Stood atop a small stepladder and dressed smartly in a blazer, tie and cream coloured trousers, a confident and charismatic orator addresses a small crowd at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park:
‘There are many white people who are terribly worried about what black power means, but for those of you who have not the slightest idea let me tell you what it means. It means the destruction of the white man’s society…’
His style of oration is provocative, yet comedic, and he takes great pleasure in verbally sparring with onlooking hecklers who take offence to his particularly controversial statements. However, hecklers were not the only spectators taking note of his speech. Embedded among the crowd were two Special Branch officers of the Metropolitan Police taking careful notes.
The speaker in question was Roy Sawh of the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA), and the content of his speeches would be used in court to prosecute him under section 6(1) of the 1965 Race Relations Act: ‘incitement to racial hatred.’ The Special Branch officers present were Detective Sergeant Francke and Detective Sergeant G. Battye, who were able to mingle among the diverse Hyde Park crowd. Sawh was just one of many activists who found themselves in the crosshairs of the British state as part of their secret war on Black Power.
When we think of the words ‘Black Power’ and the response of the state to the movement, our minds conjure up images of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and the FBI’s brutal COINTELPRO crackdown. While not necessarily as widely known compared to its American counterpart, Black Power existed here in Britain too, and the state took the threat it posed extremely seriously. In fact, it dedicated significant resources to fighting what it claimed were attempts to introduce US-style ‘race riots’ and civil unrest to Britain’s streets.
As a result of the diligent research and Freedom of Information requests from Robin Bunce and Paul Field, a swathe of documents relating to Black Power in Britain have been uncovered in recent years. These documents were then digitised by Rosie Wild and Eveline Lubbers of the Special Branch Files Project. They remain accessible online today – and tell a story of a state-led campaign against some of Britain’s most important Black radicals.
The state response to Black Power in the 1960s and 70s arose against a backdrop of rising African and West Indian immigration, something which both provoked racist backlash and also politicised many in the new migrant communities. The living conditions of these communities in Britain would become a particular source of debate and organisation following the postwar influx of West Indians migrants which we now associate with the Empire Windrush voyage of 1948.
An extensive study into the 1951-55 Conservative government and the racialisation of Black immigration carried out by Bob Carter, Clive Harris and Shirley Joshi concluded that ‘for public consent to be won for legislation [against Black immigration]… a strong case had to be built. A consequence of this was an extension of the control and surveillance of the Black population in the UK.’
An example of this surveillance could be seen in Sheffield, where the Chief Constable authorised officers to ‘observe, visit and report on’ the Black population. The measures would go a step further, too, with the authorisation of a card index containing the ‘names, addresses, nationalities and places of employment of the City’s 534 Black inhabitants.’
Home Office surveillance and racialisation of the Black British population would continue well into the 1960s. File HO 344/41 in The National Archives, for example, contains a report drawn up by Manchester City Police at the behest of the Home Office, which had requested ‘details relating to Commonwealth immigrants, including intermixing, miscegenation and illegitimacy.’
The report features detailed schedules of children from African, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani backgrounds also included a separate table, tallying the number of ‘mixed race’ children under the age of five.
It is with this context that we can see the true nature of later surveillance of Black Power groups; something which was not only rooted in fears of communist subversion and social unrest, but also underwritten by a palpable concern about the presence of African, West Indian and other non-white individuals in Britain.
At the time of the establishment of the Black Power Desk, Special Branch, the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (formerly the Colonial Office) and MI5 already boasted a long track record of monitoring radical Pan-African and anti-colonial agitators that stretched back to the late 19th century. In fact, many have argued that the methods of surveillance, social control and indexing were developed in the colonies and brought home for use on the ‘internally colonised’ population – something which would imply an even longer existence.
A prime example of this continuity is the surveillance of radical Pan-African Marxist CLR James, most famous for his book on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. James spent many of his years in Britain and died in Brixton in 1989, however prior to his death he was extensively monitored by MI5 and Special Branch, and files on his activities document his involvement in Black Power organising in the 1960s.
It was in this decade that the British Black Power movement developed in earnest. As Rosie Wild wrote for the Special Branch Files Project:
‘Black Power in Britain started in 1967, reached its apogee in 1971 and was in terminal decline by the mid 1970s. It was an expression of frustration, anger and – most importantly – resistance to the individual, institutional and state racism experienced by the postwar generation of black immigrants to Britain. Clearly inspired by the Black Power movement taking place at the same time in the United States, it borrowed heavily from its style and rhetoric. UK Black Power was not a carbon copy of its US counterpart, though; British groups talked a good fight and practiced self-defence, but they did not carry guns or engage in organised violence.’
So what exactly do we know about the Black Power Desk established to counter this movement? To some extent, a limited amount: to date, the desk has only been explicitly mentioned in a single document. However, thanks to the research of Bunce, Field and the Special Branch Files Project there are a number of things we know for certain.
We know that the desk was established by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in 1967, and run out of Scotland Yard by as many as six officers. It was tasked with collecting, assessing and sharing intelligence on British Black Power with different branches of government and law enforcement.
Labour right-winger Roy Jenkins is often credited with being a reforming figure under Harold Wilson’s government, introducing a number of liberalising measures, but he is a recurring figure in the story of repressing Black Power. Another of his prominent interventions occurred when he banned American Black Power agitator Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, from re-entering Britain after his visit in July of 1967.
The Desk also played a significant role in securing the prosecution of prominent Black Power theorist and activist Obi Egbuna in 1968. Nigerian-born Egbuna had moved to Britain in 1961 and enjoyed a successful literary career as an author and playwright, with his work even being produced by the BBC. But his involvement with UCPA and publication of works such as ‘Black Power in Britain’ drew the attention of authorities – allegedly for publishing a leaflet advocating violence against the police. He received a suspended twelve month sentence.
There has been debate over whether or not the Desk was an MI5 or Special Branch operation, although reference to ‘Box 500’ (the SW1 post office box for MI5) in the sole file mentioning the Desk could point to the former. However, the high levels of collaboration between Special Branch, MI5, the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office make it difficult to say for certain.
The state meticulously profiled and monitored prominent Black Power activists and organisations. From the aforementioned ‘Hyde Park extremist’ Roy Sawh and his UCPA, to Althiea Jones-Lecointe and her leadership of the British Black Panther Movement (BPM), state surveillance of British Black Power encompassed all areas except, as far as we know, direct infiltration.
According to the recent Undercover Policing Inquiry, between 1967 and 1972 there were approximately 18 undercover officers embedded within ‘subversive’ organisations ranging from the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign to the Socialist Workers’ Party, but only a single officer – designated HN 345 or ‘Peter Fredericks’ – had infiltrated an organisation associated with Black Power on behalf of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).
This evidence begs the question: why was British Black Power, having been assessed as a threat by the state, not infiltrated on a level similar to its contemporary ‘subversive’ organisations? One explanation could be the relatively small size and community-based orientation of Black Power groups, making outsiders more easily visible.
But another likely explanation, and one offered by Eveline Lubbers and Rosie Wild, is the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police. They explain:
‘Blending into a multi-racial crowd of onlookers or demonstrators was one way of gathering information, infiltrating Black Power groups, however, proved almost impossible. This was because the Metropolitan Police, having spent years actively preventing black people from joining the force, found itself with no black officers available to go undercover in the Black Power movement.’
In the place of undercover officers, however, were informants. Use of informants was a crucial part of the response of the state to Black Power and the lifeblood of Special Branch intelligence gathering.
Documents digitised by the Special Branch Files Project make frequent reference to ‘reliable information’ (implied to have been gathered from informants) and Black Power activists themselves were confident that informants were responsible for feeding information to the authorities. Lubbers and Wild point to document HO 325/143, which makes reference to ‘information from secret and delicate sources,’ indicating the use of police informants.
Operations of the Black Power Desk were scaled up significantly in the build up to the infamous trial of the Mangrove Nine in 1970, however their efforts would be in vain. The victory of the defendants against the racist harassment of the Metropolitan Police was a national victory for British Black Power, and dramatically raised the profile of the movement.
The resilience of Black Power activists provides us with a poignant example of the power of solidarity in the face of relentless state surveillance, police raids and press demonisation. The defeat of the state by the Mangrove Nine spelled the end for the Black Power Desk, and its operations would wind down before eventually being subsumed by the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).
Many documents relating to the Black Power Desk’s activities remain under lock and key – and will only be released on foot of significant public pressure. The state continued to monitor Black Power activists into the 1970s, and surveillance of prominent Black advocacy groups and the wider Black and racialised population has only expanded with the advent of new technologies.
From the highly controversial and racist outcomes of the Metropolitan Police’s Gangs Matrix to the Home Office’s Prevent strategy, the surveillance of marginalised communities has had a long and storied past. Uncovering this hidden history can only serve to help us better understand the challenges of the state surveillance that we face today.