The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the US launched the largest protest movement in the country’s history, growing to encompass an ever-larger confrontation with the institutions and symbols of white supremacy. The movement soon went global, with demonstrations from Senegal to Sweden, Brazil to South Korea.
The largest protests after the US have taken place in the United Kingdom. The UK protests highlight what in particular has become a transnational moment of antiracism and anticolonialism, underscoring the historical roots of racial capitalism and Black-led resistance to it. As activists in the US are pulling down symbols of the American slave regime, activists in the UK are pulling down statues of the wealthy slave traders who made the regime possible.
Neither structural racism nor spirited protest are new to Black Britons. The so-called Windrush Generation, which began arriving in the country from around the former British Empire in 1948 to fill labor shortages in the post-war era, endured substandard housing, low wages, police abuse, and racial hostility from their new white neighbors.
The children of these migrants—who came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s—were inspired by the Black freedom movement in the U.S. and informed by their own legacies of colonial resistance.
In 1981, anti-police riots that began in the largely Jamaican district of Brixton, in South London, spread up and down the country, from the working-class Caribbean urban areas of Birmingham and Manchester to predominantly white communities, igniting in more than 40 cities in all, a pattern that has repeated in decades since.
The British magazine Race Today was the leading force in chronicling the struggles of immigrant communities in England. As an antiauthoritarian Marxist organ, Race Today reflected its mentor Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James’s orientation toward independent political action, self-organization, and the democratic proposition that “every cook can govern.” Indeed, James was a mentor to the collective, spending the last decade of his life above the magazine’s offices in a squatted building in Brixton.
Race Today members were pivotal in organizing community defense against the fascist National Front in London’s East End, and in promoting labor struggles from Caribbean nurse’s aides to South Asian assembly line workers. They interviewed dozens of participants in the 1981 riots and helped frame that uprising for the larger British public. One of Race Today’s most well-known members, the reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, memorialized the Black Britain’s struggle against police brutality, fascist attacks, and systemic racism.
I spoke with two members of the Race Today collective, Leila Hassan and Farrukh Dhondy, about the current protests, the legacy of antiracism and anticolonialism in the UK, and international antiracist action. Hassan was a member of the Race Today collective from its beginning, eventually becoming editor of the magazine. As frequent writer for the journal, Hassan examined topics ranging from international Black movements to the lives of Black women in the UK. Dhondy was a writer at Race Today who organized Asian workers in labor, housing, and community self-defense. He is a prolific author, playwright, and television producer.