Darcus Howe was introduced to a new generation of activists in August 2011, when he was interviewed on the BBC during the anti-police uprisings that started in Tottenham and spread across London and many parts of England.
In an attempt to provoke the veteran radical, the interviewer asked, “You are not a stranger to riots yourself, I understand, are you? You have taken part in them yourself.”
Howe retorted in his hallmark gruff manner, “I have never taken part in a single riot. I’ve been part of demonstrations that ended up in a conflict. Have some respect for an old West Indian Negro, and stop accusing me of being a rioter. Because you wanted for me to get abusive, you just sound idiotic—have some respect.”
The staunch refusal to let the establishment set the terms and tone of the debate, the militant defence of the right to protest and the derisory scorn for his would-be oppressor: this was Darcus Howe.
Darcus was born in Trinidad, a nephew of Marxist historian CLR James. Like his uncle, he dedicated his adult life to political activism, writing and cultural studies.
After he arrived in England in 1961, Darcus joined the British Black Panthers and gained fame (or notoriety, depending on your views) when he defended himself as part of the Mangrove Nine in 1971. The police had targeted the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, raiding it 12 times over an 18-month period, allegedly for drugs but in reality to intimidate the group of black activists who used it as their headquarters.
When the black collective marched on the police station in protest, nine of them were arrested and charged with conspiracy to riot, affray and assault on the police. Defending himself at the Old Bailey, the judge found Darcus and all nine innocent and for the first time in British history acknowledged racism in the ranks of the police.
Ten years later, Howe organised a march of 20,000 in protest at police inaction over the New Cross fire that killed 12 black teenagers. The main slogan on the Black People’s Day of Action was, “13 dead, nothing said” – a chant that could still ring true today.
The Race Today journal and collective that he edited and founded alongside Linton Kwesi Johnson was a beacon of hope in dark, despairing times. He was also a key defender of the Notting Hill Carnival against repeat attempts by the police to close it down.
He will be missed by his family and friends here and in the wider African diaspora – as he will by socialists everywhere.