I moved into North Kensington in 1986, 27 years after the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane by a group of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. Mosley had been active in the area, stoking the racial tension between black and white groups which had led to riots. Mosley should be held accountable for this murder, but the man who took a knife and stabbed to death a man he didn’t know, because he was black, was not identified, hidden by a cult of silence.
In 2009 Golborne Councillors and community members held a commemoration of Kelso’s death at the spot where he was killed. Among the attendees was a white woman, who asked me to introduce her to the family. She knew the killer. It was her brother, who had passed away. In five minutes they had met, sorrow and forgiveness uniting their pain after 50 years.
Over the years I’ve been unofficial auntie to many young people in my neighbourhood, and heard their stories. I’ve witnessed both unacknowledged racism and blatant racism by police, church members, teachers, others in authority, and even my own colleagues. I’ve done what I can to support these young people and their families. It is never enough.
In February North Ken was shocked by a racist attack by white thugs against El Harding, a young black student, in his place of work, a pub in Portobello Road. We protested, lobbied politicians and police. They have CCTV of the perpetrators, and names on credit cards used on the night. But still no arrests. Somebody knows who did this, but the cult of silence prevails.
So I understand when my black sisters tell me they keep their young men indoors to keep them safe.
It is nearly three years since the terrible atrocity at Grenfell Tower. The decisions made to keep costs down would never have been made by the decision-makers for homes of their own families. But they see social tenants as second-class citizens, and if those tenants are non-white they are bottom of the heap. I witnessed RBKC senior officers and Tory Councillors turn survivors into victims they could patronise and treat like charity cases. They expected gratitude for having returned to them what had been taken so cruelly by RBKC. I witnessed this state-sanctioned racism in many forums, in Parliament and at the Council. They gas-lighted traumatised survivors who deserved to be cherished. They called people ‘volatile’ when they were upset and frustrated. They called people ‘ungrateful’ when they refused to accept sub-standard housing. At one Full Council meeting, a traumatised bereaved family member was refused permission to speak. At the next Council meeting, a white woman stood up asking ever-so-politely for permission to speak, and it was granted.
I know we should always call out racism. In a debate on Grenfell in Parliament on 6 June last year, under parliamentary privilege, I finally plucked up courage to do so publicly. I read out a series of racist comments made by senior officers and Councillors. The Leader of the Council wrote to me that very afternoon. She wanted an ‘investigation’. She wanted me to identify the senior officers and Councillors I had quoted. I refused, I said it was endemic and they should tackle it systemically.
I went along with their investigation – not naming names – and to date NOTHING has come of it. What is clear to me is that, in a borough where white British born people are in a minority – 48-52% – those elected to power like to feel they are in authority. But they aren’t.
Kensington and Chelsea is the most unequal borough in Britain. And the brutal and pervasive Covid-19 has leeched into our communities, resulting in one of the worst infection rates among our wealthy neighbours. This runs parallel with poverty, ill-health, and other factors we are struggling to understand. We may never get accurate statistics as our sick go to die in hospitals elsewhere.
What can we do? I say to my black brothers and sisters, stand together and ask your white allies to stand with you. Call out racism wherever you see, and stand by those calling it out, because they will be targeted by those who don’t want to hear your accusations. And I say to my white brothers and sisters, support black organisations, and tell other white people you do. For myself I pledge to call out racism, pursue the perpetrators, to be a good ally, use my white foot in the door for the benefit of those who have the door shut in their face, and to live my life in protest every day, against inequality and against injustice.