Issue 219 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review


Post Powell

After the tributes, obituaries and the state funeral, it was so good to read Paul Foot's obituary to Enoch (yes, he was a racist) Powell (March SR). What shocked me was Tony Benn's comment that Powell wasn't a racist and his appearance at the funeral. When I left school in 1979, I joined the north London sorting office (NDO). Every week there were open collections on the sorting office floor for the National Front. The NF also controlled the union branch committee. I remember them intimidating people, getting them to put money into the collection. There I was, straight out of a multiracial school in Hackney into a nearly all white, all male workplace, where people felt confident in spreading racial hatred. I was threatened on many occasions because I wouldn't contribute money and because of my socialist politics. Thankfully NDO is a very different place today, where collections are done on behalf of workers in struggle, regardless of skin colour. The union branch committee is now made up of black and white workers. It took many years at NDO to break down the barriers of racism.

But when Powell died, a few people used Tony Benn's response as an excuse to say things like, 'He can't have been a bad bloke. Your left mate Tony Benn said he was a good parliamentarian and he even went to his funeral so he couldn't have been a racist, and he was right when he talked about what Britain would be like in the future.'

I don't want to go back to the NDO of the late 1970s, but as Labour fails to deliver some people will be pulled towards far right wing ideas.

Thankfully, most workers at NDO know that the only way to beat the bosses is for black and white workers to stand and fight together. For me, it's important to argue and fight racism with socialist politics.

Mark Dolan

Branch Treasurer, North/North West London, CWU (personal capacity)

A climate of fear

The recent bout of media attention concerning the beating up and torture of prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs prison is suprising only in as much as that probably for the first time prisoners' claims of maltreatment are being taken seriously.

Brutality at the Scrubs is nothing new and has been part of the jail's regime since at least August 1979 when the notorious Mufti (Minimum Use of Force Tactical Intervention) squad was first unleashed against prisoners in the jail's long term wing, leaving over 60 of them seriously injured.

It would seem that the only people who didn't feign shock and surprise at the media's exposé of staff violence at the Scrubs were prisoners themselves. The truth is that prisoners have been blowing the whistle on staff brutality for years in a multitude of protests and legal actions, and up until now those protests have been almost completely ignored by the media and consistently denied by the prison authorities, resulting in a conspiracy of silence that has held fast for decades. Even when the voice of prisoners has made itself heard, as at Strangeways in 1990, a combination of the prison authorities and the mainstream prison reform lobby have succeeded in shifting the

focus of public attention away from prisoners' complaints about staff violence and centring it instead onto rather less controversial issues, such as jail overcrowding or the problem of unmanageable prisoner 'troublemakers'.

Unfortunately, what characterises the recent media treatment of staff violence at the Scrubs is the impression given that only a tiny group of 'rogue' officers, a few bad apples, are exclusively responsible for the brutalisation of prisoners. But how it was possible for such a numerically tiny element of staff to terrorise an entire prison and keep it quiet for so long? Apart from uniformed screws, prison staff are comprised of governors, chaplains, probation officers, doctors, teachers and psychologists ­ and of course the Home Office appointed Board of Visitors have members in every prison. None of these publicly blew the whistle on what had been going on at the Scrubs. Inevitably, it was the prisoners who succeeded in doing that.

There is a wider social and political context to the unlawful behaviour of prison officers at the Scrubs, and therefore a need to properly attribute responsibility to where it ultimately belongs ­ with those who have deliberately cultivated a climate of fear and law and order authoritarianism over the last couple of decades.

The truly surprising thing about the recent media 'concern' about brutality at the Scrubs is how it differs radically from an otherwise constant media demand that prisons be made far 'tougher' and punishment oriented. Over the last four years especially, prisoners have been demonised and used to fuel a moral panic that has reached lynchmob proportions in some areas of the press.

So called 'failures' such as riots and, in particular, escapes, are at best used as the excuses for further repression; at worst deliberately orchestrated in order to provide such an excuse. The prisons are deemed to be in 'crisis' and the only way out of the crisis is to be more vicious to prisoners. The true reality of why prison staff at the Scrubs and elsewhere behave in a brutal way is that they have been encouraged to believe that there is now a strong degree of official backing and public acceptance of such behaviour towards prisoners.

Since the Strangeways rebellion in 1990 and the subsequent short term liberalisation of penal debate and policy, first Howard and then Straw have sought to instigate a backlash of repression and reaction against prisoners, shifting the balance of power back in favour of authoritarian prison staff and creating a climate of intolerance and revenge, an inevitable consequence of which has been systematic abuse and ill treatment. The behaviour of prison officers at the Scrubs has to be viewed in the context of a prison system that over the last few years has been subject to sustained political pressure and manipulation, and wielded as a blatant instrument of vicious social control and fear.

John Bowden

HMP Hull

Dismissed on a technicality

In general it is right to be suspicious of film or art criticism which only focuses on 'technique'. This approach is often used in order to disregard what a work of art is actually about. In his criticism of Spielberg's Amistad (April SR) Mark Brown falls into this trap. As a result he fails to recognise the strengths of the film, as well as getting to the heart of its weaknesses.

The film is a serious attempt to address the issues raised by slavery and its legacy in the history of America. Spielberg's 'conventional' techniques at times produce some powerful cinema. For me, the second trial scene is the highlight. Here, the stock Hollywood convention of the courtroom dramas where the main focus is the legal debate, is brilliantly undermined by Spielberg. Just when the arguments of the lawyers are coming to a climax, the focus suddenly changes. We begin to see the scene through the eyes of the victim, the slave Cinque, as he struggles to understand and intervene in the proceedings. Our perspective has shifted from the abstractions of the debate to the anxiety of the slaves. Then suddenly Cinque manages to stand and cry out for freedom.

The court is silenced. The point that the slaves are not commodities, like sheep or cattle, but are real thinking feeling human beings, is made more powerfully than any legal argument ever could. Cinque shatters the legal facade. We have little doubt that it is his action that wins the case.

Overall Amistad is less successful than Schindler's List. This is not because of form but content, in particular the way in which the end of the film comes to be dominated by the character of the ex-president John Quincey Adams. The problem here is not just the hammy performance of Anthony Hopkins. The third trial scene, in which Adams finally wins the day with a speech about the traditions of the founding fathers of America, knocks the whole film off balance. The careful development of the other characters, such as the black abolitionist, the white lawyer radicalised by his involvement in this case, and even the slave Cinque, is obscured by Adams' intervention.

When Spielberg deals with individuals responding to a concrete situation, he is on solid ground. Yet the Adams character is introduced more as a symbol, a representative of the real tradition of American liberty. The final speech delivered by Adams attempts to link this abstract notion to the experience of the slave Cinque, and invokes a mystical connection between Cinque's ancestors and the founding fathers of America. As a result, Cinque, whose real experiences have been dealt with in such detail by the film up to this point, also becomes transformed into more of a symbol; the literary cliché of the 'noble savage'.

At root this weakness is political. Speilberg ambitiously tries to extend the significance of the Amistad case into a liberal justification of the American constitution. Given the facts of history ­ slavery survived the American Revolution, and its legacy certainly outlived the Civil War ­ it is no surprise that this aspect of the film does not ring true. Despite this flaw, however, Amistad still provides a powerful indictment of slavery, and brilliantly conveys the horrors of the slave trade.

Joe Hartney


Missed off the list

Recently the weekly Asian Newspaper Eastern Eye published its annual top 200 Richest Asians in Britain list. The glittering annual function was attended by Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, who wore an embroidered sari to mark the release of the list.

The list does not take into account the real truth concerning the working conditions of Asian workers and Asian businesses in the UK. Most of them made money outside Britain. This list gives a wrong and damaging picture of Britain's Asian community.

When we talk about Asians we have to look into the various sub-groups that constitute the Asian population. We can divide them broadly: African Asians and Asians from the Indian subcontinent, Asians from the Indian subcontinent who originate from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. People originating from Bangladesh are very poor and most of the women are illiterate. There are more than 30,000 Indian restaurants in Britain and most of them are run or owned by people from the Bangladeshi community. Nobody has made millions from these restaurants. Most of them have to work hard even for their survival. These workers are poorly paid, work long hours in terrible conditions and get only two weeks holiday a year.

Tower Hamlets is the poorest local authority in London, an area where most of the Bangladeshis live and work. Their survival depends on Family Credit and other state benefits. Most of them earn below the poverty level. Bangladeshis are the poorest section of the community among Asians and blacks (African/West Indians).

There are not very many millionaires in the Pakistani community, even though more than 1 million Pakistanis live in Britain. Most of them own small shops (especially in Scotland) and warehouses or run taxis. How many taxi drivers are millionaires?

Most Indian businessmen use Britain as a safe haven for their investments. Most have interests outside the UK. Even though Asian businesses employ Asian workers, they are poorly paid and the owners feel as if they are doing a favour by employing them. They do not allow trade unions to operate in their companies. There are a few Asian professionals working as doctors, accountants and so on. More than 70 percent of Asians are self employed or run their own businesses.

East African Asians, whether they are Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, are well off when compared with other Asians. This is due to the fact that they are professionals or businessmen who already had the expertise to run small businesses and worked with the British people in East Africa. Before East Africans came to Britain most of the small shops were owned by Bangladeshis or Pakistanis and catered mainly for their communities. Once the East Africans came to Britain, they transferred the ethnic shops into minimarkets to cater for the needs of all sections of society. They started mini-supermarkets and kept the shops open for long hours during weekdays and Sundays.

Now multinational companies like Tesco and Marks & Spencer stay open late and on Sundays. There are more than 20,000 corner shops run by Asians selling newspapers, milk, bread and so on and they cannot compete with big multinational chains. For small Asian shopkeepers survival is the main problem and they have to work at least 16 hours a day and seven days a week. Even the Indian restaurants are under threat from big Asian businesses.

Most Asians have limited opportunities and they are not involved in mainstream business. Apart from a few Asian professionals, there are not very many Asians working in top or middle management in international companies or in government establishments. Most Asians earn below the national average, and a large number of them live in overcrowded houses in conditions of squalor in inner city areas.

More than one third of Asian women cannot write English and only a small number of Muslim women are in employment. Unemployment among Bangladeshi and Pakistani youngsters stands at more than 25 percent and among Indians it is 12 percent ­ the national average is only 6 percent.

According to a recent survey, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are in the bottom heap among all the ethnic minority groups.

It is really dangerous to publish such lists. It masks the real problems facing the Asian community from the Indian subcontinent, especially those from Bangladesh.

A Vaidyanathan

Milton Keynes

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