Written by Madeline Heneghan April 4, 2017 First published in Counterfire
A trailbreaking activist, writer and broadcaster is remembered by Madeline Heneghan
I spent time with Darcus Howe on a number of occasions in my role as director of the Writing on the Wall Festival in Liverpool. It was a great privilege to get to know personally a man who was political hero from my teenage years.
Darcus delivered one of the Festival’s most successful and memorable ‘Rebel Rants’. In it he examined the persistence of racism, despite gains made by Britain’s black communities in the period following the case of Stephen Lawrence, the teenager murdered by Nazis in South East London in 1993. For all the massive national campaign in response to that outrage and to the police’s failure to act against the killers, and the very critical Macpherson Report that was eventually produced, his case was that institutional racism still plagued the police force and wider society.
He charted the return of police stop and search tactics, the drift of young black men into violence in the absence of opportunities, the increasing hostility towards immigrants and the rise of Islamophobia. This summed up the man. He was angry and defiant, but also enthusiastically analytical.
Darcus’ lived experiences as a veteran anti-racist campaigner made him the perfect community militant; from his arrest in defence of the Mangrove café in Notting Hill in 1970, his leadership of the 20,000 Black People’s March that followed the murder of 13 young people in a racist arson attack in New Cross in 1981, to his explanation of the anger felt by young black people expressed in the 2011 inner city disturbances.
But he was also a sharp political thinker, mentored from an early age by his uncle the great Trinidadian Marxist CLR James. Whether speaking for The Race Today collective, writing his columns in The Voice and The New Statesman or fronting up ground-breaking TV shows like the Bandung File and later White Tribe, he communicated his militant ideas to millions. Nobody would agree with everything he said, but he was always insightful and always fiercely passionate.
His 2011 appearance on BBC commenting on the riots was a recent reminder of the man’s defiant spirit. The BBC had to apologise after he took apart a hostile presenter. Again and again he stood firm against official intimidation and racism, and he was throughout his life a stalwart defender of black and working class youth.