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Rebellion, riots, and racism marked 2011 for Black Brits

By Starla Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Jan 18, 2012 - 10:54:33 AM

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Undated family handout photo of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. Stephen Lawrence was killed in a racist attack by a gang of youths in Eltham, southeast London in April 1993. Photo: AP/Wide World photo
(FinalCall.com) - For Black Britons, 2012 began with news many waited 18 years to receive, a semblance of justice for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. White defendants Gary Dobson and David Norris were sentenced Jan. 3 to 15 and 14 years in prison respectively for the brutal racially-motivated 1993 fatal stabbing of Mr. Lawrence, 18.

What remains to be seen is as one analyst put it, whether a popular verdict will in some small way; restore “lost faith” in the relationship between UK Blacks and the police.

The Lawrence verdict comes on the heels of a year marred by increased racial tension, deaths in police custody, a fledgling economy and disenfranchised youth.

Whether it was cases involving police brutality, lackluster mainstream media coverage of important issues, high unemployment or issues in education, 2011 was a turning point for the over 1.5 million Blacks that call the UK home, said analysts.

This year was definitely the year racial inequality was put back on the agenda and is now at the forefront of people’s minds said Elizabeth Pears, a UK-based journalist.

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Police in streets following unrest in August 2011. Photo: MGN Online
“Because Britain has been developing a successful [B]lack middle class, it can often seem that racism is a thing of the past, but I think people are waking up to the reality that racism is becoming more discreet and manifesting itself in different ways. I think in 2012 we will see [B]lack communities being more vocal than ever,” Ms. Pears told The Final Call in an e-mail interview.

A 2011 study released by the Institute of Education at the University of London reported that racism is a reality in the lives of Black middle-class families. Among the key findings the study entitled, “The Educational Strategies of the Black Middle Classes” noted: “Parents recognise it (racism) as less overt than when they were children but nonetheless pervasive in more subtle and coded forms affecting both them and their children. Black middle-class parents are vigilant and work to protect their children from incidents of racism at school.”

Olu Olake, a community activist and president of 100 Black Men of London, said 2011 did not signify anything special to Black Britain. “It just confirmed what we have known for some time that the gains in racial equality measures over the past 15 years has been very tenuous and not been systemic enough, so we still have the cyclical expressions of frustration,” he told The Final Call.

The fact that 52 percent of Black men are not employed or in any type of educational or training programs was an underreported story in the media that greatly impacted the community, added Mr. Olake.

“This year saw some of the worst public spending cuts in a generation that has had a disproportionate effect on [B]lack families and youth employment figures are also at a record high,” said Ms. Pears.

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A rebellion erupted after the shooting death of Mark Duggan by police in August 2011. The unarmed Black man was shot to death by Metropolitan police officers.
Several high-profile cases in 2011 forced Britons of all ethnicities to face the harsh realities surrounding issues of race and class.

The year started off with a case involving the disappearance of Serena Beakhurst, a 14-year-old bi-racial girl, which received little media attention until celebrities began making comments via social media networking sites. It was only then that the case garnered national attention. Serena was found and reunited with her family, but activists charged media and law enforcement with a slow response to the case because Serena was “non-White.”

The critical issue with the greatest impact in 2011 was the number of Blacks that died at the hands of the police or while in police custody which sparked an uprising and rebellion Great Britain had not seen in decades.

The statistics of deaths of Blacks in police custody and those detained under the mental health act are shocking and often go unreported in the press, said Ms. Pears.

“Mainstream newspapers were forced to touch briefly upon the subject to provide context following the death of Smiley Culture in March and then again following the death of Mark Duggan, in August, but there has been no in-depth analysis of the issue and certainly no strong challenges to the Ministry of Justice on the issue. Many deaths go unreported almost as if they’ve never happened,” she said.

The suspicious death of reggae singer David “Smiley Culture” Emmanuel caused an uproar among Black Brits young and old alike. Police alleged Mr. Emmanuel stabbed himself in the chest while in the kitchen at his Warlingham, Surrey home March 15. Police had raided the entertainer’s home to serve an arrest warrant. According to reports Mr. Emmanuel was scheduled to face trial for conspiracy to supply cocaine.

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Millions of pounds in damage were left behind after riots and rebellion in the United Kingdom. Photo: MGN Online
Several demonstrations and rallies convened by grassroots activists along with friends and family members of the dozens of Blacks that have died at the hands of law enforcement over the years were held throughout 2011.

A few days after Mr. Emmanuel’s death, the Black community laid to rest Dorothy “Cherry” Groce, who survived a 1985 shooting by police that left her unable to walk. It was the police shooting of Ms. Groce that ignited the Brixton riots that turned London upside down nearly 30 years ago.

However, it was the August 2011 fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police that touched off the latest round of civil unrest. For five days a cross-section of youth and adults of various races looted, set fires and damaged property in London and other cities to the tune of £300m. Ms. Pears said 2011 very much felt like a return to the 1980s for Britain’s Black community.

“We marked the 30th anniversary of the New Cross Fires and the Brixton uprisings which both paved the way for the introduction of crucial laws in race relations a number of high-profile deaths of [B]lack men in police custody and though I do not believe the August riots were wholly about race, the police shooting of Mark Duggan, which triggered the first wave of unrest in Tottenham, north London, is very much a [B]lack issue,” said Ms. Pears.

“In that particular community, a number of [B]lack families living within a very short distance of each other have lost loved ones in similar circumstances. Mistrust of the police is something that is embedded in the [B]lack British psyche and is becoming more entrenched with every fresh incident,” she added.

Hugie Rose, U.K. representative of New Black Panther Party, told The Final Call that the results from years of issues with police and other socio-economic injustices finally came to a head.

“It reached a boiling point where the youth have been tired of harassment, (and being) oppressed in the streets. Stop and search had increased, school exclusion had increased, unemployment increased and with the new government, a lot of cutbacks. And when they do cutbacks it’s the Blacks that get the backlash on these cuts and all these things culminated and became problematic in 2011,” said Mr. Rose.

Some bright spots

However, 2011 was not all doom and gloom for Blacks in the U.K. as many grassroots organizations and activists began increasing efforts to work together in addressing issues of youth violence and economic unity.

“There were practically no good news stories in mainstream press about Black Britain, and yet there were millions of positive stories. Like the 10th year anniversary of 100 Black Men of London,” said Mr. Olake, whose organization mentors youth through educational and developmental programs.

Hilary Muhammad, U.K. Representative of the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, said irrespective of challenges the community dealt with in 2011 it did not come as a surprise to those that study scripture whether it is the Bible or Holy Qu’ran, the book of scripture of the Muslims.

“What we tried to do and have been trying to do in the midst of all of this confusion is to represent an oasis of life and health and an abundance of knowledge and wisdom. Our focus for 2011 really was to try to offer hope to our young people and to dedicate and focus on our youth,” Mr. Muhammad told The Final Call.

One such effort resulted in the launch of UNI-Hood, a movement initiated by youth members of the Nation of Islam which introduced a clothing line and held several community events in 2011 as a way of bringing their peers together through unity in putting an end to the destructive “post-code” wars plaguing Black youth. The group also presented awards and recognized adult and youth community leaders during several events throughout the year.

It was a year the Nation of Islam in the U.K. focused on young people, said Mr. Muhammad. “So 2011 was focused upon young people taking the responsibility for no longer looking at government to do for them that only they with the backing of God and their parents and their families can do for self,” added Mr. Muhammad.

“It has been imperative to us to try and bring the young generation up to speed with the reason why things are happening the way they are happening and to do our best to try and offer them alternatives to the natural shutting down of Satan’s world,” said Mr. Muhammad.

Several other groups held town hall meetings to begin organizing and strategizing ways to address teen disenfranchisement and violence plaguing the community.

“There has been some good news. There seems to be a new consciousness rising amongst the youth,” said Mr. Rose. The long-time activist said more and more Blacks in the U.K. are recognizing the pagan origins of so-called holidays and are recognizing the need to work together.

“There’s still a long way to go yet. Straight after the (August) uprising many of the groups got together and strategized how we can work as a collective in addressing some of these issues,” added Mr. Rose.

What does the future hold?

Though 2011 was a rough one for the U.K.’s Black community, there is an underlying determined optimism that 2012 has the potential to be different.

Mr. Olake said the New Year can be a moment of great opportunity for Black Britons.

Though the recession will be challenging due to the pending cuts in public sector jobs that will disproportionately impact Blacks he sees potential for unity and progress.

“This will be very challenging for us, but can also be a moment of great insight and clarity for us as well, and if managed well can be the catalyst for many of us to develop real economic independence,” said Mr. Olake.

“My hope is that the community will take their frustrations and anger that 2011 has brought to the surface and use it constructively to organize and bring positive change. As always, there needs to be a strong focus on street violence, particularly in London, among young [B]lack people,” said Ms. Pears.

As a multi-media journalist, Ms. Pears said she wants to see more Black Brits claim their right to a stake in society and not be afraid to speak out for fear of rocking the boat or being accused of playing the race card.

“We need more young people, many of whom are third and fourth generations, [B]lack Britons to become more active in the political process, whether that is organizing campaigns, challenging authorities, putting themselves forward for public office, or simply just utilizing their right to vote,” she added.

Mr. Muhammad said in 2012 the London mosque will continue efforts to empower Black youth by rolling out a five-week business course for ages 11 to 21. “The mantra is for us to raise the idea of never filling out an application or to look for a job but to build a business to sustain us and those that depend upon us. The idea is for young people to come on this course and be taught a general overview of business and how to set up a business,” said the student minister.

Despite the bleakness of 2011, Blacks in the UK seem determined to forge ahead in the coming year. When asked about his final thoughts upon the dawn of a new year, Mr. Olake in issuing a challenge said, “2012 will be tough, but real Black steel will be forged in the fires. Bring it on!” What remains to be seen is if the conviction of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence will usher in a new era of confidence that Black Brits will be on the receiving end of long overdue freedom, justice and equality. Three other suspects in the murder have never been convicted.

“Had the police done their job properly, I would have spent the last 18 years grieving for my son rather than fighting to get his killers to court,” said Doreen Lawrence after the verdict.

Lee Jasper, a UK activist that has been one of the most vocal in demanding justice for the Lawrence family seems skeptical the verdict will cause any sweeping changes.

“I am not celebrating, pleased though I am for my dear friends the Lawrence’s. I’m incensed: this is no victory for British justice, far from it. This verdict in my view exemplifies and represents the historical and continued calamitous amplification of routine injustice faced by [B]lack people in Britain,” Mr. Jasper wrote on his blog.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Related news:

Can 'Reading the Riots' study bring change and lessen tension with Black youth in UK? (FCN, 12-16-2011)

Black Britons express little optimism justice will come  (FCN, 12-06-2011)

UK Black leadership wants end to assault on youth, community (FCN, 09-02-2011) 

The UK's Monarchy and madness (FCN, 05-05-2011)

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