Originally from Trinidad, Howe is one of five children born to a schoolteacher and a minister. ‘My life in Trinidad was miserable. There was a growing problem with street gangs in my neighbourhood and study seemed to be the only way to stay out of that kind of trouble. But no matter how hard I worked, my parents beat me mercilessly and oftentimes, with a strap made out of leather or anything else they could get their hands on. I was beaten for small misdemeanours such as making spelling mistakes. The whip was my inspiration to leave Trinidad and the only way I could leave was to study in England.’
At the age of 17, Howe arrived in Southampton on the SS Antilles with the intention of studying Law, but it was here that he discovered his flair for journalism and his passion for political activism. He returned to Trinidad, where, mentored by his late uncle, the historian and journalist CLR James, he worked on trade union paper The Vanguard before returning to Britain, where he joined others – of all backgrounds – at the forefront of forcing change on Britain’s political and racial landscape.
As biographers Bunce and Field put it, ‘Howe has continually advocated black and white collaboration, with the proviso that when dealing with racism, Black people play the leading role. This political principle is rooted in personal experience. He spent his childhood rubbing shoulders with the grandchildren of Indian indentured labourers in rural Trinidad. His schooldays were enriched by White teachers… whom Howe describes as “the most enlightened bourgeois” of their generation, whose experiences of war prompted them to leave Europe for the Caribbean.’
The Mangrove Nine
Howe’s early activism can be traced back to when he worked shifts at Notting Hill’s Mangrove Restaurant in London. The Mangrove was a meeting place for the local community and members of the Black Panther Movement. The local police force was convinced it was a drug den and raided it no fewer than 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970. No evidence of illegal drug use was ever found. Incensed at the heavy-handed and often brutal raids, Howe mobilized 150 fellow protesters to march to the police station – a demonstration which ended in violence between those marching and the police.
Howe and eight others, who became known as The Mangrove Nine, endured a 55-day trial at The Old Bailey, accused of incitement to riot. Howe represented himself in court, unsuccessfully demanding an all-Black jury, but by simply making the request, he had managed to highlight the tensions between the Black community and the British legal process. All nine were eventually acquitted of the main charge of incitement to riot. This was a seismic moment in British politics and race relations, as it provoked the first judicial acknowledgement of racism in the police service. The Judge, in his summing up said the trial had ‘regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides’.
‘It was a time of vulgar racism,’ says Howe. ‘The everyday abuse Black people would get from strangers on the street and the police alike would shock you today. But I never once believed what they wanted us to believe – that we as Black people are inferior to Whites – and fighting my corner at the Mangrove Trial was part of that.’
Rise and fall of the Black Panthers
Following the New Cross Fire in 1981 in which 13 young Black people were killed in a suspected arson attack, Howe and his associates organized the Black People’s Day of Action. An estimated 20,000 people took part in a march to Hyde Park, in memory of the dead and to protest at the way the case had been handled by the police.
‘We buried 13 children in 10 days. It was important to come together as a community and show our strength,’ says Howe. ‘CLR James said that West Indians are the most rebellious people in human history and he was right – we stood up, we rose up in defiance at the way we were being treated.’
A recent exhibition in London about the British Black Panther Movement (BBPM) illustrated Howe’s involvement with the rise of the Black Panthers in Britain and indeed its collapse. Says Howe: ‘The Black Panthers was valuable for a time. But then it became too insular. It was too concerned with the personal lives of its members, who was sleeping with who and that kind of rubbish. I met with Farrukh Dhondy, a core member and a very radical intellectual, and we made a tactical decision to break it up because it was not working. It had become ineffective, destructive, even.’
‘We broke it up simply by staying away,’ says Dhondy. ‘Darcus was its star turn and I was a core member with a lot of sway. We agitated other members, got them to speak up against the leadership, who were running it like their own private fiefdom. We also had the example of CLR James who had, in his time, made strategic decisions when he was with different groups and formations in America.’
The breaking up of the BBPM left a gap in Britain’s racial-political landscape, which was arguably never filled and, according to Dhondy, is irrelevant in 2013. ‘I don’t think there is a Black Politics left in the UK,’, he says. ‘I think the future of Black British politics will involve the movement of working people into the mainstream and not necessarily through the Labour Party exclusively… It’s easier now to join a mainstream party and work your way through it, but that is not revolution. The path that Obama took is a good example. Is he really effective in changing America, or is he just another democrat politician?’
The reluctant hero
So what did Howe himself, a man famous for asking questions himself and playing the devil’s advocate, think about the process of being written about? He smiles when I ask him that question. ‘You know, I thought it was a remarkable thing, to be written about and asked questions of,’ he says. ‘The book wasn’t written to turn me into a political hero – I do not wish to be a politician, all I want to do is mobilize the people to stand up for their rights. You know, this book is not just about me, it is the story of my generation of Black people who came to settle here; it should be read by anyone interested in Caribbean history in Britain. I think in the coming years I would like to teach Caribbean history. I’d like to do it for those who are born here and who need to know who they are – you only know who you are when you understand where you have come from.’