Windrush – a momentous fiasco
This afternoon people will queue in the April rain and in an orderly fashion as they file into a Brixton museum in a place now called Windrush Square. Thirty-seven years ago almost to the day some of these descendents of the Windrush generation were in the same place rampaging with a fury no-one was prepared for, when 299 policemen and at least 65 members of the public were hurt, 61 private vehicles and 56 police cars were burnt, 117 buildings were damaged and looted, 28 set fire to. There were 82 arrests after what Time Magazine called Bloody Saturday, the neighbourhood here still calls The Uprising and the rest of us call the Brixton Riot.
The direct cause was a campaign of stop-and-search by the police in a response to a soaring crime rate in Lambeth, centred on Brixton, when almost exclusively black people were subjected to the indignity of impromptu frisking in full public view, a time when the crime wave itself had been a response to a recession that had made the poor desperate and the community suspicious of authority.
Today they have been called to what in April 1981 was a derelict shell of a former Liberal club but is the only public institution devoted to the African-Caribbean British story, the Black Cultural Archives, https://blackculturalarchives.org, created with £7m of money raised locally and with the backing of the Heritage Lottery Fund and Lambeth Council.
They are angry today, too, but also bewildered, frightened and hurt. They will be addressed by Peter Herbert, the leading black barrister, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers and a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and then they will be invited to one-to-one advisory sessions with a voluntary team of lawyers who will address their individual anxieties about the fall-out from the Windrush fiasco. These clinics will go on twice a week for the next two months or as long as they are needed.
The BCA’s director, Paul Reid, as you can read in the AI Profile http://www.artsindustry.co.uk/feature/1139-brixton-message-to-the-windrush-descendents-abandon-violence-seize-your-heritage, believes this is a more momentous point in British history than that other horrific Saturday: it is a point at which history can take a hold of a situation and resolve fundamental misconceptions once and for all.
The shredding of the Windrush landing cards, the lack of which Home Office authorities have been using to doubt the citizenship of some Britons of Caribbean descent, is a minor part of the issue. A series of Acts of Parliament and measures in the 60s and 70s belittled their place here after independence from empire was declared, and now in an almost comical fashion it has come to a head.
But 70 years ago the first response to a plea from the mother country for help to rebuild a shattered Britain landed at Tilbury Dock, and were transported to a holding centre in a former Clapham air-raid shelter from which they could take a bus to the nearest labour exchange, at Brixton. What is in these people’s minds today is that, 70 years on, they are still seen as the poor West Indians who came on a long working visit, not the citizens they believed they were. As one elder of the community here said, “We were used to build up the country after the Second World War when we were invited to come, but now we’re no longer required and we can go”.
Reid believes that the flaring of knife crime in London is a symptom of the same racial separateness the establishment may believe still remains, but that this is the moment when our heritage can assert itself. The fiasco can be the means of sweeping aside the embedded suspicions, both in the establishment and the black communities, that the Windrush children are not really part of us – the absurdity is that the government’s writhing as it tries to extricate itself with promises and compensations is overshadowed by Britain’s attempt to be even more its own self, parting from the anchor it adopted as it abandoned the empire, Europe.
The development in Britain of black music, black dance, black painting, black theatre, black film, black Christianity, black laughter is documented in the Black Cultural Archive – chronicles initiated after the riot by the writer Len Garrison whose poem asked “Where are our monuments?”. It is a story of a Britain changed by a small group of people – there were 1,027 passengers on the former troopship in 1948, half of whom had boarded in Jamaica – with the power of their culture and their work ethic.
Now is the time for them to seize their history, assert their place and be properly welcomed by their fellow citizens in the classrooms and the boardrooms of Britain.
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