Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Suresh Grover

This conversation was recorded on 23rd June 2020. Speakers: Paul Gilroy, Director of the UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre // Suresh Grover, Director of The Monitoring Group

Paul Gilroy: My name is Paul Gilroy, I'm the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation in University College London. I'm talking this morning to Suresh Grover, the Director of The Monitoring Group, which for four decades now has been at the very forefront of the struggle against racism in Britain; a leading anti-racist charity that promotes civil and human and political rights; campaigning organisation which has played an absolute leading and fundamental role in numerous campaigns including support for the families of Stephen Lawrence and Ricky Reel and Michael Menson, Victoria Climbié, Zahid Mubarek, and on and on and on and on really; and has strong deep roots in West London. And also I want to say to people who are listening to this who may not know your name or would only know it from when you were sent the text messages by the border agency's outsourced contractors telling you to get ready to leave the country; so for people who don't know that really, I just want them to know that you are strongly rooted in the West London area although you have developed- in 40 years of campaigning work at street level- developed a national remit and a national role; and that role includes working against state racism and institutional racism; but also working around popular racism, racial attacks, media issues as well; and that The Monitoring Group is, to my mind, one of the small number of really experienced independent community organisations that offers I guess what we call specialised case work support around the actual effects of racism and racial discrimination and racial violence in the UK. And that the kind of support you offer in that organisation is fundamentally different to anything that can be accessed through local state activities and so on. And that seems important - the emphasis on case work, on family support - it seems to me fundamental in what you do. And I thought we could begin with looking back over these 40 years of campaigning- next year it'll be 40 years. We know that racism remains integral to British society, we've just seen the disproportionate use of the Covid emergency legislation on what they now call BAME communities- I don't really like that formulation, we can talk about that later; but also anti-terrorism powers, stop and search powers, so I want to begin by saying if you look over a 40 year span of history, Suresh, how have things changed? What's the same and what's different? Can we weigh that up?
Suresh Grover: Yes, we can weigh it up; I think there are some things that have changed, some things that have remained still, and some things that have got worse. Let me explain. Three months ago, it would have been difficult for a city like London to experience people using the word n- or the p- word; I think that is back in schools said by a lot of young kids, white and Asian against African-Caribbean. I think that is coming back and that is probably coming back because of the narrative and the discussions that are taking place over Brexit, and the popular racism that have become respectable by mainstream politicians from the Prime Minister down onwards. And I think what has changed is our representation, politically, of black and Asian and migrant people in politics - in mainstream politics. So when I was growing up in the 1970s, the discretionary agencies and the government offices were totally closed to us; we weren't able to communicate with them, they didn't listen to us, they saw us as troublemakers, and there was a polarisation of people- black or Asian people- who would use respectable language- or mainstream language- to get access to power; whereas people who said it like it is, and talked about lived experience, were excluded simply because of their colour and their politics. Now that is very different in the British context today, and I think that's to do with the fact that black people generally- if I can use that word plurally to explain black people- I find it difficult to use black-Asian, but I use it because that's the narrative we live in today- but the black communities aren't necessarily excluded from the political representation;  obviously it could be much greater, it could be more powerful, there could be more about the demands that people are making about policing which aren't filtering through political parties, including labour- labour has no policy on tackling racial inequality or to make the police more accountable, or defund the police at the moment, for example- it's totally out of line with the current movement that is building in the US or in this country. So there is that representation and that's to do with the right of work and the access of that work in different communities that exists; so we have a cluster of people in London who are black, majority, and they can have that power of work. That doesn't exist or didn't exist in Europe for example. So, it's actually a very powerful tool for some debate and narrative and change. It's not being used effectively, there is no anti-racist leadership in parliament that I can see, there's a filtering of some black and brown MPs coming through at the moment, but they are a very small minority. And even in the Corbyn years, the issue of race was totally subverted because of the debate on the Antisemitism, and actually racism affecting black and brown communities was totally diminished or marginalised. So, there's no policy, etc. That's where we live today; but what has become worse, and despite our involvement in the Stephen Lawrence case,  making sure that the lived experience for black people came into that inquiry so Macpherson couldn't avoid it and actually begin to learn the lessons of no just Stephen's case but a litany of other cases that existed across the country, like Ricky Reel, Michael Menson. We made sure that Macpherson and the Lawrence Inquiry would travel outside London and actually see the gravity of the problem and the insidious travellers of continuous, permanent, institutional racism that hadn't been tackled or dismantled in areas like Liverpool where the city centre excludes black people coming and does not welcome them, in areas like Bristol because of this tradition of slavery that existed where black people don't feel- areas like Southall where Asian communities are totally ignored. So, the Macpherson party travelled and realised that Stephen's case wasn't an exception, it was systemic. And that was very important work to do. So, in that campaigning role, we made sure that whilst we were helping Stephen's case, we were also raising the profile for other families who were equally important, and their experience, and the negligence by the state was being exposed in front of Macpherson. So, you had this high court judge, who had a terrible record on immigration matters- in fact on the first day of the Lawrence Inquiry, the counsel for the Stephen Lawrence family made an application for Macpherson to recluse himself. That was the warning shot; very strategic, very important, because we said we are not gonna be taken for granted, if you don't understand our experience you shouldn't be in it. And it's the evidence that came out of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry as well as the experience of the black communities that was brought up which lead him to think that was one of the greatest behaviours of institutional racism, and not the 'rotten, bad apple' narrative. That form of institutional racism, which came out in the recommendations, have never been implemented; we've been trying to break down the doors of institutions from local authorities to the police and saying 'when are you going to deal with it? When are you going to deal with it?'. Unfortunately for us, as soon as Blunkett came into power, the political priorities changed, the Muslims were beginning to be seen as suspect communities; all the good work, which I would say were pockets of excellence that existed in that period, in a sea of hostility, also got sunk in that ocean. We haven't dealt with it so institutional forms of racism have become worse, the structural forms of racism have become worse, despite the growth of the black communities in specific areas. The second thing that has happened is there's been a reaction against anti-racism, and so even after Stephen Lawrence, you had the 'nail bombing' by David Copeland, for example, people forget that, against different minorities; and we were very alerted, in fact he was caught trying to bomb Southall, that's why we realised- he actually wrote a letter saying he was going to bomb Southall. And we had groups of self-defence organisations in different towns watching over black areas so they wouldn't be bombed. And this was three months after the Macpherson recommendations. And Brexit represents a reaction to the gains made by anti-racism, there's a movement that's been slowly building up, there's a momentum that's been coming for a long time. And there's that reaction on Brexit and the current reaction in terms of popular anti-authoritarian-racism, in the way Stuart Hall described in his fantastic speech- which influenced me when I was a young man, called The Great Moving Right. I've been stabbed by skinheads; in Lancashire I was a young boy really good at sports, very good at mathematics, I was stereotyped for being a spin-baller when I couldn't even spin the ball, all that kind of stuff, I was beaten up in school, I was attacked, stabbed; and I saw my racist people who beat me up on a daily basis. So, one of the first things in '79 that I read was Stuart Hall's speech. And that invigorated us to think what we needed to do. So, I came to Southall after leaving Nelson, and unfortunately for me I saw the pool of blood that was Gurdip Singh Chagger's blood after he'd been stabbed in Southall; we created the Southall Youth Movement; Blair Peach was murdered in Southall in 1979 just before Thatcher's victory in May 1979; and we were inspired by writing, but also activism. And we created this notion of black as a political colour; different communities of 'colour' if I can call it that, I don't know what to call it, different communities under that political 'colour', and we saw the enemy as institutional structure and popular racism. So, when the skinheads came in 1981 back to Southall, we were able to burn down the pub that they came in, and you've never seen skinheads in Southall since 1981. So it's a struggle that took place through lived experience, telling it like what it is, also realising that there are academic and individuals who can show us a road-map or expose the dynamics of racism and the dangers that are taking place, and we can be informed by them through our activities. It was a very, very strong connection between theory and activism that was taking place in the 70s.
Paul: Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it? Because on a number of things you've touched on, I'd forgotten you came from Nelson. And I've been thinking about the ghost of CLR James and the ghost of Learie Constantine; there's that wonderful documentary film of James returning to Nelson, and going to the pavilion- probably you know that ground- sitting in the pavilion with these old man he hasn't seen since he was actually playing on that square, and their sort of act is one where they recognise him instantly and talk to him as if they had just seen him the day before; it's quite, quite interesting. You've touched on a number of things there too, the murder of David Copeland's is really important for me as a watershed because I remember the fact that the bomb in Brixton, the bomb in the East end, not the ones that people remember, people remember The Admiral Duncan only, they don't see the connection between these different acts of violence, which he was very clear, very lucid, about how those different acts of violence were connected. And I can remember walking into Soho Square, and there was a rally in Soho Square of people grieving for the dead of The Admiral Duncan and thinking about this attack on the gay community, really- it was a gay pub- and I remember the police officer who spoke at that rally standing up and saying to the huge approval of the crowd 'we're going to have gay officers on those streets as soon as we can, and we will do that for you'; and to me that was interesting because it showed that what we tend to dismiss as identity politics or whatever - the idea that if you fall in the category you're all the same interchangeable - that that idea was really becoming part of the mainstream of managing any corporate organisation, including the police, at that point. Now I'm not saying it would have happened everywhere in England, in Britain, but certainly that slice of the Metropolitan Police for me- this is 1999, right? This is 20 years after Thatcher. They had learned after Macpherson to speak the talk of diversity; to be able to speak the language of diversity training; the language of corporate management regarding diversity in a very fluent way. And that connects actually to another thing I wanted to raise, where you talk about the representation of black and other minority ethnic people in the context of political parties and governments. The same time as we're having this resurgence of popular racism, egged-on, dog-whistled- not even dog-whistled- loudly signalled by people from within the respectable world of politics, the same time we do that we have quote unquote 'the most diverse cabinet' in the history of this country. So it's really how those two things can come together and soon, I'm sure we can say, that when Munira Mirza and her new project investigating institutional racism is published in our country, that we're going to discover that all those insights that you worked so hard to induce the learned judge Macpherson to develop in his experience of what was going on in the country, all of that, is about to be formally rolled back; and all of those duties, all of those reforms that were signalled, even if they've never been fully implemented, all of that's going to be washed away from the top. So, the question is, is it yet a movement- this amazing movement which has exploded all around us? I know you've been really involved in this locally because the crisis around Covid, the crisis around austerity, and the crisis that has followed the murder of George Floyd, have all somehow come together in this very organic way; and does this mobilisation hold within it the possibility of a different future than the one that Boris Johnson and his hench-people think that they can engineer for us?
Suresh: I think what we can say- and I'm not just involved locally, I'm involved in cases in Wales as well and other parts of the country where people have been attacked or wrongfully imprisoned, died because of the lack of police actions on them- and before I answer your question, I just want someone to say this because the media keeps saying the racial attacks have lessened and hate crimes against black and brown people have lessened, actually that's not true in my experience since Brexit; maybe a lull just before December, but since Covid we've seen an exceptional growth and spike in race hate crimes up by 240%. And what comes out is domestic violence, which obviously is a serious problem that needs to be tackled, but I think the fault lines on race are much greater than we think, and they also include race hate crimes. So, I've done a Freedom of Information call to the police, and I think you'll find a certain suppression of information by the police because now its just trickling out that some weekends there is increase in racial violence. I'm not just talking about people from the Chinese and southeast Asian communities, I'm talking about against black separate communities, whether they are Chinese or of different colour, etc. So, I just want to say that because it's a very important point which has just gone down the garbage. But in terms of institutional notions of racism, what does this movement represent? For me it has two possibilities. Firstly, in the absence of any serious challenge by the opposition on racism against Johnson- it's not serious at the moment- this is the only opposition against the government, and that's very important and is led by young, all people, activists across the country, who want to challenge the government and the state on racism. And they're organising in a spontaneous manner; you have young 18-year-olds, 16-year-olds, and other people, black and white girls, actually organising this. For example, in Cardiff there are two Black Lives Matter movements: one is run by young black kids- women- and the other is young white people; all of them want to unite together and create that momentum. But it's a direct challenge, and don't think it's going to evaporate and just leave and go as it is, because it's created a moment where people believe you need to keep on marching and moving, and marching and moving, to expose the problem. And there are two forms of problems: one is the actual experience of racism and how this government is seen to be racist in its support for the police and its own language, so that includes people like Priti Patel, and Munira- whatever her name is, I don't even- I've given up on these people, I don't think they're relevant. I think that report was dead as soon as it was announced; and so was, by the way, the report by the Public Health England, because, how can you have Public Health England making an inquiry about notions of structural racism when itself is the cause for the problem. It's the old issue of the police investigating themselves; and no wonder some of the information was suppressed by the government on it. So, it's not a thorough inquiry, but no matter what the inquiry is, even in its form it’s exposed the institutional forms of discrimination and the disparity that exists, but it could be much more powerful. So, I think the movement is a direct challenge. There are differences between what happens here and what happens in the United States; if you look at the United States and have been linking up as they have for the last five-six years with activism in areas like Los Angeles, of young black people exposing police brutality, having protests on a weekly basis outside police stations or at state houses or government office; tackling issues to do with poverty, education, linking them together- there's an organic movement that has been built in America over five-six years, linked up together with different forms of struggle, and is sustainable; America has the election coming up in November, so Trump's emergence is seen as part of that movement. And the American level of police brutality- I'm talking about the level, I'm not talking about the propensity of violence, but the level of police brutality- the frequency- against black and First Nations, is mind-boggling in terms of its numbers. In Los Angeles in itself you have 71 black people killed in one year; you're not just talking about the whole of the country, so the level of violence is exceptional; and some of the levels of violence is akin to the rates of lynching that took place in the earlier centuries. In this country, policing institutional forms of racism are very, very strong; people with lived experience show that, but you have a large number of black working-class youth mobilising. And I've seen that from board meetings I've done in areas like Peckham, or in Southall, in housing estates, where people are saying they have problems in terms of policing, in terms of stop and search, the level of violence that is used against young kids, the control and containment of what they can do in terms of music, the attack on grime music, for example. I've had people writing who have grime music who think they're gonna be arrested at any given time, and the whole nature of gang culture- that narrative of gang culture that has been created in this country against black young working class kids. And people see there's a war against that; against working class kids. So, the policies and the practices, and the violence, exists here- not to the level that exists in America, but it's definitive here and it's affecting and it's dangerous and it's alarming. What doesn't exist in this country, and this is actually part of the process of the challenges- what do we do? What are the demands going to be? Do we defund? What are the notions of accountability? And I think we are going beyond the notions of accountability that- for example, people were involved in the 1980s in the GLC, like myself, Paul, where I think I met you. The current labour administration isn't even thinking of those notions of accountability that we developed in the 1980s in the GLC, they're actually much further behind that side. So, people are thinking about that, they're talking about state racism, they're talking about Windrush and the immigration services, and Covid has just increased the fault lines and more glaringly in terms of racism. It's exposed that stuff. But I think what the other issues that are really important for our communities is the rate of school expulsions and exclusions of young kids, and how great they end up and the kind of education they end up in; and you can't just deal with that by diversifying schools and retaining or recruiting black teachers- that's essential- I think you have to give power to the school kids. And I think we have to call for unions of school children coming together and deciding the future in schools that don't work, for example. I don't think that's a radical demand; if school kids can come to a demonstration on Black Lives Matter and expose it, and they can be done for crime, or get married, they should be able to run their education. Those are the kind of momentum that we need to build up, and I think if we can be successful in building that, that that movement will stick.
Paul: I think you're right. I started to smile then because my first experience of activism was really through the attempt to build a union of school children when I was one. And we had some visibility and some success at that, and it brought together kids from all over London to speak to one another and communicate- of course we didn't have mobile phones to help us, we didn't have TikTok to organise it with. I was thinking a lot about the technology aspect when you were speaking, about these different groups of young women in Cardiff, about the very, very young age really of some of the most active and most militant voices that we've heard coming through in this Covid moment combined with the global response to the murder of George Floyd. But I'm wondering about the activist culture that you encounter because you and I- I think probably I'm a bit older than you but we're roughly the same political generation- I think I met you before the GLC actually. I remember meeting you in the library, in the IRR library, and that must have been before the GLC even. Anyway, the point is that I worry that because of the way they relate to the information they get through the computer, some of these young people can't imagine a world in which 'black' is a political category; in fact, some of them are very hostile to the idea of political blackness, and they don't- I can remember being in South Africa, the first time I went there, not long after everything had happened, I went to a conference and there was someone in the audience who is what they called- called themselves- a 'returnee' to South Africa. And they said- there was a discussion- obviously post-apartheid people are being very polite to one another, they're listening to one another very, very carefully; and this person said- who is I think probably North American- said 'well the thing is what's going on here is exactly like what goes on in North America'. And someone, I think it was a Zulu woman or a Xhosa woman, put her hand up and said, 'I think you'll find that black people are the majority here'. So I'm trying to say that of course the movement for human and civil and political rights of indigenous peoples and of the freedom struggles that started in slavery are really inspiring and really important to us in Europe and also globally, but I don't think that being touched or inspired or motivated by that example is necessarily the same as being that example. And I worry a little bit that some of the definitions- political definitions- around identity, around blackness, around anti-blackness, or all this stuff they talk about non-black people of colour, all this kind of stuff; which might be entirely appropriate where they are, I'm not saying it isn't, but if we suddenly sweep away our distinctive and special and unique history, and try and graft that onto it, then we might be losing some things that are very precious and important. And what's interesting to me, or one of the things which is interesting to me about history of The Monitoring Group, is the fact that by emphasising practical political work on the ground with real communities, that those questions of identity, allyship, who's in which category or whatever, evaporate because what you have to do is get things done; and that just means being efficient, it means being effective, it means being consistent- you don't really in a way- well, I don't know, I would imagine that you didn't have a lot of energy left over to have those kinds of discussions about whether you can only speak for people who are always exactly already just like you, and that kind of stuff. Which is quite an important element in some of the- as it were online- online radicalism. Now I know when you get out in the streets delivering food for people who are vulnerable to Covid, and that's what I meant about local stuff- I know you have the national- but when you're doing that, the issue is whether they get that food not who's bringing it to the door or whether they're the same or- maybe they want to be able to communicate but the purification of the world so it only functions along very steady straight lines that we can already predict isn't an issue. We have to fight for a better vision and a better understanding than the one that that particular definition of what it means to be radical offers us. That's my opinion. How do you feel about all of that?
Suresh: There are two issues here. One is there is a specific black experience of people from different continents, who've suffered historically under colonialism, and they've come into the belly of the beast in this country and suffer all forms of institutional and direct forms of racism- I mean, even if you're rich as the Sultans are, so you can't just explain the socio-economic reasons on this issue. There is real direct discrimination in the health service that exists which hasn't been actually raised properly and actually acknowledged properly. So, because of the commonality experience, you have to have this -ism, which is internationalist, which is historical, which is fostered on the actual experience of black communities of this country. And I'm not saying that sometimes colourism is not a problem- I mean, living in Southall in the Asian community, the issue of caste and colourism is so important to us and we've been dealing with that for ages. Some of the time my biggest problems have been the Hindu fundamentalist right who think that Muslims are the enemy. So, we've dealt with communal colourism issues as such and much more than anybody else has. So The Monitoring Group, for example, has in its constitution an expulsion clause when people use caste as a form of discrimination, in the anti-racist environment that we are, because the issue of caste is to do with darker colour- you know what I'm talking about; it's shocking. So, I understand that, but those are not struggles against the state which is institutionally racist, and its policies and its ideology, because of imperialist and colonialised notions that exist. And it's not as if colonialism is of the past, you have a living colony of Palestine, and the Palestinians in this country are part of the black minority community, who've raised the issue of Israeli occupation for ages and their voices have been excluded. So if we are serious about challenging the system and transforming it- and I have come across cases where the propensity of violence used against black individuals, as compared to me in the same situation, is greater; and I have to acknowledge that, and I acknowledge that totally. Only three years ago we ended up in a fight with some racist, and the police came and arrested my colleague Stafford rather than me- although I was the bulkier person described by the person; so I can see how the police officers have stereotyped black people, and I think we need to deal with that, and we need to deal with that effectively. But that doesn't change my view of creating a vision for a society that involves all the oppressed groups coming together under political colour. If I can be a spokesman for the Lawrence family and I'm not even African-Caribbean; or Zahid Mubarek and I'm not Muslim; or a family in Northern Ireland who have been executed in Northern Ireland, Robert Hamill for example, who is Irish; or the genocidal claims that took place in Gujarat by Hindu fundamentalists against the Dawood family, and I don't even live there; it shows that what you need is a political culture, which is inclusive, which is based on the reality that exists in this country for black communities directly - it doesn't actually matter whether I'm brown and I can represent a black family. It actually makes no difference. But what my political culture and attitude does is make that family stronger, and the struggle against racism stronger, because I know that racism can put us down but the strength that we have of challenging it- that added value and the lessons that we've learnt, and where we place ourselves in our society, the ingredients exist for us to come together and transform that system. And I don't want to exclude working people from that, they are precisive; Covid is not just about young kids or black minorities, or racism isn't just about that; it's the impact on three million, mainly black women, working in zero-contract hours or the gig industry who are migrant workers who are being told that they're not worthy enough to have as citizens, for example, but they've been put at the forefront of fighting against this pandemic. So that is a commonality that exists with us and is a universal struggle against the system which is oppressive to black people and working people.
Paul: Thank you, thank you Suresh; that's a very good note to end on because it's a clear definition of the challenge facing us really in the what they call the new normal as it takes shape. And I know that as that unfolds, you and The Monitoring Group will be absolutely at the centre of that. And I look forward to finding ways for us to collaborate in future, and I'm very grateful to you for giving up your precious time to have this conversation with me this morning and I look forward to continuing it.
Suresh: Yeah definitely Paul, and it's really good to see you.