I’ve been reading a report called Blood Sweat and Tears, about a project in the 1990s, instigated to address rising racial tensions, crime and related problems on an estate in Bermondsey.
I have this temptation to make a terrible joke first, and I think I’m going to give in to it, and say ‘my but they had proper racism in those days’. It wasn’t about old Tories sobbing over imperialist statues. It wasn’t a spat over the appropriateness of a 1950s novel in the library. Back then, the National Front and BNP were recruiting – or trying to, and shiny-headed boot boys were around in our cities, drawing swastikas on walls, ganging up on immigrant kids and lobbing bricks at black families’ cars.
“Evidence of racist activity in the area suggested that black people were becoming easy targets for the frustrations and political impotence experienced by the local white community,” says the report, and “two cornerstones of the effort were work with young black people to develop confidence when faced with racism and work with young people with racist attitudes and street gangs to promote anti-racist ideas…”
Already, reading that introduction, two thoughts were rising in my head. The first was that someone assigned to deal with the situation would have a choice of two focuses: the “racist activity” or the “frustrations and political impotence experienced by the local white community”. As an anti-racist, if you choose “racist activity” the temptation is to see finger-waving, slogan-chanting and placard-bearing as the way to go. If you focus on the second, and ask yourself what are the causes of “frustrations and political impotence”, you are giving yourself a long, hard and wide-ranging job but that, the Bermondsey team concluded, was the job that needed doing.
My second thought was about current events in my own town, here in 2021 because seriously, I do know that racism, nationalism and related blindnesses are still a destructive force. We too are suffering ”frustrations and political impotence”. We are struggling with austerity and recession, and now people are getting themselves into a state over whether we can ‘afford to’ help refugees who wash up on the beach, and in some cases asking why they ‘come over here’, and now I hear it’s attracting the attention of those far-right groups looking to feed on people’s fears.
I feel we should be talking about austerity and recession, along with the larger, global issues that create displacement. I believe politicians’ chosen stance on those larger issues are the causes of our doubt that we can or should extend a welcoming hand to refugees but, as I settled down to read about the setbacks, lessons and triumphs that made up that three year, government-funded project in 1990s London, I felt my spirits sinking – where would a 21st Century council or NGO find either the patience or the funds to follow where this project led?
The report states that in the ‘90s there was a (possibly mistaken) view that racial tension was caused by far-right organisations such as (at that time) the BNP and the National Front, but that among the issues that needed addressing were socio-economic problems and establishment-led anxieties designed to discourage immigration, or to demonise particular elements of society. Those people would then bear the blame for government failings in welfare, housing and education provision. (Believe it or not, black single mothers were often blamed for all our woes back then. I can remember the crazy arguments).
Investing time, thought and planning
Looking at the detailed work that went into setting up and maintaining the project in Bermondsey – and the debate about how to get genuinely, constructively involved with the local community, I can’t help thinking that anti-racist efforts I’ve seen more recently are way, way too brief and self-serving. There is no way the kind of work these people did could be done, for example, within the span of an election campaign or even with a year’s funding with tick-box targets from some grant-farming organisation.
The project put time and a lot of thought into finding, stabilising and activating a team of appropriately skilled people and then into building awareness, trust and relationships in the community. Dealing with racist attacks, and other forms of misdirected (or just plain undirected) anger is a difficult and potentially dangerous occupation, and the staff had other forces – such as local papers – working against them, seeking to sensationalise and even provoke community problems for the sake of a story.
The young men
As for any hopes of black and white kids working together within the project – that took even longer because at the start, they would not see any black kids on the street at all. It simply and obviously wasn’t safe for them, but the project stuck with their work, talking to groups of young men they found hanging out, or playing football until, to use the words of one of those young men, “you lot have stuck it out, haven’t you – you don’t turn your back on us and walk away, you don’t think we’re all bad.”
Respect is a two-way street and responses like the above appear to have been the result of the project’s practice of politely challenging aggressive behaviour, but “there was agreement that challenging would not involve putting individuals down or belittling them in front of their peers”. The staff were resolved to stick by their own commitments, and demand the same of the young people they worked with, and to make “a clear distinction between the young people they were working with and their negative attitudes”.
The young women
It took longer for the project to find the girls. They were “more likely to be in school, less likely to be hanging round the streets” but in time, they did find them, and found the girls to be somewhat better at working together, and also more willing to spot and call out destructive behaviours.
The project team had been concerned that “targeting the potential and actual perpetrators of racial violence would reinforce the exclusion of the black young people who were their potential or actual victims.” This issue began to be solved as girls formed their own activities and relationships, and black and mixed race families began to take part. In the third year, as the project turned their attention to how to create a legacy, some of those girls wrote about the project, and turned up to meetings planning for the future, seeking to preserve new-found support and awareness.
The group were also enthusiastically endorsed by the local police, who reported an impressive reduction in racist, violent and other destructive acts on the estate as the project progressed. One officer also told of the frustration the police feel, when attempting to ‘move along’ potential trouble makers if they know there’s no-where for them to go. While the project was running, there had been somewhere.
Reading the report outcomes, my mind goes back, time and time again, to a stand-off I once had with an ‘anti-fascist’ activist who was seeking funds from my union group to hire a minibus to do what I suspected would not be a million miles away from lobbing half-bricks back at racists on a march. That might be good fun, and I’m not saying there isn’t a place for those parachute-in actions, (I’m reminded of when EDL or some such group tried to descend on Liverpool, and never even got out of the railway station because local socialist activists were there in force – that was, I think, an example of effective on-the-spot action) but this report convinces me that changing hearts and minds requires more, much more, and more sustained efforts.
How you actually counteract fascism has been on my mind lately because I have been the target of some of those parachute-in anti-fa groups in recent years. Seriously, yes, we have a generation that learned anti-fa tactics and somewhat over-applied them. In recent years, some of them added women’s groups to their list of targets, calling us ‘anti-trans hate groups’ and so I know exactly, deeply and personally just how much the targets of such actions (us) do not change our minds because a bunch of yobs turn up to yell at you.
Why am I telling you this now?
The report describes itself as “not just an account of an interesting and worthwhile project but as a practical resource that will be of particular use to community workers and activists, youth work students, trainers, teachers and others involved in anti-racist work with young people.” It provides detailed examples of the kinds of situations the team dealt with, and transcripts of their debates about those incidents. It offers “structured tasks and discussions … of particular use to people involved in training youth workers, as well as to others that are keen to develop positive approaches to anti-racist work in their own communities.”
I have discussed this, and other related issues with Leah Levane, who worked on the project, and she told me that the group were invited to give talks on their experience after its completion, and had hoped to see similar projects instigated elsewhere as a result. Unfortunately, as the ‘90s progressed into the ‘00s, we found ourselves with a government even less inclined to invest in local projects, and councils which, as local government grants dwindled away, could not have put up the funds themselves so here’s my appeal to you:
Don’t let the Bermondsey project work be forgotten
Please download the report and read it in full, and then go tell your local community, union, political or youth group about it. Maybe you can get a working group to study it, and consider how similar work could be instigated or developed where you are.