Black Panthers in London: who were they and why should they interest anarchists? - Carlus Hudson

The text of a talk given at the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh on 17/12/2016. The author (Carlus Hudson) would like to point out these are more notes/transcript for a talk rather than a properly written article.

Submitted by Rory Reid on December 24, 2016

I’m going to talk to you about the history of the British Black Panther movement, focusing specifically on the groups in London in the late 60s and early 70s. There were groups elsewhere in the UK and before and after the period I’m focusing on, but the most readily available source material I’ve so far been able to draw from is London in the late 60s and early 70s. My own research specialism is student anti-racist activism in Britain in the 1970s, which I’m doing my PhD on in Portsmouth at the moment, so what I’ve looked at with the Black Panthers runs parallel to that and some of the content of my masters thesis. I’d not consider myself an expert in this particular topic, but I hope to at least promote greater interest in it.

To do that I’m first of all going to say a bit about why the topic’s so important today for anarchists and the way I’ll be approaching their history, before I go into the history itself and the insights it offers. This is an extremely important topic because, very simply, anarchists’ engagement with feminism and anti-racism is long overdue. Most of us may be aware of what’s termed ‘manarchism’ that shuts down most experiences of oppression and struggle against it in favour of an extremely narrow idea of class struggle. This idea of class struggle in the anarchist movement, with its parallels in Socialist Workers’ Party style Leninist politics, tends to be very dismissive of feminism and anti-racism. It generalises them together into what’s termed ‘identity politics’, and stereotypes identity politics as being about getting more women and PoC into corporate boardrooms, abolishing freedom of speech on university campuses, and people being wankers on tumblr instead of getting involved in what they see as real revolutionary class struggle.

This very narrow idea of class struggle only speaks to a small section of the global working class and arguably only to the least oppressed among them. I don’t believe that it’s just a coincidence that anarchist and more broadly revolutionary politics have remained so marginal in society when they’ve been dominated for so long by this very socially-conservative and doctrinaire attitude to class that sees it in very abstract, purely economistic terms or construes it as its own kind of identity politics for the ‘white male working class’. It doesn’t speak to the vast majority of those who have most to gain from an anarchist-communist society, and its principal achievement so far has been the co-option of its language by the populist right over the past year. When politicians now talk about the ‘white working class’ or ‘those left behind by globalisation’, there’s little to distinguish that rhetoric from the crudest articulations of class politics from the organised Left.

In reality the vast majority of workers must not only contend with class oppression as its own social and economic system, but also with the ways in which class oppression as it is imposed on them through sexism, racism and other oppressions. This oppression takes place in the workplace, in the family, in communities and as enforced by the state directly. Resistance to oppression and fighting for or building a society freed from these things must take place starting from this position if it is to be of any relevance or use to anyone. This approach can be called intersectional anarchism. It’s influenced by Kimberle Crenshaw [1] whose idea of intersectionality means studying oppression in terms of overlapping experiences of sexism and racism. This idea has spread into many spheres of radical politics and culture, and often extends to include class-based, colonialist, and many other forms of oppression. Conventional identity politics focuses on one primary type of oppression – be it in terms of class, gender, race or anything else – and other oppressions are just derived from or are distractions from it.

Intersectionality claims that identity and oppression have a multiplicity of causes and expressions, and you can’t challenge one oppression without dealing in some way with others. It takes revolutionary struggle beyond the social conservatism of ‘manarchism’ and is very different kind of politics from the worst stereotypes of liberal identity politics.

The Black Panthers in London offer a historical example which may at least help anarchists active today to get their bearings on what they want their politics to be and represent, especially in relation to the issues I’ve just introduced. Because this movement has received very limited attention by historians and anarchists, far less than the movement in America, this talk will be weighted more towards telling the story of what actually happened rather than going as in depth with analysis as I’d like. But I hope to provide some commentary and provoke greater interest in a topic that a lot to offer. There’s no way we should expect or even desire to simply take what they did then and carry it out now as if nothing’s changed since – there’s more than enough historical re-enactment done by revolutionaries already. Nor should we consign the Black Panthers entirely to something of their time with nothing relevant to us today. The history of the British Black Panthers has insights for anarchists today, and our collective work in understanding them and the wider fight against overlapping oppressions has barely begun.

Many of the sources available on the Black Panthers in London are police and court documents held at the National Archives. They show the extent of the state’s hostile response to the movement. In addition to some of these documents, I’ve made use of interviews of the activists involved in the movement – mostly carried out by an oral history project called Organised Youth. There is a great deal of source material also held by the Institute of Race Relations, the George Padmore Institute, and the Black Cultural Archive. I feel it’s important to recommend them here to anyone interested in knowing more about this extremely rich history.

I’d like to turn to the story of how and why the Black Panther movement rose in Britain. Much like their counterparts in the US, the Black Panthers in Britain emerged as a response to the frustrations of black people with the failures and limitations of more moderate movements. The civil rights movement in the US was very successful in ending segregation but had made little progress in dealing with issues such as police racism. In Britain, there was immigration from countries that had recently gained independence from the British Empire. Between 1948 and the 1960s, there was a policy of open-door immigration from the Commonwealth, which began to be closed by the Conservatives in 1962 and then tightened further by Labour in 1968. Labour’s Commonwealth Immigrants Act was later found to be racially discriminatory by the European Court of Human Rights. While immigration law was being tightened, efforts to lobby the Labour Party to pass legislation against racial discrimination had produced only a very timid Race Relations Act. This Act was even used to persecute anti-racist campaigners. Disillusionment with the Labour Party, the failure of much of the trade union movement to fight against racism in the workplace, the rise of the far right after Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech, the international backdrop of the Vietnam War, and discrimination in housing, education and by the police, all contributed to a situation that called for a more radical and militant anti-racist politics [2]

The largest moderate group, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, was disintegrating by 1967 [3]. Their orientation towards the Labour Party had left behind many who were looking for something more radical. This political vacuum was filled by the Black Panther movement. Their ideology Black Power, where it began in the US, was initially quite separatist and nationalist, but developed strong internationalist and revolutionary socialist strands rooted in the ideas of self-organisation and liberation.

An important catalyst for the movement in Britain was the Dialectics of Liberation conference in London, June 1967. This was set up by a number of radical psychiatrists, including R. D. Laing who’s more famous for experimenting with LSD in the treatment of schizophrenia. Most of the currents of the 1960s counterculture and anti-war movement were represented: critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, plenty of students, a few Maoists and Marxist writer CLR James, to name a few. One of the future leaders of the Black Panthers in the US – Stokely Carmichael – debated the beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg on the use of political violence. [4]

This debate was, for the sake of this presentation anyway, the most interesting part of Dialectics of Liberation. Carmichael very strongly advocated black people arming and defending themselves, while Ginsberg was opposed to that and much preferred non-violence and, in his own words, ‘flower power’. Carmichael saw liberation as needing a coherent strategy with specific objectives, while the tone of the conference was much more focused on self-expression and creating free and alternative spaces [5]
For anyone here who ever attended a General Assembly during the Occupy movement and sat through endless meta-discussions and abstract arguments nominally about tactics, the clash between Carmichael and Ginsberg should sound like a very familiar one. What the Panthers offered black people was a politics that stood up for them and their rights. This was something which other movements and organisations had previously not been able or willing to do.

In Britain the Black Panthers were organised more loosely than they were in the US, functioning more like a network with varying politics, ranging from Black Nationalism to Marxism, but sharing the unifying ideology of Black Power. Ties between the British and the US movements were largely informal, and the US served as a source of inspiration for Black Panthers in Britain. One former Panther Leyla Howe was interviewed a few years ago by Organised Youth, and said that her ‘moment of inspiration’ came from seeing Huey Newton on TV with a black beret and a gun, talking about black people standing up for themselves [6]

So that’s how the movement came about in Britain. I’m now going to look at how they operated, especially in London. I’m going to start with one of the major organisations, the Universal Coloured People’s Association. This group was a vanguardist and conspiratorial organisation, influenced heavily by Leninism, and led by Nigerian-born playwright Obi Egbuna. Egbuna was arrested, tried and locked up for inciting to murder police, and there’s an extensive file in the National Archives on this court case. Much of the evidence the police put forward indicated that Egbuna was the head of a paramilitary organisation. It included a Black Panther oath of allegiance where members were to be willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause, reference to weapons caches which were never ultimately found or be proven to even exist, and a bomb recipe. [7]

Egbuna wrote a book in prison, Destroy This Temple. In it he played up to the role the police had placed him in. He compared himself to a character in a Dostoyevsky novel, and to Frankenstein’s monster but in the sense that the white supremacist and imperialist system around him was Dr. Frankenstein and therefore responsible for creating him. Egbuna’s way of doing politics was deeply hierarchical, dominating and violent in the worst sense of the word. Some of Egbuna’s theoretical accounts of the challenges for black people in Britain and around the world were ok, but the problems in the way he and his group organised were immense. To be honest, saying his politics had ‘immense problems’ does not even come close to describing it: in his book he justified the rape of white women by black men On this level his politics were deeply misogynistic, authoritarian, and plainly abhorrent. It’s worth noting that the most the police and court documents say about Egbuna’s attitudes to women were that he was a ‘womanizer’ – the state simply wasn’t concerned with what was actually awful about Egbuna, and the investigation put a lot more time and resources into investigating his links with another Leninist party. [8]

In contrast to Egbuna, other leaders of the movement such as Althea Jones-LeCointe and CLR James looked to community-based organising [9]. I don’t think either of them or the Black Panthers they worked with could be described as Anarchist, but they took the Panthers in a far more open, libertarian and participatory direction – and I’m now going to talk a bit about them.

Althea Jones-LeCointe was interviewed by Organised Youth. Far from Egbuna’s misogyny and desire for control, Jones-LeCointe expressed her politics in the form of a question she posed back to her interviewers: ‘what challenges you?’ What she then put forward was an idea of politics which started with the individual’s own experiences and the issues they faced, moving onto the need of then finding others to fight alongside for liberation. It’s about understanding yourself, educating yourself, and acting for yourself. Politics becomes working with people in solidarity rather than for others in a paternalistic way. In the interview, Jones-LeCointe was adamant about the need to challenge male chauvinistic behaviour within Black Panther organisations. I wouldn’t say she sounded too enthusiastic about the idea of separate black women’s organisations when she was asked about them, but she respected the right of black women to self-organise in whatever way they saw as necessary to their emancipation [10]

Much of this should sound very appealing to anarchists. It’s a politics which doesn’t place trust or responsibility in the hands of politicians or the state. Nor does it place those things in an essentialist idea of identity, where you have people who claim to speak for all workers, women or all black people and for what they should think and do. The onus is on every individual to come to terms more fully with who they are, who or what oppresses them, and work with others who share their experiences to liberate themselves and each other. This, for Jones-LeCointe was what Black Power and the Panthers were all about.

This was practiced in one of the movement’s biggest campaigns: the Mangrove Trial. There was a restaurant in Notting Hill set up by Frank Critchlow, the Mangrove, which was described by historians Bunce and Field as ‘the beating heart of Notting Hill's West Indian community’. ‘Black people who wanted advice on housing or legal aid went there, as did black radicals who wanted to discuss the revolution in the Caribbean, or the fortunes of the American Black Power movement’ The police raided this restaurant numerous times, officially over licensing issues and drug raids, though the raids didn’t produce any evidence. The Black Panthers helped organise a protest against police harassment, after being involved by one of the staff at the Mangrove, Darcus Howe. Howe, Critchlow and a number of others were arrested, and they became known as the Mangrove Nine. The Panthers were very successful in using the trial to expose institutional racism in the police and courts, and to mobilise their community against it. All of the Mangrove Nine were acquitted. [11]

The Mangrove campaign should be of great interest to anarchists – it was an excellent example of direct action against state oppression, but also in defence of a community. By defending a restaurant which provided advice on housing and legal issues to people who faced a great deal of discrimination, they defended a system of mutual aid and the self-organisation of black people in London. They linked the particular oppression in front of them to what was described in one Black Panther publication, Black People’s News Service, as a politics for the ‘Liberation of ALL oppressed People, and primarily the liberation of Black People totally from every form of enslavement and exploitation.’ I don’t think there’s much in this to disagree with from an anarchist point of view, and there’s a great deal to learn from it. [12]

The Mangrove campaign was the largest immediate success of the Black Panthers in Britain. Many of the issues they campaigned on were addressed in the coming years, as their photographer Neil Kenlock pointed out in an interview with VICE and another with Organised Youth. More moderate and reformist groups had only managed to obtain the most limited concessions from the government on discrimination, and nothing at all on immigration legislation. After the Black Panthers were most active in Britain, a much stronger race relations act was put in place and talk of repatriation of immigrants was off the table. [13]
Another Black Panther, Lynton Kwesi Johnson, said in an interview with Organised Youth that the issues the Panthers organised around had changed from when they started and the movement had ‘served its purpose’ – they became more aware of the position of racism in Britain within a global capitalist, imperialist system and activists shifted their attention accordingly. [14]

By means of conclusion, while the Panthers never achieved the overthrow of white supremacy, capitalism or imperialism – and never attempted anything that could be called anarchism, they were very successful in the Mangrove campaign in mobilising their community to take matters into their own hands and directly fight the injustices done to them. Egbuna’s very different approach based in domination and patriarchy shows in extreme the dangers that can come with political organising, tendencies which I think anarchists ought to do a lot more to address in our own organisations and projects. Overall, it is the revolutionary, internationalist, self-organisational spirit of the Black Panthers that make them so important for today’s anarchists – anarchists looking for a struggle that is intersectional, and in the hands of everyone who is ready to stand up to liberate themselves.

[1] K. Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review 43: 6 (July 1991), 1241-99.
[2] A. Sivanandan, A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance (London, 1982); Anne-Marie Angelo, ‘The Black Panthers in London, 1967-1972: A Diasporic Struggle Navigates the Black Atlantic’, Radical History Review 103 (Winter 2009); 17-35.
[3] B. W. Heineman Jr., The Politics of the Powerless: A Study of the Campaign against Racial Discrimination (London, 1972).
[4] D. Cooper (ed.), Dialectics of Liberation (London, 1968).
[5] STUDYofVIOLENCE, ‘Dialectics of Liberation Preview’ (27 August 2010), YouTube (Last accessed: 3 September 2016).
[6] Organised Youth, Leyla Howe interviewed in ‘British Black Power Story‘ (2013-4), SoundCloud (Last accessed: 1 September 2016).
[7] London Metropolitan Police, ‘Benedict Obi EGBUNA, Peter MARTIN and Gideon Turagalevu DOLO: charged with circulating writings at Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park, threatening to kill and maim police officers, involvement of the above-named with 'Black Panther' Party’ (1968-9), MEPO 2/11409, held at The National Archives, London.

[8] Ibid.; O. Egbuna, Destroy This Temple: the Voice of Black Power in Britain (London, 1971).
[9] R. Bunce and P. Field, ‘Obi Egbuna, C. L. R. James and the Birth of Black Power in Britain: Black Radicalism in Britain’, Twentieth Century British History 22: 3 (2011), 391-414.
[10] Organised Youth, ‘Althea Jones-LeCointe’ (2013-4), SoundCloud (Last accessed: 1 September 2016).
[11] R. Bunce and P. Field, ‘Frank Critchlow: Community leader who made the Mangrove Restaurant the beating heart of Notting Hill’ (23 September 2010), The Independent [online] (Last accessed: 2 September 2016).
[12] ‘Black Panther Movement, what we stand for’ (1970), held by The National Archives, (Last accessed: 4 September 2016).

[13] ’Remnants of the British Black Panther’s Lost Legacy’ (14 October 2013), VICE [online] (Last accessed: 3 September 2016); Organised Youth, Neil Kenlock interviewed in ‘British Black Power Story‘ (2013-4), SoundCloud (Last accessed: 1 September 2016).
[14] Organised Youth, Lynton Kwesi Johnson interviewed in ‘British Black Power Story‘ (2013-4), SoundCloud (Last accessed: 1 September 2016).


Rory Reid

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Submitted by Rory Reid on December 24, 2016

edits to update version based on authors wishes.