LBC’s James O’Brien covered the issue of food banks and hunger on his phone-in show this week. One caller left no doubt of the extent of the crisis which this right wing government of two-legged rats has created with its assault on the welfare state and, with it, basic human decency.
Only those who have had their humanity surgically removed could listen to this caller and not be filled with rage.
Not Russia, not Iran, not Syria or Cuba, not even North Korea. Recent events make the argument that the enemy of black people in America is America itself. What other conclusion can be drawn from the decision of two grand juries in the space of a week not to prosecute police officers responsible for killing unarmed black men under dubious circumstances?
Not only were the parents of Michael Brown – shot seven times by white police officer Darren Wilson in the majority black town of Ferguson, Missouri – denied their right to see Officer Wilson answer for his death in court, they were forced to listen to their son’s character being assassinated in the media.
Similarly the family of Eric Garner, killed by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in July after being placed in a chokehold during his arrest in Staten Island for selling illegal cigarettes, have just seen a grand jury determine that no criminal charges should be brought against the officer responsible; this despite the incident being caught on video, with Garner clearly heard repeatedly pleading that he couldn’t breathe.
The facts don’t lie: Michael Brown and Eric Garner were unarmed when they were killed, and in each case a grand jury refused to indict the police officer responsible.
As in the case of Officer Darren Wilson over the killing of Michael Brown, the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Pantaleo over the killing of Eric Garner met with a wave of protest across America. Black leaders such as Al Sharpton have put out a call for the establishment of new civil rights movement. When it comes to race relations America remains stuck in an ugly past, one that renders the claim of it being the land of free eminently hollow.
The original civil rights movement, led by Dr Martin Luther King, has long been the stuff of legend and folklore. The March on Washington, the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, the footage of civil rights marchers being attacked by racist cops and thugs across the segregated South are part not only of US history but world history, exemplifying a struggle for justice that is universal.
Less familiar is the history of the black power movement in the United States, which ran parallel to the civil rights movement and was committed to a much more radical response to the injustices being endured by the nation’s blacks. It comprised those who believed that a strategy of non-violence and reform of the system would effect no meaningful change.
Some of the young militant leaders who emerged from the black power movement of the sixties and seventies blazed a trail across America’s political and social landscape. Malcolm X, Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale, George Jackson, Angela Davis and others gave voice to the indignity, injustice, and despair suffered by an entire community and people. Not for them a call for reform or appeals to liberal America for succour. Instead they called for a revolutionary response with the objective not of reforming the system but bringing it down.
In his Ballot or the Bullet speech in 1964, Malcolm X said, “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanisation. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy…I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) rose to prominence as a leading activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Radicalised as a result of his experiences marching for civil rights in the racist South, he joined the Black Panther Party, becoming a fierce critic of the Vietnam War and drawing links between the oppression suffered by his own people in America and the anti-colonial struggles being waged throughout the developing world. Carmichael travelled extensively, visiting revolutionary leaders in Africa, North Vietnam, Cuba, and China, offering solidarity and receiving the same against what he considered was their common enemy – US imperialism.
He later moved to Africa, where he became an aide to the then Guinean prime minister, Sekou Toure, and a staunch supporter of exiled Ghanian President, Kwame Nkrumah. It was in honour of both men that he changed his name to Kwame Toure. During his African years, Toure was an ardent supporter of the Pan-Africanist movement, a cause he espoused until his death in 1998.
It was Carmichael, as he was known then, who first coined the phrase ‘black power’, explaining it as “a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognise their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organisations.”
The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 with the aim of building an organisation to struggle for civil rights and justice. The Panthers devised a Ten-Point Program of demands, designed to deepen raise consciousness within black communities across the United States. Those demands included land, bread, housing, clothing, justice, and equality. However it was the seventh point in their program, demanding an end to police brutality and calling for black people to arm themselves in self defense against the police in their own communities, which succeeding in bringing them to national and international attention.
In his article, ‘In Defense of Self Defense’, written in 1970, Newton revealed the political awareness that made him a threat to the status quo. “Men were not created to obey laws. Laws are created to obey men. They are established by men and should serve men. The laws and rules which officials inflict upon poor people prevent them from functioning harmoniously.”
Further on in the same article, he writes, “Penned up in the ghettos of America, surrounded by his factories and all the physical components of his economic system, we have been made into the ‘wretched of the earth,’ relegated to the position of spectators while the White racists run their international con game on the suffering peoples.”
Newton wrote extensively and was an important thinker, but the Panthers are best known for daring to challenge the police, utilising their constitutional right to bear arms to brandish weapons. This, along with their breakfast clubs and other community programs, earned them the respect and affection of people in poor black communities.
Their growing influence prompted the director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, to describe the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Using COINTELPRO, the program devised by the FBI in the sixties to investigate and destroy homegrown dissident groups, the Bureau set about effecting the destruction of the Panthers. The campaign reached its peak in 1969 with the murder of leading Panther, Fred Hampton, in Chicago. The organisation was able to continue, however, and in 1973 Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, coming in second of nine candidates with 43,170 votes.
George Jackson joined the Black Panther Party while he was in prison. He’d been given a sentence of one year to life for the theft of $70 from a gas station at the age of 18. Jackson was radicalised in prison. A book of his prison letters, ‘Soledad Brother’, was published in 1970 to international acclaim.
He writes, “The new slavery, the modern variety of chattel slavery updated to disguise itself, places the victim in a factory or in the case of most Blacks in support roles inside and around the factory system (service trades), working for a wage. However, if work cannot be found in or around the factory complex, today’s neoslavery does not allow even for a modicum of food and shelter. You are free – to starve.”
Soledad Brother is not so much a compilation of letters as a scream from the bowels of the US justice system. It is a call to action and the assertion by a young man of his humanity in the face of the inhumanity and barbarity suffered by his people. Jackson died in prison in 1971 of gunshot wounds after prison guards fired on prisoners during an uprising in the yard. Allegations that he was purposely assassinated due to his growing influence, both within and beyond the prison walls behind which he was incarcerated, were never satisfactorily refuted in the eyes of his supporters.
Today, within black communities, it must seem that the sixties and seventies never ended. There is a black president in the White House, yes, but recent events suggest that those who believed that Obama’s election heralded a post-racial America were mistaken. As Malcolm X said in response to Martin Luther King being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, “He got the peace prize, we got the problem.”
Though segregation no longer exists de jure in the US, the racism that underpinned it does, with the reality for a disproportionate number of the nation’s black population a future of poverty, alienation, incarceration, and the very real risk of police brutality.
What defined yesterday’s champions of black power was the understanding that the oppression of black people in America was not only a race issue it was also a class issue. Martin Luther King himself arrived at this understanding in the course of the struggle for civil rights, an understand that cannot be denied in the face of any serious analysis of that oppression.
It led to MLK, murdered in 1968, evolving almost out of recognition from the 1964 version. In ’64 he still retained illusions in the status quo, which by ’68 he had all but abandoned, having come to the conclusion that, “The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.”
This shift in consciousness made him a threat not only to white privilege but to the economic system it rests upon; turning him, incontrovertibly, into an anti capitalist. Consequently, MLK would not have received the Nobel Peace Prize in ’68.
They tend not to give out awards to anti capitalists.
Today Grace Petrie releases her first ever live DVD and CD. Live and In Conversation was shot at St Pancras Old Church – a beautiful music venue and working church in Camden, originally made famous by a beatles photoshoot. The gig itself is interspersed by Grace talking, in interview, about her songs and her life in and out of music.
Its a show of much variety. At moments the crowd raise their fists as they sing along to They Shall Not Pass. At other moments one imagines the crowd holding back tears as she sings songs like Iago and Baby Blue which, she explains, were inspired by a relationship in which she felt “incredibly insecure”. Grace told me that when she released her last album Love is My Rebellion, she was worried that people would hate the fact that it was far less political than the album before. Yet amongst the crowd at St Pancras there was every bit as much appreciation for those songs that dealt with love and life.
Certainly it showed that the frequently applied label of “protest singer” is nowhere near sufficient to describe what Grace does. It’s term that she “actively dislikes”.”I just think it’s a way to make it seem seperate from orher kinds of music” she says. “If you ever talkabout anything political in your songs your in this sereprate category, no other subjects get you placed in this seperate category based on what you write about. She also, she says, dislikes the cliche of the “friendship braid wearing, doc martin wearing hippie who plays at demos”.
Before she became a full time musican Grace was an LGBT youth worker. As she explains in the DVD she wrote love songs about women, not as a way of trying to change society but simply because that”s “what came naturally. Nonetheless she acknowledges that it’s “the most amazing thing” when people come up to her and say that her songs helped them to come out or to feel a bit less lonely. One thing she’s clear about is that she doesn’t feel that she has a “duty to write political songs”. “I write about things that move me, and politics is one of the things that moves me, and it always will be”.
From my own perspective as a folk promoter, I think that people often read to much into the subject matter with which a song most immediately deals. We tend to see 90% of the songs that get produced as being about love or sex. But in way this just a sort of literary convention – the framework within which we happen talk about our regrets and hopes, our feelings of emnity and kinship, and indeed every other aspect of our social and emotional lives.
At the St Pancras gig Grace slates herself for writing a song about a failed relationship, and being so grandiose as to entitle it “I Climbed a Mountain”. Yet when the music starts up, you realise that, for many who it hear it, it may be about so much more. “Good days come, bad days get better, and nothing lasts forever”.
British Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen is to make a biopic of Paul Robeson, whose commitment to the plight of the common man, regardless of race, creed or nationality, left behind a legacy that will never be surpassed.
The early years
One of my most treasured possessions is a book of the writings and speeches of Paul Robeson. It charts his remarkable life from the post WWI years, when he first came to prominence as a student at the prestigious Rutgers University, excelling in college football as the only black player on the team and first demonstrated his prodigious talent as an actor and singer. The son of an escaped slave, this alone signalled the remarkable drive and self belief he would exude throughout his life.
The book moves on to the 1920s, when after a brief flirtation with a law career Robeson entered the world of show business, finding international fame on Broadway by the end of that decade. The 1930s he mostly spent in London, where he embarked on a career in movies, playing a succession of African characters that in their depiction of servility and racial stereotyping he would later consider an insult to his people. It is here in England in the thirties where he experiences the political, racial, and social awakening that would define the rest of his life and legacy. In particular he forges an undying bond and affinity with the Welsh miners, identifying with their struggle and proud musical cultural tradition, one he associated with his own people in the United States.
Solidarity with the Soviet Union
By the 1940s Paul Robeson was a passionate anti-fascist and anti-colonialist, who having visited the Soviet Union returned an unapologetic supporter and sympathizer with the socialist state. “During the 1934-1938 period I visited the Soviet Union many times and decided to send my boy there to school. There I found the real solution of the minority and racial problem, a very simple solution – complete equality for all men of whatever race,” he wrote.
What’s remarkable here is that the period Robeson describes in the letter is referred to by anti-Soviet historians as the Great Terror, when it is commonly asserted that millions were being arrested and either executed or sent to the gulag by Stalin. Robeson was therefore accused of glossing over this hugely convulsive period in the Soviet Union’s history. Yet he felt compelled to announce during a 1935 visit to the country that he “was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow…It is obvious that there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contented and support their government.”
The singer and by now political activist had visited Spain during the Civil War, where he toured the country singing to the anti-fascist Republican troops and volunteers to raise their morale. Like many within the artistic community in the United States and throughout Europe, Robeson considered fascism to be the common enemy of mankind. Indeed during the Second World War he extended himself in touring war plants and factories throughout the US giving concerts and speeches in support of the war effort.
He combined this with regular appearances onstage, winning rave notices for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello in particular. Touring with the play, he refused to appear in Southern states in venues where segregation was in force. In a 1942 speech to a mixed audience of blacks and whites in New Orleans, he said, “Nothing the future brings can defeat a people who have come through three hundred years of slavery and humiliation and privation with heads high and eyes clear and straight.”
Running through him too was a fierce class consciousness, fuelling a consistent message of unity among workers across the racial divide. In 1945 he reminded delegates at the annual convention of the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union of “the necessity of complete unity of all groups in our country.”
After the Second World War he found himself under attack from the political and media establishment in the United States for his refusal to renege on his support and solidarity with the Soviet Union. If anything he raised his voice even louder when it came to articulating his refusal to bow to the huge pressure to conform to the new wave of anti-Soviet hysteria as the Cold War got underway. His appearance at the 1949 Paris Peace Conference resulted in a firestorm of criticism in the US press after giving a speech in which he was reported to have said, “It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.”
Despite claiming that his words were distorted by the American press, he was hung out to dry, depicted as a traitor and a dangerous subversive. When a reporter asked him about a story claiming that during a recent visit to Moscow he said that he loved Russia more than any other country, he replied, “What I said was that I love the America of which I am a part. I don’t love the America of Wall Street. I love the America of the working class. I love the working class of England and France and other countries. And I very deeply love the people’s democracies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union…They are fighting for my people and for the white working people of the world.”
Refuses to yield
It was now that Robeson was deserted and abandoned by former friends and allies in his home country as a campaign of demonisation succeeded in uniting right and left against him. He was a major target of the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. But even so he remained defiant, “The big lie is the fairy tale that the American people are somehow threatened by communism,” he wrote in 1954.
In fact rather than slow him down, the pressure he was under merely served to increase his determination to keep fighting for the causes he believed in. He continued to raise his voice and speak throughout the United States in solidarity with workers in a struggle, with poor blacks suffering the degradation and humiliation of racist segregation, in solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle against French colonialism, against apartheid in South Africa, and for peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc.
Increasingly the State Department began taking steps to silence him. In order to prevent him travelling overseas, his passport was revoked. Thereafter scheduled television appearances and concerts were cancelled and over five years from 1950-55 repeated applications for a passport to enable him to travel out of the US to make a living were denied by the US Passport Office. When in 1955 he appealed to the Supreme Court to have his passport reinstated, the Judge presiding over the case implied that one may be issued to him if he agreed to sign a “non-Communist oath.” Robeson refused.
During this period his career as a singer and performer dried up, and with it his income, which plunged from $150,000 to $3,000 per year.
A new appreciation as the struggle continues
Finally, supported by an international campaign, Robeson was allowed to leave the US in 1958, embarking on an international itinerary which took him to London then on to Eastern Europe, where he was accorded a hero’s welcome. Appearing at a Miners Gala in Edinburgh, Scotland to celebrate May Day in 1960, he told his audience, “My people were hewers of wood and drawers of water all over the Western world. Today on the continent of my forefathers, we are saying it is time for us to live a new life, time to be free.”
Though the 1960s marked a steady decline in his health, by its end the anathematisation he had suffered over many years gave way to a new appreciation of his life and convictions. In 1971 his 1958 autobiography, Here I Stand, was reissued to critical and literary acclaim, and in 1973 a Salute to Paul Robeson concert was held at a sold out Carnegie Hall in New York to celebrate his 75th birthday. Upon his death in January 1976, 5000 people attended his funeral in Harlem.
What to make of such a rich life and how to begin to condense it into a film? Perhaps it is best to begin with its meaning, which in the case of Paul Robeson is surely that it is not what a man wins or gains that is the true mark of his success, but what he is willing to sacrifice for a cause greater than himself.
The recent book, “Against the Grain, the British far left from 1956”, edited by Evan Smith and Mathew Worley covers the period up until the modern day, but starting from the year when British political life was shaped by both the crisis of British imperial confidence in Suez, and the contemporaneous impact of the invasion of Hungary by the USSR and its allies, and the dramatic denunciation of Stalin by Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956.
The reason that the year 1956 was so dramatic in Britain is that the UK’s social, economic and political life was shaped by the context of the still considerable but declining legacy of colonialism and imperialism, and by the external challenge of socialist countries, and the internal challenge by their advocates within the British labour movement.
Britain has a distinct culture in its labour movement, founded on trade unionism and the political envelope of labourism. It is worth exploring this context: as the ideological and social parameters of trade unionism are delimited by seeking to represent the sectional interests of working people (or in some cases the professional salariat) within capitalism. It therefore seeks to improve the lot of the working classes, but not overthrow the profit system, or the institution of wage labour. The political expression of trade unionism has therefore been hostile to the greed, privilege and corruption of individual capitalists, and indeed sometimes hostile to the capitalist class collectively, but has not been systematically opposed to the capitalist system, notwithstanding the rule book commitments of some older unions. Click to continue reading →
Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper is to working people what Dr Harold Shipman is to medicine. Yet from the transparent and naked opportunism of this downmarket, criminally compromised tabloid in seeking to exploit the furore over Labour’s Emily Thornberry, you would think it’s the in-house newspaper of the British trade union movement rather than a champion of Thatcherism and a committed enemy of anything resembling the interests of working people.
Emily Tornberry’s only crime is that she identified the collapse of working class identity and culture in Britain into a Thatcherite caricature – a process involving its confusion with jingoism and white van man individualism. And before being accused of snobbery or of being another out of touch liberal commentator, I grew up on a housing estate in Thatcher’s Britain and left school at 15 with zero qualifications. I then graduated from a dead end job in a factory to working as a bouncer in bars and clubs at the age of 17, and in my time have driven a white van too. In other words I’ve got the T-shirt when it comes to the archetypal uneducated white working class male projecting an over-masculine persona to compensate for the crisis of identity that has beset this particular demographic over the past three decades and more. Click to continue reading →
I was delighted to see the commitment from Ed Miliband that the next Labour government willtackle the unscrupulous activities of some recruitment agencies. There is a legitimate role for agencies providing temporary workers, to fill gaps where an employer genuinely has fluctuating work volumes, or where there are temporary tasks to be done.
But all too often employment agencies are used to seek to push down wages, and to use legal trickery to make it harder for workers to assert their workplace rights, whether it is the right to be treated with dignity by supervisors, or the right to a safe and healthy working environment.
I am old fashioned enough to value the relationship where most workers are employed by the company who name is over the door;and where employers feel a social responsibility to recruit from the area where that company is located. Click to continue reading →
In contrast with western complicity with Israel’s attack on Gaza over the summer and ongoing attacks and land grabs since, Venezuela and its allies in Latin America are offering concrete help to Palestine, says Matthew Willgress of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, with additional reporting from Paul Dobson in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s Government sent a third consignment of humanitarian aid to the embattled people of Palestine this month. In return, they greeted 119 young Palestinians who are going to be trained to be doctors at the Latin American Medical School in Caracas, demonstrating that genuine solidarity does not consist of excellent speeches, heartwarming discourses, nor best intentions, but rather has concrete actions and deeds at its centre.
“If the 21st Century saw a fighting and brave country, it is that which belongs to the people of Palestine” stated Minister for University Education, Science and Technology, Manuel Fernandez at the sendoff of the aid.
“[Hugo] Chavez brought the love of Palestine to Venezuela and left this legacy with .. Nicolas Maduro” commented the Palestinian Ambassador in Caracas, Linda Sobeh Ali. Click to continue reading →