Black, Broke and British: Did the British Black Panthers hold the key to fighting austerity?
We live in a time overshadowed by austerity and struggle; since the decision-making of the Thatcher administration and the governance of the last decade, the UK's welfare and education systems have become increasingly underfunded, leaving many in a position of financial and social insecurity. It's a situation that rings similar to the symptoms of the systemic racism that has plagued Black Britain for generations, and to make matters worse, the impacts of this austerity are often amplified within the BAME population. With 14 million people now living in poverty (1), 40% of Black African and Caribbean households are impoverished compared to 19% of White households (2). With an absence of state-level solutions and a roll-back of safety nets, there has been an increased reliance and demand for community-driven grassroots organisations, providing assistance through food banks, youth services and legal aid. However, many of the support systems currently in place are extremely localised and specific, lacking the resources, scope and power for major change and significant political pressure. Perhaps systemic racism and the patterns of wider austerity can be tackled with similar approaches. Maybe we can learn from the civil rights movements of the past to better understand how to improve life when the odds are stacked against us. To effectively combat austerity, a multi-faceted yet unified response may be needed, making use of centralised aims and a grassroots approach; here, we can look back to the British Black Panthers and potentially learn from their campaign.
Much like the larger and more well-known US Panthers, the British Black Panthers were a body of resistance, community and change, active between 1968 and 1973. Despite their short period of operation, the British Panthers held significant political influence and effectively combated inequalities within BAME communities in London and other urban areas with significant BAME populations; they sought for the liberation and prosperity for all those under the banner of 'political Blackness' which encompassed those of Caribbean, African and South Asian descent. As a result of systemic racism, Black communities often had underfunded schools, hospitals and social services and fell victim to racism in housing, employment, policing and judicial services; the Panthers aimed to oppose this through community-led activism, leading their own police enquiries and by creating their own opportunities.
In the absence of government funding, the British Panthers utilised the networks of mutual support that go hand in hand with being Black and British to liberate Britain's Black population; building upon the enhanced sense of community that can be found from the barbershop to the abundance of 'cousins, uncles and aunts'. They were able to improve the lives of Black youths and compensate for underfunded and racially-biased schooling by establishing volunteer-run Pan-African Saturday schools, a Black-Radical library and a Youth League. Given that in 2018 alone, the UK lost 130 libraries and 760 youth clubs due to public spending (3), perhaps a similar approach of combining ‘family’, community and working-class solidarity can be taken to maintain youth social welfare in lieu of government resources. In addition to providing their own schooling, the Panthers worked to introduce Black History in education with the belief that the omission of Civil Rights histories, Black struggles and the realities of race acted as a central element in reproducing British racism. This is a conversation we still see today with the Black Curriculum movement, and its recent rejection by the government only emphasises the need for a grassroots approach, as the UK leadership is clearly unwilling to reform the country’s inefficient, biased and underfunded education system. It may be down to predominantly white communities to produce anti-racist educational solutions themselves, learning from the Black Radical style of teaching quintessential to the British Civil Rights movements.
The British Black Panthers also understood that practises of oppression often impact the lives of womxn more severely; they recognised that Black women experienced a heightened struggle due to processes of misogynoir, the combined effects of sexism and racism. This is mimicked with austerity as women are some of those most severely affected, particularly single mothers; on average, they have lost over £8,800 in income due to changes to benefit schemes and lost services since 2010 (4). The Panthers sought to address this intensified hardship through the emphasis of intersectionality in their activism; viewing sexism as an equal injustice to racism and from 1969 onwards, the movement was led by a woman, Althea Jones-LeCointe. They recognised that true liberation cannot be achieved until the most marginalised members of a group are protected; this approach should be expanded upon in today's activism, such that all lives are supported and protected no matter their skin colour, sex, gender, sexual orientation or faith.
One of the most impressive aspects of the British Black Panther Movement was how they were able to hold considerable power and influence despite their small size; whilst full membership only ever reached a maximum of ~50 at any one time, they were able to effectively unite multiple causes and communities under one centralised movement. Membership in the Black Panthers was exclusive and involved full-time commitment, but a greater network of supporters and donors provided the resources and manpower to effectively hold mass protests and combat injustices in the form of police brutality, legal inconsistencies and housing disputes throughout Black neighbourhoods. Due to the shared pool of resources that came with being a unified movement, the Panthers were even able to buy their own properties to use as libraries, bookshops, recreational spaces and communes to provide housing support for those in need. Additionally, they were able to host 77 women's, cultural and youth events over their 5-year run (5) and supported the Notting Hill Carnival, an Afro-Caribbean celebration that now attracts over 2 million visitors a year; all of this done whilst suffering under systemic disadvantages and direct persecution from the police.
The British Black Panthers and the British Black Power Movement as a whole serve as a powerful model for taking matters into our own hands when denied access to government assistance and basic amenities, demonstrating the power of self-built support systems. Whilst many modern charities and organisations provide similar services to those that the Panthers provided, they lack the unified operation that came with the British Black Panther Movement, and thus often lack the funding, manpower and influence to campaign for better conditions in all aspects of life simultaneously. The Panthers successfully demonstrated the power of grassroots political organisation and Black working-class solidarity; providing adequate solutions to their interactions with systemic racism, many of which we see replicated for the wider population through austerity. Obviously, we must consider the different socioeconomic contexts during the time of the Panthers and that their strategy may not work as effectively when scaled up, but their campaign can still teach valuable lessons in improving social welfare. As the UK progresses further into the latest period of Tory leadership and Labour continues to liberalise, these lessons in communal self-sufficiency and support may prove essential in the coming years.
Lucien Staddon Foster
3rd year BSc Geography at The University of Edinburgh
(1) The Trussel Trust (2019), Mid-Year Stats Summary, https://www.trusselltrust.org/2019/11/13/april-sept-2019-foodbank-figures/
(2, 4) The Runnymede Trust & Women’s Budget Group (2017), Intersecting Inequalities – The impact of austerity on Black and Minority Ethnic women in the UK.
(3) P. Toynbee & D. Walker (2020), The Lost Decade: the hidden story of how austerity broke Britain. The Guardian.
(5) A. Angelo (2018), ‘Black oppressed people all over the world are one’: the British Black Panthers’ grassroots internationalism, 1969-1973. Journal of Civil and Human Rights, 4 (1). pp. 64-97.