CNJ: Mangrove Nine: justice in the dock


To complement a Steve McQueen Small Axe film, an online account of the momentous trial can now be viewed, writes Bronwen Weatherby

04 December, 2020 — By Bronwen Weatherby

Ian Macdonald, Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Selma James in How the Mangrove Nine Won

A FIRST-HAND account of the momentous court case that saw nine black men and women exonerate themselves despite the full force of the Met Police being against them is now available to watch online.

How the Mangrove Nine Won was launched the day after the BBC One premiere last month of Steve McQueen’s ground-breaking Mangrove film – part of the Small Axe series.

Both films focus on events surrounding the Mangrove Nine case in 1971 after two women and seven men were charged with incitement to riot. Their crime: taking part in a demonstration against police harassment of the Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill owned by Trinidad-born Frank Critchlow.

The restaurant became a community base and following its opening had also become the target of police officers who in the months that followed carried out repeated, often violent, raids on the venue and its patrons.

The trial that followed saw all nine defendants found not guilty of all major charges and the judge’s summary included the first official acknowledgement of police racism in the UK.

It was undoubtedly a victory for the anti-racism movement in Britain. A movement that feels as strong now as it was then, given the recent explosion of Black Lives Matter protests this year following the killing of George Floyd by police officers in the US.

There is no doubt that the hour-long film, which features two of the trial’s main protagonists – Black Panther activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe and lead barrister Ian Macdonald – talking in person to an audience inside Camden Town’s Trinity United Reformed Church in 2016, is a timeless piece of social oral history.

Future activists would do well in using this powerful and, at times, delightfully funny retelling as a point of inspiration, much like the group used Black Jacobins by CLR James, about the Haitian Revolution, to shape their actions.

It is the perfect accompaniment to McQueen’s dramatic version of events for anyone wanting deeper insight into exactly how the Mangrove Nine thwarted the British establishment against the odds.

A flier created during the trial and distributed to people around the court and in Notting Hill to raise public awareness

LeCointe is captivating and her life-long activism shows in her story-telling as she weaves an engaging tale of courage and resilience from her first experience of racism as a PhD student at the University of London, to her Black Panther activism in Brixton, to the lessons she learned watching friends continually let down by the institutions meant to protect citizens.

Her words are as poignant and relevant now as in years past and are a call on people to persevere in the fight against racism.

Sitting beside her once more, after almost half a century since they joined forces in the Old Bailey, is – as LeCointe introduces him – the “renegade lawyer” Ian Macdonald, and walking us through their strategy at the time is a reminder in the importance of allies.

Alongside them chairing the event is a familiar Camden face, Global Women’s Strike coordinator and co-founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign writer and feminist Selma James.

James, who hails from Brooklyn US, was married to and a key collaborator of CLR James at the time and attended the demonstration that led to the charges being brought against the nine. Subsequently, she became one of LeCointe’s witnesses at trial, and also features briefly in the McQueen movie.

Speaking in the film about how it came about, James says: “We want not only to know they won, we know they won. But we want to know how they won. Because we have to learn to win.

“That’s why we decided to make this a Mangrove nine ‘how to do it’ and how to support doing it.”

Selma James told me: “Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series has popularised the 1970s struggle of the Mangrove Nine against racist police.

“Black people were peacefully demonstrating against police raids on their community base, the Mangrove restaurant, when hundreds of police attacked the demonstration and arrested nine people. Serious false charges that carried long prison sentences were laid against them.

“Altheia is a compelling story-teller and Ian’s tales about his ongoing duel with the racist judge had everyone in stitches.

“Their honesty and truthfulness, and above all their determination convinced the jury they were not guilty.”

Barbara Beese, the only other defendant still surviving, said of the film: “Altheia’s momentous contribution forensically links the oppression and struggles of black women and men in Britain with our sisters and brothers in Haiti, the Caribbean and Africa.

“Self-organisation and self-determination were the key, the foundation, for our winning the Mangrove trial. And of course Ian, a radical and committed antiracist who, as my lawyer at the trial, unswervingly articulated and advocated against the racism inherent in our persecution and prosecution.”

The How the Mangrove Nine Won film is, like the original event, a fundraiser for the continuing struggle of the Haitian movement to defend their black republic.

• The online film is available to view until December 10. A payment of £5 goes towards the Haitian Emergency Relief Fund. Watch here: