Mangrove Nine: When Black power took on the British establishment

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Mangrove Nine: When Black power took on the British establishment

Black Power demonstration, Notting Hill 1970. National Archives

On the August 9, 1970, 150 black protesters marched against the Metropolitan Police, challenging the campaign of intimidation that had been waged against their community.  This protest set in motion the train of events that led to the trial of the Mangrove Nine  where the power of the British state went up against black power and lost.

The trial of the Mangrove Nine was a historical event. The first time the British establishment, sitting incarnate as a robed judge in the Old Bailey, recognised that there was institutionalised racism at the heart of the British state. Alongside this, it played its part in the rise of the radical barrister, Ian Macdonald QC, who died this month. Macdonald was a landmark figure in the civil liberties community, campaigning both in court and beyond for equality in society. He was instrumental to the trial of the Mangrove Nine, guiding the black activists in the presentation of their case, and relentlessly challenging the prejudices of the bench, the prosecution and their witnesses.  

  • Pictures from the National Archive. You can read its ‘Rights, resistance and racism: the story of the Mangrove Nine’ here

The issue which lay at the heart of the Mangrove Nine case was the rise of a black power movement in Britain.  As the  black civil rights movement rose in America, figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X at the forefront, a British wing paralleled its ascent.  This was Britain at the end of Empire,  a Britain that had opened its doors to subjects of the Commonwealth, the Windrush generation flocking to Britain, taking up the British government’s offer of new jobs and a new life. 

In London, the West Indian community congregated in Notting Hill, with Frank Crichlow’s Mangrove restaurant becoming their ‘resting place in Babylon’, a safe place of shared cultures and values, but also a place to plot political revolution. Its charms were not confined to the black community alone, the restaurant drawing its custom from across Notting Hill’s diverse community.  Robin Bunce and Paul Field, writing in Darcus Howe: A Political Biography, noted that ‘figures such as Mary Tuck… assistant editor of Vogue, and Lord Gifford QC, a radical human rights lawyer’ were amongst its patrons, whilst it was visited by Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and other celebrities, drawn to its status in London’s counterculture. 

Mangrove’s reputation meant that Crichlow drew the attention and the ire of the Notting Hill police, who sought to bring the weight of their jackboots down on the revolution’s burgeoning roots.  The ‘heavy mob’, a division of the Metropolitan Police in Notting Hill who saw the district as their own imperial outpost, sought to expunge the activists and destroy Crichlow’s business, offended at the thought of a black man thriving on their patch.  Using the pretence of drugs searches, they subjected the Mangrove to inspection after inspection, baselessly raiding it on twelve occasions over an eighteen month period, all to no avail.  

Throughout this, Crichlow endeavoured to remain within the law, trying to stop the discrimination through turning the gears of British bureaucracy, but other radicals at the Mangrove sought to take more direct action, drawing inspiration from the American civil rights movement. At the forefront of this was Darcus Howe, a black activist and writer, who had moved to the UK from Trinidad with the intent of studying law.  

Howe had little time for Crichlow’s moderate approach, encouraging him to take more direct action. Drawing inspiration from the Black Panthers in America, and his Trinidadian roots, he worked with their chapter in the UK to mobilise the black community, remarking in the film of the Mangrove Nine that ‘this government is not going to take up its responsibility unless it sees people on the street’.   

It was Howe’s organisational skills which meant that on that August day in 1970, the 150 protesters marched peacefully on police stations in Notting Hill. The mood was celebratory, some protesters echoing the Black Panthers’ style, many carrying placards bearing slogans like ‘Calling All Pigs, Freak Out or Get Out’ and ‘Power to the People’.  They were outnumbered by a force of over 200 officers, standing five deep, with another 500 held in reserve. This was force intent on inciting violence, and prepared to inflict it.

The police had calculated that the best response was to overwhelm them with sheer weight of personnel, hoping that their numbers would spark a conflict, giving the officers the right to arrest, charge and prosecute the demonstrators. A brief struggle at Portnall Road provided the police all the justification they needed, with Howe later writing that they descended on the protesters with ‘pure, unadulterated, unlicensed brutality’, releasing their pent up rage and frustration at the thought of black people challenging their authority.

The then home secretary, Reginald Maudling, who alongside Special Branch, had been paying particular attention to the preparations against the protest, demanded an immediate report on the individuals behind the movement, alongside a presentation of the legal options he had before him to quash it and punish the radicals. Within the report on the ‘Battle of Portnall Road’, Maudling was given options including deporting Crichlow, Howe and other radicals, or charging them with inciting racial hatred.  Given the circumstances, these options were rejected because Maudling feared that they would arouse public sympathy for the protesters, sympathies that currently lay with the police and the government.  Instead, the home secretary instructed the Director of Public Prosecutions to charge them with incitement to riot. 

It was after the first prosecution was dismissed by the magistrate, before, exceptionally, being reissued by the DPP and added as a separate count to the indictment for trial at the Old Bailey, that Macdonald became involved. He already had a reputation as an activist barrister, albeit being, as he later acknowledged, ‘relatively inexperienced at the time’. He was approached by the Barbara Beese, a member of the Black Panthers, asking him to represent her and to advise Howe and Lecointe-Jones in the running of their defence.  

Rather than all be represented by lawyers, the activists decided to part represent themselves, with Ian Macdonald the crucial liaison between them and the  other defence counsel.  Not only did this serve to counter the prejudice of much of the country, who thought that the ‘idea of black people actually defending themselves was quite extraordinary’, according to Beese, but freed some of the trial from legal niceties, allowing them to more effectively expose the prejudice and politics that underpinned the prosecution.  

Howe and the others used the trial to excite political support, the prosecution a metaphor for state sanctioned oppression. They had already built up a groundswell of public support before the trial, speaking at rallies and meetings throughout London and the rest of the country. Howe wrote that they were given ‘a terrific send off on the day before… the Old Bailey’, support that was mobilised at the trial with protesters massing in their hundreds outside court. 

Howe had studied the past prosecutions of black activists in the UK and the USA, and was determined to not follow their failures, where they were unable to reveal the political underpinnings to the prosecutions, constrained by the formalities of criminal trial procedure. Macdonald applied for an all black jury arguing that the accused were entitled to a ‘jury of their peers’ under Magna Carta following the example of American trials where the Black Panthers sought to rely on the 14th Amendment.  As with all claims based on the great charter.

Anticipating the application’s failure, Macdonald, Howe and Lecointe-Jones turned their attention to the jury selection procedure. They used a line of questioning that focused on the jurors’ politics to strike out 63. Not only did this ensure that there were two black jurors on the panel, it emphasised that the Mangrove Nine, and Macdonald, were not intending to sit back and defer to the court and its restrictive procedures.  

The cross-examination of the officers by Macdonald, Howe and Lecointe-Jones relentlessly peeled back the thin veneer of legal legitimacy which lay over the case.  They exposed the prejudice which motivated it, the prosecution entirely rooted in the desire to suppress the politics of the black radicals. Howe, in particular, tied the police witnesses up in knots with Beese later recalling that the prosecution witnesses were ‘going down like nine-pins, faced with their contradictions’. Crucially, Howe spotted that four individual officers claimed to see the defendants inciting the police from a surveillance van, yet the viewing panel in the van meant this was simply impossible.  Told by one constable that each had an eye to the slit, Howe asked each ‘where was your face’ – a simple  question that  highlighted the absurdity of the claim.

Summing up, Macdonald told the jury that they were not in Russia, and the Old Bailey was not a ‘Star Chamber’, where the state could persecute dissidents at will. He turned his fire on Judge Clarke, claiming that he had acted with ‘naked judicial tyranny’, and telling the jury that the true authority in the courtroom lay not with Clarke, but with them.  Such a statement was extraordinary at a time of great deference towards the judiciary, who held near absolute authority in their courtroom.   

The jury took a mere eight hours to return their verdict, after a trial that had lasted 55 days.  They acquitted all the defendants on the charge of incitement to riot, and acquitted Howe and Lecointe-Jones  of all charges.  The most astonishing consequence was Judge Clarke’s volte-face. He acknowledged that the case had revealed ‘evidence of racial hatred’ existing within the Metropolitan Police.  This was a groundbreaking moment, met with astonishment amongst the establishment, with Maudley beseeching Clarke to withdraw his comments. He refused.

Macdonald did not take star billing in the Mangrove Trial, that went to Howe and the other activists who demonstrated legal acumen and forensic examination skills that belied their experience. He did, however, play an integral and necessary role in the exposure and unravelling of systemic police racism, a role he continued to play throughout his career.  The trial was crucial in the shift of public opinion, with the decision of the jury showing that white people were not universally prejudiced, whilst it provided momentum to the black power movement, revealing  that not all challenges to the state had to be noble, yet lost causes, but could truly succeed.

Macdonald continued to work to counter racism throughout his career, acting for Duwayne Brooks in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, and leading an inquiry into racism and violence in Manchester schools in the 1980s.  Whilst racism still lurks within public institutions, with ethnic minorities still disproportionately exposed to the worst instincts of some institutions, Macdonald has done much to redress the balance, as Professor Gus John writes here.

Ian Macdonald’s work in exposing institutional racism forms only a small part of his enormous role in the development and protection of civil rights in the UK.  Beyond this, he laid the foundations of immigration law, publishing Immigration Law and Practice in 1983, providing the blueprint for challenges to the operation of immigration law.  He was a special advocate to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which heard immigration cases that went to matters of national security, resigning after the House of Lords’ decision in Belmarsh, where he felt that his role had become one which lent ‘false legitimacy’ to a law which was an ‘odious blot on our legal landscape’.  

Macdonald’s legacy will live on, his work a permanent tribute to his indefatigable efforts to resist, challenge, and overcome discrimination and prejudice in society.