This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Black People’s Day of Action, a high point of Black radical self-organisation in Britain. On 2 March 1981, 20,000 Black people from across the country marched from Lewisham to Hyde Park in response to the government’s indifference to the loss of Black life at the New Cross Massacre two months earlier. The house fire, which killed 13 young people – with one survivor taking his life two years later – was widely understood to have been sparked by a racist firebombing of a teenager’s birthday party, despite the police’s dismissal of the fire as an accident.
While the tragedy was no doubt the catalyst for the Day of Action, the demonstration was also the expression of a simmering fury within Black communities, who had long been haunted by attacks, arsons and roving fascists in Thatcher’s Britain. Perhaps most importantly, it was the culmination of years of community-state conflict and Black self-organisation – and the result of months of dedicated collective organising by activists steeled by years of mobilising against state violence, who were able to bring people together and channel their reservoirs of rage.
Beyond the mobilisation on the day itself, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee coordinated a fact-finding mission to outmanoeuvre police inaction, coordinated fundraising to support the grieving families and tackled the smokescreen of disinformation from the state and media.
By naming the institutions they were opposed to – namely the state, the police and the press – the communities focussed their rage and ensured the incident was situated within its broader context – understanding how individual acts of violence are connected to institutional neglect and state violence, and should not be decoupled from one another.
This mode of organising has been exemplified in recent weeks by Sisters Uncut, following the murder of Sarah Everard, which saw the activist group draw vital links between gendered violence and the state which has now tried to present itself as the guarantor of women’s safety.
Since the Black People’s Day of Action, we have seen a marked move towards atomisation, which in turn has shifted the site of struggle from the collective to the individual.
One example of this is hate crime laws, which legislate against interpersonal interactions of hate and harm, yet offer no respite from state violence – rather, legitimise agencies of state violence, such as the police. In the last few weeks, collectives such as Abolitionist Futures and Remember and Resist have been making these exact arguments, advocating for a rejection of the parochialism that has come to shape the world we live in and for a recovery of these lost modes of collective thinking and struggle. This is the only way the struggle will be won.
Under the social doctrine ushered in by Thatcherism, the very communities that the New Cross Massacre Action Committee was embedded in were gradually decomposed and reconstituted into a mass of variegated individuals; a realm of a thousand tiny sovereigns.
Over the years, neoliberalism, austerity, and the entrenchment of individualism have come to define the social order today. In this way, we no longer have the same definition of community as the kinds of groups organising the Black People’s Day of Action did.
Margaret Thatcher famously said “there’s no such thing as society”, whilst orchestrating an onslaught against trade unions and modes of collective organising. Indeed, from protests to pickets, the entrenchment of individualism has led to the dire conditions we see today. This individualism has, in turn, permeated and even shaped antiracist responses – no longer is state violence on the agenda; ours is the age of individual white privilege and microaggressions.
For all its promise – perhaps even partial success – of creating online ‘communities’ today, social media does not so much help overcome the atomisation and alienation of our times as traffic in it. Indeed, the cult of the individual that’s propagated by social media, along with the state’s strategy of celebrating individual excellence at the cost of the collective, are the legacies of Thatcherism and its afterlives. But beyond seeking new mediums to help tap into or mobilise communities, in the modern sense of the word, perhaps we need to pay more attention to actually thinking about how we define what a community is – and how that definition can determine the way we organise.
These conditions shape where we find ourselves today: in a society plagued by poor pay, poor housing and politicians like Priti Patel – whose very existence belies any notion of uncomplicated, unitary communities, but whose aggressively hostile immigration policies require the type of community resistance seen in 1981. This would in turn require a reshaping and reducing dependency on our online communities.
The romance of community can often obscure its political substance. Today, communities are either defined so narrowly – to our immediate social groupings – as to make political difference irrelevant; or defined so broadly – encompassing entire ethnic groups – that the often messy and contradictory politics that come with them are evicted from the equation. In both cases, invocations of community sometimes come more to reflect the logic of the constituency: aggregated groups of people that can be summoned up, ventriloquised and summarily discarded once their value has been expended. In this sense, community is not something that needs to be negotiated, organised or democratised, but merely found; community organising, without the need for organising.
Yet such a flat understanding of community belies the way that communities are formed and remade in the process of struggle, sometimes in unexpected ways.
A depoliticised notion of community, for example, would struggle to make sense of the genuine outpouring of grief by the mostly Asian population of Southall for white New Zealander Blair Peach, killed in 1979 by the Met Police’s Special Patrol Group while demonstrating against the National Front. As Sita Balani describes it, “in the process of struggle, Blair Peach became apna – Urdu for ‘one of our own’. He was neither alien to the community in Southall nor inherently a member of it, but became a lost son to many mothers through the circumstances of his life and untimely death.”
Recent events in Britain have highlighted just how vital this kind of politicised community organising truly is in the midst of struggle. Just as in 1981 – and countless instances since – this seems to come into sharpest relief in the shadow of tragedy, death and state neglect. Yet they also point towards the ways that politically-produced communities come to understand their place in the world, and how they can relate to one another. Whether in the aftermath of incidents to bring a community together or the long haul of organising communities, we can take inspiration from those moving beyond individualism to reinvigorate the power of the collective.
Some of the most powerful examples in recent years include the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, wherein one of the victim’s relatives placed that incident of violent state neglect within a broader political context: “They burn us in Syria, Africa, Palestine and now they burn us in London.”
Last year, the mutual aid response to Covid-19 saw communities, who recognised the state would not protect them, taking community health into their own hands. Meanwhile, organising forms like tenant unions have come to the fore as a powerful force for change with street blockings to prevent eviction and saving homes under threat – intervening directly in the process of community building as a point of power.
There have been inspiring examples of resistance over the last few years, reinforcing the strength of the collective in drawing links between social struggles in order to build power. In recent weeks, the actions of Sisters Uncut have seen coalitions emerging against state authoritarianism, which we will desperately need for the years ahead.
It is from these nodes of community formation and organising that we can take inspiration for renewing our struggles today, and carry forward the spirit that underpinned the 1981 Black People’s Day of Action.
With new legislation restricting our right to protest, asylum laws that make seeking asylum impossible, and the imposition of surveillance in all aspects of our lives, now more than ever it is vital that we form communities to resist these infringements on our rights and liberties. We are long overdue for such a show of strength.
Ilyas Nagdee is a writer and activist with a focus on policing, counter-terrorism and antiracism. He has written for The Independent, Guardian, Tribune and Red Pepper.
Azfar Shafi is a researcher on counter-terrorism and security. His interests include movements organising against policing, state racism and imperialism.