My work with young black offenders: July 1979 – December 1982

Stop all state harassment: Handsworth 1977
logoIn June 1979, I applied to become part of a new project called the Handsworth Alternative Scheme (HAS). This was set up with three-year funding from the Home Office to assist the probation service and the Birmingham law courts to provide alternatives to custody for young (17-25) black offenders from them Handsworth area (see Background, below).

Sponsored by Nacro (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of offenders), HAS aimed to provide help in three main areas: education, employment and housing, with social support.

A survey carried out in 1978 by senior probation officer Pat Whitehouse revealed that black offenders were much more likely to be given custodial sentences than their white counterparts. One of the factors contributing to this was that the courts did not remand young blacks for social enquiry reports with the same frequency as they did for their white counterparts.

HAS was staffed by young black graduates, who like myself, had been drawn into community work because they wanted to make a difference.A typical working day at HAS: Notes from my
casework diary, 1980

One of my clients, a young man aged 18, is coming home from prison tomorrow and needs somewhere to live when he comes out because he has no one else to turn to. His family have rejected him since he ‘turned Rasta’. Most of his ‘brethren’ are homeless as well, or living between squats.
I have just been handed the keys to a bedsit on the first floor of a large Victorian house in the middle of Handsworth by a local housing association that I have established links with.When I open the bedsit door my heart sinks: the place is appallingly filthy and unpleasant. Previous tenants have left piles of rubbish on the floors; the kitchen is greasy and the bathroom dirty; the cooker is broken; there’s no furniture except for a dirty old mattress and a sagging settee.HAS has no organised cleaning arrangements for such situations, and I know from previous experiences that the housing association will not be able to organise preparing the room in time for tomorrow.Can I allow my client to come home to this? No. He needs to come back to somewhere half decent and welcoming! So I go back to my house, collect mop, bucket and cleaning materials and I get down and scrub, clean and prepare the room myself.
We obtained our own referrals by having a worker located in the courts who would make contact with young black people, usually by arriving early in the mornings and checking the daily court lists to identify black clients through their names, or as they were waiting to appear for the first time. HAS gave basic advice on court procedures and the advantages of having a sympathetic solicitor.

I was the education officer, and I quickly realised that a significant number of the young people referred to the scheme needed help to improve their reading and writing skills.

When I made arrangements for them to get help in existing adult education institutions they were reluctant to attend because of the lack of appropriate educational resources in these classes, the perceived bias towards white English norms, and the failure of tutors to recognise anything positive in the black
experience.

At this time, significant numbers of our client group were hugely influenced by the Rastafarian faith, and they felt, with some justification, that nothing in the existing British education system reflected black people’s culture and interests.

In short, I was working with young black school leavers who had rejected everything to do with ‘Babylon’.

Ferdinand Dennis (who went on to become a very successful author) was a John F Kennedy Library Foundation research fellow who worked at HAS for nine months. In his report he concluded that:

  • Out of a total of 70 clients, more than 60 had left school with no qualifications. The others had some low CSE grades – of dubious worth on the job market.
  • Nearly a quarter of our clients had been taken out of ordinary education before the statutory school leaving age. They had attended approved school or ESN.
  • Not only had HAS clients left school with no qualifications they also appeared to have left with a determination not to have anything to do with the education system again.
Dennis’ report also revealed, unsurprisingly, that one in four had a reading problem.

Education services provided by HAS

Adult Literacy classes: I set up and started teaching the classes myself. As numbers grew I recruited and trained volunteers to help.

Advice on colleges, courses & preparation for tests: Clients being offered job training with the Job Preparation Unit in skills such as carpet fitting, and painting and decorating were required to pass a basic literacy and maths test. I arranged for the trainee to get help in preparation for the tests.

Film-Making Course: This was run for five weeks by Yugesh Walia of Endboard Films. Participants on the course included HAS clients, and staff from both HAS and West Midlands Probation Service. This allowed staff and clients to work together as a team on an equal basis, developing skills in acting, storyboarding, editing, travelling to different locations to do the shooting, and generally building up invaluable relationships.

Following on from this course, the film Sweet Chariot, directed by Yugesh Walia was produced by Handsworth Cultural Centre. It looked at white society’s adoption of black culture through dance, music, and fashion. It featured Nancy Johnson (who later headed up Birmingham’s Women’s Unit) and Pat Donaldson (who was a member of the Kokuma dance group based at the Cultural Centre). Some of the participants who attended the film-making course also appeared. For more information about this film, see the BFI website.

Young black people protest outside a church in Aston, Birmingham
following a sermon by the Pastor who claimed that Rastafarians were ‘dirty’. 1981
Background: conflict between young black people and the police in Handsworth

I hope they do do something fi try to improve the relationship between black youths and the police before any war and things. We can’t stand this oppression any more, we can’t stand this pressure.1

Handsworth in the 1970s was a key battleground in the struggle against institutionalised racism. At the forefront was a generation of young men and women, most of them born in the UK but with deep cultural roots in the Caribbean and a new sense of self identification as Black and African. As the UK’s industrial economy crumbled, so youth unemployment in areas such as Handsworth reached near 100 per cent levels, and the visibility of these youths, many of whom had become Rastafarians, became a matter of national debate.

The Rastas’ explicit rejection of ‘traditional English values’, their dreadlocked hair, and their religious beliefs sparked an intensely hostile response, especially from right wing groups. Newspapers were quick to stereotype them as muggers and drug dealers, and the police responded by using the Sus law. This effectively permitted the police to stop and search and even arrest anyone they chose, purely on the basis of suspicion, as a crime-prevention tactic. In the space of a few years, hundreds of black people were indiscriminately criminalised, a seige mentality grew up and relations with the police reached crisis point.

People involved in community work in Handsworth warned about the grave state of police/black youth relations. In 1978 the community organisation AFFOR, under the leadership of Clare Short, published Talking Blues in which all sections of the black community had voiced grave concerns about racist police attitudes. An already volatile situation was made worse by a housing crisis.

Many of the young people targeted by the police were often involved in bitter intergenerational conflicts within their own families, and often elected to leave home even though they had nowhere to live. The availability of large Victorian houses in the area – vacated by the changing demographics – meant that many squats sprang up.

Police raids on these squats were a distressingly common feature of Handsworth life in the mid to late 70s. The large number of arrests that followed meant a continuous stream of young black faces before the courts. And because of the underlying moral panic, sentences, even for minor first offences, were often custodial. That was why Handsworth Alternative scheme came into being.

1. From ‘Talking Blues: the black community speaks about its relationship with the police’, published by Affor, 1978

Protest outside Birmingham Law Court, 1980

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