Do you know who Barbara Besse is? Have you ever heard about the “Mangrove Nine”? What do these two names have to do with the “Black Lives Matter” movement?
To answer these questions we must take a journey back into the history of black power in the UK, in particular the Notting Hill protest march against police brutality. This march took place on August 9th 1970, with 150 participants. 9 of which were arrested and charged with “incitement to riot”.
What transpired in the wake of these arrests would make history as these 9 persons were tried at the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey, also known as Justice Hall, the Sessions House, and the Central Criminal Court, was the reconstruction of the medieval courthouse which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The Old Bailey was built in 1673, and it would be here that first judicial acknowledgment that there had been racially discriminatory activity by the police in the trial of the “Mangrove Nine” was handed down.
Barbara Besse was one of the “Mangrove Nine’, and in an interview with Jan Fuscoe, that was published on 29 September 2020, in Byline Times, had this to say.
“I had moved to Ladbroke Grove in the late 60s around the time Frank (Crichlow) established the Mangrove restaurant, and its significance for the black community became quickly apparent to me,” she said. “It was the frontline – the ‘go-to place’ for black people to find out what was happening, to get the latest gossip, share experiences and to get advice on all sorts of matters, both social and legal. So for us, besides being a place that served great Caribbean food, the Mangrove was a hub for our community.”
Local police, however, had taken a different view, and were clearly unhappy with the collective activism. And so began their campaign of harassment.
“They repeatedly raided the premises under the pretext of looking for drugs, despite never finding any,” Barbara said. “Quite simply, the police wanted to discredit Frank and to cause the Mangrove to go out of business.”
Within a period of six months, the Mangrove was raided 12 times.
Darcus Howe founded the Action Committee for the Defense of the Mangrove, the aims and objectives of which were supported by the British Black Panther Movement – a group inspired by the US socio-political group that challenged, among other things, police brutality.
Crichlow had written to the Race Relations Board complaining that the police raids were unlawful. “I know it is because I am a black citizen of Britain that I am discriminated against,” he wrote. He also contacted the Home Office, telling the department: “We shall continue to protest until black people are treated with justice by the police and the law courts.”
But Barbara considered that “both the police and the powers that be, for example Kensington and Chelsea Council, believed that the Mangrove was a base for the emerging black power movement, and its existence was a threat, and therefore it had to go”.
Eventually, Darcus Howe persuaded Crichlow that they needed to take action and a protest was organized. Barbara was just 24, with an eight-month-old son.
“Our intention was to march, in a perfectly legal way, to demand that the police get their hands off the Mangrove,” she recalled. But the police response was heavy-handed, with more than 700 officers present and, as the march moved towards Harrow Road police station, violent clashes erupted.
“Numerous black people, including me, were snatched out and arrested,” she said. “Nine of us were charged with ‘incitement to riot’, ‘affray’ and assaulting police – really serious charges. Besides myself, my co-defendants were Frank Crichlow, Altheia Jones-Lecointe, Darcus Howe, Rupert Boyce, Rhoden Gorden, Rothwell ‘Roddy’ Kentish, Godfrey Millet and Anthony Innis.”
The police had a weak case, and at the level of the magistrate’s court it was dismissed. The magistrates court found that the evidence of the police officers “equated black radicalism with criminal intent”. However the Director of Public Prosecutions did not agree and, by the time the case reached the Old Bailey, the charge had been reinstated, which Barbara believes “illustrated the determination of the authorities and the police to paint us as criminals rather than legitimate black activists”.
In the interview Barbara said, “I had a very real fear that, had the jury been taken in by the police lies, we would have received punitive and vindictive sentences”. The defendants cited the rights enshrined in the Magna Carta, that no free man may suffer punishment without “the lawful judgment of his peers”, and requested an all-black jury. By dismissing those who might be prejudiced against the notion of ‘black power’, they managed to secure two black jurors out of 12.
The trial lasted for 55 days, but after only 8 hours of jury deliberation, all of the Mangrove Nine were cleared of the main charge. Most significantly, the trial is believed to be the first in which the judiciary acknowledged evidence of “behaviour motivated by racial hatred” within the Metropolitan Police. The judge had found “evidence of racial hatred” on both sides, but the Metropolitan Police Commissioner requested that this comment be retracted. The judge refused.
Reflecting on that period today, Barbara said she “was and indeed am very proud to have been one of the Mangrove Nine, as it was such a groundbreaking case for black people and for the establishment”. She went on to say, “Without doubt, the trial and our subsequent victory sent shockwaves throughout the Government,” she added. “But, more importantly, it demonstrated to black people that it was possible to take on a fight against police racism and harassment and to win. In my view, it was a truly defining moment for black people in Britain because it gave real meaning to the term Black Power, i.e. doing it for ourselves and winning, exposing the racism and the lies of the police and the courts system.”
What is the legacy of Barbara’s 50 years of activism?
“The impetus to continue the struggle has not gone away, as recently shown by the Black Lives Matter movement,” she explained. “We have to remain alert and active. There was a time when people were content to point to the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black President as proof that America had arrived at a post-racial upland. Nothing could be further from the truth. Witness America today. Within the UK, it is fair to say there is a direct thread linking the Black Lives Matter movement now and the Black Power movement of the 1970s”
Source: By Line Times
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