Edited by leading historian Hakim Adi, Many Struggles explores the long history of Black people in Britain, with an emphasis on women, queer projects and political activism. In this excerpt, Perry Blankson examines how the British state viewed domestic Black Power as a significant threat.
On the evening of 16 March 1972, Winston Trew, Sterling Christie, George Griffiths and Constantine ‘Omar’ Boucher were attacked and arrested by undercover transport police. All four men arrested were members of the Fasimbas, originally the 500- strong youth wing of the South East London Parents Organisation (SELPO), but later subsumed by the BLF in late 1972. Such a ‘coincidence’ led those involved, namely, Trew, to suspect Special Branch surveillance, although unsurprisingly no evidence exists in the National Archives to verify their suspicions. The four defendants would become known as the Oval Four, and it would not be until December 2019 (and later March 2020) that their convictions were overturned, due in large part to the corruption of the leading arresting officer, Detective Sergeant Derek Ridgewell. In a similar vein, ‘sus laws’ – provisions which allowed the police to stop and search individuals deemed suspicious – were liberally used by the Metropolitan Police throughout the 1970s to target Black Power activists and the Black community at large.
In terms of physical monitoring of ‘subversive groups’, an interesting observation can be made when the surveillance of Black Power groups is compared to their contemporaries. According to the 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). The organisation infiltrated by Fredericks was not revealed by the inquiry, his deployment instead being listed under the umbrella term ‘Black Power movement’. This evidence begs the question: why was Black Power, having been assessed as a threat by the IRD, not infiltrated by the SDS 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. As well as this, organisations such as LeCointe’s Black Panther Movement were highly secretive and carefully screened new recruits. A 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.
Here Lubbers and Wild make reference to a Metropolitan Police report carried out from 1958 to 1968, which notes that ‘we [the Metropolitan Police] are not yet prepared to recruit coloured men, although the time may not be so far distant when we shall be unable to turn down well-qualified men who have been born and educated in this country’.
In the place of undercover officers, then, 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 near certain that informants were responsible for feeding information to the authorities. Lubbers and Wild point to notes concerning the Mangrove Nine trial, which makes reference to ‘information from secret and delicate sources’, further indicating use of informants.
In light of the evidence available, we can conclusively argue that the British state viewed domestic Black Power as a significant threat. The measures they took against Black Power were varied, and flexible. ‘Hard’ measures saw prominent Black Power organisers such as Roy Sawh and his UCPA harassed by Special Branch and the Metropolitan Police, raided in their homes, or meeting places, and prosecuted under the 1965 Race Relations Act. Agents of the state were also not averse to openly attacking Black Power activists in the street, such as in the case of the Oval Four. It must be understood that in some cases, such as that of Michael X and the Mangrove Nine, prosecution by the state could have the undesired effect of boosting the profile of Black Power. However, it is also important to understand that the state was limited by its own practice of pervasive institutional racism, preventing the Metropolitan Police from embedding undercover officers into Black Power organisations and increasing their reliance on informants.
Despite this limitation, intelligence continued to be collected on individuals and organisations associated with Black Power and was facilitated through the establishment of a Black Power Desk by the Home Secretary, which was potentially a joint Special Branch-MI5 operation. In terms of the ‘softer’ tools the state used to challenge domestic Black Power, the response centred around surveillance via Special Branch, the Black Power Desk and through use of informants. In addition to the collection of ‘subversive’ materials, the state was able to use grants to drive a wedge between Black Power activists internally, as well as attempting to cut them off from the communities in which they organised. The state response to Black Power was nothing new, but rather a continuation of state policy towards ‘subversive’ anticolonial movements, such as the Pan-African movement. Understanding this, we can see that the state took careful note of the birth of Black Power in Britain, and ensured a concerted effort towards facilitating its downfall.
Perry Blankson is a columnist at Tribune magazine and has a historical interest in the ‘British Black Power’ movements of the post-war period and beyond, with a particular historical focus in the response of the state to such organising. He is a project coordinator at the Young Historians Project, a collective encouraging the development of young historians of African and Caribbean heritage in Britain. He is a member of the editorial working group for the History Matters Journal.