilities happened because various different people with different skills were involved. In terms of anarchist forms of organising there were weekly meetings at the cafe which set up the events for the week after and sometimes there were more regular meetings if there were other issues that came up.”

The tension between weekly and more regular meetings was, he says, “interesting, in that the people with most time and the people who were living there to hold the squat sometimes acquired more power than others. So some people were arguing that it’s more democratic to have weekly meetings because more people can actually come to them.”

Tactically, different methods were used to actually initiate the occupation of the squatted buildings. For the Hacienda events, many of the first groups of people to enter the building were asked to meet at a fairly public site in Hulme and then led away in small groups, under cover of darkness and sometimes through the gardens of squat sympathisers on a nearby estate. As a result, the police failed to notice that the crowd they were monitoring was actually slowly dispersing.

At most of the other Okasional Cafes, a small group would crack the squat in advance in order to take legal control, and then other members of the organising group would collect a larger selection of people who’d gathered at a publicly advertised meeting point and bring them to help with preparing the venue – cleaning, decorating and if necessary connecting water and electricity. “It was a balance of recognising that you have to keep some things secret for them to work, while making the process as open and participatory as possible,” commented one person who was involved in a number of the cafes. “And because we had the networks from the Airport protests and other direct action and free party scenes we knew who to get in touch with if we needed the water and gas and electrics to be turned back on. A lot of that was the result of lessons from 1990s direct action and Reclaim the Street.”

Decision-making processes about how the cafes would be run were also decentralised, bringing in a range of experiences, ages and backgrounds. “I remember in the first OK Cafe there was a No Smoking room,” recalls one participant. “When that was first brought up some people were like, Noooo! But for me that was an example of the difference between two simplified versions of anarchism – the more individualistic, which I think is called Sternerite, and the more collectivist or community-based – ‘I can do what I like’ vs ‘I can do what I like but understand its impacts on other people.’ So there were lots of debates, and in the end there were No Smoking times and room in Okasional Cafes.”

Over the course of the various cafes, many lessons were also learned about the kind of events, activities and messages participants wanted to use the sites for. “The first one was around the time of an election, and it was also near a church,” recalled one person. “Someone put a big cross up outside with a politician hanging from it and labelled it ‘use your cross wisely, crucify a politician.’ And there were things like free stalls and also what became People’s Kitchen, ie experimenting with cheap meals and food by donation. That was quite hard, because especially being in a student area you felt you were putting in lots of effort to feed lazy students who’d got enough money anyway. So it shifted, became really nice set meals with candlelight or poetry performances but also with a suggested donation. Soft drinks would be free or donations but alcohol was a set price because there was a sense that if people wanted to spend money on alcohol it should be a fundraiser. There were also party night which were fundraisers too, and usually they were donations on the door and some people would just ask casually and people would put a few coppers in, but some more savvy ones would say ‘three quid, three quid’ as people came in and a well-run night at the Kro site could easily raise a thousand pounds. People lost that ability with some of the later cafes, especially the Kickstart ones that were done by a different group of people later on, people involved in residential squatting in Whalley Range, because they just weren’t as organised and people would nick the money and they didn’t really have a sense of how to replicate some of the really creative stuff we were doing at OK Cafes.”

To evict or not to evict?

In almost all cases the OK Cafe squats were time-limited, held for just a month and then handed back to their owners. They were also largely in commercial or public buildings rather than residential ones. One exception was the sixth squat, on Birch Grove in Rusholme in 2000, which – with the approval of the house’s owner – became a residential squat for at least six months after the Okasional Cafe there closed down.

Even though it had become a residential squat, the Birch Grove site did remain a hub for some direct action activity, serving as the meeting point for groups of Manchester activists who went to the Close Campsfield noise demonstration and actions against the asylum seeker detention centre in Oxfordshire.

In some other cases the landlords of squatted properties were less co-operative, although the reputation of the protesters occupying the buildings sometimes meant that evictions weren’t carried out. “With the first Okasional Cafe,” a participant remembers, “people remembered us from the Airport, where people felt they had to power to say to a landlord, ‘yes you can take us to court and get an order and evict us, but we’re going to resist, you’ll need bailiffs. Ask the Under-Sheriff of Lancashire, Andy Wilson, he’ll tell you that we’re going to be really expensive.’ It’s in your interest and our interest to negotiate – give us a month. And landlords would go, OK. At the Kro Bar site, Andy Wilson came along and people pretended to have been in tunnels and had dirt on their faces and head torches and he just backed off and from then on we had the reputation with other landlords that – take them to court, but negotiate with them.”

The one exception to this rule was the Hacienda squat. The police had succeeded in having the superclub closed down and, as one participant thinks, saw its re-opening as a challenge. They evicted it quickly and at times brutally, and were therefore furious when it was then re-squatted a second time – giving rise to graffiti in one of the rooms reading The People 1: Police 0 which was them amended to The People 2: Police 0. A number of people arrested in the first eviction successfully sued Greater Manchester Police for wrongful arrest. “The second time,” recalls one interviewee, “only once we we had negotiated our way outside did we see that there were lines of riot cops with battering rams all lined up by the walls, where we couldn’t see them from the inside. There was also a moment where, while they were using quite a lot of violence to clear the area, we saw one riot cop who was well known for being very big and violent whack someone across the back with the truncheon, and the person he’d hit getting out his badge and saying ‘I’m undercover!’ And that was great to watch…”

Article by Sarah Irving

Salford’s Unemployed & Community Resource Centre: workers’ rights, anti-racism and gender equality

Everyone knows that a good thing is worth fighting for and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to workers’ rights. On paper, a plethora of laws may claim to protect workers against unfair dismissals and redundancy but in reality they are often left to singly-handedly fight big corporations to enforce their basic rights. In Salford, this is where the radical Unemployed & Community Resource Centre comes in.

Set up in the 1980s, the centre was officially the third Trade Union Centre to open in the UK and has been offering free advice on employment law and representation at tribunals ever since. The centre has also gone on to introduce a computer education course, debt management advice and to launch a radical ‘Salford Prison Scheme’ to mentor offenders from the area. It has also been involved in some of the biggest unemployment cases to hit Manchester, such as the infamous ‘Accident Group’ which made its workers redundant via text message.

Thatcher and Unemployment in Salford

“Salford was one of the workshops of the world,” explains Alec McFadden, an active unionist and anti-fascist campaigner who runs the centre. “There was a massive engineering industry which employed thousands of people and you had very active docks. Thatcher came in 1979 and started a campaign, very very quickly, against the manufacturing industry and the reason was that in manufacturing you had very strong trade unions.” A couple of years later came the Miners’ Strike in 1984-5 along with increasingly weakened unions and then, recession and mass unemployment. “The pound was weak and as the whole economy of Salford which was based in manufacturing and engineering went, unemployment shot up and a lot of young people went 5 to 10 years without ever having a proper job.”

The centre was subsequently funded by a government quango (the Manpower Services Commission) as McFadden puts it, “to reduce unemployment- not to solve the crisis of capitalism but to hide the number of unemployed people.” As well as rising unemployment, the radical activity in the area ,especially in Eccles, which had the biggest Communist Party in Britain at the time, made the centre an obvious choice.

When the centre first opened there were around 20 part-time workers running it but by 1995, when McFadden joined, it only had three workers. One of the first cases McFadden was involved was trying to stop the council shutting down a nearby social security office. “By closing the office, the unemployed had nowhere to claim for social security except the main benefit office which was three miles away and then you had to go on two buses.” It was occupied by around 46 supporters and gained a lot of publicity. Three months later, however, it was shut down.

Salford’s Fourth Emergency Service

Despite this minor setback, the centre has been involved in thousands of cases since, many more of which have ended successfully. “We classify ourselves as the fourth emergency service in Salford after the police, fire services and ambulances, because we keep people alive. We’ve stopped people from committing suicide by getting them their benefits and their rights for them,” says McFadden.

“We’ve done a whole host of cases for workers who are being exploited and sacked. One of the big ones that I spent a lot of time on was against P&A Packaging when five young men were made redundant by their employer.” The company had recruited 10 East European workers, trained them and then got rid of the higher-paid original workers. “We appealed and I explained to their employer, Peter Smith, that he had flaunted the laws of Britain… You can’t just sack and make workers redundant… He said he didn’t believe me and that he could do what he wants with his workers.”

On the eve of the tribunal, after being told by the company’s solicitor that the centre would lose the case, they were approached and offered thousands of pounds in settlement for the workers. Negotiations took place under a confidentiality clause and so the settlement amount was not disclosed although newspapers were reporting around £25,000. As a result of this success, more and more cases came through the centre’s doors and the staff are always happy to help.

“We are completely different from the CABs (Citizen’s Advice Bureaux). Its like whether you are from Afghanistan or Eccles is irrelevant to us- you’re a human being with a problem and we are exactly the same about whether its fundable or not.” Just the previous week, McFadden successfully won a case for a young Latvian girl who was mistreated at work. “Two of the girls were working for a hotel and one of them was sacked and the other one was threatened with disciplinary action for nothing. They were both very well educated and their mother tongue is Russian and they were disciplined for speaking their mother tongue at work.

“I rang the company and said that I was going to deal with the case and they were dismissive of me and I said ‘before we enter this situation, write my name down and go on to google and ring us back’. They rang us back and the girl who was given the final written warning, that was withdrawn immediately and the other one, I was allowed in to represent her and on Thursday they apologized for sacking her. They agreed to pay her two months wages after sacking her and she starts back at work today.” A real success story and, McFadden insists, “I have never lost a single case and I think for the community to have this resources is great.” He also added that anyone going to a solicitor and paying for their services when they are freely available at the centre ‘must be crazy.’

Mass Education Campaign

In 1997, the council put forward a ten-year plan for Salford to resolve certain social, housing and financial problems. “Salford was poverty-stricken, as it is now, and derelict, was just one hell of a state,” says McFadden. “You had major problems with Ordsall which had the highest negative equity levels in the UK… there was the issue of housing as the council had so many properties that were in disrepair- they weren’t repairing them- and people were living in horrendous conditions.” The centre decided to take time and consider what its contribution to this ten-year plan could be.

“We came up with this strategy in which we would continue to look after people’s welfare benefits but also look after debt. We would start defending workers in short-term jobs and their employment rights because if you’re not in the union, there is no one to represent you at work.” Another issue that the centre decided to tackle was education and training as a lot of people were alienated from colleges and universities and had only secured low levels of education. “So we started this mass education campaign which over the last 10 to 11 years, I would say, has been incredible.”

After a couple of false starts in which the centre was ram-raided and 4 computers stolen, a computer course was launched with the help of lottery funding. “We had people on the course who had never worked for years. We had a woman who had been involved in the sex trade for eight years, sometimes as a prostitute, sometimes on the sex lines.

“She took to the computers very quickly and was the third person to pass. And not only did she do that, she ended up as a volunteer helping other and when the tutor was ill, we employed her for a month. With that experience she got a job as an admin assistant and two year later was an admin officer in the national health service- so that was something very positive to come from the course.”

Salford Prison Scheme and Male Widowers

As well as supporting those with troubled backgrounds by teaching them new skills to help them move forward, the centre has initiated a new project to rehabilitate offenders. The Salford Prison Scheme “is a project for young men who are in Manchester prisons, come from Salford and are coming back into Salford after less than a year in prison.” They centre employs a full-time worker who works with the short-term prisoners while they are still in prison to resolve issues such as welfare needs, benefits, education, housing and employment.

“One of the main issues is getting them off drugs,” explains McFadden who started the project as he felt that offenders’ educational and employment needs were being ignored. Those serving shorter sentences for crimes like theft and burglary receive no support, such as probation officers, on release, and yet research shows that they are most likely to re-offend. “It’s an area which is completely neglected and I am hoping to announce by the end of September that we have funding for another two years.”

Alec McFadden has also led workers’ rights campaigns on issues very close to his heart. McFadden , who was widowed in 1997 after his wife Berit died of cancer, led a campaign along with another widower Alex Love to enforce the rights of male widowers to benefits. “The law at the time was the if a man died in a marriage, the woman would receive a pension and a lump sum but if the woman died in a marriage, the man got nothing.” The official reason given to McFadden and hundred of thousands of other male widowers was ‘sorry, you can’t receive any state benefits because you are not a woman’!

“So I campaigned in 2001 and the law was changed so that bereavement benefit was established – I now get £599 a month as I have two children to look after. That alone has provided billions for people across Britain.

“We have a reputation at the centre that when everyone else in the country says no, people can ring us and we say yes.”

Unemployed Workers Union

The centre has also recently announced that they are seeking to establish the first Unemployed Workers’ Union (UWU) for 25 years. “We have reached a stage where officially there is 2.5 million unemployed and the reality is that it is nearer 3.5 million. There are loads of young people who can’t sign or have decided not to sign because of the hassle, the stigma- there is no one looking after them. In fact, there is no one looking after the unemployed who are living on £64 a week, which is a scandal,” says McFadden.

Campaigning on issues such as the right to work, an increase in the minimum wage and free public transport for the unemployed (“when you’re unemployed how can you afford bus fares?” says McFadden), the UWU hopes to look after the unemployed who are currently ignored by the trade unions. “There is something that Tony Benn says and that is ‘If you want something done, do it yourself’ and so we thought it’s time to re-establish an unemployed workers’ movement to try and get unemployed people to work together.”

McFadden explains that he seen the impacts of unemployment on a community many times in his life – domestic violence, alcohol and drug-addiction as well as an increase in crime are only some of the implications – “The key thing to give these people is some hope.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Link:
Salford Unemployed & Community Resource Centre

Len Johnson; Manchester boxer and Communist

Len Johnson was born in Manchester in 1902. His father was William Benker Johnson, an African seaman, and his mother was a young woman from Manchester, Margaret Maher. After leaving the merchant navy his father worked for a time on boxing booths and, after a spell in engineering, Len followed his father into the profession. He fought professionally as a middle-weight from 1922 and 1933, and beat some of the best British and foreign fighters of the day, including Roland Todd, Len Harvery, Gipsy Daniels and Leone Jaccovacci. However Len was not allowed to fight for official British titles because the British Board of Boxing Control said that only white boxers could compete for titles. After he left the ring he toured his own boxing up and down the country. During the war Len worked in civil defence in Manchester and after the war worked as a bus driver and then lorry driver. During the war he had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and become an active member, standing 6 times in the Moss Side ward but attracting only a small vote. He attended the Pan African Congress in Manchester in October 1945 and later set up the New International Society in Moss Side which was both a social club and campaigning organisation. He had retired from active politics by the 1960s and died in Oldham in 1974

Leonard Benker Johnson was born on 22 October 1902 at 12 Barnabas Street, Clayton. His parents were William Benker Johnson and Margaret Maher. Billy (as everyone called him) was from Sierra Leone and came to England as a seaman, never returning to his native land. Marrying Billy was a brave decision for Margaret. Popular racism against black men, their partners and children was overt and sometime violent. Margaret was once attacked in the street and suffered permanent disfigurement.

The Johnsons were a part of small black community that established itself in the early years of the twentieth century in Manchester and Salford as result of the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal, which brought ships from Africa into the heart of the city. Some of the seaman, such Billy stayed put, married local women and raised families.

Len was followed by two brothers Billy and Albert, and by a sister Doris. The family moved to Leeds where Billy senior worked in a boxing booth. There was a long tradition of black boxers in Britain, stretching back to the prize fighting days of the early C19th. Boxing was one profession where a man’s skin colour might for once work in his favour, and not against him.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 the family returned to Manchester and Billy joined the British army. When he was old enough Len went to work at Crossley Engines in the foundry, later joined by his brother Albert. Len got into a fight at work with another young lad and their father took the two brothers to see some boxing matches at the Alhambra on Ashton Old Road. To Len’s great surprise (and it has to be said consternation) his father arranged for him to box in a few bouts in the hall. Totally inexperienced, Len won his two fights but then lost the next two. His boxing career seemed to be over.

A few weeks later, however, he was persuaded by friends to enter a competition at a boxing booth at Gorton fair, run by Bert Hughes. Hughes was impressed and offered Len a job. It lasted six months, during which time Len greatly improved his boxing skills and stamina. Len was to be part of the world of boxing booths for the next twenty years.

Len’s first official fight as a professional boxer was on 31 January 1922 against Eddie Pearson at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. His professional career lasted eleven years, during which he fought some 127 contests, winning 92, losing 29 and drawing 6. He fought in Europe on a number of occasions, spent 6 months in Australia in 1926 where he had 8 fights, and also visited the United States (but did not succeed in being matched). For most of his career he fought as a middle-weight.

Len came to national attention after defeating Roland Todd (a former European and British champion) twice in 1926 in front of packed houses at Belle Vue. In 1927 he defeated Len Harvey, who later to become the British middleweight champion. In January 1928 he defeated Gipsy Daniels, a recent British light-heavyweight champion. In November of that year he defeated Leone Jaccovacci, the European middleweight champion, in a non-title fight before a home crowd at Belle Vue, Manchester. In December 1929 he defeated Michele Bonaglia, the cruiserweight champion of Europe, also in Manchester. Once again the title was not at stake.

Len’s victories had brought him to forefront of British boxing and he should by rights have been entitled to a chance at the British middle-weight championship. The British Boxing Board of Control, which ran the game, refused to allow this on the grounds that Len was black, even though he had been born in Britain. This was matter of Imperial politics, pure and simple. Behind this decision was the fear that the myth of white superiority, the political principle on which the vast British Empire was based, would be undermined if white boxers were seen to lose to black boxers. Despite protest from many quarters and controversy in the boxing and Manchester press, the sporting and political establishment closed ranks against Len.

Disillusioned, Len bought his own boxing booth and toured Britain, occasionally returning to the ring. In May 1932 Len Harvey did agree to face Len in a fight which was billed as being for the British middle-weight championship but was not recognised as such by the BBBC. Len lost to Harvey after a tough fight. His last appearance in the ring was on 12 October 1933, losing to Jim Winters in Edinburgh.

For the rest of the decade Len continued to tour with his booth. He also turned his hand to writing , producing a series of short stories set in the world of boxing which were published in Topical Times. He seems to have given up his booth shortly before the war started. During the war he worked in the Civil Defence Corps and later as a Civil Defence instructor. After the war he worked as bus driver and later as a lorry driver for Jack Silverman in Oldham.

Towards the end of the war he had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain which was then at the height of its prestige after the part played by the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler. Len seems to have to been politicised by his own experiences of prejudice and racism. He also met Paul Robeson on one of his trips to England in the early 1930s and stayed in contact with him. Len was very active in the party until the early 1960s.

In October 1945 Len attended the 5th Pan African Congress, held in Manchester, which was very significant event in determining the course of the post-war anti-colonial struggle. Together with two other party members – Syd Booth and Wilf Charles – Len founded the New International Society, a club in Moss Side which combined social and political activities and ran for several years. In May 1949, for instance, Paul Robeson visited the club and sang to the people in the street and Len spoke at the same platform as Paul later that evening at a big rally at the King’s Hall, Belle Vue ( the site of many of his boxing triumphs in the 1920s)

Len also stood for the council on six occasions in Moss Side between 1947 and 1962, though he never attracted more than a handful of votes. In the mid 1950s he wrote a monthly column for the Daily Worker. Len was also active in the campaign for Paul Robeson, whose passport had been withdrawn by the US government preventing him travelling abroad. On 11 March 1956 there was a public meeting in the Lesser Free Trade Hall at which a special recording from Paul Robeson was played.

In his later years Len suffered much ill-health, perhaps as a result of his many matches, far more than would be allowed nowadays. At some point in the 1950s he spent several months convalescing at a Black Sea resort in the Soviet Union.

His last years were spent in Waterloo Street, Oldham, where he lived with his partner Maria Reid. He was not forgotten though. Members of the Ex-Boxers Association in Manchester held a collection and delivered a TV and groceries . Len died on 28 September 1974 at Oldham General Hospital. The Morning Star ran an obituary written by Jim Arnison.

Len was a major figure in C20th British boxing, though he never held any titles, and he was important activist in the labour movement in Manchester in the 1940s and 1950s. He deserves to be remembered.

Michael Herbert’s biography of Len Johnson, Never Counted Out! was published in 1992 and is available via the author at mossley [at] phonecoop.coop

Article by Michael Herbert