Honouring the giants

Alex Wheatle, the Brixton Bard, who was the subject of the Brixton Uprising episode of the Small Axe TV series, reflects on responses to the death of George Floyd in the USA and to the death of Black people in the custody of British police

portrait of man
Alex Wheatle
Image: Martina Bocchio/Awakening/Alamy

As we reflect on the events leading up to the 1981 Brixton Uprising, I also look back on my personal creative journey and how far race relations have really improved since those hate-filled days.

I was inspired by so many Jamaican DJs that included U-Roy, Yellowman, Brigadier Jerry, Nicodemus, The Lone Ranger, and of course the legendary dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson.

I purchased live sound system performances on cassette tape from the vendor, Bionic, who is still selling his wares on Atlantic Road.

Like Linton, I wanted to express what I and young black people were experiencing on the streets and in our daily lives.

Thirteen blossoming black lives were lost in the New Cross Fire in early 1981.

It was soon followed by the Day of Action where thousands of us marched into the heart of London to protest against the flawed and indifferent investigation into the tragedy.

This spirited display of our determination to hold the police to account resulted with the authorities launching Operation Swamp.

They cranked up their “stop and search” policy to intolerable levels in the days before that warm Friday evening on April 10, 1981.

The uprising erupted.

Following the life-changing events, I penned a new lyric for my sound system: 

… We’re sick and tired of the ghetto housing
And the damn sus law and police beating
There ain’t no work and we have no shilling
And we can’t take no more of this suffering …

I went on to write Brixton Rock and East of Acre Lane, narratives that include themes of police violence against black people, poverty, racism, black youth unemployment and many other issues from that turbulent era.

Following the death of George Floyd, the Black Writer’s Guild was formed in the UK.

I was wary of joining. I had a few concerns over several decisions they had made, and these were addressed in an open Zoom meeting with eight or so other black writers.

In conclusion to that online discussion, I was informed by the Black Writer’s Guild that if I am not a member of their group then my thoughts, issues or views on their organisation, did not mean “shit”.

A shocking disrespect.

I have always tried to be reverent to who has stood up and fought injustice and racism before me.

Great people like Olive Morris, Darcus Howe, Altheia Lecointe Jones, Frank Crichlow and the rest of the Mangrove Nine, Liz Obi, Farrukh Dhondy, Rudy Narayan … Google their names and read their achievements.

Although the Black Writer’s Guild leaped on the George Floyd bandwagon, I have yet to see any acknowledgement, recognition or any initiatives to mark the black lives lost to police violence in the UK. 

And the list is a long one. Roger Sylvester, Joy Gardner, Smiley Culture, Trevor Smith, Sarah Reed, Cherry Groce, Cynthia Jarret, Sean Rigg and many, many more. Chant their names!

An anthology marking many of those lost lives would have been a suggestion of mine before I was trashed.

I cannot find any utterance of them addressing the events of Brixton ’81 or indeed any loss of black life in police custody within these stony shores.

I must ask what is their purpose?

Have they used the murder of George Floyd just to secure a bigger marketing spend for their novels? Or to position themselves alongside the power brokers in the corporate publishing world? Is that it?

In the struggle for equality, we must keep alight the flames of those who have trod before us for the struggle and indeed, gave their lives for that cause.

Bob Marley wrote in his song Zimbabwe “… Soon we will find out who is the real revolutionary. Cause I don’t want my people to be contrary …”

The Black Writer’s Guild would do well to read those lines.