Savitri Hensman was a member of the Hackney Writers’ Workshop. The workshop came together in 1976 as a Workers’ Education Assocoation class.
Savitri was born in Sri Lanka and came to Britain in 1965. She lived in Stoke Newington was in her final year of school when this was published in the third Hackney Writers’ Group collection, which came out in 1979.
Just Another Asian
Watching were the stars that night
Watching was the moon
As Abdul left the bus-stop
Whistling a tune
The street was still and quiet
And the street-lamps they were bright
But something gleamed more brightly
In an alleyway that night
A cold breeze stirred and dwindled;
He did not see or hear
Th silent youths who played with
The knife as he drew near
His eyes were on the street ahead
His thoughts were on his wife
And then he heard the curses And…
This week Kevin Blowe (formerly of Newham Monitoring Project and now of police monitoring group Netpol) posted a remarkable letter from Chief Superintendant Bernard Taffs from 1994:
The letter is well worth reading in full, so here it is:
According to CARF (Campaign Against Racism & Fascism #26 June/July 1995), the Police Complaints Authority described the letter as “ill-conceived, inappropriate… offensive… totally unacceptable”.
But this was not a one-off. Kevin also posted a letter from Taffs to The Indepedent slagging off Hackney Community Defence Association (HCDA):
I AM NOT, nor have I been, Chief Superintendent of Stoke Newington. PC Mark Moles was not and never has been in any way connected with the Burke case (‘Wrong side of the law’, Review, 21 November).
You purport to be a national newspaper, not an extremist group like the Hackney Community Defence Association (HCDA): H – they are not Hackney people, C – they are not community-based people, D – they attack not defend, A – they are a narrow, highly secretive group and are not open and fair.
When you rest your head tonight you may care to recall that my decent, courageous, hard-working police officers will be on Hackney’s streets trying to keep the peace against the background of your diatribe.
Hackney & City Road
police stations, London E5
(this is dated 2011 on the Independent website but I think it was probably originally published in the mid 1990s).
Defenders of the police usually start by denigrating their victims – and then proceed to claim that inarguable corruption is the work of a few lone rogue officers. And perhaps that is sometimes true, but sometimes it is also the symptom of a wider culture of corruption and negligence.
Indeed – Hackney Community Defence Association had called for Taffs’ resignation after a string of cases of police brutality had been revealed in 1991:
Following the verdict, the Hackney Community Defence Association, a police watchdog group, called for the resignation of Hackney’s commanding’ officer, Chief Superintendent Bernard Taffs. ‘The issue isn’t a few rogue, officers out of control; there’s something desperately wrong at City Road .station and there should be a. public inquiry,’ said spokesman Graham Smith. ‘Taffs has to take responsibility for his officers.’
Alas, Bernard Taffs was simply following in the footsteps of other senior Hackney policemen…
Commander David Mitchell, the NF and Tariq Ali
Mitchell was appointed as Hackney’s Police Commander in 1979, having previously worked as Chief Superintendent in neighbouring Islington. A puff piece in the Hackney Gazette at the time revealed that he considered the widely criticised “Sus laws” which allowed cops to stop and search black youths with impunity as “a very good law”.
Shortly after his appointment, veteran left winger Tariq Ali wrote about meeting Mitchell at the opening of a restaurant where the top cop was under the influence:
“The opening conversational gambit from Mitchell was characteristic of the man: ‘Why do your lot give us so much trouble?’ I asked whether he was talking of blacks in general or the Anti-Nazi League. The Chief Superintendent was not bothered about such fine distinctions.
‘The problem,’ I said, ‘is the phenomenal degree of racism in the police force. You know that a whole layer of police officers are sympathetic to the fascists.’ […]
David Mitchell once again responded in an open and frank fashion: ‘Yes you’re right. There is sympathy for the [National] Front.’ A silence enveloped the area where we were standing and talking. Everyone was now tense and alert.
Mitchell continued: ‘And why not. They’re the only party that speaks up for Britain.'”
Ali’s account could easily be dismissed as lefty rabble-rousing, were it not for the fact that the conversation had been overheard by a Hackney councillor and two journalists from the Evening Standard. Mitchell denied he had said any of this, but was dogged by calls for his resignation:
In the clippling above Mitchell distinguishes himself further by saying that he “should not be too concerned with what minority groups think”. His support for the widely criticised paramilitary Special Patrol Group also made him unpopular with the community:
Commander David Mitchell drafted 5 units of the SPG into Hackney, apparently to quell the rise in street crime. According to a special Campaign Against Racism and Fascism Report on Hackney: “There was no consultation with the community. Indeed as resentment against Mitchell’s aggressive tactics grew, the leaders of the community refused to consult with him. An outspoken black councillor called for ‘total non-co-operation’ with the police whilst West Indian youth at Dalston’s Cubies Club barred his entry when he came to address a meeting… (Mitchell’s) policies played no small part in the eruptions of July” (Searchlight, March 1982)
From ‘Policing In Hackney 1945-1984’ a report commissioned by The Roach Family Support Committee
Commander Bill Taylor and the death of Colin Roach
Bill was literally a poster boy for the Metropolitan Police, his face was put to use in their recruitment ads in newspapers. The wags at Hackney Peoples Press subverted the text for their own non-advert:
Taylor was in post in late 1982 and would soon be busy. On January 12th 1983, Colin Roach, a black youth, died of a gunshot inside the foyer of Stoke Newington police station. The Jury at the Inquest would later rule Roach’s death was suicide, despite there being no forensic evidence linking the gun to him – and apparently there being no witnesses to the shooting.
Commander Taylor was criticised by Hackney Council for Racial Equality for stating that whilst he recognised there were tensions between the community and the police “there was no racism in the force”.
The death of Colin Roach led to weekly demonstrations calling for a public inquiry outside Stoke Newington police station. Many of these demonstrations were attacked by the police. Colin’s grieving Father James Roach was arrested at one of them as was a Hackney Councillor. Mr Roach was charged with obstructing the arrest of another demonstrator but the case against him collapsed because of glaring inconsistencies in police testimony.
Few figures are so universally mocked as the male feminist. Dalston Mens Group seemed too good to be true when I chanced upon it. An almost perfect artefact of “right on Hackney”, like the satirically elitist “Stoke Newington Jazz Club” in The Mighty Boosh tv comedy series.
But Dalston Mens Group was a real and fascinating example of the plethora of radical organisations in the borough in the 1970s. Its oddness and the feelings of awkwardness it raised with me made it even more interesting.
Breaking through the cringe
Looking into the embarrassment people feel about male feminists is a scab worth picking. So here is a summary of what I reckon are the problems people have:
Earnestness. The idea that male feminists overstate the importance of their area of interest (and that it is better to not talk about it, probably). That it’s embarrassing and unmanly to be interested in feminism rather than traditional manly pursuits. Especially if it means that you veer into “feminine” territory, like expressing your feelings. And that all this is unattractive to “real” (i.e. not feminist) women anyway. Alongside this, there is a feeling that male feminism is an indulgence for middle class people who have too much time on their hands.
Virtue signalling/Insincerity. That basically male feminists are broadcasting their niceness for the benefit of feminist women as they think it will help them gain credibility and perhaps get laid. In doing this, male feminsts want to appear to be superior to “normal” men who are untainted by feminism. There is an overriding suspicion that male feminists don’t actually believe any of it. At its most extreme there is the idea that men are genetically predisposed to be bestial gropers and male feminists seek to deny this is the case.
Most people reading this have probably been irritated by people who are simply too “right on” to be enjoyable company. But many of us would also concede that occasionally being challenged on our behaviours and language has been a good opportunity for learning and reflection. So there is a balance to be struck.
All of the above has meant that I would probably call myself someone who was a supporter of feminism and women’s rights, rather than a feminist. It’s clear to me that the struggle for gender equality is real and ongoing, so we all need to play our part. And I try and do what I can, but I’m not some kind of super-enlightened mega-activist crusader or anything.
There is something in all of this about what masculinity is and what being “a real man” entails, which I have struggled with myself. As a straight cis man, I have taken pride on several occasions in the past with the suggestion that I was “not a real man” from various people (some of whom were probably well-meaning and some definitely not), but these days I’m less sure if that’s helpful.
Being a “real man” is as unattainable for most of us as being the sort of perfect embodiment of womanhood suggested by mainstream culture is for women. It’s probably better, in the short term, to radically expand the definition of what masculinity can be and so try to make it less important, rather than jettison it entirely (as suggested by John Stoltenberg in his provocative book Refusing To Be A Man: Essays On Social Justice (1989)). As well as supporting the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements, obviously.
Alongside this inspiring upsurge of feminism there has been a regrouping of anti-feminism on the alt-right. The very online world of disaffected young men can be a recruiting ground for far right movements. The 2016 documentary The Red Pill (directed by Cassie Jaye) has been a lightning rod for some men’s grievances against what they see as feminism and the problems it has caused them.
The film makes a reasonably compelling case for the problems men face in western societies in the 21st century, but then blames these difficulties on the gains of the feminist movement. In fact many of the issues raised by the men in the film could be resolved by feminism.
For example men not being able to express their feelings does lead to mental health issues and a greater likelihood of death by suicide than in women. Feminism seeks to deconstruct the binary divide of macho men / feminine women, so that all human beings can express themselves sincerely and authentically.
And many of the issues men face could be solved by socialism. Men are more likely to die in workplace accidents than women – and the solution to this is a strong trade union movement rather than whining about feminists.
So men organising as men is both necessary and rife with all sorts of problems. And examining mens groups during previous waves of feminism might help us with unpick some of the issues of today. Or give us a laugh. Or maybe both of these things.
The origins of Dalston Mens Group
The British Library has a helpful audio interview with Dalston Mens’ Group founder Dave Phillips. It’s clear that the sort of reservations I have set out above were also present in the 1970s:
There was a men’s conference, which I didn’t go to, held somewhere I think in the Seven Sisters Road, it must have been about 1973 or ’74. So we were aware that there were these men’s groups starting up, but we were very suspicious of them, innate personal conservatism being one reason, but… [laughs].
What else? Subterranean homophobia, I don’t know, I mean the sense that these were kind of all a bit sissy and a bit sort of.. but then we were trying to sort of work out what the different kinds of strands around were, there seemed to be one strand around which was very much about trying to do something to assist the women’s movement. These were people who called themselves anti-sexist men.[…]
There were about ten of us all told. And we were trying to fit together a kind of, you know, our commitment to Trotskyist politics, as we thought it was, and feminism, and trying to fit our response to feminism.
Dave and several of the other founders were also members of the International Socialists (I.S.), one of the larger Trotskyist groups in the UK. (I.S. became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977). Dalston Mens Group was not an official I.S. group or front – indeed several comrades I’ve spoken to about this have expressed their surprise at this connection. For me, one of the most striking things in the texts of Dalston Mens Group is their openness about their doubts and insecure feelings – something that is anathema to the cast iron certainty of most Trot papers and groups. In fact I’d say that their attempts to organise without hierarchy and to combine the personal and political had more in common with some anarchist groups.
What does a Mens Group do?
Dave goes on to mention their activities:
All these groups in effect, with the benefit of hindsight, were quite limited in their effects, but they were into things like setting up crèches and looking after the kids while the women went to give out leaflets and stuff like that.
[…] there was another strand which was very much into personal exploration. The Brixton men’s group, were very into Reich and Gestalt therapy and stuff like that and were into exploring their own selves and were quite good, much better than we ever were, at being critical of each other, and exploring the kind of contradictions inside people’s personal positions.
There was a kind of position that we termed the guilt tripping, which was the kind of men who felt they were personally responsible for sexism, and were very into kind of trying to change themselves. So as we went on we became quite critical of that position, we felt you couldn’t really strip out sexism through an act of will, or self-development. They were people who were into developing a lifestyle, you know, a non-sexist kind of lifestyle, which took various forms, you know, a lot of sandal wearing and brown rice, nut rissoles and that sort of stuff.
The group apparently also published at least five issues of Mens News, which is how I came to find out about them. I’ve only managed to obtain one issue, which I have scanned and made available as a PDF here. (Leave a comment below if you have access to other issues or know where they can be found?)
The contents of Mens News are a mixed bag. “Dalstons Mens Group – A History” is reproduced in full below and covers the origins and anxieties of the group. There is more mention of the consciousness raising than the practical support given to the feminist movement.
“Ideals & Reality” contrasts socialist and mens groups and how the practice of both falls short of the theory. It has some, frankly, slightly dodgy passages like this one that veers towards “Nice Guy Syndrome”:
“I remember the parties I went to, the girls I lusted for, the impossibility of matching the charisma of [musician] Jet Harris, the unattainability of the women, who now 15 years on tell me that I exploited them, when I couldn’t get near them.”
“Sixteen Thoughts” is a political/theoretcial analysis of the history of feminism with some interesting conclusions about seventies culture (for example the “ham masculinity” punk rock and horror firlms). I thought these bits were good:
“Feminism shows us yawning holes in present day socialism’s ways of organising and lack of popular appeal and has a critical contribution to make to tjhe creation of a new revolutionary movement.
Mens groups are not inherently anti-sexist, it is all-male groups which administer most of capitalism.
The point finally is not a purely mental effort to abolish our sexual conditioning, but the abolition of the material relations which give rise to our condition.”
Dalston Mens Group – Sixteen Thoughts
There are also three articles on the difficulties of parenting in a nuclear family:
And finally an article on Islington Mens Group from 1974 which was allegedly “found in a disused squat”.
This probably all sounds quite dry, but there is self-deprecation in Mens News #5 as well as some amusing collages and graphics:
Menswear: male feminist style & fashion
“I think we all had long hair, but then, everybody in the 70s, almost everybody had long hair, I mean coal miners had long hair, everybody had long hair, footballers had long hair. There was one strand amongst men’s groups, I mean I seem to be centred on Wandsworth, who were trying to construct an androgynous lifestyle, which went as far as, you know, they removed their body hair and they waxed their chests, and [laughs]…
But remember, this was the period of glam rock and the glam period, so I can remember being in this men’s conference we organised. Well there we all were, we’d be wearing our kind of bell-bottomed baggy trousers, a lot of sandals. I think we were into nail varnish a bit. I used to have a toenail that was always a very, very, I don’t know what colour you’d call it, not turquoise exactly, but quite strikingly coloured toenail. Not too much, but you know, a real hint. [laughs] There was quite a lot of wearing of kind of ethnic neckwear and stuff like that about at that time.”
Dave Phillips – from an interview for The British Library
The back page (above) lists a number of kindred groups around England. As usual there is scant information about what happened to them, how they fizzled out etc. I think it’s reasonable to assume that some people drifted away and others got involved with other campaigns.
Perhaps traces of the 1970s mens groups can be seen in 1980s/90s organisations like Men Against Sexist Shit. I was also inspired by seeing large numbers of men supporting the 2019 Womens Strike rally in London with cooking, childcare etc.
In Their Own Words: Dalston Mens Group – A History (from Mens News #5 1977)
Our group really started in January 1976 out of a nucleus of 5 men, who had been meeting together for 3 months. We had only hazy ideas of why we wanted to be in a group, some of us had heard, or read about other mens groups or been to the early mens conference in London. We wanted to try and create the sense of community that many women seemed to have in the Womens Movement, and which we as men seemed to he lacking, lost in a world of ritual personal isolation. We had all been influenced by women in Womens Liberation and were very much aware of the personal limitations of ‘comradeship’ in most socialist groups.
The 8 of us in the group are involved or connected to socialist political groups, mostly to the Socialist Workers Party (or IS as it then was) and heavily involved in trade union branches at work plus the usual left campaigns. We know we are opposed to Reformism and Stalinism. But we don’t have a definite ‘line’ about personal politics, we are not trying to function as a mens’ cell inside political groups, or as an organised grouping inside the mens movement.
We do believe that part of the process of linking the personal and the political involves bringing together socialist politics and personal and sexual politics. That means, at this stage, straight Marxist men need to be a lot more emotionally honest with each other. We are critical of and get upset and depressed about the way left groups have traditionally resisted or opposed developments in personal politics, especially the Womens and the Gay Movements in recent years. But we also criticise those who reject left groups and socialist politics as one focus of an assertion of personal politics.
We have all recognised the impact of our experience as socialists and the role of the Womens Movement on our lives as men. In the group we have tried to bring these two strands in our lives together. We don’t claim we have had any conspicuous success at doing it – it’s not easily done and the two worlds of experience continually resist each other – but in the end that is at the centre of what we are aiming to do. It would be nice to produce a neat theoretical analysis of all the questions and issues that we’ve raised and discussed, but we’re still muddled.
As a mens group, we are not activists, we don’t go out into the world and do things around mens politics, nor are we a reading group, holding theoretical seminars. Consciousness-raising is the best way to describe our meetings. What we have discussed has always started from our own personal accounts of our experience. Through sharing our personal experience of sexuality we have tried to understand our experiences and to change the way in which we see the world in terms of how we relate to other men, women and kids. From our personal experience of lives and relationships, loves, problems, fears and hopes we’ve set out to connect what we have in common with the rest of our politics. This has been vary erratic – mainly, sometimes with great intensity, we have discovered each other in new ways and gained a lot of strength and support from being together and sharing our personal feelings with other men. This comes as a great relief after many years of ‘relating’ in traditional blokish ways.
Four of us have kids, one very recently. Three or us have been married at one lime, but all have split up from their wives, one recently while in the group. We are all straight with a spattering of gay experiences. And we’re all in the ‘educated middle class’ now, professionally employed… or unemployed, although we came from a much wider class background in the working and lower middle class with parents who wouldn’t have dreamt of going to college themselves. Which defines some important limitations about our group. We meet once a week for about two or four hours, with lapses and sometimes month-long breaks owing to problems of time, work and other commitments. We have mainly been a closed group, and there is no formal structure – it’s a leaderless group and though meetings usually have a main theme decided on at a previous meeting we don’t often keep to it. Sometimes we just start talking around what has been happening to us the previous week. Or wait till someone says something everyone else picks up on.
Most of us have known each other for some years – some of the relationships in the group go back over a decade! Surprisingly, this didn’t cause difficulties – in fact being in the group helped open up relationships which had got stuck in old grooves and being friends outside the group has helped us stay together as a group through times when we felt very unclear about our aims. When we can’t think of anything to talk about, or we are all tired or fed up, we can always just have a drink together. But the meeting provides the institutional framework in which we talk about mens politics and try to develop our political understanding of men and the male role. At times it is a very frustrating and stagnating process but by and large we go on feeling that we benefit from meeting and that it has changed us in the way we function with other women and men outside the group in the rest of our lives. Though often it is difficult to put your finger on some of these changes or to find words to describe them.
At first we talked about our selves – personal histories of what our childhoods were like, parents, schools, learning about fucking, our current sexual states and the way we were living. This helped us get to know each other and put everyone in the same positon – those who were new to the group as well as old mates. We went on to discuss a lot of topics that we variously thought were important adolescence, fucking, nuclear and multiple relationships, having children, work, jealousy, the women’s movements, sexuality and sex objects, male relationships, loneliness, collective living, drinking, pornography, fascism.
It is impossible to summarise what we discussed and learnt in all this. Usually we just learnt about each other’s ideas and experience. We hardly ever felt we got to the stage of working an issue right out so that we all ended up sharing a particular analysis or conclusion about something. Two themes did keep cropping up repeatedly – one was the importance of kids when you start thinking about almost any of these matters, how having them affects you totally and comes to influence your relationships and what you can give and take from them. Secondly, we talked a lot about monogamy and multiple relationships and their different problems in the context of seeking some sort of change from the limitations of nuclear set-ups, their closedupness and resistance to change. Multiple relationships in which most of us have been involved sometimes for several years and sometimes with women who are also with other men in the group have their own problems, to say the least.
These discussions, have not got us to a position of formulating any grand theories – in fact we’ve often felt bogged down and confused about where we are supposed to be going. We constantly discuss the nature of the group, whether it ought to exist and where we are at, usually in terms of whether the group should set out to be supportive or ideological or interventionist. We’ve tried to be supportive within the limits of our own personal psychologies and our experience, and we’d like to develop a clearer ideological grasp of ourselves.
Mainly, we’ve been led on to asking more questions about what we aim to get out of the experience. How do we get away from the pragmatism of our approach to issues in order to develop a socialist critique of men, masculinity, chauvinism and sexual oppression? How do we do this without losing a lot of what goes on in the group that is new and exploratory? What should be the relationship of men to feminism and the Womens Movement? How do we avoid colluding in our own forms of mystification? How do we get to be more critical of each other? How can mens issues be raised on a more general political basis — in trade unions and political groups? Unless we can begin to generate specific demands around the experience of being men in a sexist and capitalist society, for instance, demanding rights in our conditions of work that recognize men have relationships with their children, mens groups risk remaining small, inward-looking and irrelevant to the outside world.
The Undercover Policing Inquiry into the unethical and illegal practices of spycops is ongoing. It’s well worth keeping an eye on and has revelaed huge amounts of information about police infiltration of radical campaigning groups and political organisations. This can all be harrowing and difficult to keep track of. The fact that the investigation is happening at all – and is being conducted so comprehensively – is a testament to the tenacity and resilience of the victims of spycops.
Inevitably the Inquiry has shed light on police monitoring of and covert involvement in radical movements in Hackney. Previous coverage here is now handily collected together under the spycops tag. The large volume of written and audio testimony means that I can only really skim the surface, but a couple of recent hearings caught my attention.
On 23rd of April the Inquriy heard about the police spying on children. A previous post on this site looked at the inspiring and joyous Hackney School Kids Against The Nazis – children opposing the National Front in the 1970s.
As you can see from the clip below featuring Barrister Kirsten Heaven, it has now emerged that the police spied on these children:
The hearing includes a showing of the Hackney School Kids Against The Nazis newsclip from this website (after some technical difficulties). I was delighted to play a small part in helping the campaign in this way:
That police would routinely spy on children in a democratic society is chilling. But it is even more disturbing that children campaigning against a violently racist and neo-Nazi organisation were treated in this way. The Inquiry has found that about 1000 left wing political organisaitons were spied on, but there is scant information about any far right organisations getting the same treatment from the Special Demonstration Squad. (With the notable exception of one policeman who infiltrated a left wing organisation, which then tasked him with infiltrating a fascist group!)
Even on its own terms, the actual reporting is creepy as fuck in many instances:
One of the features of this phase is the number of reports on school children.142 ‘Gray’ reported on more children than any other officer. Recording the minutiae of their lives and sending them on to MI5. Almost all of these reports have photographs of the children attached. He reports on a 15 year old school-girl, 15 and 13 year old schoolgirls and their parents. In two separate reports he describes the photographed school-boys as “effeminate”. In one report he comments on how much time a school-boy spends at his girlfriend’s house.
The closest ‘Gray’ ever comes to reporting on violence is his note that a school-boy had a fight with his brother.
These children were either the children of Socialist Workers Party members or children who were engaged enough with their society to be part of the School Kids Against the Nazis.
And to justify this he reverts to type and suggests that these children were either subversive or violent. On behalf of Lindsey German and John Rees, who were well aware of the actual activities of School Kids Against the Nazis, we dispute that entirely.
Opening Statement in Tranche 1 Phase 2 on behalf of Richard Chessum and ‘Mary’
This statement goes on to note that whilst the police were spying on innocent school kids, fascist organisations were committing and threatening to commit serious crimes:
In the course of ‘Paul Gray’s’ deployment, Column 88 were threatening to burn down the homes of SWP members. The National Front were attacking Bengalis in Brick Lane, smashing up reggae record shops and graffitiing mosques. They were burning down Indian restaurants and murdering young men like Altab Ali and Ishaque Ali in Whitechapel and Hackney. Whilst they were doing that, Gray and his so called “exemplary” SDS colleagues were writing about what they refer to as “jewish” finance of the Anti-Nazi League, a “negress” activist, an activist with a “large jewish nose” and “coloured hooligans”. Language and views that are beneath contempt.
Instead of investigating the racist firebombing that killed 13 young black people in New Cross, the Special Demonstration Squad were reporting on school children and providing MI5 with copies of Socialist Workers Party baby-sitting rotas.
The full statement that the above is taken from can be read here.
Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance’s summary of the proceedings of April 23rd can be read here.
There was a poll for Hackney residents to vote on options for a new name for the space. The Council’s Review, Rename, Reclaim initiative crowdsourced some suggestions and identified four black former residents of Hackney to choose between:
S.J. Celestine Edwards (1857/8-1894) – activist, editor and campaigner on anti-colonial and anti-racism.
Kathleen ‘Kit’ Crowley (1918-2018) – respected Cassland Road working class resident.
Francis ‘Frank’ Owausu (1954 – 2018) – arrived in Hackney as a child political refugee. Teacher and co-founder of the African Community School (a “supplementary school” similar to the one shown in a recent episode of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” TV series).
Ralph Adolphus Straker (1936 – 2013) – union activist, anti-SUS law campaigner, Hackney Community Relations Council, African and African Carribbean arts patron.
There is a nice PDF with photos and biographical information about the four people here.
Voting on this has now closed and the new name will be announced in May.
(After a similar consultaiton and poll, the square outside Britannia Leisure Centre will now be renamed BRAFA Square after the Hackney-based 1980s British Reggae Artists Famine Appeal.)
#GeffryeMustFall/ Museum of the Home
In other racist memorial news, I was amused to see the Museum of the Home on the scrounge for cash for a new green roof:
The roof of the museum also features its infamous statue of slavetrader Robert Geffrye. If the Museum thinks that sticking some flowers up there will distract us from Geffrye’s blood-stained stone hands, then they are sadly mistaken. Far be it for me to suggest that getting up on the roof is an opportunity for an unfortunate masonry based accident…
The Board and Museum team are continuing to review, discuss and explore options for the statue.
In the meantime we will reinterpret the statue honestly and transparently to tell the history of Geffrye’s career and his connections with the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans. And we will acknowledge that the statue is the subject of fierce debate.
We will confront, challenge and learn from the uncomfortable truths of the origins of the Museum buildings, and fulfil our commitment to diversity and inclusion.
My position remains that the statue should be removed and that people should not visit the museum until it is.
This is due to the dubious past of the Tyssen family; who the school is currently named after. As part of the Review, Rename, Reclaim Project, Hackney Education informed the school that the Tyssen family played a part in the slave trade. The local authority has, consequently, supported the school to change their name. After consultation with our families and the local community, we decided on the new name Oldhill Community School and Children Centre.
The link above includes a crowdfunder to help with the changes, including new uniforms and tablets for pupils in need.
There is more information on the Tyssen family and its connections to Hackney and the slave trade in a previous post.
Robert Aske and Hackney
Aske Gardens (Pitfield Street, Hoxton) is laid out on land bought in 1690 by the Haberdasher’s Company with money left by Robert Aske.
And where did Aske get his money from? Well, as our colleagues at Reclaim EC1 note, a large portion of his fortune came from his significant investments in the slave-trading operation known as the Royal Africa Company.
According to historian William Pettigrew, the RAC ‘shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade’ (Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752, 2013) including more than 150,000 slaves forcibly transported to the British Caribbean.
Geffrye, Tyssen and Cass are identified as “contested figures” as part of the Council’s Review, Rename, Reclaim initiative. But Robert Aske is not mentioned.
More promisingly, schools named after Aske in New Cross and Elstree are reported to be considering a change of name. A statement issued by the schools’ sponsor, the Haberdashers Company, states:
‘The Haberdashers’ Company and its Schools in Elstree and South London have become aware that Robert Aske was a shareholder in the Royal African Company (RAC). All are clear that the role of the RAC in the slave trade was deplorable and sits in stark contrast with the values which underpin the activities and philosophy of the Company, its schools and beneficiaries today. The schools are already engaged in comprehensive reviews of culture, values and their brands and this matter will be included. The outcome of these fully consultative deliberations, including the future use of the Aske name, will be communicated when conclusions are reached and decisions made. The Haberdashers’ Company is proud of its ethos of benevolence, fellowship and inclusion, and the diverse nature of its membership’.
I hope this sensitivity and momentum can be maintained and that a more appropriate name for Aske Gardens can be found – as well as for the other memorials to Aske in Hackney identified by Reclaim EC1:
Obviously the name of Aske Gardens requires change. It seems likely that nearby Aske Street (N1 6LE postcode) is also named for the merchant Robert Aske and if this is the case it should be changed too.
Likewise, given Aske’s strong association with the Haberdashers’ Company we’d like to see the names of the nearby Haberdasher Estate and Haberdasher Street changed – it should also be noted that the Haberdashers’ Company is closely associated with slave trade figures such as the lord mayor Sir Richard Levett, who will be addressed in part 8 of this series.
A Zen internet page dedicated to Aske’s Hospital and Almshouses is among the places that note this listed building has been converted into flats and is now called Hoffman Square (N1 6DH), but there are stone panels at the front entrance detailing its history (relevant webpage here) that should be removed or at the very least amended to record Aske’s investment in the slave trade.
Latest Salvo in the Culture Wars
Toyin Agbetu is one of the participants in the removal of the Cassland Road sign shown at the top of this post. As a representative of the Ligali organisation he has talked a great deal of sense on Hackney’s colonial legacy and how this might be addressed. Hence him being invited by the Council onto their Review, Rename, Reclaim initiative and Sadiq Khan’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm. He also has a fascinating history in music as a street soul artist.
The Conservative Party is rabidly opposed to any nuanced consideration of colonialism. A previous post on this blog looked at Minister for Culture Oliver Dowden’s interference with the Museum of the Home’s public consultation on the future of the Robert Geffrye statue. So it is hardly surprising that the Tories have subjected individuals on the Mayor’s Commission to intense scrutiny.
Initially Toyin came under fire for having heckled the Queen back in March 2007, during a Westminster Abbey church service held to recognize the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Reader, it may not surprise you that this only made my affection for Mr Agebtu grow.
We all have skeletons in our cupboards and perhaps inevitably the Tories kept going until they found something more damning. Some brief comments by Toyin about the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine, which were unwise in my view, were blown out of proportion in the right wing press.
Some comments discovered by Jewish News are very troubling however, and have led to Mr Agbetu resigning from the London Mayor’s Commission. Toyin’s statement to the Hackney Citizen gives his side of the story and announces that a more developed response will be forthcoming after the elections in May.
The existence of Spycops- undercover police officers who report on and infiltrate left-wing, radical and anti-racist organisations has been happening since at least the 1970s in north-east London. From time to time the role of particular individuals is exposed.
The latest round of hearings in the long running (& on its current timescales never ending) Spycops Inquiry in London which is covering the period of the 1970s and early 1980s has posted on it’s a website a mass of documentation.
One report relates to a meeting on 24th August 1983 between an unnamed officer and DCI David Short of the SDS (Special Demonstration Squad):
The meeting discussed a replacement for Spycop HCN108 who was to be Spycop HCN88 because of what it describes as ‘continuing problems’ in Hackney and Stoke Newington.
Interest was expressed in 50 Rectory Rd N16 the HQ of…
Hackney Broadcasting Authority was an illegal community radio station that hit the airwaves on Saturday 4th October 1986. Its programmes included the Battle of Cable Street, arranged marriages, women’s safety on housing estates and Latin American music and history. HBA then ran weekly shows on Saturdays from 12pm-5pm.
Unfortunately no audio recordings of the project seem to exist, but if you know of any (or can add any more info to this post) please do get in touch.
In the era of “on demand” video and podcasts, it’s difficult to visualise a time when media was so finite. But in the olden days radio was broadcast on particular frequencies and the state controlled which organisations could legally operate. Obviously the authorities had their own ideas about what sort of people and material should be on the radio, which led to campaigns from marginalised groups for acceptance – both in terms of coverage by the existing broadcasters such as the BBC and also for new radio stations.
The 4th of October date was the result of a call to action by the Community Radio Association, a pressure group who wanted more diversity on the airwaves. This press cutting from AM/FM (the London eighties London pirate radio site) gives a bit more info on the October 4th day of action and HBA:
HBA’s press release from the time made their stance clear:
“There’s no option. It’s either sit around for another three years and hope for community radio, or start to do something about it”
Quoted in Grant Goddard’s book on Kiss FM
Unfortunately HBA’s chosen frequency of 94FM was adjacent to the much more powerful Kiss FM (then still a pirate, but gained a license in 1989 after jumping through many hoops).
Hackney Broadcasting Authority’s eventual application for a legal license to broadcast seems to have been supported by Hackney Council and the anarchist pamphlet Radio Is My Bomb mentions that the station had two paid workers. It would appear that unlike Kiss FM, they were not successful in gaining legal permission to continue with their shows.
The AM/FM site quotes an amateur radio magazine from the 1980s:
After a promising start. looking as if they were going to succeed where many others have failed before, HBA have been off the air recently. This is due mainly to technical problems as none of the staff have had any previous experience of unlicensed broadcasting. It’s also been reported that there have been a few disputes between individual members of the team, which has been the downfall of many similarly minded groups.
On 20th July 1994 a lobby of Hackney Council, held by trades union and community groups to protest at the Criminal Justice Bill and the Council’s plan to use the new powers to evict tenants and squatters, was attacked by riot police of the Territorial Support Group. Officers were seen head-butting, punching and kicking protesters, before arresting seven people, some of whom they injured badly.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
What was the Criminal Justice Act?
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was incredibly wide-ranging and repressive (although it did also include lowering the age of consent for “homosexual acts” to 18). The legislation curtailed arrestees’ right to silence, increased police stop and search powers and infamously clamped down on the ability of squatters, hunt saboteurs and ravers to organise.
In May 1994, Hackney Homeless Festival in Clissold Park had concluded peacefully, but revellers were attacked by the TSG afterwards outside the nearby Robinson Crusoe pub (now the Clissold Tavern). Alongside this, there was the day to day harassment of residents by the notoriously bent Stoke Newington police – and a general climate of cracking down on squatting.
All this meant that the demo was pretty lively:
A large demonstration outside Hackney Town Hall on July 20th ended up as a brief occupation inside. Over 250 squatters and supporters gathered to protest against the council’s ‘para-municipal’ eviction squad, the Tenancy Audit Team, and the worryingly right-wing (Labour) Chair of Housing, Simon Matthews. The occupation and disruption of the first full council meeting since the local elections, was broken up by the police, who violently intervened to eject the occupiers.
Hackneyed Hypocrisy – Squall magazine
DefendThe Hackney 7
Those arrested now face serious charges, which could involve heavy fines or imprisonment. Those with the worst injuries have been charged with assaulting the police. All are denying the charges against them.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
The contact address for the Hackney 7 Defence Campaign was the Colin Roach Centre. The charges included criminal damage (to the town hall doors) and obstruction. The Council wouldn’t leave it there though:
The response of Hackney Council to this attack has been to support the police. In an unprecedented move the Council took out injunctions against those arrested which banned them from council property and a named squat in the borough. This blanket ban would prevent the defendants from using public toilets or housing benefit offices, without written permission.
Likewise, those who work in Hackney would be unable to go to offices of their unions without written permission, or they too would be risking arrest.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
The defendants successfully challenged the Council’s injunctions in court and that part of the case collapsed.
Two of those arrested worked for the Council – one was a teacher and the other worked for Hackney Independent Living Team (HILT) – and was also an active trade unionist. The Council applied political pressure to get these workers sacked before the charges got to court. The police also gave out information to HILT and the media about the arrests, breaching confidentiality.
It appears that John McArthur, the HILT worker, was sacked and I can’t find anything to suggest he was reinstated. It looks like he continued to play an active role in trade union matters in North London, later writing about his experiences with striking JJ Fast Foods workers in Tottenham.
The seriousness of the charges and Council’s victimisation was slightly lightened by the tragic/comic events of another protest later in the year:
Hackney 7 Trial
The trials of the seven people nicked on the Hackney Town Hall demo are now complete. They were arrested during the picket against attacks on squatters and tenants in the borough, and against the then impending Crimjustbill.
The bad news is one bind-over, one conditional discharge and one pleading guilty. The other four got off in exciting courtroom dramas. The cases against Ronnie and Mervyn ended, after a long and fairly positive week of disproving the cops’ stories, when one of our barristers collapsed, and the prosecution decided they couldn’t handle a retrial.
In the other case Simon got off when the magistrate disagreed that the four punches shown on video were ‘reasonable’ restraint as PC Moore claimed, and the prosecution gave up over Jake after the other police witness couldn’t explain his complete invisibility. Countercharges for assault, perjury and conspiracy are planned.
“Hackney Seven Results” – ContraFlow
Simon had been charged with assaulting a police officer, but video footage taken by activists at the protest showed that the reverse was true:
In two cases the judge recommended that video evidence of assaults by members of the Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group (riot squad) be passed on to the Director of Public Prosecutions. We are not holding our breath.
“Council Conspires With Police To Sack Union Activist” – Public Services Workers’ Network
According to the Anarchist Communist Federation, some of the defendants were issued with fines of “up to £3,300”.
The Criminal Justice Act became law on 3rd November 1994. The Labour Party abstained.
For squatters this is a simple extension of the logic of turning empty buildings into homes. Here are people in a strange country with very simple and urgent needs: somewhere to live and something to eat. Here is a borough with a record for keeping properties empty and here are some activists willing to crack a few buildings. Simple.
82-90 Stoke Newington Road was a Magistrate’s Court from 1889. Barbara Windsor may have attended with Ronnie Kray when he was done for receiving stolen goods. The court would naturally be one arena where the oppression of working class residents of North London played out and it is gratifying to see that it was also a site of resistance to this:
The building is now St John’s Court (flats). As Alan Denney notes – a large “Police Court” sign was removed before the conversion, as presumably state-sadism is not a good selling point. St Johns Court is now a listed building. A one-bed flat can be rented there for £1,321 a month at the time of writing.
But… between the building being a court and becoming ‘luxury” flats, it was put to better use…
1996 was the last gasp of John Major’s Conservative government before New Labour were elected in the following year. On February 5th 1996 the Tories cut off benefits to asylum seekers who did not apply for asylum at the port of entry, and to those who lost their application but were awaiting an appeal.
Contrary to the bullshit spouted about asylum seekers “taking our jobs”, they were actually legally prevented from working. As London freesheet ContraFlow put it:
With no possibility to work legally, and now no way of getting any other money, increasing numbers will be left to starve, in the hope that they’ll return to wherever they had to flee from, unless we do something about it. Because of this situation, and the fact that the Refugee Council, who had money to open a hostel, hadn’t, a large squat was opened up in Hackney as an emergency shelter, and to highlight the situation, a squat called ARCH – Autonomous Refugee Centre Hackney.
The building was the old Magistrates Court in Stoke Newington Road, empty for years and with steel doors and windows but with an open window on the first floor that had been tempting the locals for ages.
According to anarchist magazine Black Flag, ARCH “was set up by local squatters, The Refugee Support Group from the Colin Roach Centre and others” and was supported by “local Kurdish and Turkish Groups, some churches and local shops”
Squatters’ magazine Squall interviewed some of the organisers:
Chris Locke of ARCH explains: “We wanted to provide homes for refugees affected by the Social Security changes. On the way we found lots of other stuff to do; ranging from getting decent solicitors for people to finding them clothes and food.” Warren, another member of ARCH, states the group’s intention to create alternative solutions: “We understand these people are alienated, some come from war zones and oppressive regimes to the big city. Providing bedding, conversation and a good meal is enough to give the basis of what they need; the dignity to keep their sanity and keep on living.”
ContraFlow went into more detail on the logistics:
The first mistake was going in before checking who owned it – it was assumed that as it was still for sale it still belonged to the state, which would’ve made it appropriate and make procedings predictable.
In fact it had been bought by Harinbrook Properties, a small property company connected to Eugena, a building outfit, who liked to pose as security guards, bailiffs and anything else. They tried three illegal evictions, which were foiled by physical force, with great assistance from the local Turkish and Kurdish community, and the cops. The cops only tried once to force their way in, but were eventually convinced that their legal position was rather dubious.
All this made the situation rather stressful and tiring, as 24-hour watches were kept until the owners finally decided to go to court.
After ARCH was evicted, Squall spoke to some of the people that needed its help:
Meanwhile in a Stoke Newington pub, two ARCH volunteers stroll in with a couple of young refugees; Varben from Kosovo in former Yugoslavia and Antonio from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.
Antonio, a doctor from Cabinda, tells his story: “I left because of the civil war. I was afraid I would be killed. I had many problems because I was treating people from all the different parties who are at war. Some parties didn’t like me helping all sides but I am a doctor, I must help anyone who needs it. They put me in prison for a long time. Then I escaped and came here.” Antonio had no idea he had to apply for asylum as soon as he arrived and is currently waiting for the Home Office to process his asylum application. On average this takes nine months.
Varben hitch-hiked to England in a lorry from Macedonia: “When I got to London I slept out on the streets at Victoria Station for three days. I met an African who told me to go to the Home Office.” Varben says there were at least ten other refugees sleeping at Victoria whilst he was there: “I don’t know what happened to them, they didn’t speak English.” The Refugee Council referred him to a hostel for five days and then on to a church. He believes that squatting is a logical solution: “Why have houses empty? Why have people sleeping in the church?” He is looking forward to an English course organised for him by ARCH and the Churches Refugee Network. He too awaits a Home Office decision.
The ARCH crew eventually squatted a house for refugees further north in Stoke Newington. I vaguely recall from a radical history walk a few years back that this was somewhere around Manor Road/Lordship Park?
Before that, there were some lessons learnt and some reflections to be had, as ContraFlow put it:
The second mistake was thinking that the problem of accomodation could be dealt with separately to all the other problems faced by refugees. It was assumed that other groups and networks would step in and take over all the social work stuff, but the first refugee showed that it wasn’t so easy, and that being in a strange country with a strange language makes it pretty damned hard to do anything for yourself, apart from whatever stresses and depression you might bring with.
Anyway, a few people found themselves taking on a whole lot of social work, and running around finding groups that might be able to help out. After three weeks the centre was evicted and plans to move on to a new place immediately were postponed to give time to work out what was actually needed next, and because the squat centre, where some of those involved lived and which was generally used as a base, was also being evicted.
But work continued, with a local church network and community groups, sorting out places for people to stay as well as working on other aspects of the struggle, and support for those refugees who found their way to the network.
The Refugee Council, who had been desperately calling for churches to make space available, stopped referring refugees to the church network because of their connection with ARCH, but the churches remained supportive, and a house was eventually opened up. which is now housing a number of refugees, and one non-refugee for support. Many contacts were made, and networks are being organised around London to try to open up houses and centres in other areas, but it isn’t easy.
One of the vague ideas behind ARCH was that it would take off and become autonomous, that space would be created for refugees to take up their own fight. It hasn’t happened yet. partly because of the low numbers involved so far, and because it will always be easier for activists, who will always have to be around, to give support. The skills are out there, to find and provide what’s needed, if we can bring them together.
This isn’t just another benefit attack to be tagged on to our fight against the JSA. It’s not just another attack on housing adding to homelessness. It’s an attack on the ability of ordinary people like us to escape unbearable conditions created by the global (but still hierarchical) squeeze on our conditions, by local states’ attacks on behalf of global, asylum seeking capital. If money is going to zap around the world looking for cheaper labour and better investments, it can’t allow us to wander off looking for higher wages and better conditions. At best we’ll be allowed to be guestworkers, with our families and the costs of reproduction left behind, and with no rights to settle, organise.
This is an attack on London and its beautiful cosmopolitan mix of cultures and people, an attack on the communities here and on our history of refuge and struggle. In a way it’s a last chance for us to act locally and globally at the same time, to carry out direct actions that make us part of the world instead of just acting against increasingly localised political structures, with occasional solidarity actions to protest at the nastiness of other states. It is also a chance for us (the vast majority of ContraFlow readers, and writers) to break of our ghetto of our European “alternative” scene, and discover the world that is collected together in our cities.
For me ARCH is an inspiring example of practical solidarity being provided to those most in need by people with scant resources. For all its problems, this was direct action at its best. Since 1996 the pace of gentrification in Hackney has accelerated to the point where there are very few empty properties and this increase in value has been reflected in some changes to the law on squatting too. Nevertheless squatting is still happening, but generally in a less open manner. The veterans at the Advisory Service for Squatters are still doing a excellent work in difficult circumstances.
The support mechanism for migrants in the borough have been professionalised and there are obvious advantages to that, although I am sure that the constant worries about funding and simply not having the resources to do what needs to be done must be very stressful: Hackney Migrant Centre is seeking donations and volunteers.
“Desperately Seeking Asylum” ContraFlow #18 Mayday 1996 pdf
“Asylum Seekers Attacked” – Black Flag #207 1996 pdf