Frank Crichlow created safe spaces for black people in London including the biggest performers of his day, but he was compelled to stand up to state targeting and police harassment.
The trial of the “Mangrove Nine” was one of the first successful court cases for the black community in British legal history. This landmark case represented a victory against a police force that had repeatedly targeted them.
The nine were Frank Crichlow, Darcus Howe, Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon, Anthony Innis, Althea Lecointe Jones, Rothwell Kentish and Godfrey Millett. They were arrested during peaceful demonstration that had got out of control due to the heavy-handed behaviour of the police.
One member of the Mangrove Nine, Frank Crichlow (13 July 1932 – 27 September 2010), was a Trinidadian-born activist who arrived in London in his early-20s on the SS Colombie. This was 1953, just five years after Empire Windrush carried the first Caribbean passengers to the UK.
“It was the early days, and West Indians were still coming over,” Crichlow told writer Hassan Mahamdallie in a 1995 interview. “When they came over they had no means of contacting other West Indians – which was very important at the time. Some people who came used to stay with friends, but after they were here for a few days, they wanted to go where they could meet people and socialise.”
Crichlow could see the importance of safe spaces for the black community. He continued: “There was a lot of socialising among West Indians in basement clubs. One of the most beautiful things about that was there were people from the different Caribbean islands. It was a sort of ‘getting to know you’ time.”
After forming a band called the Starlight Four, Crichlow enjoyed some music success and media attention, using the money he saved to buy the El Rio Cafe in Notting Hill. In 1968, he opened The Mangrove at 8 All Saints Road, also in Notting Hill.
Both venues were popular among black scholars, creatives and political activists of the day, who met to discuss various social issues from racism to slum housing. It was frequented by some of the top black performing artists at the time, including stars Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Diana Ross and the Supremes.
These cafes were also popular destinations for the police, who persistently raided them accusing the staunchly anti-drugs Crichlow of selling heroin. On 27th June 1969, after another unsuccessful raid by the police, Crichlow lost his licence to run the all-night cafe. He was also charged with assault following another raid by the police, in which they found nothing.
Crichlow made several complaints about his treatment by the police. In a complaint of unlawful discrimination made on 23 November 1969, he said, “I know it is because I am a black citizen of Britain that I am discriminated against.”
Between 1948 and 1971, Commonwealth immigration to Britain had risen due to economic downturn, mostly as a result of World War II. Britain was in need of cheap labour and these immigrants were seen as an ideal solution to the economic problem. As immigration from the Commonwealth increased, so did unease and anger among the white working class. It was clear that Britain was struggling to come to terms with immigration of this scale.
Such tension was escalated by Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968 which criticised the influx of immigrants, claiming they would “take Britain over” in 20 years. As such, black people were seen in a suspicious light, and places where black people congregated were subjected to constant police raids. Crichlow recalled incidents of people coming into his cafe and telling him stories of police harassment. He said: “One chap said he was in a nearby road and two police rushed up to him and said, ‘We just saw you trying car doors.’”
“You must be joking,” he replied. But the police insisted that they saw him doing this and arrested him, and he went to court and was found guilty.
In response to this harassment, Crichlow organised a demonstration on 9 August 1970. The demonstrators planned to visit three local police stations: Notting Hill, Sirdar Road and Harrow Road. In an open letter sent to the prime minister, barrister Anthony Mohipp and others stated:
We, the black people of London have called this demonstration in protest against constant police harassment which is being carried out against us, and which is condoned by the legal system.
[In response to persistent police raids in black community spaces] we feel this protest is necessary, as all other methods have failed to bring about any change in the manner the police have chosen to deal with Black People.
We shall continue to protest until Black People are treated with justice by the police and the law courts.
The peaceful march was met by an unjustified police presence, as they tried to divert people from Harrow Road Police Station. A riot ensued, which led to violence and multiple arrests. As they did with the constant raids of the Mangrove and El Rio, the police reacted without provocation when faced with a large contingent of black people.
The Home Office later put their hands up to this, claiming that the constant raids and arrests were an attempt to cut the head off the emerging black power movement. It was revealed that several civil servants had discussed legal options with the then Home Secretary before deciding on this course of action.
As warned by Powell in his scare-mongering speech, white British society was worried that black people would mobilise and take over, when in fact the black power movement was simply an expression of a desire to live without fear and violence. Those in power, including the government and the police, were increasingly seen as the main players in black oppression. It was not hard to see why this was – and still is – the case.
The trial of the Mangrove Nine took place nearly a year later in 1971. Ian McDonald, defence lawyer in the trial, stated that: “[the case] seems clearly to be an attempt by the state to prevent the growth of organised resistance within the black community, which had an independent leadership. And that seems, to me to be the real point of the case, and it follows a whole series of other attempts whenever black people have tried to organise independently, to smash that organisation before it got really solid firm roots within the community.”
After 55 days, the judge acquitted all nine of the most serious charge of exciting a riot and stated that this case had shown evidence of “racial hatred on both sides”. This was the first time that a British court judge blamed the London Met Police of racial bigotry.
Crichlow said: “It was a turning point for black people. It put on trial the attitudes of the police, the Home Office, of everyone towards the black community. We took a stand and I am proud of what we achieved – we forced them to sit down and re-think harassment. It was decided there must be more law centres and more places to help people with their problems.”
Crichlow and the Nine’s success did not stop police raids on the Mangrove. The antagonism between the police and the black community continued. The Mangrove, however, became a symbol for the black community representing the sentiment that it was possible to fight state oppression.
In the 1970s, just after the trial, Crichlow set up the Mangrove Community Association where he would organise demonstrations against institutional racism in Britain. This association was set up in solidarity with movements across the globe where minorities were being subjected to oppression, including the campaign to protest apartheid in South Africa. Crichlow was also instrumental in the establishing of the Notting Hill Carnival, something he was still involved with in his later life.
Frank Crichlow died on 15 September 2010. He said of his legacy, in a 1995 interview: “I don’t see myself as a leader. I never saw myself that way. As I see it I stood up for my rights, and a lot of people identified with that. We fought and we shouted. We weren’t going to put our tails between our legs.”
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