Steve McQueen’s Mangrove Proves That Britain’s Racism Hasn’t Changed In 50 Years

Photo Courtesy Of BBC One
"The thing about the Black man is that he's got his place. He's just got to know his place, and if he oversteps, he's just got to be gently nudged back in," says white police officer, PC Pulley.
These words cut straight through me. I'm watching award-winning director Steve McQueen's Small Axe, an anthology dedicated to exploring London's West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s. Mangrove, its feature-length first episode, focuses on the sensational true story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black activists who were arrested and tried for protesting against institutional racism in the police in the 1970s. They were accused of inciting a riot during a peaceful protest against police harassment of the patrons of The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill which was frequented by intellectuals and artists from the Black community.
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After the police targeted The Mangrove, Kensington and Chelsea council withdrew the café's all-night licence. Nine people, including the owner, Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes), Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and Trinidadian-British activists Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), key members of the British Black Panther Party, were wrongly arrested and charged for incitement to riot.
Not only did they beat the rioting charge but, following a trial that lasted 55 days, the group forced the first judicial acknowledgement of racism within the British police. They were also able to get two Black people appointed as members of the jury, so they would get a fairer trial.

I have been followed in shops, harassed by staff and had abuse shouted at me because of the colour of my skin.

Watching the film with my 65-year-old father highlighted the stark similarities with the racism that we have both encountered. While I've never been stopped by the police, I have been followed in shops, harassed by staff and had abuse shouted at me because of the colour of my skin. My dad, who grew up in Camden Town, just a few miles from Notting Hill, tells me that Mangrove's depiction of the treatment of Black people at that time is just how he remembers it. He tells me about a time in the '80s when he was stopped by police officers on Camden Road in the early hours of the morning as he returned from the 24-hour pharmacy where he had been picking up a prescription for his sick baby son, my older brother.
"It wasn't a nice experience," he says. "They were hostile, aggressive and wanted to find trouble." The police had no reason to stop my father. He wasn't speeding nor was he behaving suspiciously. He was stopped because of the colour of his skin. When he hung out with his white friends, police would ask them, "Why are you hanging around these jungle bunnies?" This questioning caused further division within the community.
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These experiences are traumatising for Black people. And as you should know by now, they still happen today. I speak to my friend's girlfriend, who identifies as non-binary, who tells me they've been stopped by police on numerous occasions, with police officers misgendering and racially profiling them.
In Mangrove, we see multiple unnecessary stop and searches conducted on Black men by the Metropolitan Police in the 1970s. One scene depicts an all-white police force gunning for their next victim, laughing: "Pick the first Black bastard you set your eyes on." Kendrick (Tahj Miles) is walking home with his shopping when he is set upon by the police. He's thrown in a cell and when his family arrive at the station, asking about his disappearance, PC Pulley (Sam Spruell) brings him out, his face bruised and battered. "He looks like he's had a fall," PC Pulley taunts, telling Kendrick's family to "go back to wherever you came from."
PC Pulley and his officers continue to harass, raid and destroy The Mangrove under the guise of drug searches. When Crichlow calls the police station to report the illegal raids, he is racially gaslighted and told to "prove it" – another example of the oppression of Black people, whereby our experiences are undermined because we are not believed. This year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson caused controversy after saying he wanted to end "the sense of victimisation and discrimination" of Black people, a statement Marsha de Cordova, the shadow women and equalities secretary, called "condescending". Black people do not sense we are being victimised; we know we are.
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Black people do not sense we are being victimised; we know we are.

Following the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence, the Macpherson Report, published on 24th February 1999, concluded that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist. Fast-forward to 2020 and not much has changed. In August, Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and Britain's most senior police officer, said it is not "helpful" to talk of the force being "institutionally racist" and suggested that "everybody knows" Scotland Yard has "zero tolerance" of racism within its ranks. The statistics, however, show otherwise.
Over 20,000 young Black men were stopped and searched in London by the Metropolitan Police between March and May of this year alone, a figure which equates to 30% of all young Black males in the capital. In July, British athlete Bianca Williams and her partner Ricardo dos Santos were stopped and handcuffed by police officers while driving to their home in Maida Vale, west London — an experience that left Bianca feeling like "being Black is a crime".
A report published this week by police monitoring charity Netpol claims that the policing of this year's Black Lives Matter protests across the UK was "institutionally racist". Speaking to more than 100 witnesses, including protesters, legal observers and arrestee support volunteers, the report found that police used excessive force and unnecessarily targeted Black protesters. It also claims that kettling techniques were disproportionately used during the BLM protests and that there was a failure of a duty of care when marches were targeted by the far right.
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Half a century on, the system is still rigged and still rotten. The institutions that we rely on to keep us safe still fight against us. The NHS, which is there to help us when we're in need, still fails to protect us. The government, which is there to put the country's best interests forward, still leaves us behind.

But racism in the UK isn't isolated to the Metropolitan Police. In Mangrove, we see Darcus Howe's attempt to access the courtroom denied by security who do not realise that he is representing himself and assume, based on the colour of his skin, that he can only be a defendant. It is only when white barrister Ian McDonald (Jack Lowden) — representing Beese and co-ordinating the defence of Howe and Jones-LeCointe with the other defendants' lawyers — comes to his defence that security allow Howe through.
In September this year, the head of the UK's court service apologised to criminal and family barrister Alexandra Wilson after she was mistaken for a defendant three times in one day. Tweeting about her experience, Wilson said she "needed to shine a light" on the problem because "so many people like me seem to experience the same thing."
Following a series of raids at The Mangrove, Jones-LeCointe leads a demonstration against police brutality and racism outside the police station. Protesters chant "Hands off Mangrove" and "Get rid of the pigs!" while holding up placards reading "Enough is enough" and throwing Black Power fists in the air. In June this year, I joined my friends and demonstrated against racial inequality and in support of the BLM movement following the brutal killing of George Floyd in the United States. I was among thousands of young people taking to the streets of London to have our voices heard. Close by, a wall of white police officers watched us as we marched.
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Photo Courtesy Of BBC One
"Four hundred years they've been trying to undermine us," cries Jones-LeCointe in a powerful monologue after Crichlow threatens to plead guilty in the case. "The system is rigged. It's rotten. What are we fighting for? We are fighting for my unborn child. We are the example and we must bear this responsibility."
Half a century on, the system is still rigged and still rotten. The institutions that we rely on to keep us safe still fight against us. The NHS, which is there to help us when we're in need, still fails to protect us. The government, which is there to put the country's best interests forward, still leaves us behind.
Since the Mangrove Nine case, which is said to have laid the groundwork for police reform and acknowledged racism in the eyes of British law, what has changed? Not much, as proven by the countless protests, demonstrations and calls for racial equality that have taken place this year. "We just have to keep fighting and using our voice," my dad says to me, as I wipe away my tears. His words echo Jones-LeCointe and the many members of the British Black Panther Party who paved the way for us to hold the powers that be to account today.

For how long will white people be 'listening and learning'? How long will it take for them to acknowledge that racism is not just us 'having a chip on our shoulder'?

Although I live in hope that Britain will face up to its racial reckoning, acknowledge its ties to the transatlantic slave trade and pay us back for the devastating consequences of colonialism, I fear that my children and my children's children will still have to fight as I have, as Jones-LeCointe did in the 1970s for her unborn children.
Mangrove is a powerful and painful watch but it serves as a harsh reminder that this country has deep-rooted racism at its core. "No one is going to help us unless we help ourselves," says Darcus Howe in 1971, after yet another police raid at The Mangrove. He's right. But for how long will white people be "listening and learning"? How long will it take for them to acknowledge that racism is not just us "having a chip on our shoulder"?
Mangrove premieres on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday 15th November.

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