Interview: Adil Rahman of Newham Monitoring Project - Black Flag

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Newham Monitoring Project has been fighting racial harassment and police harassment in East London for 18 years - consistently running an emergency advice line, offering practical support to individuals and running campaigns. NMP has always been a grassroots community organisation and funding has come and gone. The withdrawal of funding and loss of its office more than a year ago had lead to rumours of its demise but Black Flag found NMP still going strong when we interviewed Adil Rahman.

From Black Flag #214 1998

Submitted by Fozzie on July 31, 2020

BF: Tell us how NMP started

NMP: NMP was set up 18 yrs ago in 1980 following the murder of Akhtar Ali Baig - a young Asian lad. He was walking out of East Ham tube on his way home from college, where a group of skinheads had a £5 bet on who could kill the first "paki." Akhtar was the first black person they saw and they actually fought to get across the road - you know they wanted to win the bet - it was broad daylight - and they stabbed him through the heart for a £5 bet.

That was really the straw that broke the donkey's back - East London was the centre of the NF's programme and there was a lot of fascist activity. There had been many other cases - in 1978 the Viet brothers who had been working on their car outside their home were attacked by a group of fascists armed with iron bars and other weapons. The three brothers defended themselves while another brother inside the house called the police for help. The police came - allowed all the fascists to go, arrested all the brothers and charged them with affray! The charges were very serious and the brothers were imprisoned for between 3 and 25 years. This scenario of unprovoked attacks by fascists resulting in the arrest of the victims was a daily reality.

The other side of the coin to all this fascist activity was the police racism. There were 2 kinds of responses from the police to call outs from black people reporting attacks. You could get a brick through the window and wait four hours for the police to turn up - or they'd turn up immediately, allow the perpetrators to go and arrest the victims. (Today they may have learned the language of multi-culturalism but little has actually changed.)

So the community had had enough - the community leaders, the temples, churches and mosques got together and said look this can't go on - the response of the statutory agencies had been totally inadequate and we needed to do something ourselves. Racist and police attacks needed monitoring 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and so the NMP was formed. It is very important to remember how NMP got started and why 18 years on we are still active and supported - NMP came from community politics - from the bottom up and not from the top down.

Following NMP's formation in 1980 there was the case of the Newham 7 which drew a real focus to Newham. A group of racists had been attacking kids at a local school - it had been going on for 4 months - the police had been informed, the school had been informed, the council had been informed - and nothing had been done about it. So 7 young men got together and said well if no-one else is going to do anything we will make sure you get home safely. They got to the school to find a group of men there - who turned out to be police officers. The fascists arrived, were allowed to go and all 7 of the lads were arrested.

From this came the phrase 'Self Defence is No Offence.' We believe the community has a right to organise if no-one is going to protect them. There is a very distinct difference between vigilantism and 'self defence no offence' where you have been forced to say enough is enough - even one attack is too many - but here it was happening day in day out.

The case showed police racism on one side and local racism on the other side of the coin and NMP began to run the first emergency service in England offering immediate practical support and advice to people suffering from police and racial harassment.

We eventually got funding from the council but now have lost it again which, for a lot of people at the beginning, seemed a disaster but now its turned out a lot better. NMP only accepted funding on the understanding that it would continue be a political organisation - and how can you be a pressure group when you've got constraints? We always said we'd refuse funding if it came with constraints and we stepped on the council's toes and the police's toes one too many times which meant we were doing our job - but also meant that the council wouldn't fund us. It's over a year now since this happened and the office was burned down. We now have another office in Stratford and are going strong - the racism from the police and racism on the streets hasn't gone away and nor have we. We have less resources than before - but we're still there doing cases and campaigns. One of the things we are doing is helping to run the Stephen Lawrence campaign together with his family and the Southall Monitoring Group.

Is NMP now all run by volunteers again?

Yes purely by volunteers which again shows the basis we have in the community. This is the difference between NMP and a lot of other organisations and why we've survived so long. We said look we're not going to parachute in, stay a couple of weeks, get a bit of media attention and then go and let the black community face the backlash. We've maintained that we would be there 24 hours, 7 days a week whatever happened.

Did you have to build up the trust from the community or was it always there from the beginning because the people who started NMP were people who lived in Newham?

I think the reason why the community got so involved in NMP was firstly that racism was such a big issue and we got things done. NMP's work forced Newham Council to be the first council in the country to adopt a racial harassment policy - unfortunately now the policy simply acts as a buffer and has little effect - black people now get moved out and the racists stay.

A lot of people came to NMP after they'd hit brick walls everywhere else - they'd go to the council and say what was happening and nothing would be done, the same with the police and eventually they'd arrive at NMP. We not only provided practical advice but also said - together we will do something, we will change things. That's why we have such firm roots in the community - what we say is what we do. We try to channel people's anger as a community to achieve change.

For example in Second Avenue there were fascists terrorising a whole community - NMP put the black families in touch with each other - because after all they are there day in day out and if they link up to become a strong unit you know that not only will you be able to solve the problem for that day but you can also solve it for future - that's why community politics is at the core of every thing we do.

NMP have always maintained that the problem isn't a lack of laws - there's a thousand and one laws against racial harassment - but the problem is the implementation - its no use having hundreds of laws if the first one isn't put into practice. Newham councils racial harassment policy is perfect on paper but when it comes to putting it into practice and putting their money where their mouth is you realise that, to them, its just a piece of paper in a drawer and it's just not good enough. Its weird looking back 18 years ago to remember fascists openly walking the streets. It's so different now; now the police are the main problem. A year and a half ago 6 people died in police custody - Ibrahim Hussain died in the police yard at Forest Gate police station, handcuffed on the floor surrounded by 6 police officers and then sprayed with CS gas - you can't talk anymore about one rotten apple in a barrel - your talking about a police force that is rotten to the core. NMP have dealt with hundreds of police harassment cases over the years and not one police officer has ever been sacked for racial harassment. One Asian man was arrested and he had a tape recorder on him - he taped the arrest. The two officers from Forest Gate police station racially abused him and you could even hear them slap him on the tape - they threatened to take him around the corner and shoot him - gave him the whole works. We put in a police complaint and the police officers had to admit what they'd done. Their punishment was to have one day's pay docked from their pay packet! The Police Complaints Authority is a joke - it's police officers investigating police officers - it hardly inspires confidence.

Overall NMP think there are two strains of racism - the racism that discriminates in recruitment, education, the media etc. and in East London you have the racism that kills - that's the difference - that's why NMP is here - it is such an issue.

Can you tell us a bit about the Dray family

Yeah - to understand this case you need to look at policing in East London. The stations are huge - they are not there to solve crime - they are there to contain, to police, the community. The one in Forest Gate is like a fortress - it's built to say 'here we are; don't mess around' and they drive around in TSG vans and riot vans - as if black people were rioting daily.

The fact that Paul Condon says that say 80% of muggers are black shows that its not just a few police officers on the ground but it goes right the way through. The Home Office's own figures show that black people are 7 times more likely to be arrested than white people; when they get arested they're more likely to be charged; when they go to court they're more likely to get convicted and on conviction the sentences are longer for black people than a white person in exactly the same position.

So this is the sort of policing black people get in Forest Gate - but equally this is the sort of policing that white working class people get in Canning Town and Custom House - they face the same sort of assaults and harassment. We are a black organisation, and the Drays' case was the first that NMP took on for a white family - but it was so, so important. This was a family who were very well known in Canning Town - they were big in their community. A lot of people had reservations - but you can't just go into a community and tell them not to be racist - you'll only get alienated. Policing was an issue that linked both communities - this inroad was well used by us and I think we did a really good job.

The Dray family's case was amazing - it centred around Lee Dray a 17 year old boy. The police had been driving around Canning Town and Custom House harassing local youths. In the same way that black youths are stereotyped as drug users, muggers, illegal immigrants etc., the white working class kids in Canning Town were seen as burglars, drug users, criminals. The police were randomly picking up kids - slapping them around and assaulting them. Lee Dray couldn't even walk from his house down the street to a friend's - he'd been attacked on numerous occasions by police officers. One police officer with 8 complaints of assault against him was still on the same beat.

Eventually one of them took the skin off one side of Lee's face - the pictures we took were horrific - they put his face to the ground and scraped it against the tarmac until the skin had gone - and the police officer responsible, PC John Fortune, is still there at Plaistow Police station. We took the police to court and won - the evidence against the police was upheld. But there's always a price to pay with the police - they charged Lee Dray with assault and disturbing the peace - so not only was he victimised but also criminalised and that's very, very important - they criminalise a whole generation and that's what policing today in inner cities is about - containment. For NMP the case was very successful because we made inroads into the white community and could address issues around fascism - the white community was much more receptive to our ideas after the Dray case and we were able to make links. The same social issues that were effecting the white working class community were affecting us and divided communities don't get anywhere. We needed to be united in order to fight for social justice.

Another important case was the Tower Hamlets 9 defence campaign. Derek Beacon had just been elected, the BNP were rampaging through Brick Lane and this young lad, Quddus Ali, was attacked. These fascists put his head on the kerb and took turns to kick it. He was in a coma on a life support machine and to this day he cannot eat without help. There was a vigil outside the hospital for Quddus and the average age of the kids on the vigil was 14 - 15 yet the riot police attacked them. After the incident they randomly drove around the borough, picked up 5 kids and charged them with riot - only four of them were arrested at the vigil but the police needed 9 defendants to make a charge of riot stick - it's a very serious offence carrying a maximum sentance of 10 years. NMP did the campaign for the Tower Hamlets 9 - highlighting the fact that the police had done nothing to arrest the people who attacked Quddus Ali despite ample evidence of their identity . The problem is that you want to trust the police - that's who you ring when you're attacked but you can't have faith in them. I should have no fears about walking past a police car - but I do - when I walk past a cop car I think to myself 'God I hope he doesn't get out, hope he doesn't stop me, hope he doesn't search me or push me around'. It's no coincidence that 80% of black people and women joining the police leave within a year and that top police officers think Bernard Manning an appropriate entertainer for their staff events.

You talked about the Quddus Ali campaign and the Tower Hamlets 9 - but are there no organisations like NMP in Tower Hamlets or in the rest of the country?

There is CAPA in Tower Hamlets - a civil rights organisation - which is a good organisation but civil rights can be anything. I think what is needed in Tower Hamlets is a group solely concentrating on racial and police harassment. Also in our 18 years of campaigning the NMP have never sat at the same table as the police - how can you when you have seen injury after injury inflicted by the police on the bodies of the people who come to us for help? But groups like CAPA are part of the "multi agency approach" (where statutory and voluntary agencies including the police meet to deal with racial harassment issues) and we have problems with this. We feel that it's a talking shop and the council and police can use it as a buffer. Newham had an amazing structure for dealing with racial attacks and harassment - but what did they do? They simply employed black race officers - somebody would get attacked, come into the council office, see a black face and they'd become a buffer between the victim and the local authority and nothing changes.

What's worse is that when the council stopped NMP's funding they gave the money to an organisation called ALERT who deal solely with racial harassment issues in Newham and not policing issues. Incredibly, ALERT is run by ex-police officers from Stoke Newington. So the issue was never money - the authority were uncomfortable with our stance on policing. ALERT is a 9-5 organisation with no roots in the community. Three weeks ago I found 2 swastikas painted in white paint outside my house and I rang ALERT to report it. The worker on the other end of the phone didn't even know what a swastika was! Even when I said it was a Nazi symbol this didn't ring any bells with her. She said she'd get someone to phone me back and an hour later a man called me to ask me about some 'frosty stickers' outside my house! I put my head in my hands and thought this is a borough where in the local elections 19 BNP candidates were standing - leafleting every weekend - and the local racial harassment outfit do not even know what a swastika is. It's scary. In a borough where a black single parent could be housed with known fascists as neighbours - the local agency that should be helping her did not have even a basic understanding of what fascism is.

Issues have changed in the last 18 years and racism used to be high on the agenda. It isn't anymore. Local authorities and the police have now learned the language - they've learned to shed crocodile tears but will not do anything. Policing has become a very controversial subject and none of the political parties want to touch it. Law and order is a big vote catcher. Somewhere like Chigwell the style of policing will be completely different - local bobby on the street - but you don't get that in Newham. In Newham black people stopped for a faulty wing mirror will be asked to show their passport. That's what it is to be British for a black person at the moment and only an independent community organisation will speak out about these things.

If someone was to try to set up a group like NMP from scratch, what advice would you give them, particularly as many anarchists are increasingly seeing the need for working in small groups within their local areas.

Southhall monitoring group is an example of another group like us and there are a few others. NMP has 18 years of experience now and we've made a lot of mistakes, along the way. We've not been perfect but experience is invaluable. We'd be happy for people to phone us or talk to us about setting up their own group. But most importantly you need to be part of the community where you want to work. People like the SWP who go in and leaflet for a week, put up posters everywhere and then piss off achieve fuck all. In fact I think it does more damage than good. As soon as they go away, black people in that area get attacked - they're left to face the backlash.

Yes, I remember friends with black children on the Isle of Dogs during the BNP election campaign who said that they couldn't go out after the ANL had been around. If the ANL had been around on a Saturday then the BNP would be around all night and they would be housebound - they got no support and felt that the ANL acted as if the local community didn't exist - wouldn't talk to them unless it was to recruit.

Yeah that's true. NMP has always maintained that you have to deal with fascism ideologically, politically and physically. So if they leaflet - we leaflet - it is important to make sure there is no platform for fascists - if they're on the street, we'll be on the street. You can't allow them to have that space. So in Newham, where fascist activity is strong - 3 or 4 years ago they were 66 votes away from getting a councillor - you have to work within the community. The worst thing you can do is walk into a community and say "don't be racist" and walk away - you have to talk and work with them. Of course for me the only good fascist is a dead fascist, fine, but any campaign has to have staying power and has to politicise people. Once a community is politicised they will always be able to fight back.

One of the problems is that, especially in London, it is hard to feel rooted in your local community - you move to a neighbouring borough and you're an outsider! We may feel a part of our own little ghetto but don't even know our neighbours.

You've got to work from the bottom up - the fascists do this, they're clever - they go to tenants' association meetings and other small community meetings and manipulate them. There is no left any more and people need to start from scratch and make links wherever you can. There is a problem with people becomming more and more isolated from each other and this has to be tackled. BF: So its a question of starting small and tackling things that you can definitely achieve and working from there - the opposite of what a lot of big left groups do which is to start with a lot of razzmatazz and noise.

Take our emergency service for example - we have 80 volunteers all from the community. They give an evening once a month and will do it. That's where our strength lies - in our volunteers. We only had 3 or 4 workers, but look what we achieved - local and national campaigns and we could only do it because of the support in the community. And of course it took time to build up - NMP were fortunate (if you can put it like that) in that a lot of black people were experiencing the same problems and needed solutions. You're not talking about passive victims. These people had been fighting racism from day one and had the tools - they know what they are dealing with. It's important not to stand in front of people saying "I'll lead you to the promised land", but to say "we'll stand side by side and deal with it together".

If someone phoned your emergency line and said there's five people attacking my home - what would you do?

We'd phone the police, but also we have a telephone tree which we use to get volunteers down there to support the family. I don't want no favours from the police, I just want them to do their job. You need people there to protect the family from police indifference or worse. Of course, you end up sometimes with the police acting true to form and nicking the NMP volunteers that turn up rather than going for the attackers.

Do you ever get problems with people treating you as experts and expecting you to work miracles? You said that you try to get people to link up and support each other, but do you get situations where people start to treat you like you're the council? Where they ask you to provide the solutions rather than for support in fighting back?

The basics of everything we do is empowerment and to be honest - none of these people are passive victims, they've all fought back. The stereotype of the timid Asian woman hiding behind the window is bullshit. The problem is that when you do fight back you get nicked. People do ask us what we can do - and we are honest about the limitations of some courses of action. We'll write letters to the Police Complaints Authority or to the council but admit that it is unlikely to result in any action. We say it's important to do it so we can say that we made x number of complaints and nothing was done. Our reputation and history show people who come to us not to expect us to act like the council but to work with them and not for them.

Would you be prepared to come to a meeting of people wanting to set a group up?

Of course. We'd love for other similar groups to be set up and to make links with them. Its even more important now. Now we've got this Labour government - for years working class people have been waiting for a Labour government to get in and suddenly they've been shat on. We are very worried about a fascist backlash and we know that the government won't do anything for us - they won't provide shit. It's a problem we are going to have to deal with. But policing is, for us, the biggest issue at the moment. Today a case came in where 3 riot vans raided a house, armed with CS gas, and arrested a bloke who had done nothing. Another case that came in recently was a priest that had been raided and assaulted in his home! Most people wouldn't believe this could happen. The Stephen Lawrence case really epitomises the state of policing in this country at the moment. The police are the front line of the state and the state is racist - for me policing is the most forceful manifestation of the state. They are fully armed. Their uniform is a licence to kill. The gap between the community and the police is bigger than ever before. The role of policing in inner cities is to make sure that people stay in their ghettos and are contained.

People in the inner cities are nothing to politician, nothing to the police. Black lives are cheap and working class lives are cheap, that's why NMP has always been a race and class organisation. It is important to make links between working class communities, working class black communities, and anti fascist organisations in the fight for justice. That's NMP's politics and for me, this is where it's at.

NMP can be contacted at PO Box 273, London E7 telephone/fax 0181-555 8151