Remembering Olive Morris, Black British Activist

Olive Morris, Activist

The current situation in Great Britain, which has given rise to an urban uprising in several parts of London as well as in other English cities and towns has made me think back to my observations of working class life in the Brixton of the mid-late 1970s.  I went there to investigate the experiences of Caribbean immigrants, particularly those of adolescents and young adults, youth who were fashioning new social identities, often quite rebellious, as Black Britons.  The problematic social conditions they confronted then eventually deepened and erupted into the unrest now known as the historic Brixton riot of 1981, which was followed by riots in 1985 and 1995. Police violence or mistreatment was the spark in all three cases.

The August 2011 riots, or insurrection as Darcus Howe and others prefer to characterize them, affected Brixton as well as several other venues across London and strongly suggest that Britain has not resolved the contradictions, structural and otherwise, against which young people on the streets are rebelling.  Perhaps some of the seeds for today’s historically-specific political and economic juncture, shaped very much by a neoliberal climate of economic retrenchment and heightened xenophobia and racism, were planted a generation ago.  The continuities are sadly striking.  These thoughts have  inspired me to look back to working class and Black London of the mid-1970s.  I lived in Brixton then, funded by a research fellowship that gave me the material means and moral support to undertake an exploratory research project on black international migration.

In  that context I encountered a young woman around my age who was a courageous activist around issues of race, gender, and class as they affected the Caribbean and African immigrant communities in Britain.  That woman was no other than Olive Morris.

PART I  Remembering Brixton, Remembering Olive

Olive Morris (1952-1979) was a Jamaican-born Black British activist who passed away prematurely.  As an adolescent she was a Black Panther, the British variety, and she was later a co-founder of the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organization of Women of Asian & African Descent.  She was also an activist
in the squatter movement, which, navigating  the spirit of common law, confronted Britain’s problems with homelessness and housing scarcity.  About four years ago the Remembering Olive Collective (ROC) was founded.  ROC is dedicated to keeping memories of Olive’s contributions and sacrifices alive, especially in present-day Britain.  ROC has worked toward this goal by doing oral history interviews, compiling contents for a special collection in Brixton’s Public Library, organizing an exhibit, sponsoring panels and speaker
series, and constructing a website (http://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com/).

I met Olive in the mid-1970s. I was in London on a Samuel T. Arnold Fellowship from Brown University.  The fellowship’s purpose was to give promising Brown alumni, fresh from graduation, a chance to go abroad and pursue a dream project that would help prepare them for their eventual careers in some profession related to international affairs, broadly conceived.  I was one of the three graduating seniors to receive this honor in 1974.  I was interested in the experiences and conflicts of Caribbean and African immigrants in the UK, particularly those of adolescents, who, I hypothesized, would have to struggle with being neither (fully) Caribbean nor English.  I arrived in London at a time when black youth were in the midst of what the Race Today Collective (led by Darcus Howe) described as a rebellion against “shit work,” a time when conspicuous numbers of black youth were being classified as uneducable by the school system, unemployable by employers, and suspects by the police enforcing “sus laws.”  Parents were often confused by their children’s (mis)behavior, so unlike what they remembered of youth back home in the Caribbean of their childhood.  Consequently, intergenerational miscommunication resulted in adolescent homelessness.  These were the problems that black youth workers, often employed by the government’s community relations agencies, dealt with on a daily basis.

I volunteered at the Brockwell Park Youth Project in Brixton. I accompanied the youth workers everywhere and assumed the responsibility for keeping records and writing reports. They teased me about being a university graduate with skills they could put to good use. The opportunity to become a part of the everyday work life of Danny and Kingsley was a privileged learning experience and a base for the participant-observation research I undertook.  Meeting Danny, originally from Georgetown, Guyana, was a Godsend.  Michael Hampden, a friend at Brown, introduced me to his brother who lived in London.  That opportune contact led me to the vibrant social network to which Danny belonged.  Danny and Orin, another Guyanese youth worker, introduced me around, and before I knew it, I’d met many of the people I needed to talk with to learn about the struggles of youth and young adults in the Caribbean community.  I met youth, youth workers, indeed the leaders of the Black Youth Workers Organization, grassroots activists of various ideological persuasions, teachers of Saturday schools organized to offset children’s miseducation within the official schools, and members of some of my newfound acquaintances’ families.  I was integrated into the daily lives of my closest associates, invited to holiday meals, birthday parties, and even radical study groups in which Marx and authors of anti- and post-colonial writings were read and debated through the lenses of black immigrant workers.

The group Danny and Orin belonged to was made up of people of East Indian and African Caribbean descent. Blackness was defined in terms that included both groups, who shared a history of racial and cultural subordination under British colonial and then neocolonial domination.  I was invited to join the group, after having my consciousness scrutinized.  I was a graduate of an elite American university and a “red gal.”  They didn’t automatically assume that I had a black consciousness and political orientation.  I had to be put to the test.  Fortunately for me, I was allowed to join, becoming the second woman in an otherwise all-male group of class-conscious and outspoken West Indians. The learning experience was remarkable. It filled in gaps left from my Ivy League education.  Hanging with Danny, Orin, Earleen and others taught me a lot.  I accompanied them nearly everywhere–schools, homes, police stations, youth worker meetings, pubs, domino parties, gambling houses . . .

I met Olive, possibly through Earleen, who was a respected youth worker and activist.  She introduced me to the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Through the group’s activities, which included study group consciousness raising,  I was exposed to some of the writings of feminists in England and other parts of Europe.  Of course, I also learned about the lived experience of my fellow group members, whose criticism of the material we studied together was deeply informed by their experiences as black women in Britain.   I learned about the squatter movement from Olive, who was a formidable activist addressing the housing politics of the black community–something neglected within the larger squatter movement.  Olive lived in a communal squat.  When I was thrown out of the house where I boarded (due to a fall out with my landlord who, among other things, had sexually harassed me), Olive invited me to move into the Council house she, her sister, and David occupied at that time.  I welcomed the chance to live in community with a progressive goup of young adults, like myself. For about six months, I was part of that household, experiening being evicted twice, roaming the community in search of other potential squats (provided we could get across the threshold without damaging the property along with meeting other conditions provided for within the framework of British common law).

I came across the Remembering Olive Website a couple years ago. There was an invitation to record memories of Olive, so I wrote something on the interactive site.  Someone contacted me afterwards to express appreciation and ask for pictures or any other information that I would contribute to the collection.  A year later, I received an email requesting an interview through email.  A series of questions were sent to me to answer in writing.

Olive Morris contesting eviction

Months and months later, I found photographs I took during an eviction. Olive was the main subject of the pictures. They showed her boldly talking back to  police and council representatives.    They showed police cars parked in front of the house.  I emailed copies of the pictures to ROC.  Just within the past couple days, being inspired by the debate over the urban insurgency in London and other cities in England, I’ve searched through my notebooks and journals from the seventies.  I had promised to look for the exact address of the squat featured in my photographic documentation of the eviction.  I found it, but I also found, much to my surprise, that I had written in a detailed way about the everyday conditions we experienced as squatters in Brixton. I’d forgotten many of those
details and only had vague recollections of that time.  I was pleased to share excerpts from my old journal with ROC and the beneficiaries of their collective memory work.

 

PART II   Squatting as Survival & Politics

My 1974-75 experience in Brixton, among many other things, exposed me to the squatter movement, which addressed homelessness, the scarcity of affordable housing, and the tendency of private and public landlords to keep properties vacant for extended periods of time.  In Brixton, where about a quarter of the population was Caribbean and to a lesser extent African, this meant that it was becoming nearly impossible to find flats or houses to rent. Politically conscious squatters confronted the state and exposed its negligence or refusal to live up to the social contract.

Olive Morris squatted as a politically driven practice. She herself lived in squats, perhaps initially to  satisfy the basic need for shelter.  However, over time, squatting grew into  activism for her.  Homeless families would go to her with requests for  assistance.  She and her comrades would search for vacant houses or apartments that could be entered without forced entry and damage (e.g., broken locks or  windows). Once  vacant properties were occupied quasi-legally, the squatters were  protected for a while by laws that defined their occupation as a civil rather  than criminal offense.  Eviction procedures often took months, during which  time organized squatters could find ways to negotiate with housing authorities  and, at best, hold them accountable for placing the squatters in alternative  accommodations.

Olive Morris talking back at eviction

Olive was the best known squatter activist in Brixton and  southwest London. For her, housing was a         human right that the state had a responsibility to provide.  From what I understand, the documented     history of  the squatter movement is largely silent about black Briton’s role within it.  That’s part of why remembering Olive Morris’s activism is important.

I will share passages I “rediscovered” when revisiting my  notebooks from that time.  I do so, because, more than thirty years later, many of the structural  disparities working people and displaced working  class people in Brixton faced then still exist now, despite the surface-level changes that signal difference between 1975 and 2011.  In the following passage, I quote my May 5, 1975 journal entry about being evicted with Olive and others in our household:

“We were evicted Thursday morning. The Council men and police– and
their black lackies– arrived before Olive and Dave had even left for work. The
door, in spite of all its bolts and reinforcements, was kicked down, its glass
broken to mere shards.  All morning and early afternoon were spent packing our
things and moving them to Monica’s and to the van that transported them to the
Women’s Center on Railton Road. That afternoon we accompanied a group of
dissenting squatters to Mr. Thatcher’s office  at the Town Hall’s Housing
Authority. The group brought forward a number of complaintsto the Council. We  refused to accept “You must have an appointment. . .You are not allowed in that office…” or “You cannot see Mr. Thatcher without a proper appointment,” for we were determined to voice our complaints and demands. Thatcher eventually appeared after one of his subordinates had unsuccessfully attempted to persuade us to leave. Thatcher didn’t really co-operate; nonetheless, some bit of satisfaction was derived from snatching a copy of the Council’s agreement with a group of squatters who were supposed to be rehoused. . . ,.  Thatcher was very reluctant about allowing us to even read the agreement. One woman managed to snatch the form. She decided to keep it as proof of the Council’s legal obligation to rehouse all of the occupants in the particular squat.

The remaining part of that day and night was spent walking all over
Brixton. Olive and her brother Farron [Ferron? spelling?] kicked open locked,
boarded up doors, opened windows, so that we could search, investigate the
conditions of vacant Council properties.  It’s shameful to know that so many
houses are kept vacant for incredibly lengthy periods of time while there are
families that are homeless. The Council is buying up most of the property in
this borough.  This means that at its “honorable” discretion, it houses and
rehouses people. One is supposed to wait on a list for years to be assigned
accommodations. It is becoming almost impossible to rent flats or houses, for
the Council is becoming the biggest landowner in London. Courtney Laws, a
prominent community leader, offered us a couple of houses the Council had given his organization. Those places were totally condemned: no plumbing, rottened wood (ceiling, floors,walls, window frames), broken windows, etc. It would take so much money to attempt to renovate those places, money that most black people do not have.  The large majority of houses we looked at were in horrendous conditions, largely because they had been vacant, left open for years. . .open to looters, children, etc. If those places had been renovated and occupied long ago, they wouldn’t be so wasted, and many of the people on the streets would be housed.

There were a few houses in good condition; however, most had mortar
locks which are so difficult to break, or noisy and hostile neighbors called
police.  There was a lovely house around here, 1 Banton Rd, that we tried like
hell to get into. The neighbors were openly antagonistic to us.  One man [white]
even went as far as threatening us from his window with a rifle. Another set of
neighbors on Spencer Rd. called the police while Olive, Monica, and Ferron were
inside the hosue. They escaped confrontation just in time. They got out a back
window and jumped over a backyard fence.  Escape was so … quick that they
didn’t retrieve their tools. The next day Olive and I returned for them.   The
best (that is, closest, accessible, etc.) place found was 60 Railton Rd. in
front of Ferron’s house .  .  .  ”

The experience described in my journal, among many other experiences I had in London (and Birmingham), took place during the height of the period Stuart Hall and his co-authors analyzed in POLICING THE CRISIS. The following year, I returned to the U.S. to go to graduate school where I hoped to learn how to do “proper” research.  As a novice I realized that I needed many more skills in ethics and techniques of systematic data collection.  I was also determined to learn more about the politics of  research.  If I had learned anything else during my extended sojourn in England, I learned that effective researchers, especially ethnographers,  must navigate a politically charged terrain, no matter where they work.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I appreciate Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre, coordinator of the Remembering Olive Collective, for exchanging email messages with me and encouraging me to revisit my Brixton files.  For many, many years the plastic file box with these files, notebooks, and journals have been stored away, out of sight and far away from my immediate attention.  Thanks to prodding from ROC and the youth on the streets of London, I am inspired to reassess that formative time in my personal, political, and professional life. Peace and justice!

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Comments
5 Responses to “Remembering Olive Morris, Black British Activist”
  1. Faye Thank you for this personal and thoughtful memories with us. I too lived in England,
    Manchester to be exact. I have been trying to revisit my time there as well and unlike you
    I cannot find my box of memories.

    Many thanks,
    Rosie

    • Rosie,keep looking for your box! All the sites of diasporic you’ve experience contribute to who you are now and the invaluable work you do in diaspora arts.

      Thanks for visiting my blog!

      Faye

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