Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Max Farrar in the news: remember the flames of police racism (1975)

Remember, remember the flames of police racism
Friday 04 November 2011
by Ann Czernik

Professor Max Farrar says that he rarely speaks of the bonfire night riot in 1975.
But it was then he narrowly missed a lengthy jail term when he was tried and acquitted for incitement to riot, affray and assaulting a police officer while the Leeds Chapeltown district descended into disorder.
"They said I led a mob of black youth into an attack on the police," he says. "It was 100 per cent fabrication."
The situation with the Leeds police reflected what was going on nationally, Farrar claims, where anyone perceived as a threat was attacked.
A white, middle-class college lecturer who worked with Chapeltown News, which continually criticised poilice racism and unjust behaviour, he was "a thorn in their flesh and they found this opportunity to teach me a lesson."
Farrar was taking a photo of the bonfire night celebrations when "a kid beside me suddenly stoned this passing car. I had no idea what he was doing. He said: 'It's a copper.' I remember thinking: 'I understand why you're stoning the car'."
Police piled into Chapeltown to make arrests and as a policeman ran past he bashed Farrar in the face.
"Being a completely naive middle-class uppity fool, I went to the next policeman and said: 'I want to make a complaint. I've been assaulted by an officer.' He grabbed me round the neck, banged my head against his panda car doors and took me up to the police station and arrested me for threatening behaviour. Some time later, when they realised who I was - part of the Chapeltown News Group - they said to themselves: 'We'll show this guy who's boss.'"
The prosecution "case" was to read Chapeltown News to Farrar, including everything it said which was "pretty radical and hostile towards the police" and Farrar had to say what he thought about each of these statements.
He stood by the paper's political line on race, class and police oppression. When the jury was asked why he'd been acquitted, the response was: "We thought you were the kind of person who could incite a riot but we didn't believe you did on this occasion."
Chapeltown News reported the experiences of the migrant working-class black communities that had settled in Chapetown, a run-down area of Leeds during the 1960s and 1970s. The paper was produced by a group of academics who wanted to challenge and engage with racism.
Farrar moved into Chapeltown in 1970. "I thought it was very exotic," he explains. "I thought that sociologists were supposed to identify with outsiders."
But he was told he was "just another missionary" and should "fuck off" as soon as possible. "I don't think people realise how deep this enmity or division goes," he says.
Farrar says during the 1970s the "orthodox" left thought that what he and others were doing in Chapeltown was "kind of barmy." But real black politics was not so much black youth being arrested, although that was part of it. It was a response to "the endemic racism in everyday life and every institution."
Farrar remembers when black parents in Chapeltown took their children out on strike because the education their kids was receiving was so inferior. They'd been arguing with the authorities for more than six months about how poor it was. They refused to listen and the parents set up a supplementary school with their own self-organised, self-educative work.
Within a week the authority had agreed to a new head and new programme of work, "so black direct action had more effect on the Leeds education system than anything on the left had ever done," Farrar asserts.
He emphasises the role that representation has in reducing violent urban protest. "Democratic participation for me is the key. It's the fundamental for creating a better, socially just society," he says.
He cites the politically astute and experienced trade unionist George Mudie as the turning point for representation. His union background meant he was genuinely committed to the view that there needs to be a consultation in which the aggrieved get their voices heard.
"I think he began to realise that there was a long history of political organising but the riots were a symptom of the failure of those legitimate modes of protest to be properly listened to," Farrar says.
Mudie set up the Harehill and Chapeltown Liaison Committee and dragged all the relevant council officers to monthly meetings where they would line up in front of anyone who wanted to say their piece.
These were "interesting experiments in democratic responsibility," Farrer says, because it was the first time they had been forced to come, the meetings were minuted and there was a "certain level of accountability."
But Farrar is at pains to point out that social inequality, which affects young people and particularly black youth disproportionately, is still a burning issue today. Unemployment among black 16 to 24-year-olds is 50 per cent, more than double the rate of their white counterparts. Poverty and poor housing is the default condition of black communities.
He considers that it takes years for violent urban protest to gain momentum and says that research into the cause of the riots support this assertion.
In a recent, moving newspaper interview following this year's nationwide riots, an unknown black youth says: "Why were people confronting the police if it was all about thievery? It wasn't all about thievery but there was thievery going on. It was about giving the police a taste of their own medicine."
Today young black men "have no communities, we don't have many businesses, we got nothing in this country. It's not that we're not part of society. It's that we're not part of the same culture that most people are living."
Black people are "big business" in Britain and "we need to build something for ourselves so that we don't need to keep our hands out swinging. We've been working in the UK for a long time driving the buses and stuff like that. We should have something by now."
Why is that so difficult to understand?

For further information about Professor Farrar, visit:

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