Blackbird Leys Community Spirit

Working Class Pride Worldwide

The history of our end of East Oxford is steeped in stories of heroism, resistance, self-sacrifice and collective struggle in the cause of freedom, yet if you relied on the school curriculum and most of the history books you’d be forgiven for believing we have nothing to be proud of. Much has been done over recent years to undermine our once proud working-class communities, from unfair housing policies, to the promotion of selfish individualism personified, at street level, by the county-lines drug dealer who profits off the vile abuse of children and the misery of others. The vast majority of Blackbird Leys residents are good, decent people, but unfortunately, the lumpen, anti-social minority receive most of the attention. Yet things were not always this way, as the following article explains, and there is no reason on earth, that we couldn’t and shouldn’t work together to isolate the selfish few for the benefit of the rest of the community. 

Rebels, orphans and freedom fighters

From the moment the first housing was occupied in Blackbird Leys (then Cowley) at the tail end of 1958, our estate has been home to people from a wide variety of backgrounds who have come together as one community.

Some of the first residents to arrive came from established, tightly-knit communities in the city centre as casualties of what town planners dismissively labelled ‘slum clearances’ as well as from temporary housing at the abandoned army barracks at Slade Camp. 

Others came to the area to work at the Cowley car plant from rural Oxfordshire, a county steeped in rebel history. They included some whose recent ancestors had faced the hangman or transportation to Australia for their activism. Otmoor, just seven miles from Blackbird Leys, had witnessed a major rebellion in 1830-31 over attempts by the University and Clergy to enclose the moor where the fiercely independent local villagers grazed their geese and livestock. This revolt saw inner city residents and rural communities work together against the common enemy, culminating in a successful skirmish at St Giles’ Fair where soldiers were forced to free Otmoor rebels they were attempting transport to Oxford Prison. A number of other nearby villages, including Nuneham Courtenay (three miles south of BB Leys), were involved in the ‘Captain Swing’ movement. Swing activists organised against the tithe system, which required payments to support the established Anglican Church; Poor Law guardians, who were accused of abusing their power over the poor; and rich tenant farmers who had been progressively lowering workers’ wages while cost cutting through the use of agricultural machinery. The Captain Swing disturbances represented the largest episode of political unrest in English history, with more than 3,000 cases of arson, attacks on authorities and machine-breaking across 45 counties. 644 activists were imprisoned, 505 transported to Australia, and 19 were executed. 

Unemployed workers also made their way to Cowley and Blackbird Leys from the former industrial heartlands of Britain and Ireland, together with a number of proud Caribbeans answering the call for workers in ‘the Motherland’. Others found themselves in the city after being evacuated as children from London during the Second World War. These were joined by Italian and German internees who remained in East Oxford after being released from Slade Camp, and by orphans and foundlings from Nazareth House who had been shown the door upon reaching adulthood. A number of heroic Polish soldiers who fought with the allies against Nazism, before becoming exiles following the Stalinist occupation of their homeland, also settled here. In addition to these early Blackbird Leys and Cowley residents, came many individuals from other parts of the world, such as the lady who married an Oxford man and later moved with him to the estate, following a love-at-first sight encounter with her future husband when he was posted to her small village in Malta as a sailor in the Royal Navy in WW2.

The Fighting Spirit of East Oxford

The fighting spirit of East Oxford’s industrial working class can be traced back three decades before the bulk of Blackbird Leys was built – to 1934, to be precise. This was the year that saw the first strike for union recognition at the Pressed Steel factory (on the edge of what was to become Blackbird Leys). Pressed Steel supplied car bodies to Morris Motors, whose owner, William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) dominated the political landscape. Morris was fiercely anti-union. He was also a close friend and an early financial backer of Sir Oswald Mosley, the soon-to-be infamous leader of the British Union of Fascists. Morris funded Mosley’s first fascist party and showed his enthusiastic support when the BUF leader held meetings in Oxford City Centre.

Cowley soon expanded from a small village into a vast industrial centre and the population increased accordingly, through the influx of workers from depression-hit areas of the UK who came to seek work at the booming car plant. A number of the largest group of these impoverished migrants had made their way on foot and bicycle from the South Wales coalfields, where miners and their families were literally starving to death. The former miners’ brought with them a strong sense of industrial and community solidarity, born of the experience of working underground where their lives literally depended on each other. This soon pitched them at the forefront of the battle to improve wages and conditions at the Cowley car plant. 

Pressed Steel Strike

The Pressed Steel Strike broke out on Friday 13th 1934 as a result of night-shift workers discovering that they had been underpaid, bringing to a head simmering tensions over piece-work wages. Workers pitched tents in Jonson’s field opposite the car factory where they received support from the family that ran Johnson’s Cafe. A young communist firebrand named Abe Lazarus arrived to help out (disregarding the lack of interest from the party leadership) and soon won the hearts of local people. Lazarus was born in London’s East End to Jewish and Irish parents. He had recently earned the nickname Bill Firestone through his involvement in a famous strike at the Firestone tyre factory in London. As he was facing police charges over picketing activities during the London strike (that were later dropped), he adopted the name Bill Firestone to avoid arrest when he first arrived in Oxford. The Pressed Steel strike was victorious with the factory management conceding to the strikers demands delivering a return to work with a guaranteed basic hourly rate, no victimization and full union recognition.  Abe Lazarus/Bill Firestone, who had taken a job at the City of Oxford Motor Services (Oxford Bus Company), remained in the city, where he played an enthusiastic part in local working class campaigns, for a number of years. For some time, Abe lodged in Garsington Road, Cowley, (ironically facing the spot where the Nuffield Needle, a monument to his nemesis, now stands). At its peak, Abe’s Transport & General Workers Union, became one of the strongest industrial unions in the UK, with Cowley playing a major part in its success.

Anti-Fascist Resistance

Both Abe Lazarus and a number of Welsh Cowley workers were at the forefront of the early resistance to fascism in the City, having played a pivotal role in crushing a meeting of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists at the Carfax Assembly Rooms in 1936. The Blackshirts were supported by local dignitaries from the University and local industry, including William Morris (who sat in the front row). While Cowley car and bus workers proudly took a stand against right-wing extremism, the elite openly paraded their support for fascism. At the time, in addition to the BUF, Oxford University had both German National Socialist and Italian Fascist societies. 

As well as courageously fighting against Mosley’s Blackshirts, two Cowley based men, Alfred Smith, a Morris Motors worker, and Victor Claridge, a builder’s labourer, joined the thousands of working class volunteers who travelled to Spain with the British Battalion of the International Brigades to oppose General Franco’s fascist coup against the democratically elected Socialist government. Alfred, who had a metal plate in his head from the First World War, was 47 when he left for Spain – much older than most volunteers. Victor Claridge had previously travelled to Canada and the USA and received weapons training in the US National Guard. Like many US International Brigade volunteers, he had also been active in the Industrial Workers of the World – a militant industrial union in the USA that organised amongst low-paid, often immigrant labour. IWW members famously stood up to employers and their militia, and took up armed defence against attempts by the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate its members. Claridge had been deported from the USA to the UK in 1930. In Spain, he was wounded at the Battle of Jarama (Feb 1937) and, after recovering, fought in the Battle of Brunete five months later, before being repatriated back to England for health reasons in October 1937.

The Longest Day

In World War 2, Cowley also played a proud part in one of the truly monumental episodes in the international fight against fascism. Slade Camp was used to train soldiers for ‘Operation Overlord’ (D Day), planned for June 6th 1944. ‘D’ Company, 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who were based at Cowley Barracks, played a pivotal role in the success of the largest military operation in UK and US history. 

D Company, a special unit of volunteers which was formed two years prior to D Day, was commanded by Major John Howard, who, unusually for an officer, came from a tough working class background and, prior to enlisting, worked as a beat copper on the streets of Oxford. Howard became great friends with the unit’s oldest Lieutenant and fellow Cockney Den Brotheridge. Both came up through the ranks. Both commanded deep respect from their men (at least a dozen of whom had lied about their age to enlist). Stephen E. Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers and Pegasus Bridge, paints a telling picture of the close relationship between officers and men, away from the gruelling discipline of the daily fitness regime necessary to produce such an elite squad: ‘Brotheridge stood out from the other officers. He played the men’s game, soccer, and as a former corporal himself, he had no sense of being ill at ease amongst the men. He would go into their barracks at night, sit on the bed of this batman, Billy Grey, and talk soccer with the lads. He got to bringing in his boots along and shining them as he talked. Wally Parr never got over the sight of a British lieutenant polishing his boots himself while his batman lay back on his bed gassing on about Manchester United and West Ham and other soccer teams.’ 

The specially created Airborne Division of the Ox & Bucks were tasked with ‘Operation Deadstick’, which entailed landing Horsa gliders behind enemy lines a few minutes after midnight on D Day, capturing two vital bridges to help secure Sword Beach from German heavy armoured divisions, and preventing the British 6th Airborne Division from being cut off from the rest of the Allied Armies. The Cowley-based unit, with the assistance of the heroic French Resistance, were the first soldiers to set foot on French soil on D Day. Den Brotheridge was the first man to lose his life. A few hours later, more soldiers from the Oxon & Bucks regiment landed by sea on the beaches of Normandy to play their own valiant role in the successful operation to liberate Europe from Nazi control. Cowley men attached to 249 (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Battery of the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, were also the first allied soldiers to enter and liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on 15 April 1945. 

Back home, the Cowley car plant was adapted for war work and Cowley Airfield (now the park at Blackbird Leys Bridge) became the HQ of No 1 Civilian Repair Unit, where 100s of damaged aircrafts, including Battle of Britain Hurricanes and Spitfires, were repaired.

So next time you pass over Blackbird Leys Bridge as the youngsters below are kicking a ball around on Cowley Airfield, spare a thought for the British and Polish fighters whose sacrifice won the Battle of Britain. When you pass by the Car plant think of the struggle and solidarity of those early workers, and their hunger march to Oxford from South Wales. When you approach the Nuffield Needle, think past the official history of William Morris, the great philanthropist, and dwell for a while on his fascist sympathies and on the fighting spirit of the young Abe Lazarus who opposed him. When you look at the factory from the ring road, remember those brave young men who trained for D Day at the Slade Camp and on the hills of Shotover, and while travelling out of Blackbird Leys, remember the villagers who risked the hangman’s noose or transportation to prison slavery in the blazing Australian sun, to stand up for their collective dignity.

This is just a summary of some of the proudest moments in our local working-class history and in time, we plan to focus on some of these particular stories in more depth. We would be happy to hear from residents that feel they may be able to add to our knowledge through their own research or family memories.

Whether you’ve lived in Blackbird Leys all your life or you’ve just moved to the area, if you share our interest in improving our community, please get in touch. It’s time to take inspiration from the past and pull together to take our communities back.

Blackbird Leys Community Spirit is a new organisation committed to promoting working-class pride, dignity and self-respect and to bringing together like-minded local residents. 

Founding members of BBL Community Spirit include former members of the Blackbird Leys Independent Working Class Association, who have years of experience at the sharp end of community activism. The BBL IWCA was a grassroots organisation active on the estate from 1999 until it’s disbandment in 2017. The IWCA is best known for its high-profile community campaigns, most notably against drug dealing, and its youth work with the IWCA Athletics Club.

Saïd  Business School 

The Elephant in the Ivory Towers

‘I would like to pay tribute to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign who have seen their aims come a big step closer today, and also to the Black Lives Matter campaigners who have reinvigorated this debate about our history and how it should be recognised’.

Councillor Susan Brown Leader of Oxford City Council.

In light of Oriel College’s decision to remove a controversial statue of colonialist diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, it would appear that Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall/Black Lives Matter campaigners are now accepted as arbitrators of who or what is to be considered offensive in the City. Evidently, cherry-picking history, to suit a racialised, economically conservative agenda, is now acceptable currency amongst the City’s ‘educated’ elite. 

Propaganda, it would seem, trumps truth.  While liberals will no doubt be elated at recent developments within campus politics, anti-racists would be wise to be cautious, as the triumph of those pushing an ideology that places race as the determining factor on which injustice is to be judged, has serious implications for the struggle for social and economic liberty. 

Advocates of the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter groups paint a distorted picture of history and current affairs by airbrushing out inconvenient truths that conflict with their agenda. Focusing primarily on historic crimes committed against black people by white imperialists is to lose sight of the fact that black people have their own monsters too and that there will be no shortage of such monsters while the type of unfettered, hierarchical systems that produce them continue to exist.  In order to deny the historical fact of humanity’s common inhumanity – a revelation which compromises cultural nationalists’ claim of special status for black people as ‘the wretched of the earth’ – activists adopt a swivel-eyed approach to both past and present. This approach has inevitably burdened campaigners with an obligation of omertà when it comes to the victims of ‘modern’ slavery, even where a disproportionate number of the victims happen to be black and brown.

For all the radical posturing of Rhodes Must Fall/Black Lives Matter activists, the reality is that by racialising social and political issues at the expense of a progressive class analysis, they offer no threat to the economic system. This is why corporations, politicians and other establishment figures are more than happy to be associated with the BLM movement. A few more black faces at the top table, it has been concluded, is a small price to pay to ensure the future of capitalism (a logic that, we can be sure, hasn’t escaped the attention of the more ambitious activists).

Black lives, so the mantra goes, matter. Yet, even by their own race-obsessed identitarian standards, the city’s privileged protesters stand guilty of rank hypocrisy. The focus on historic, colonial injustices and a one-size-fits-all, US-media-driven narrative at the expense of acknowledging the ongoing, global suffering of millions of working class and impoverished black people, exposes the fraudulent nature of the project.

Furthermore, the absurd notion of ‘white privilege’ incanted by protesters who insist that all white people are advantaged over all black people, rings particularly hollow across the working class estates of East Oxford – especially when expressed by privileged black middle class students and their allies. Despite the odd, half-hearted nod to class inequality from the speaker’s platform, BLM/RMF protests have proved to be safe spaces for the incubation of racial bigotry; spaces where cries of ‘Fuck white people’ go uncontested and right-wing religious zealots hold court. Whatever the motivation of protest organisers, the message being received across the city is one of white = bad, black = good, and this has fostered an unprecedented atmosphere of racial tension. We are seeing the emergence of an ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ online bullying culture, especially amongst young people. Within this environment, even the most stalwart critics of bigotry have been branded racist because they have not reposted BLM propaganda (and woe betide any youngster who dares to question the dominant narrative!). Ethnic nationalists on both sides will inevitably be rubbing their hands together with glee at the further prospect of racial disharmony.

Despite the ‘black lives matter’ rhetoric, campaigners have shown no interest in bringing the University to task over its continuing policy of accepting blood money from regimes that stand guilty of ongoing human rights abuses against black people. While I am not suggesting that Cecil Rhodes was anything other than a monstrous human being, the fact that dead white tyrants such as Rhodes are being held up to higher moral standards than latter day tyrants (of any skin tone), again, reveals inconsistency and a lack of joined-up thinking across the ‘educated’ side of the city. One could argue of course, that campaigners should not be bound to protest every injustice. Yet, as the protestors themselves have chosen to focus on the University’s links to individuals and systems that have profited from the brutal exploitation of black labour, this logic does not apply in this instance. It is more than legitimate to question why campaigners have restricted their attention to one particular historical figure, while ignoring other equally worthy candidates. A genuine movement that insists on the dignity of black lives would at least use the publicity generated by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign to highlight and challenge Oxford University’s current connections to brutal overseas governments.

A case in point would be Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, which is funded by the grotesque dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, a regime with an horrific domestic human rights record, a murderous foreign policy (aided and abetted by the UK government) and an unrivalled reputation as an exporter of Wahabi jihadism. 

The Saïd Business School was named in honour of billionaire arms dealer Wafic Saïd, who initially made his fortune in the Saudi construction industry where conditions of ‘near slavery’ and inhumane abuse have been condemned by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Saïd was a close friend and significant financial supporter of British Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. He was especially vocal in his admiration for Thatcher’s campaign against the National Union of Miners in the 1984–85 Miners’ Strike. The war on the NUM was the first step toward the Thatcher administration’s ultimate goal of dismantling British heavy industry and privatising almost everything else. By destroying the NUM, which was widely considered to be the backbone of the trade union movement, and then picking off all other instruments of resistance, the Thatcher government gifted itself a free hand to implement its neoliberal economic policies. Thanks to the political decisions of Thatcher’s Conservative Government, enthusiastically supported by Wafic Saïd, many of our once proud and relatively prosperous working class communities have been transformed into post-industrial wastelands, with high unemployment and the type of acute social problems that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. 

The perfect complement to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign would then surely be a movement to put pressure on the Saïd Business School to change its name and on Oxford University to stop taking money from Saudi Arabia and other blood-soaked regimes that have istitutionalised human trafficking and forced labour. 

Taking into account his support for the UK Government’s decimation of coal mining communities, his profiteering from indentured servitude in the Middle East and his mercenary arms dealing, Wafic Saïd is the personification of unrestrained, ruthless capitalism. Allowing his name to be associated with a major institution in our city is to confer on him an air of undue legitimacy and credibility. A campaign to force the University to cut its links with Wafic Saïd and other dodgy donors would serve as a litmus test to gauge the sincerity of those that claim to be campaigning on behalf of human rights and social justice. Such a campaign would, I hope, be supported by the leader of Oxford City Council with as much enthusiasm as she has shown toward the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter movements. 

Aside from the moral legitimacy of such a campaign, addressing the issues surrounding the Saïd Business School would present an opportunity to bring Town and Gown together to fight for a common cause. This could help educate students and locals away from a racialised, divisive view of the world, where grievance and counter grievance vie for attention in a race to the bottom. Such a campaign would also, more importantly, given the increasingly stormy political climate, help refloat progressive politics in the city, by serving as a lifeboat for those wanting to escape the dangerous waters of identity politics and racial separatism. 

Unsocial Media

The day before yesterday, for the first time in my life, I was blocked from a social media page. I was unceremoniously ‘unfriended’ by the Blackbird Leys Community Facebook group following a request that my articles on Black Lives Matter and the Rhodes Must Fall protests be posted. I had hoped that my contribution would go some way to help de-escalate the unprecedented air of racial disunity currently stalking the City’s streets, I was therefore saddened, if not surprised, when my request was denied, because, ‘long political discussions are not appropriate’. 

This, in itself, is fair enough. I fully understand the desire to keep politically neutral what is in effect an online community notice board. However, I had been given the impression that a precedent had been set by the inclusion on the page of posts promoting both white nationalist Tommy Robinson and the Black Lives Matter group – a group that I believe is being used, locally at least, as a vehicle for divisive black nationalism. In response to my enquiry as to why racial nationalists have been given a platform while my articles, arguing for working class solidarity, regardless of ethnicity, have been effectively censored, I received the response: ‘a few people have messaged me and find your views offensive’ and ‘I am guided by a number of members who have asked for your removal’. Unfortunately, and probably not coincidentally, before I could ask what it is that members actually find offensive, I was blocked. I can only assume, by the unwillingness of the administrator to discuss the matter, that different standards apply to those whose political views she and her circle of friends disagree with. 

I sympathise with anyone who would view this issue as a parochial one (and a less than riveting parochial one at that). I would also agree with anyone who sees social media as part of the problem. To quote a friend: ‘why waste your time, it’s just a place for people to shout abuse at each other’ and it’s hard to disagree. Social media is not the place for a productive debate because people are generally deaf to opposing views and locked in their own bubbles – a problem only compounded by the prevailing culture of offence taking. When all is said and done, there is no substitute for concrete community work and though Facebook et al can, at times, be harnessed to promote grassroots activism, usually the opposite is true and it is used as a substitute for action. So while I won’t waste too much time on this issue, before moving on, I think it is worth probing a little further, as I’m concerned that there may be wider implications to this particular story (especially if similar cases are being played out elsewhere) with regards to issues of freedom of speech and the ability to effectively combat extremism.

I have been publicly arguing against divisive identity politics and for uniting along class lines for over two decades now. In the Town Hall, as an elected Blackbird Leys representative with the Independent Working Class Association, I consistently objected to tax payers’ money being spent on projects based on ethnicity and religion. I delivered a speech to the Oxford Trades Council on the IWCA’s problems with the political strategy of multiculturalism. I’ve written a number of articles against divisive identity politics that were communicated regularly to thousands of Blackbird Leys residents through our community newsletter. I have appeared in the Oxford Mail many times making the same points, I wrote a pro-working class critique of Black History Month that was published in the Leys News community newspaper and I was invited onto local community radio show, OX105 FM (incidentally staffed by a dynamic team who all happen to be black) to counter the then deputy leader of the BNP, Simon Derby, who they had invited on to the programme. In the event, Derby bailed at the prospect of having to debate with an anti-fascist activist who hadn’t signed up to the dominant identity politics narrative, so I took the opportunity to discuss the symbiotic relationship between black nationalism, Islamism, white supremacy and fascism.

But that was then, this is now.

The IWCA years in Blackbird Leys were characterised (from our end at least) by an atmosphere of honest, open debate, transparency and accountability. This was no doubt fostered by a (possibly sometimes swaggering) confidence in the validity of our arguments and the progressive necessity of our message. The idea of shutting down an argument because someone felt personally offended would have not only appeared preposterous, but would have been seen as a cowardly abdication of duty and responsibility to the community. In stark contrast, the political climate today is charged with an atmosphere of conformism, self-censorship and the silencing of dissent.

While the direct responsibility for denying a platform to the views expressed in my Blackbird Leys Community Spirit articles lies with well meaning liberals, it’s notable that, as soon as I was safely blocked, two characters posted to gloat. The immediacy of their response indicates that they had been watching the discussion between the moderator and myself, but felt wary of putting their heads above the parapet while I was there to counter them. One of these individuals I’d already encountered, when I took issue with his support for the Tommy Robinson post. He’d had a lot to say for himself, including bragging about how much support there was on the estate for the views of Robinson, yet, unsurprisingly, other than inane abuse, this keyboard warrior had no answers when pushed to expand on his statements. I know nothing about his friend other than the fact that he has a photo of Margaret Thatcher as his social media profile picture. And there’s the thing; the problem with closing the lid on constructive debate, is that it raises a distinct danger of opening Pandora’s Box.

The Rhodes Less Travelled

For me, the current campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from outside Oriel College in Oxford High Street and the similar targeting of statues of British imperialists and slave traders elsewhere, raises more questions than answers. I for one would not be sorry to see the back of any statue commemorating the white supremacist who drafted the blueprint for South Africa’s notorious apartheid system, or to see the toppling of effigies of similar shady characters in other cities. However, focusing so much attention on the man who bequeathed the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the brutal character of overseas regimes that currently fund the University, begs the question: does this simply encourage a lopsided, racialised view of history, and if so, how does this, in any way, help us, as a society, to move forward?

Film footage of Oxford-based Islamic cleric Sheikh Ramzy leading the Rhodes Must Fall protesters this week in chants of ‘Take it down’ and ‘Justice for all’ and calling for an end to overseas ‘genocide’, appears incongruous to say the least. Yet it serves as a perfect example of the hypocrisy and twisted logic at the heart of the campaign. 

Ramzy, a man of conservative, right-wing views, calls for the Rhodes ‘evil’ statue to be taken down as it is a ‘symbol of genocide’ and ‘excactly the same as Hitler’. Yet Ramzy doesn’t seem to apply the same standards to modern day genocidal maniacs. He has visited Turkey as a guest of Recep Erdoğan’s proto-fascist, Islamic government. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) is committed to erasing the last vestiges of secularism in the country and replacing it with an Islamic dictatorship. AK Parti is also directing an ongoing systematic targeting and ethnic cleansing of the Turkish Kurdish population. In the face of international pressure, Erdoğan continues to refuse to acknowledge the Ottoman government’s systematic mass murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians during World War One. The wholesale slaughter of the Armenians, which is commonly viewed as the first modern genocide, was later referenced by Adolf Hitler when planning the Jewish Holocaust. Anyone still not joining the dots, should maybe consider the fact that a Pro-Erdoğan documentary, The Mastermind, has aired on a Turkish ‘news’ channel, repeating the same discredited anti-semetic conspiracy theory that was used by the Nazis and their Middle Eastern allies to whip up hatred of Jews and create an atmosphere conducive to genocide.

Rhodes Must Fall student protesters introduced a highly unwelcome racial twist to ancient Town & Gown enmities when they were filmed chanting ‘fuck white people’ and ‘white privilege’ at last week’s demonstration. They should know that, within the working class communities of East Oxford, black and white people have lived, worked and socialised together for over 60 years and that we have always resisted attempts by racists to divide us. 

White people do not have a monopoly on terror and brutality, either before or after colonialism. The transatlantic slave trade, a horrific stain on human history, was aided and abetted by black African slave traders who had created a ready-made market for the European colonialists to tap into. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, the descendant of a Nigerian Slave trader, describes one such branch of the operation:

‘Long before Europeans arrived, Igbos enslaved other Igbos as punishment for crimes, for the payment of debts, and as prisoners of war. The practice differed from slavery in the Americas: slaves were permitted to move freely in their communities and to own property, but they were also sometimes sacrificed in religious ceremonies or buried alive with their masters to serve them in the next life. When the transatlantic trade began, in the fifteenth century, the demand for slaves spiked. Igbo traders began kidnapping people from distant villages. Sometimes a family would sell off a disgraced relative, a practice that Ijoma Okoro, a professor of Igbo history at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, likens to the shipping of British convicts to the penal colonies in Australia: “People would say, ‘Let them go. I don’t want to see them again.’” Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, nearly one and a half million Igbo slaves were sent across the Middle Passage’.

Pascal Bruckner takes up the story, post-colonialism, in The Tyranny of Guilt. An Essay on Western Masochism:

‘For half a century the heart of darkness has no longer been the epic of colonialism. It is independent Africa, “that cocktail of disasters,” as Kofi Annan modestly called it in 2001: the murderous reign of the Red Negus, Mengistu; the macabre buffoonery of Idi Amin, Sékou Touré or Bokassa; the madness of Samuel Doe or a Charles Taylor in Liberia; in Sierra Leone, the blood diamonds of Foday Sankho, who invented short sleeve mutilation by cutting people’s arms off at the elbow and long-sleeve mutilation by cutting their arms off at the shoulder; the use of child soldiers, killer kids who were beaten and drugged; detention camps; mass rape; the endless conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea; the civil wars in Chad, Sudan Somalia, Uganda and Côte d’Ivoire; cannibalism in the Congo; crimes against humanity in Darfur; and, last but not least, the genocide in Rwanda and the Great Lakes War, with its three to four million victims since 1998. Decolonialisation was a great process of democratic equality: the former slaves achieved within a few years the same level of bestiality as their former Masters’. 

While the desire to pull down statues that commemorate colonialists is laudable (as long as we do not also bury the knowledge of the individual’s crimes against humanity and the ability to learn lessons to help prevent future atrocities), is it not inconsistent, fraudulent and, to be blunt, cowardly, to concentrate on the historic crimes of some past tyrants, ignore others and give a free pass to their brutal modern-day equivalents? 

In 2016, the Qatar Development Fund donated £3 million to Oxford University’s Thatcher Scholarships fund, established by Somerville College, Margaret Thatcher’s alma mater. Qatar’s economy is propelled by a labour force consisting of 90% migrant workers. According to Amnesty International, last November, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged Qatar to ensure that workers could leave their employers without fear of being arrested and that allegations by employers against workers do not lead to the automatic detention of workers during investigations. In December, the group highlighted “the severe human rights violations that still persist, including on the basis of national origin, and the existence of racial, ethnic and national stereotypes and discriminatory structures”. Amnesty also reported that ‘The abuse and exploitation of low paid migrant workers, sometimes amounting to forced labour and human trafficking, have been extensively documented since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar. In October 2013, 44 Nepali workers died in Qatar in just a two-month period, while Amnesty International reports have documented large-scale labour abuse in the construction sector, including forced labour, such as at Doha’s Khalifa Stadium. In 2014 the UN Special Rapporteur on Migrant Rights also described how “exploitation is frequent and migrants often work without pay and live in substandard conditions”.

Since 1986, Oxford University and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies have received more than £105 million in donations from sources such as the Saudi royal family, the Malaysian government and the Bin Laden dynasty. 

While the Slavery Abolition Act outlawed chattel slavery across the British Empire in 1833, Saudi Arabia, which has, without doubt, one of the world’s worst human rights records, did not officially abolish it until 1962 and today, according to Human Rights Watch, many migrant workers, most notably those from Africa and South East Asia, live and work in conditions of ‘near-slavery’. According to Amnesty International, under the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system (the same system implemented in Qatar) workers risk imprisonment or deportation if they leave their jobs without the permission of their employers, and under the scheme an employer’s permission is also needed for a worker to leave the country. This system often results in workers being subjected to unfathomable abuse at the hands of their employers. 

Unless those involved in the Rhodes Must Fall protest begin to channel their rage into a wider movement to expose the University’s relationship with present-day human rights abusers, there is a risk that after the campaign peters out, it will go down in history as nothing more than an exercise in gesture politics. More damningly, there is a tangible prospect that protesters, many of whom are themselves living the privileged Oxford life courtesy of bestowed blood money, will be viewed by future generations as having collaborated in a conspiracy of silence over the monstrous crimes of their tyrant patrons.

Black Lives Matter – A Trojan Horse for Conservative, Black Nationalism?

There comes a time where silence is betrayal. –Martin Luther King

As someone with a strong commitment and a track record, on and off the estate, of fighting for the interests of the working class (which is by definition multi-ethnic in composition), I want to offer a perspective that I believe has been omitted from the debate in the current climate of divisive, sound-bite, with-us-or-against-us rhetoric.

When the first Black Lives Matter protest for this area was advertised a week ago, I wrote a post on the Blackbird Leys social media page in which, I argued: ‘To change things for the better, we need to dump the politics of identity fostered by liberals and reactionaries alike, and pull together, regardless of ethnicity, to fight to improve our communities and our wider society.’ I then said that: ‘both Black and White nationalists aim to divide people along ethnic lines by denying the fact that class, not ethnicity, is the main fault line in British society’. 

I then pointed to the US civil-rights era Rainbow Alliance composed of Black, Latino and White working class activists as an historic example of cross-community, working-class solidarity; ‘a solidarity I believe needs to be rediscovered if we are to move forward, away from the blind alley of racial separatism.’ In a forum nearing one thousand members (including the protest organisers), my comments received no reply. 

I was going to leave it there, but then a video of a speech from last Thursday’s Black Lives Matter protest made by the current Northfield Brook City Councillor, Hosnieh Djafari Marbini of the Labour Party, was brought to my attention. As a proud anti-fascist activist of many years standing, I now feel morally compelled to publicly express my concerns at what I see as a rising tide of right-wing black nationalist sentiment. I feel that what could be considered, at best, ill-judged and ill-educated comments by the Labour representative, who conflates the United Kingdom’s social problems with those America currently faces, will only encourage this sentiment.

Hosnieh Djafari Marbini is a middle-class professional who lives in Headington. She claims, in her speech, appealing to black residents, to be a fellow victim of ‘British colonialism’ by virtue of her Iranian heritage. After some attempts to pay lip service to class (‘We are not interested in who is more or less racist, we are interested in structural change’), she made generalisations and offered uncontextualized statistics that left us guessing about the type of “structural change” she is calling for, and though linking the racial issues with the occasional “and class”, almost as an after-thought, she fails to put forward a cohesive argument and in fact entirely sidesteps the issue of class and its central role in society’s power relations.

Referencing British Imperialism in relation to the country of her birth is tenuous to say the least. Leaving aside the fact that British-born working class people tend to be embarrassed by our country’s history of Empire and especially the transatlantic slave trade (while, in contrast, black nationalists hark back with nostalgia to the slave-driven African Empires), Hosnieh, from her home up in Headington, doesn’t seem to know that the working class neither participated in, nor benefited from, the ruling class’ colonial conquests – unless you consider it to have been a benefit to have experienced a life slaving away in fields, factories and coal mines for a crippling subsistence before dying as cannon fodder in the colonial wars or of poverty, disease or as a victim of the Industrial Revolution’s countless workplace disasters before reaching adulthood. 

However, Hosneih has nothing to say about the ongoing political situation in the land of her birth. Iran’s current, home-grown regime – the 20th century’s first Islamic fascist dictatorship – is hardly a paragon of virtue when it comes to the rights of minorities and women, or indeed anyone who refuses to tow the line of the religious police. If racism is the issue, why this omission? Does she oppose discrimination and oppression of black lives only? Is police brutality fine, so long as it’s practised on others?

Hosnieh invokes Malcolm X in her speech, eliciting the expected whoops and applause. 

As with all truth-seekers, Malcolm’s ideas and practices evolved over time and with experience, so to which Malcolm does the Labour representative refer?

Malcolm who saw the black middle class as the enemy of the black working class and who served his community well by driving drugs and crime from the streets of Harlem? 

Or maybe Malcolm the anti-semitic spokesman for the far right Nation of Islam? The Nation of Islam teaches that white people are devils and promotes black supremacy, racial segregation and ultimately race war (where they intend to be the victors of course). In the true black nationalist tradition of the self-proclaimed ‘first fascist’, Marcus Garvey, the Nation of Islam has fostered alliances with white nationalist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. Is this the Malcolm she refers to? 

Or are we talking about the lesser known and even less promoted Malcolm X/Malik el-Shabazz? A man of immense integrity. A proud, courageous man who grew, with experience, to reject racial hatred and seek alliances with white progressives. That’s the Malcolm who served as a stepping stone to the development of the pro-working class politics of Black Panthers such as Bobby Seal, Huey P. Newton and Fred Hampton. The man so admired by that towering intellect, James Baldwin, who, while respectfully disagreeing with Malcolm’s methods, loved and respected him all the same. Arguably she could not have made that speech, in good conscience, if she knew anything about this Malcolm.

Or this very same Malcolm who, after hearing of the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s sexual improprieties with his young female disciples (to whom he fathered a number of children), stood alone against his former mentor? Instead of turning a blind eye and siding with “his people” in the name of racial unity, he patiently listened to the powerless victims and, without a second thought, placed their welfare above his own safety and stood up to Elijah Muhammad and the organisation to which he had dedicated a dozen years of his life, in the full knowledge that he was, in all likelihood, signing his own death warrant. 

It’s easy to parrot a few soundbites and shoehorn them into one’s own agenda, but how many of those that regurgitate the historic slogans of great US black leaders and thinkers such as Malcolm X, Bobby Seal, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King and James Baldwin, actually take the time to listen to their real message and actually take up the challenge that earned these revolutionaries their stripes? 

It should go without saying that I no more hold every black person responsible for the actions of black antisocial criminals than I hold every white person responsible for the actions of white antisocial criminals. I have consistently stated that, on our estate, I hold that there is no black community or white community, only a Blackbird Leys community, a community to which, I am proud to say, I have a long record of activism and service to. Unfortunately, a handful of black nationalists and their supporters beg to differ. For them, the life of a North London drug dealer killed by the police ‘matters’ because he happened to be black, while the combined lives of working class people of every other ethnic group killed by police officers on this island don’t (or at least matter less) because they are not black. UK Black Lives Matter propagandists appear desperate to convince themselves and anyone else that will listen, that the UK is actually the USA, yet, regardless of the attempts by these careerists to impart an undue sense of grievance within black citizens, the statistics do not support their case. The inconvenient truth remains that deaths of white people in police custody over the last decade proportionately far outstrip those of black/ethnic minorities, and reflect US rapper and actor Ice T’s assertion that: ‘When it comes to the poor, no lives matter’.

As I have mentioned, Malcolm X stood against pushers and gangsters to rid the streets of Harlem of drugs and anti-social crime. The Black Panther Party was at war with black cultural nationalists and black lumpen criminals, including of course heroin dealers. Even rapper, actor and cultural icon, Tupac Shakur, (seemingly a hero of two-bit wanna-be gangsters everywhere), spoke openly about crime within black communities: ‘The main thing for us to remember is that the same element that white people are scared of, black people are scared of, the same people that white people fear, we fear, so we defend ourselves from the same element that they’re scared of, but while they’re waiting for legislation to pass, we’re next door to the killer. Just because we’re black we get along with the killers? We get along with the rapists because we’re black and from the same hood? What is that?! We need protection too’.

Speaking at Cambridge University in 1964 (where, in common with Malcolm X, who spoke at Oxford University in the same year, he received a standing ovation), James Baldwin, who pulled no punches when it came to confronting racist white America, stated what for most would be regarded as the obvious, yet in the light of recent events is probably worth repeating: ‘Black people are just like everybody else. One has used the myth of colour to pretend and assume that you were dealing with essentially something bizarre, and practically, according to human laws, unknown. Alas, it is not true. We’re also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars. We are human too’.

Northfield Brook, which is overwhelmingly white in constitution, is the only ward in Oxford that ranks within the top 10% of the most deprived areas nationally in the English Indices of Deprivation. While admittedly many proud, hard-working families would not recognise this description of their neighbourhood, the issues of material and educational poverty do very much exist and are crying out for attention – as is the anti-social crime that often accompanies it. The poverty score is derived by combining the figures for income, employment, education & skills, health, crime, housing, living environment, child poverty and pensioner poverty. The ward scored favourably on only one point, the living environment. All other scores were woefully low. If we consider that, at the last census, 76% of the Northfield Brook population was recorded as ‘white’, 12% ‘black’ and 12% other mixed ethnic minorities, there seems to be more at play than ethnic disadvantage here. Rather than racialise and thereby ignore these social problems, the elected representatives of the area should be working to help the community come together to tackle them. 

So, I do not hold all black people responsible for the crimes of the black criminal minority. However, according to their own logic, Black nationalists and their political allies, if they are honest and consistent, should. When I say ‘we’, I refer to the working class – of all creeds and colours. But for black nationalists ‘we’ translates exclusively as ‘black people’. If ‘we’ insist on rights, then surely ‘we’ should also be willing to accept responsibilities? If ‘we’ insist that the police unfairly target ‘our’ community, maybe it’s time to step up to the mark and deal with the anti-social element within that community that makes everybody’s life harder than it already is (regardless their skin pigment? 

Appropriating the aesthetic and slogans of 1960s US radical groups without any intention of shouldering the enormous responsibilities and commitment that underpinned the aesthetic and slogans of these movements is fraudulent, insulting and self-serving. There is much to admire and much to learn from the giants of the US Civil Rights Movement and we could do worse than to take inspiration from the community self-help projects of the Black Panthers (who, rather than sow division, rolled up their sleeves and with the slogan: ‘All power to all the people’, never far from their lips, organised across the whole community, for the benefit of the whole community). The Panthers didn’t stand in fields mouthing empty slogans or moan into the wind that the community’s needs were not being met. Under infinitely more challenging conditions, they ambitiously organised to meet the community’s needs. This included successfully setting up community hospitals, breakfast for children programmes, education classes and a self-defence network that addressed the issue of anti-social crime. There is much to be done in our community, and indeed working class communities everywhere. My door will always be open to any activist willing to take inspiration from these historical examples and disregard ethnic nationalism to work on programmes that lift our communities, for the benefit of the vast majority of decent people who live in them.