AUDIO CONTENT WARNING: description of extreme racist violence
In 1993, Black British teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racist attack that sparked a long fight for justice and led the UK to ask questions of itself and its institutions. Three decades on – with The Runnymede Trust’s Shabna Begum, and Suresh Grover of The Monitoring Group – Karis Campion of the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre hosts this special episode to ask: who are we now? What happened to anti-racist solidarity and how can it progress?
Karis and guests reflect on the fragmentation of “political blackness”, “monitoring” as a radical act inspired by The Black Panther Party, and the importance of showing systemic racism while doing justice to individual lives. Plus: what does social media offer to anti-racism when the internet provides fertile ground for prejudice? And what are the costs of fighting for change in an unjust world?
With reference to the activist writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan, the feminist scholar Audre Lorde, the social geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and more. A collaboration between the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre and The Sociological Review.
Guests: Suresh Grover, Shabna Begum
Host: Karis Campion
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
From Karis, Shabna and Suresh
Find out more about Quddus Ali and the cases of Michael Menson, Ricky Reel, Rolan Adams and Rohit Duggal, as well as the activist Claudia Jones.
Rosie Hancock 0:06
Hi, it's Rosie here from Uncommon Sense, and this month, you're not going to hear the usual show from me and Alexis. Instead, we're bringing you this special episode in collaboration with the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre. It's hosted by our friend and colleague Karis Campion, a senior Legacy in Action research fellow at that institution. And it's part of events marking three decades since a racist murder that led Britain to ask profound questions of itself. And that continues to raise questions about racism, justice, social change, and solidarity. Over to Karis now, and we'll be back with you next month.
Karis Campion 0:49
Stephen Lawrence – you will know the name, I hope, though ideally, you wouldn't. A black teenager murdered in a racist attack at South East London bus stop in 1993. The initial investigation so arrests but no convictions. Two men were eventually sentenced in 2012. And Steven's parents – Doreen and Neville – soon began their own family campaign for justice. In 1999, the McPherson report – following a public inquiry – concluded that institutional racism in the Met Police had played a part in the flawed investigation. It also made recommendations for change. Now 30 years on from the murder, it's worth asking what has changed –not just in terms of policing or policy – but in terms of who we all are now, how we might come together, and what still keeps us apart. I'm Karis Campion and my work is about building knowledge of how racism and ideas of race shape life in Britain today. And using that to add to social justice agendas. Doing that work, I'm often inspired by the archive here, the Steven Laurence Research centre, full of items that remind us that Stephen's life, his story, began way before 1993. And the common story we know about him is connected to other stories and other histories – including of racial injustice. Today, in the spirit of Uncommon Sense, I want to talk about a word that's essential for anti-racism: solidarity. Beyond cliches of fists in the air or grandstanding at the Oscars, I'll be asking my guests about the true meaning of that word. What it's meant before, what it means now, what it takes, and how it can then act in a way that does justice to Steven and those the sharp end of racism in the UK today. Though, ultimately, of course, racism harms us all. My guest today is Suresh Grover, a founder and director of the Monitoring Group – one of the UK is oldest community based anti–racist organisations. Since 1981, it's campaigned and advocated for the victims of street and state racism and their families. It played an important role in supporting the Lawrence family campaign. Also, here is Shabna Begum, head of Research at the race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust. Her first book has just come out –on the Bengali squatters movement in East London in the 1970s – which is itself a fascinating story of solidarity. So thanks for being here, guys. Before we get going, I want to ask each of you about your own early memories of solidarity. So how you experienced it personally, in your kind of earlier years. Suresh, I know that you grew up in a small town called Nelson in Lancashire, in the Northwest of England, when did solidarity come to mean something to you? Can you talk about that a bit?
Suresh Grover 3:51
I was very young man, doing my O-Levels in a comprehensive school. And as a young man, I got beaten up, I got stabbed by people who used to be in the same school as I was. What happens is – before the stabbing, before the fights – groups of people, supported and kind of run by people who call themselves a skinheads – openly racist, war chant – "Enoch is right". And they were referring to Enoch Powell, who was in the 19... late 60s, Conservative Party politician. He did this famous "Rivers of blood" speech where he spoke about the prospect of violence and brutality simply because it was the emergence of multiculturalism and in, in Britain. So for many of the racists on the streets, he was very popular, he was a hero. And in a school of 1000 children, there were only 10 Asian kids, not a single African Caribbean student. You know, you get isolated, you get beaten up, the teachers and the Head Teachers turned a blind eye. Every single friend of mine in that school who was Asian got beaten up. And you get totally paralysed by the fear of being beaten up again and again and again, and you don't know who to turn to. And I remember three young girls – pupils in my class – just came to us, as Asian boys and actually sat next to us. And in fact, one of them asked me whether I would go out with her. I think that's her way of dealing with the magnitude of the problem, just offering that support, that emotional support. But I was so angry, not just at being beaten up, but also because none of the teachers or the school had, did anything to prevent the problem or actually deal with it. And when I reported to the police, the police inspector took a statement and never actually dealt with it. I saw, I saw the perpetrators that meet on a daily basis, coming near our house, passing our window. And that gesture of these young girls has remained – and is actually in my memory for a long time. And I think people going out of the way – knowing that there's a wave of violence against people who are not white – standing up and just doing the small gestures. But that action is a really courageous, small – but it's very courageous – step for those girls to take. And I've always remembered that.
Karis Campion 6:33
Thanks, Suresh, that's a really powerful story. I want to just see what Shabna, Shabna's, personal experiences of solidarity were as well, early experiences. Shabna, you grew up in a very different context in London. I think you were born around the same time as Stephen Lawrence. And in your book you write about the reverberations of his murder and the shock. And but you also talk, interestingly, about another young man, a Bengali man named Quddus Ali, and you talk about what you describe as the changing mood music at the time – in the 90s, when this was happening. Can you tell us a bit more about that? What it was like for you as a young person of colour, growing up at that, at that period?
Shabna Begum 7:19
Thanks, Karis. And it's really interesting Suresh, what you describe, we should probably say that she may well have fancied you as well, Suresh. So that might have been the reason why she did ask you out. I think what Suresh described there about solidarity, in terms of friendship. I think that as a child, and when I was growing up, I think that I understood solidarity in terms of friendship. As a primary school kid, I actually grew up in Southeast London, and grew up on a very white working class estate – and we were the only family of colour on that estate. And the friendships that were extended to us on that estates were from – and again, when we think about class, we often think about it in this kind of really big solid way. And actually, within that there are all sorts of layers. And it was the people who are very, right at the very bottom of that kind of working class. There was one particular family – she was from a single parent, she had a single mum. And so the extension of friendship came from the people who were the outcasts within that estate. And so that solidarity for me, when I was very young, was the friendship – just like Suresh described – that was extended by other people who found themselves on the outside, but not because of race. So they were white, but they were outcasts for different reasons. And we kind of formed a friendship around the fact that we knew that we weren't welcomed. And then into those teenage years and the time when Stephen Lawrence was killed, by that time, I had moved and I was now living in Hackney, I was closer to Tower Hamlets. And I think by that stage – what happened with the murder of Stephen Lawrence, but then the attack on Quddus Ali – was that I was connecting those dots and beginning to think about how racism operates in that way to kind of marginalise different groups, has very different stories to tell about us, but very kind of similar experiences of violence. And so Solidarity was about beginning to connect those dots between different experiences, and finding or having conversations with other young people to see what our place and what our role was within that.
Karis Campion 9:31
That's such a good point that we want to pick up on later on – about drawing connections between these different cases – to show that racism is systemic. But I want to just bring us back now, specifically, as well to the case of Stephen, and I'd like to get a picture of the political response on the ground that emerged at the time. I guess we'll think about this as the formal forms of political solidarity. So Suresh, we know of course, there was a family campaign for justice, which included the private prosecution. And I mentioned that McPherson report in the introduction. But more broadly, can you take us back to that time and talk a bit about how solidarity emerged, what it looked like, immediately following the murder of Stephen Lawrence in your memory? How did momentum grow? And what kind of anti-racist groups were involved, including, obviously, the monitoring group,
Suresh Grover 10:30
Let's remember that Eltham at that time – even according to the reports that were coming out – was known as a racist murder capital of England. And every time they turned up on the street, the incidence of violence or what we call racial harassment increased at that time. So it wasn't a surprise that somebody had been killed, because nobody actually listened to communities that were arguing for better protection. So when Stephen was murdered – I don't want to go through the history of what the family went through, because that's detailed – but in terms specifically about your question of solidarity, I think the key moments – the first is the first week or two or three were lots of organisations, including CARA, which was a local anti-racist, came to the area, provided the support. Anti-Racist Alliance, which had been established within the Labour Party, came and offered its support and actually develop the campaign before I got involved. And then you have this majestic movement, where a world statesman – Nelson Mandela – calls the campaign and said he wants to meet the Lawrence family. And then he comes out and says "I've heard the Lawrence family and black lives are as cheap in this country as they are are in South Africa". And for a world statesmen to say that is a unique moment in British race relations history. And actually what happens is the press go absolutely berserk about who are the Lawrence cases, etc. And then you have loads of trade union movements – I think, what, I think what people have – when they talk about the Lawrence stuff, they talk about the inquiry, and they talk about the prosecution. They don't talk about actually, the sacrifices, the momentum, the heartache, the pain, the actual abysmal response of the government at that time, towards the Lawrence family, the lack of police sensitivity – and the building blocks of building a campaign and making that case into what it was. It required families to be tenacious, and be very bold and fearless. It required a campaign that was able to galvanise support and build solidarity around the family – through the trade union movement, through working class groups, through feminist groups, through different justice campaigns that have been established in that period, over that period. And then you had the legal team – which was able to be accountable to the family and actually understood the dimension, and pervasiveness of racism in the country – and was able to argue throughout the whole process of how devastating it was for the family, and how negligent the police had been. Remember that we're talking about 1993 – it's a long time ago – if you talked about human rights, you were seen as a troublemaker, as a lawyer. So every time you criticise the police – for its lack of investigation, institutional racism – you were almost always seen as a troublemaker. And it's only after the inquiry that the seige begins to change, take place because you have an authoritative figure, the establishment, an official inquiry – which for the first time, actually through the legacy of racist murder – comes to a conclusion that the reason why the police failed the family is because of institutional racism. But that debate of institutional racism has been going on for decades. So I think what happened by the time it came to the inquiry was there was such a momentum of solidarity, of people coming together towards... and gravitating towards the family, that in a defecto way – almost accidentally – the family became the face of a greater tragedy that Britain has been experiencing.
Karis Campion 14:40
You trace so nicely the steps they took to get to that inquiry, to get to that landmark report. I think it's quite interesting people – you look at the case, and it's like, he was murdered in 93, the government took it up and that was it. And you know, there was so much work that happened between that, and between those points. And all the different people that are involved. It's such an eclectic group, so many moving parts – national,international, local solidarity. I want to bring you back to the this question again of like solidarity within, between those different groups and all those moving parts. In your memory, was solidarity a word that was actively used by different campaigners, and by these different groups after the murder in 93?
Suresh Grover 15:29
Solidarity was a key word for us and had been repeatedly being used for when we were supporting other campaigns or other communities. I mean, I live in Southall, we set up a grouping of people which collected money for the miners, during the miners strike in 84 – in fact, we had a Black aggregation to the miners, and we connected with Black miners. Within the Lawrence campaign, there was a total, an emergence of I mean, I, we – at that time, we called ourselves Black communities. It's only now that I started using Black and Asian. So the mixture of Black working class women, brown people coming together using solidarity quite frequently. And actually, the collective memory of experiencing racism brought people together. I remember a discussion where I was having with, you know, women activists, and they thought Solidarity was Male term, and we needed a different term, which was more feminist. I didn't grasp it and probably haven't grasped it still. Not that I reject any idea of feminising the notions of struggle – but yes, it was it was very commonly used, it was distinctively understood. And if you were anti-racist – growing up in the 1970s, and 80s, like I was – you actively supported struggles internationally – not just locally, domestically. So I've grown up in Southall, supporting struggles in Soweto in South Africa. It was as if somebody had been beaten up in Soweto, and you felt the pain in Southall.
Karis Campion 17:11
It's very impressive – and we're going to talk about it later on as well –how you made those international connections, pre-internet age. But I want to, one of the things that I found really interesting that you said, was specifically in relation to solidarity, that you said the women felt that it was a masculine term. Shabna,, I would like to bring you in to respond to that. What do you think about that – and the connotations of gender – that come out of the word solidarity?
Shabna Begum 17:43
I'm just reflecting on it as Suresh has said that, and in my mind, I can see why it would be kind of sometimes thought off in that way. Because I think solidarity is often expressed in that kind of, where politics is in that very overt kind of movement, organising way. And if we tend to think of those spaces as being dominated by men, then I can see why you would make that association. But that is not how I feel about the word. For me, I've never felt excluded by that term. And it's always been a term of affection for me. But I get that it's often associated with a specific type of politics, which can feel quite exclusive.
Karis Campion 18:25
I like the the way you've talked about it as affectionate, about the care that comes from that term, that's a really lovely way to think of it. Okay, so I'm going to move us on now, we're going back to you, Suresh. I would like you to talk about the term "monitoring" in your organization's name. I don't think it's necessarily a word that people would associate with radical forms of resistance or progressive anti- racism, maybe. But actually, I know that it's been inspired by the work of the Black Panthers?
Suresh Grover 19:01
Yes, the word "monitoring" in 1981 was mainly used in this country by policymakers. But actually, we, within the grassroot movement, were really not involved in the discourse and the narratives of policymakers. 81 is a pivotal period for us if I can just reflect back. It's the first time that the GLC (Greater London Council) becomes quite open to listening to Black, brown and women's voices within London – before then we were totally excluded. As a young man who was active, wanted to change, the Southall, Tower Hamlets, Moss Side – whatever areas you want to talk of, where there were urban centres – have very strong, vocal voices of resisting racism and building support and solidarity across them. But we were never listened to, we were always kept out. I grew up in an area where there's been quite strong tensions – uprisings, if I can call it – on issues to do with racism. And so when your back is against the wall, you begin to look at other examples of resistance. And as a young man, with other women in Southall, we started looking at the Black Panthers, South African struggle – that's how we came through Steve Biko, in our writings – there is a conversation that takes place between the leadership of the Black Panther Party – a conversation between Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and other people – where in Chicago, because there's such immense police violence and stop and searching and actually killing of young African American men, they start following police officers after they suffer incidents of brutality. And that following police officers, racist officers, white supremacist... officers who had white supremacist ideology or framework around them, was we translated that to the monitoring in the British concept. So for us, it was a term where we would monitor, follow actively – not just in terms of policy, but also in terms of their action – including any officers who had repeated actions or complaint against them of racism, etc., okay. So it comes from the Black Panther history, because they are also organising issues to deal with self-defence.
Karis Campion 21:37
Shabna, how, how do you relate to this idea of monitoring? Is it something that you would use to describe the work that you do at the Runneymede trust?
Shabna Begum 21:47
When in terms of Runnymede, I think that the role of monitoring is a really important one for organisations where we are – as Black minority ethnic communities in the UK – we're subjected to state power, to state surveillance. And I think the ability for us to be able to monitor the state is really, really important. I would argue that that's what Runnymede does in lots of ways with the research that we do. So for example, that one of the most recent reports that we did was about the numbers of police officers in schools. Now, the state doesn't offer out that information. We used free information requests to try and find out what that kind of looked like. And for us, that's, that's what monitoring is – it's about holding the state accountable. And having done that, through that piece of research, we asked the question about what,what's, what's the, what's the utility of having police officers in schools, and who does it harm?. And our argument was clearly –particularly as we were kind of provoked to do that piece of research because of the events of what happened to child Q – where a young child in school was stripped, searched by police officers, without an appropriate adult present. We were inspired to do that piece of research, because we wanted to find out what was going on with police officers in schools, what the harm was, and our argument was clearly that that harm was unacceptably and disproportionately impacted on Black and minority ethnic young children. So yeah, there is a clear monitoring role, I think, in the research that we do, because it's about holding the state accountable.
Karis Campion 23:21
Thanks Shabna, that's so useful to think about how monitoring, you know, what it means for both of you and the different spaces that you've worked in, both now and historically. So that's really great, thank you. And it's also kind of making me think about just what the point of research is generally, like – in think tanks, in academia. And I think like you say, it's really important. I think the abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore speaks specifically about this, that we need to understand how oppressive structures work in order to make them fall apart. So it's kind of reinterpreting the world, but with the intention of changing it. So the monitoring leads to that to that change and that intervention. We hope. So thanks for those answers, they were brilliant, really, really insightful. So we're going to move on now. And this is to you Suresh – I'm wondering how you navigated the challenge of showing Stephens case was – unfortunately – not exceptional. That racism, as we've talked about, was institutional systemic, and unfortunately, part of everyday Britain – and not just unique to London either. So again, we're thinking here specifically about making connections between different cases that might seem random when they're reported in the media, but in fact, there's a deeper social history there that you obviously know so much about.
Suresh Grover 24:43
Yeah, so there are three levels of different sorts of actions we took that showed that Stephen's case wasn't exceptional, and it actually was a lived experience for the Black communities at that time. And actually, we use similar formula that Shabna is talking about in terms of building an evidence base to show that some policies, retrogressive or is disproportionately used against our communities. I mean, when you're dealing with the state, and you put forward an argument, the first kind of response by the state is – oh, we'll do a bit of research. And sometimes research is just there for the thinking and for thinkings sake, it doesn't lead to doing, so we needed to develop a strategy where thinking led to doing and what questions you ask lead to positive changes if possible. It's very important framework to have as a campaigner. So as I said, the first point was to keep on showing to the police that in the Lawrence case, there were failings and they needed to investigate properly. And that racially motivated murders, or what we call hate crimes now, are socially impactful, because there's come from socially constructed ideas or, or negative ideas about Black communities, generally. And to show that actually, racism was a problem – not black people themselves. How do you put that on the agenda? So you showed the collective similar experience of different families that separation has when you bring it up to the open. So in the Lawrence case, when I was coordinating the campaign, during the private prosecution and the public inquiry, we also brought different experiences of different families, Michael Menson was a young man, for example, killed on the North Circular, burnt by racists, because he had 30 degrees burn to his body and he couldn't speak, the police immediately stereotyped him as mentally unstable and took him to hospital and then take a statement from him. His brother Kwes Menson took a statement, and it became obvious that he'd been set on fire deliberately because he was – as the perpetrators used the "N word" against him – it was racially motivated. And the inquest jury discarded the police evidence and said it was unlawful killing, the police actually said it was suicide, initially. And the campaign developed over that period – actually after the inquest – forced the police to investigate this murder, and they charged three people, including one who ran to Cyprus. And we actually went to Cyprus, and got a conviction there. I was also involved in coordinating Ricky Reel case – the police still haven't charged anyone with his killers. So you, we have a number of campaigns – in public exposure, where people could see that there were other cases of similar nature. More importantly, when we look at the inquiry framework, we argued that Lawrence inquiry should be in two parts. The first part, we look at the circumstances that led to Stephen's murder. The second part is a lessons learned. So McPherson and his advisors went to different towns and heard evidence from different people. And the second part looks at the commonality of experience and lack of a unique nature in terms of racism, and how communities and statutory agencues were responding to the problem in 1998 when the inquiry took place. I think that third part is building resilience amongst our communities, so their voice become much more open. At the inquiry – apart from the Stephen Lawrence campaign, and the family Solicitor making statements – we galvanised a public gallery also making statements after hearing evidence on a daily basis.
Karis Campion 29:05
That's brilliant. I mean, bringing those stories in as well – like some of those names – it's not a given that people know of these, these kind of histories. So it's it's important that I guess the McPherson report, on inquiry, gave you – like you say – a kind of an opportunity to bring in this lived experience in this wider systemic problem. It makes me think a little bit about Gary Younge's "Another day in the death of America," which when he takes a single day, November 2013, just a normal average day, and just traces the 10 children and teenagers that are killed by gunfire within a kind of 24 hour period. And when you're kind of like reading out the stories and names. it's so reminiscent of that – you can kind of take, we think of Stephen as this kind of pivotol case, in this awful moment – which it is, of course, but then when you start to talk about these stories, it's just shocking when you think about – you could take any given day, then we can start to think about all the everyday experiences of state violence, police violence that happen in the UK. So it's quite, it really brings it home. So thank you for sharing that and getting to think about how that sort of detail made its way into the report and inquiry. I just wanted to see what Shabna's thoughts are on this – particularly the need to produce narratives that highlight the systemic problem – but without dehumanising the people involved, so without reducing them to statistics. And I guess it's a tough balance, isn't it, highlighting these cases, but also thinking about the everydayness of them? And how you manage that tension?
Shabna Begum 30:41
Yeah, I think you're right. And I think we struggle with that all the time, as researchers at Runnymede, because we're always trying to make the case that often people's kind of understanding, or the kind of the average understanding of racism is that it's kind of individual and intentional. And you know, if you can kind of change that, then you address racism. And people's understanding of what – when we talk about structural or systemic or institutional racism – is often kind of people disengage or feel kind of lost when you begin to kind of talk in those terms. And so we're often kind of trying to think about how do you help people to understand that when we're talking about systemic and structural racism, you do that big picture, you do the data, you talk about the outcomes from the education system, the health system, the labour market and you look at how – actually this idea that these institutions operate, fairly or meritocratically – are completely kind of undermined by the data that shows that absolutely, they don't. But it's that tension between kind of talking at that big scale, and showing that broad picture, but giving people the ability to engage with that at a kind of more human level. And so we always think about how using individual stories and letting people speak in their own words – we talk a lot more about kind of using participatory methodologies in order to ensure that the people who are most impacted in those stats are the people who are able to voice what those experiences actually mean.
Karis Campion 32:14
Thanks for that context as well – thinking about the Runnymede particularly Shabna is reminding me of Ambalavaner Sivanandan taking over the Institute of race relations in the early 1970s. I guess part of the grievance was that he was, he saw race relations as – not as an issue that's happening between white people and people of colour on the ground – he saw race relations in terms of looking at the relations between people of colour and power structures and how those relations take place and how those relations shape the everyday experiences of those people. and I guess that was part of some of the, yeah, the impetus for the takeover, if you like, at that point and the new direction that the institutes took. It sounds like how you think about your work seems to have synergies with that, we'll take inspiration from some of those historical moments. And then obviously, on that point, Sivanandan is working at a time where political Blackness was a very important framework for understanding the struggles of the diverse communities of colour in Britain – particularly in the 70s and the 80s – so I guess this harkens back to the point about connecting lives and stories. So Shabna, I want to turn to you to talk a bit more about political Blackness – which was so powerful – what started to fragment, I guess, from the mid 80s onwards. Can you tell me about that, and how you think it relates to solidarity, then how it informs solidarity, now, if at all? It'd be great if you could talk specifically about your work on the Bengali squatters movement as well as part of that.
Shabna Begum 33:50
Yeah, I guess – like Suresh, I think I grew up, I was growing up in the 1980s, 1990s – and I used the term black to describe myself and my identity. Tt's not one that I would use now, because I recognise that there's lots of kind of tension around that term now. And I think I don't feel as comfortable using that – although I'm nostalgic for it – and I'm nostalgic for it, because I think it represents a kind of unifying political identity that really was of value – particularly in the 1970s struggle that I researched. So my background is before I came to the Runnymede trust, I was doing some research based on a Bengali squatters movement in the 1970s in East London. So the Bengali community's connection to these to East London dates back hundreds of years through kind of before Empire – through the East India Company, and, and then Empire, and, and then the post-colonial period in terms of kind of the World Wars. So there's a long connection between Bengali community and East London. But in the 1970s, what you saw was the immigration laws changing and so what had previously been Bengali single migrant men kind of living and working in East London, they the restrictions on the immigration laws inspired lots of those men to decide to bring their families over. And it created a housing crisis because even though those men had often been there for kind of 10, 15 years – my dad was one of those – they were not entitled to council housing or social housing, based on kind of just some kind of very awkward and difficult rules that the housing authorities applied. And that along with the rise of National Front violence at the time, meant that the Bengali community are very much a community under siege. And they decided – with the support of Race Today activists – who were Black Power activists – Darcus Howe, Mala Sen, Farrukh Dhondy – who came along to support what was, what started off as individual families squatting and taking homes to themselves in this very small area in East London. And for the Race Today activists, they came along and saw that – here were migrant families being refused housing by an institutionally racist housing system. And they saw that and they kind of connected the dots about kind of what it meant about colonialism, migration, and experiences of institutional racism. And they lent their support. They helped organise that community. And there was a squatters movement that was born. And so you had hundreds of Bengali families who were occupying houses and who were trying to secure tenancies for themselves. And political blackness in that context was very much an alive and kicking concept. So the Bengali community – at the at the time – the the activist, squatter activists very much saw themselves as being, and described themselves as being Black and as being part of this kind of big movement across South Asian, Caribbean and African kind of migrant communities. And for me, that was really important to how and why that community was so successful in winning the tenancies. And by 1978, the council had acquiesced they, there was no kind of way that they could fight against a number of Bengali squatters that had kind of taken over the properties. So they won – and for me, that is a kind of a movement where you saw different communities coming together and taking action together and winning for themselves the right social housing.
Karis Campion 37:29
What a great story. I guess the period you're talking about is at the height of political blackness, really, when they were saying they came on board. And that was pivotal to the success of the movement, which is the soul – you know, yeah – it's just so important to hear the success stories that came off the back of political blackness that that, that time. Shabna, again – just to get you to think a little bit more about why political blackness has ultimately fragmented? Maybe that's a big question – but what is its condition today? Like. can you talk a little bit about about that? Maybe you can't say the why. Maybe that's a big one.
Shabna Begum 38:07
I think perhaps I can say a little bit about why I think it fractured, I think that kind of you know – we had the 1980s, we had the Conservative government, we've had kind of a real emphasis on this kind of liberal, individualistic, identity kind of politics, which I think is useful. I think the idea of kind of our – the various different kind of facets of our identity are important. And I talk a lot about that in my work – and particularly about the Bengali squatters – about how even within that movement, the role of women was often kind of silenced and erased from it. And so I think it is important for us to explore and be sensitive to the different kinds of identities that we bring to our political struggles – and the intersection of our political struggles. But I think that that's what happened, was that I think that there was a fracturing of identities, where we began to think of ourselves much more around these kind of separate identities and thinking very specifically about what each one of these meant in terms of our experiences and what those solutions might be. And I think that is a necessary part of kind of organising and thinking. But I think that it can also become quite fracturing of solidarity and kind of weaken movements. I think we're at a time now where we talk a lot about what kind of terms to use. And I think there's lots of sensitivity about the idea of Black and using the term Black and that it has to be applied to a very specific experience. And I get that and I think that... but yeah, I still remain nostalgic for kind of the solidarity that it bought previously, and also the power that I think that solidarity brought.
Karis Campion 38:23
Thanks so much Shabna, for trying to chase that it's a big thing to trace and to understand and to conceptualise, isn't it like. that, kind of. People outside the UK context don't even... like the Americans and stuff like "what" don't understand what political blackness was. So it's really nice to hear you talk about what it meant for people living through that moment. So, we're going to come back in a moment and we'll talk a bit more about the internet and solidarity. But now, a quick word from our producer, Alice.
Alice Bloch 40:25
Hi, and thanks for joining us for this special edition of Uncommon Sense. Perhaps you'd like to take a look at our archive, there among episodes on themes like security, cities and care, you'll find Remi Joseph-Salisbury talking about police in schools – something Shabna mentioned earlier. Please do tap follow in the app you're using to hear this to make sure you never miss a new release. But for now, back to Karis.
Karis Campion 40:54
So as I mentioned, I'm based at the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, where we have a huge archive of materials related to Stephen's case. Looking through it, I've been reminded of how different the story of Stephen's murder and the subsequent campaign may have been if it happened now – today – in 2023, in the internet age, when racist violence is so easily shared and consumed online. And where solidarity can be expressed not with victims of racism, just within the UK. But as far as those suffering from these injustices in Los Angeles, Minneapolis to Memphis. Suresh, do you think the internet would have facilitated solidarity around Stephen's case in a different way? Or do you think it brings its own dangers, perhaps dangers that you've seen in cases you've worked on since then? I guess you can trace the before and after almost.
Suresh Grover 41:51
I think if it was used as a campaigning tool it could be effective. But I think, my work and our work, and many people I know who've been working for the last 40 years, on issues of racism, believe that there's nothing more important than face to face connections with people. I know social media can galvanise people on particular areas of contention or concern. But they're very short lived experiences of... they, in my view, I mean, I... – I do a lot of meetings online, and did during COVID stuff – the person to person communities connection, the connection of bringing different people and ideas and decision making doesn't take place in the same way as you would fill a hall in a room. So I think there are negative and positive things, uses of social media.
Karis Campion 42:47
So facilitates things but there's that kind of different level of connection that happens face to face that the internet can't necessarily replace. Shabna, how do you think the internet has changed how anti-racism and solidarity between different groups, campaigners is done? I guess it's a place where anti-racism and broader social movements can manifest and networks can be created off the back of that. But it's also a place, obviously, where racism can grow and manifests too. So yeah, can you tell us a bit more about your thoughts on this?
Shabna Begum 43:23
Yeah, I think on that, on that last point, Karis, we know that we have seen a rise in far right violence, we've seen the way that the language that mainstream politicians are using is highly inflammatory. And that's even more so in that online space. So it can definitely be a place of, of harm and damage and growing racism. But I think that it's really difficult because I'm of a generation where I'm not social media savvy – you know, I'm in my 40s – but I was in schools this week, in Eltham actually – so speaking to young people about their experiences of life in Eltham in 2023 – 30 years on from Stephen Lawrence. And for them, the internet is such an important part of their lives, and they talked very much about being engaged with the BLM Movement, for example. And so I think there is something really important about how social media both democratises and connects people – and especially as young people aren't necessarily consumers of the kind of traditional media in the way that we might have been, or might be. And I think that if the traditional media is often hostile, and inaccessible to our young people in our communities, and the messages that we have, the social media and online spaces is a place where actually, it is a space where they have felt much more comfortable than my generation do. But I I agree with Suresh that I think there's... it's about making the connection between the kind of online activism and connection and the offline. So trying to connect the two up and, and sometimes they do, you know – there were so many gatherings during COVID that were organised via social media. And I think that lots of those demonstrations kind of, they were there – they were momentary, and we connected up and we were there in a space, and we, we took the knee and we were silent for those eight minutes. And then we all kind of went away. And I think that what we need to do is find ways of, kind of, keeping that engagement. And so I think Suresh is right – that it can, it can activate, it can connect, and we need to find ways of making sure that the offline and online world can kind of connect more going forward.
Karis Campion 45:36
Yeah, it's a resource, it sounds like it's a place to gain knowledge, but then also a place to like, practice that and do you know, enact that. So it's really interesting. And young people as well, they're the best. they've got all the insights, haven't they? They'll tell us – I always thought – they'll tell us how useful it is. Okay, so you talked, both of you mentioned, Black Lives Matter – and I guess when me and Alice were talking about this episode, we thought about the Arab Spring as well, and like WhatsApp – and major social movements, revolutionary moments, have kind of come off the back of like the uses of social media and the internet. So the internet and social media have been central to the success and profile of, of certain movements. Suresh, I'm wondering what new models of solidarity and hope movements like Black Lives Matter, might offer us, thinking about the future and hopeful futures?
Suresh Grover 46:23
I mean, you mentioned the Arab Spring and you've mentioned Black Lives Matter. Both have relied heavily on social media to mobilise. In the context of Arab Spring is iextremely draconian legislation, draconian governments trying to ban any form of political formation – similar to what we're seeing in Iran at the moment – in that space, social media is very critical. And it's the only – sometimes – the only way of organising. In US the Black Lives Matter is successful. But there are different chapters that have different variants, depending on which city you go to. So you have a mixture of different identities in New York – from transgender, LGBTQ, and black working families. In areas where there are deaths of black people, by police, state agencies, you have large Black working class communities, mobilising in different ways. It's a constellation of different forces. But what's common about it is that – in fact, I've just returned from United States – speaking to some people on how they've organised, not just on mobilising to expose state forms of racism and brutality, but also how the far right have organised, globally, using social media. And I think what's critical about the Black Lives Matter movement, generally – you can't talk about it as an organisation. As I said, it's a constellation of different forces – is how social media tools have been used to expose and film the event as it takes place. it's really critical. And actually, you see the proportion of people using that form of social media – If you compare Black young people and White people – Black young people, African Americans use it much more, because that's the only vehicle that they have to expose their lived experience in terms of police. Actually is a new form of police monitoring, and exposure. In the British context – I have very close friends who are part of BLM leadership in UK – think you cannot organise just by social media on its own. And the reason for that is the composition of Black/Brown communities is very different, and its history is very different – predominantly working class, organising in working class communities. So conveniently, actions become as important as social media led demonstrations in Hyde Park. And the reason for that is very simple, because some of the most innovative innovative struggles that have taken place – whether it's in Brixton or Leeds – have been established in areas that have been built by Black and Brown people directly. The Black communities did not come out of thin air. What actually happened was our fathers and mothers came here to build post-war Britain, but they were denied the accolades that came out of it, and began to settle in the rubbles of inner city decay. So Brixton, Southall or East London that Shabna speaks of, actually is built around that.
Karis Campion 46:44
So Suresh, I know you were inspired by Stuart Hall – and I think it's, I find it useful myself to turn to writings from Stuart and people like Audrey Lorde, who speaks specifically about the uses of anger, and doing anti-racism. And this idea that we shouldn't kind of fear this anger but put it to use. And of course, Audrey Lorde also talks a lot about doing self-care within that work, you know, because it takes its toll – doing activism in a world of injustice. And that makes me want to ask you, particularly about the costs of doing activism. And doing it for so long – it's been more than 40 years since the founding of the monitoring group. How have you kept a level head? Or what would your advice be for others in doing this, this work –and also caring for your, you know, yourself, and...
Suresh Grover 50:28
Of course, I have a lot of respect for Stuart Hall. But I also have respect for people like Claudia Jones, and Angela Davis, and Sivanandan. I think we all too often forget women who are very inspiring and our anti-racist work, rather than just being feminists, etc. It's important to mention that because you can't deal with issues to do with race unless you also deal with issues to do with misogyny, especially now in communities. And the monitoring groups have built on that – I mean, South Black Sisters came directly from the monitor, Southall monitoring group – to establish women's perspective, independent, unconditional support in an area that was patriarchal and still is very patriarchal. I just want to say that because I think it's important to make that point. Look, there's no formula for longevity. Lots of people I know have become members of parliament, or .... or Queen's counsels. But I think what's very, very, very crucial is we always bring out the factual experience of people – you do not need to exaggerate it. There's always evidence that exist, you just need to see it. And you have to be very relentless to support individuals and communities and societies who suffer discrimination, oppression or are marginalised. And you build resilience by not being overwhelmed by people in power, or being fearful of them. You build resilience by learning from examples of ordinary people around you who are coping in dire circumstances. I mean – I know single parent woman who have four or five children – and actually, you see that on a day to day basis. And I think you have to be very selfless as a campaigner. If you're looking for building your reputation and moving into parliamentary circles – I'm not saying that's a bad thing, for people who want to do that, fine. I think if you want to build concrete, or empower individuals around you and communities, so they can make the decisions for themselves in which direction they will have, you get inspired by everything around you. There is no textbooks that you can look – for example, you ask – but actually, I think read everything! Don't censor yourself from anything – read a novel, get something from it. Read things that people tell you are not relevant, read them, doubt things around you. And I think that's really important to build your character. And you build your character by seeing the world around you in the way it is. Don't close your eyes.
Karis Campion 53:12
Oh, that's a great, it's a great line. Okay, so it's been such a fascinating conversation today. Before we go, I want you to get a final thought from each of you on how we might build anti– racist solidarity. Stephen Lawrence was a budding architect, and so I'd like to extend some metaphors here and ask how we might construct and protect solidarity, how we might reinforce, and indeed care for it, for the future. Suresh, in all of your years working with The Monitoring Group – including on the Lawrence case – what do you think true solidarity requires? And in fact, what's its essential purpose? How can we build and bolster it? Just briefly, your final thoughts, please?
Suresh Grover 54:00
I think anti–racism has lost its way. There were two different types of anti–racism – representation and communities in struggle or resistance. I think what's happened is the mainstream has picked the representation so what you have is now for example, within Conservative Party, the leadership which is Brown not Black, and they have absolutely no connection with anti–racist struggle, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher had no connection to feminist struggles. And that's very important because you just can't cry out when something awful happens or something so tragic happens that you know, it's strong and you condemn it. You have to show why. Large number of people have to come on the side of anti–racist struggle and build a solidarity movement with groups that are marginalised and discriminated. And you have to ensure that that positive energy that exists – you know, there was a massive mass movement around the Lawrence's afterwards. I went to 18 meetings after the Lawrence inquiry in rural Britain – for example – where people wanted to do things. Plymouth, Devon, Cornwall, Hull, I mean, places that are Brexit areas now. All that momentum that existed – all that goodwill, that shape of building a changing society that existed – just was lost, because the political parties never carried that agenda forward properly. And in order to make a difference, you have communities and resistors. But you have to have an anti–racist perspective in Parliament, or we don't have that at all. And that synergy doesn't exist. So if you want to build, there is a mental space within civil society and within society, different communities – that want to shape and change, but it's not reciprocated within the establishment, or within the political, mainstream, political parties.
Karis Campion 56:16
That's quite a sobering kind of few sentences to finish on. But it's very real. And we're in, you know, we are in difficult times. So I appreciate your thorough, honest analysis of the moment that we're in Suresh, final thoughts from you, final reflections from you Shabna.
Shabna Begum 56:36
Think I'm going to be a little bit more hopeful. I think that I – just the conversation here. So I think that there is ambition and appetite for change. And I think we are in very, very difficult circumstances, just like Suresh described there. We have a government that is hostile to kind of our anti–racist kind of ambitions. But I think we are also in a moment where we have young people who are inspired, who are active and who are energised. And what I think would be really useful – and what I think we need to do – is Suresh, as you described, anti–racism having lost its way. And I think that actually what we need to find are ways to have more intergenerational conversations – and to have people who were fighting the struggles in the 1970's through the 80's and 90's – talking to the young people who are organising now because there are so many lessons for us to learn, and for us to also share with the younger generation. So my hope is that there is appetite and that there is ambition. And that actually if we can find those lines to communicate effectively across our experiences, we can pass that baton on to that younger generation confidently, I think.
Karis Campion 57:49
Great way to end. That's it for today's Uncommon Sense. Huge thanks to my guests Shabna Begum and Suresh Grover. On this anniversary, that of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, who would be almost 50 If he were alive today. it's important to stop and take stock. To acknowledge the person, the human life behind the story. And think about how we can make a better future. The work that Suresh and Shaban are doing and the activism of those young people and activists they both mentioned, gives me hope. And that's something much needed when the headlines – take Baroness Casey's recent review of Met Police cultures – and those stories that sit behind the headlines of people of colour harmed every day by interpersonal, institutional and state racism, remind us that complacency is not an option. For this episode, we've put a list in our show notes with readings from people like Angela Davis, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, Stuart Hall. Take a look and share this episode far and wide. And if you're a researcher or simply curious, then do look up Stephen Lawrence research centre, including our archive and exhibition space. Perhaps I'll see you there. But in the meantime, Uncommon Sense is back next month with Rosie and Alexis taken on another taken for granted notion, the idea of Europeans. I'm Karis Campion, my producer was Alice Bloch and the sound engineer with Dave Crackles. Thanks for listening. Bye.