A tribute to Darcus Howe

By - Thursday 20th April, 2017

The towering intellectual, activist and Norbury resident is being laid to rest today

Champion British black rights campaigner Darcus Howe has joined the African ancestors. He died on 1st April aged 74.

After spending thirty years in Brixton, the leading broadcaster, writer and  political activist more recently lived in Norbury.

I met Howe during the three-day 1981 uprising in Brixton, where I also lived. He was being interviewed about the disturbances caused by racist policing that had culminated in Operation Swamp – the mass arrests of black youth. Howe impressed me with his bravura performance, incisively indicting Thatcherism, its bullyboys in blue and establishment contempt for the plight of the oppressed peoples of the inner city.

Howe presented the primetime Devil’s Advocate TV programme

He described the Brixton riots as “an insurrection of the masses of the people”. His Race Today collective office, on Railton Road in Brixton, was on the front line, and the group recorded the events in its radical magazine of the same name. Howe argued that no longer would black people simply complain about white power – they would confront it head on.

His first TV series, The Bandung File (1985-91), was commissioned for Channel 4 by his ex-fellow Race Today member Farroukh Dhondy, with 1960s poster boy of British student rebellion Tariq Ali as co-editor. Howe presented the primetime Devil’s Advocate TV programme (1992-96), where he put people like Bernie Grant, the late black MP, and me, under harsh scrutiny.

In 1994, in a controversial show that got the highest rating for the series, I featured in a programme about the political clash between the black-led Anti-Racist Alliance and Socialist Workers Party-run Anti-Nazi League, and Howe did me no favours.

Howe wrote an unflattering pamphlet about the Labour Party Black Sections in 1985

As a founder member of the Labour Party Black Sections – an unofficial caucus of Africans, Caribbeans and Asians fighting for political representation – Howe and I had also crossed swords. At the time, Britain’s House of Commons was all white and there were few black councillors.

Howe wrote an unflattering pamphlet in 1985, claiming that the organisation was merely a vehicle for the ambitious black middle-class, namely councillors Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Russell Profitt, Diane Abbott, and others, to become MPs.

He saw this as flying in the face of the grassroots, working class black politics in which he had been involved, though he was raised in a middle-class household in Trinidad, where he was born.

Howe stubbornly refused to join the Labour Party until his progressive friend Jeremy Corbyn stood to lead it

Aged 18, Howe moved to England where he had intended to study law but decided to do journalism instead. His uncle and mentor, Marxist intellectual C. L. R. James, inspired him to combine writing with political activism.

Despite our differences, we had a grudging respect for each other. In the early 1980s, he was clearly a towering intellectual and I was an upstart TV reporter and fledgling political activist in a Labour Party that he railed against because of the racist immigration laws which it had passed when in government.

Howe stubbornly refused to join the party until his progressive friend Jeremy Corbyn stood to lead it, though when we had a drink at a Thornton Heath pub last year he told that me he had no illusions about the Labour leader whom he had helped to elect.

The Metropolitan police had targeted the Mangrove as a “place of ill repute”

Rewind to Notting Hill, west London, in the 1960s. Howe was a leading light at the Mangrove, a restaurant on All Saints Road, owned by fellow Trinidadian Frank Critchlow.

They both came to national prominence as defendants in the high-profile ‘Mangrove nine’ trial. The Metropolitan police had targeted the Mangrove as a “place of ill repute”, claiming that drugs were sold there.

In truth, the Mangrove was, as Howe put it, “the headquarters of radical chic”. Locals and their guests, some of them celebrities, socialised, discussed the issues of the day, and organised against efforts by the authorities to suppress the rebellious spirit of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.

This was the first acknowledgement from a British judge that there was racism in the Metropolitan police

Howe, Frank Critchlow and his brother Victor, organised a demonstration against the continual raiding by police of the Mangrove.

Large numbers of police tried to disrupt the march. Fights broke out and officers made arrests. The nine most prominent participants were singled out to face serious charges that could have resulted in long jail terms.

At the Old Bailey, Howe and Althea Jones-Lecointe themselves led the defence of the Mangrove nine in the biggest black power trial ever in Britain.

The nine were acquitted and the judge stated that there was “evidence of racial hatred on both sides” – the first acknowledgement from a British judge that there was racism in the Metropolitan police.

Howe helped to organise the largest ever political demonstration by black people in Britain

Howe became a key figure in the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and was a leading organiser of the Black People’s Day of Action in 1981 that highlighted the death of thirteen young people in a suspected arson attack by racists on a birthday party. He helped organise the march, the largest ever political demonstration by black people in Britain, which, on a working Monday, drew more than 15,000 protesters.

Throughout his life, Howe kept his links with the Mangrove, working with their ‘mas and steel bands, and was once chair of the Notting Hill Carnival.

At the end of his life when he had prostate cancer, Howe made a TV special about it and advised men of African-Caribbean origin, who are particularly vulnerable, to “get themselves checked out early”.

His funeral takes place today

He inadvertently gave my citizen journalism website the-latest.com a headline-grabbing scoop in 2008. James McGrath, the spin-doctor for London mayor Boris Johnson, was sacked after he told me that elderly black people, whom Howe had said in a Voice newspaper column didn’t approve of BoJo’s right-wing policies, should “go back home”.

Darcus Howe: a Political Biography, was published in 2013, a copy of which he donated to Croydon North Labour Party, of which he was our most famous member.

Sadly, he was too unwell to attend as guest of honour the Robert Burns night where it was raffled to raise money for campaigning.

His funeral takes place today at All Saints church, Notting Hill.

Marc Wadsworth

Marc Wadsworth

Marc Wadsworth is a Croydon-based political activist, broadcaster, author, filmmaker and editor of The-Latest.Com, Britain’s first dedicated citizen journalism website. He has a masters in contemporary British history from King’s College, London.

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