Today
Sun 24 January 2021

Bryan Knight speaks to award-winning author Alex Wheatle, whose life was recently brought to television screens by Steve McQueen in the BBC’s Small Axe series

“Uprising it’s an uprising. They ain’t no work and we have no shilling. We can’t take no more of the suffering, so we riot in Brixton.”

This line, taken from Steve McQueen’s recent Small Axe instalment for the BBC, aims to encapsulate the socio-political conditions that led to the 1981 Brixton Uprising.

British Novelist Alex Alphonso Wheatle needs no reminder of the historic event as he was not only involved, but changed drastically in its aftermath.

Wheatle, born in 1963, spent most of his foundational years – from ages two to 15 – in the British care system, having been placed in Shirley Oaks children’s home in south London. This, as he describes, was where he “suffered physical abuse, mental abuse and all kinds of things you can imagine”. During this time, Wheatle recalls feeling isolated and having “low self-esteem”.

However, in his late teens, he relocated to Brixton – a move that would both shape him both psychologically and politically. In the bustling south London district, Wheatle remembers feeling a strong sense of his black identity. He felt, for the the first time in his life, that he belonged to something.

But Brixton had its contradictions. Certain sections, such as Railton Road, were considered safe spaces and community ‘frontlines’, whilst police racism and brutality were ubiquitous. Wheatle recounts how “very tumultuous” the area was in the 1970s.

“[In the] early ’80s, there [were] lots of police persecutions and in a way that politicised me because I saw first-hand the police brutality, the intimidation and so forth,” he says. “That really made me wake up to the idea that, because of my skin colour, I wasn’t quite accepted, even though I was born in Britain.”

Police harassment of black communities had been especially prevalent in London since the 1960s as white communities increasingly saw black people as competitors for jobs and housing, with calculating politicians exploiting such fears. This political manipulation was best exemplified in the racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Conservative MP Enoch Powell, delivered in 1968 in Birmingham, which warned of a black invasion in Britain and called for the repatriation of black migrants.

1968 marked a turning point, not only domestically with the Powell speech, but also internationally as it was the year Martin Luther King Jr was brutally killed in America and a time of extreme political tension over the Vietnam War. In response, black and leftist communities around the world began mobilising to champion social justice.


Uprising

In Britain, this mobilisation took the form of Black Power organising, which saw groups such as the Black Panther Movement and Black Unity and Freedom Party form a community defence against racism, classism and Western imperialism.

Brixton, with its sizeable black British population, served as a headquarters for the south London wing of the Panther Movement.

Wheatle remembers Brixton as “a very political place” with Olive Morris and Darcus Howe who started a newspaper, Race Today. Howe ran it along with a collective of other activists on Railton Road – an area dubbed the “frontline” for serving as a site of black resistance against racist oppression in the area.

Wheatle soon found himself victim to the criminal justice system in 1981, when he was imprisoned for participating in the historical Brixton Uprising, often dubbed the ‘Brixton Riot’. The three-day street rebellion, between 10 and 12 April 1981, took place in response to community grievances about police racism and brutality in the area. 

The breakdown in police and community relations was “always under the surface”, Wheatle says, but “didn’t just happen over two or three days in April 1981, you have to go back to the likes of Olive Morris.”

On 17 November 1968, 17-year-old activist Olive Morris was physically attacked by police officers after she came to the aid of a Nigerian diplomat who had been stopped and searched by the officers, who accused him of stealing his Mercedes car. When Morris intervened, she was arrested and, on her release from the police station, was rushed to hospital with severe bruises on her body.

Morris later became a Brixton hero – still lauded today – for her short yet dedicated life in activism. Along with her British Black Panther peers, she continued to confront the brutality of the police, particularly through their use of the ‘Sus’ law, which permitted officers to stop and search people they suspected had been involved in crime. The law was disproportionately used on young black men in the area, who were often framed, attacked and profiled by the men in blue.

Another significant cause of the April uprising was a fire that took place in New Cross months earlier. On 18 January 1981, in Deptford, south London, a 16th birthday party was held for Yvonne Ruddock. The party, attended by mostly black teenagers, was interrupted when a fire broke out in the building. Thirteen of the party guests died. After an initial assessment, the police described the fire as a racist attack from a passer-by, but later played down this claim by stating that the fire had begun inside the building.

Due to the racial tensions in the area and the well-known presence of far-right National Front members, many in the black community saw the fire as a racially-motivated attack. In its wake, a Black People’s Day of Action was called to protest against the lack of due attention given to the case by the police and media.

The combination of racist policing, high unemployment rates and devastating incidents of racism led Wheatle and his black peers to take to the streets and fight for their community.

The financial damage caused by the uprising has been estimated at £7.5 million, though the personal cost bore by Wheatle was his subsequent imprisonment.


Rising Up

Despite his six-month prison sentence being a time of emotional distress, it also marked a significant turning point in Alex Wheatle’s life.

In prison, Wheatle met Simeon, a Rastafarian man who served as a father figure to him, and was introduced to literature which influenced his creative and political outlook. Wheatle says Simeon “gave me so much confidence”.

“He handed me a copy of CLR James’ The Black Jacobins and, for the first time in my life, I read the text of a black superhero, if you like, in Toussaint Louverture,” he recalls. “Usually, when I accessed popular culture for any kind of black heroes, I couldn’t really find any… maybe only on the sports field, but never in a military aspect or some kind of hero.”

Perhaps surprisingly, prison offered a space for Wheatle to raise his consciousness and find a creative avenue to express himself.

“I didn’t know my mother or my father,” Wheatle says. “I didn’t know if I had any brothers or sisters. And so, I just wanted to express that, and I think it was a very healthy thing for me to do. Instead of all the things bubbling up inside me, where I couldn’t release them. Poetry and short stories and my little essays and my journal… I kept with that, and that began to give me confidence. And, with that confidence, you can achieve many things.”

Wheatle left prison and continued developing this confidence. In 1999, he published his first novel, Brixton Rock. Reflecting on his writing debut, Wheatle explains how “it still feels unreal at times”.

“I think ‘wow’, you know, I was a little kid trying to find some kind of belonging, just trying to find some kind of meaning to life… and here I found myself.”

Wheatle has gone on to publish a string of award-winning novels including Straight Outta Crongton, Home Girl and East of Acre Lane. This year, he released Cane Warriors, which is based on the true story of Tacky’s War and follows the plight of 18th Century slaves in Jamaica.

In 2008, he was awarded an MBE for services to literature – something which caused a “big debate” for himself and his loved ones. He says he had “sleepless nights” about it and how he would be perceived by the black community.

“But I decided it’s not going to change my outlook on what I’m going to write about,” he adds. “I’m going to be as political as ever, maybe more. Because I think, once you gain success, you’re given that freedom where you can be more expansive.”

Wheatle’s story was recently brought to television screens by the director Steve McQueen in his Small Axe series.

“It’s very humbling,” he says. “I went on set, I saw the drama being made and so forth. It is an overwhelming feeling. It really is, especially when they recreated [my] hostel room in Brixton – the flyers, posters I used to have, my reggae collection… They had everything on point. It was just an amazing experience.”

Wheatle’s story is important – for it not only highlights the failures within our care, policing and prison institutions, but demonstrates the transformative power of discovery and self-expression.


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