Darcus Howe Memorial Tribute By Michelle Edwards
The Black Cultural Archives 1 Windrush Square Brixton, London SW2 1EF
It was a Sunday afternoon that saw the death announcement of campaigner, broadcaster and columnist Darcus Howe. While wasting away on Twitter, I saw a familiar face tweet out a condolence. It was a retweet that another Twitter user had written. That user was none other than fellow campaigner and commentator Patrick Vernon OBE, a trusted source. Even then, there was instant disbelief. Not least because the news wasn’t supported elsewhere. Various entries into Google came back blank. BBC, ITV, Sky, LBC, Daily Mirror, The Guardian, etc = zero.
A subsequent tweet by Vernon five hours later quashed the rumour mill once and for all. Howe had died on Saturday night, aged 74. Unsurprisingly, the mass media failed to catch on or at least pretend to care until a day later. Howe wasn’t particularly liked for his forthright views and relentless promotion of Black self-determination. He knew it and embraced it.
On 5 January 2012, Howe famously appeared on BBC2’s Newsnight to discuss Labour MP Diane Abbott’s Twitter storm (public outrage over a tweet she had written stating White people love playing “divide and rule.” Typically uncompromising, he told the broadcaster that Abbott should have told former Leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband, “why don’t you go to hell”? And, seconds later smiled directly at the cameraman. For those unfamiliar with the story, Miliband reprimanded Abbott over the remark and she was later forced to apologise. During the same BBC broadcast, Howe received praise from Sunder Katwala, Director of think-tank British Future, who was on the opposing side of the debate. A somewhat stunned Howe replied: “I’m concerned when anybody tells me anything nice about myself.”
Perhaps in the knowledge that Howe was unlikely to receive a credible accolade across any mainstream platforms, the Brixton Black Cultural Archives (BCA) – a heritage centre – decided to host a tribute evening to his life and legacy a week later, ironically on a Sunday.
Hundreds crowded into the private courtyard of the building well in advance of the start time. As the evening progressed, hundreds more arrived such that they spilled out into Windrush Square. BCA Director Paul Reid outlined the event running order which included free outdoor film screenings of ‘Mangrove Nine’ (1973) and ‘Travels With My Camera: Is This My Country?’ (2006), alongside a showcase of Mangrove Nine archival artefacts and tributes. To put it into context, Mangrove Nine was a significant event in British history. The upmarket Mangrove restaurant owned by community activist Frank Crichlow in the Notting Hill area of west London in the late 1960s was subject to various forms of harassment by Notting Hill police station.
Officers conducted multiple raids designed to close it down but found nothing. After one raid, various Black organisations including the Black Panther Movement, decided enough was enough and called a demonstration in defence of the Mangrove. Fighting broke out between demonstrators and the police and ended in the arrests of nine protesters: Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Frank Critchlow, Rhodan Gordon, Darcus Howe, Anthony Innis, Althea Jones–Lecointe, Rothwell Kentish and Godfrey Millett.
Their celebrated trial in 1971 – which featured an unsuccessful demand by Howe for an all-black jury – ended with the acquittal of all nine on the principle charge of incitement to riot, while five of the nine, including Howe and Crichlow, were acquitted of all other charges. Summing up, the judge concluded that the trial had “regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides”. The Met’s assistant commissioner wrote to the DPP seeking a retraction of the judge’s statement. The statement was never withdrawn.
Formidable speakers ranged from a childhood friend in Trinidad to former recruits of the UK Black Panthers to former Cabinet minister Lord (Paul) Boateng, who revisited their days of marching through London together. The audience, comprised almost exclusively of the Windrush generation, were visibly moved throughout the proceedings. Especially, when it was announced that Howe’s wife and extended family had arrived. Fighting back their emotions, Howe’s wife, sister and son (also named Darcus) thanked the crowd for their love. Strangers smiled at and comforted one another and cheerfully sang an a cappella version of the Bob Marley classic, Get Up Stand Up. Today’s generation have much to learn. Black lives mattered then and they matter now.