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Bristol activists spearhead the call for reparations for the legacy and current damage of slavery and colonialism


As Green councillor Cleo Lake petitions Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, to lobby the UK government about reparations, we explore what that means, and talk to the Bristol activists involved.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaigns rage around the world: a demand for radical changes to the status quo, a cry for racial equality. The movement may have started in the US, but protests in the UK have been instrumental in shining a light on racism at home. 

Racial profiling, police brutality, stop-and-search and racial pay gaps are just some of the conversation topics once more brought to the table. Meanwhile, institutions up and down the country are interrogating issues of diversity and representation within their structures. 

The typically youth-led, US-originated, Black Lives Matter movement of hashtags and marches have dominated the spotlight. But due credit must also be paid to the reparations campaigners – a typically older demographic, coordinating a much longer-running operation with organised demands. 

Typically they identify less as ‘Black’, but ‘African heritage’ and accordingly they say that the Black experience must be understood in terms of the historical and enduring crimes committed against the African continent. They advocate for a meaningful enquiry into the crimes – past and continuing – against the African continent so that they can properly be addressed and compensated. 

In recent weeks, in the wake of the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue at the hands of BLM protestors, the topic of reparations has hit Bristol City Hall. On Tuesday 7 July, Green councillor Cleo Lake, an activist and former Lord Mayor, asked Mayor Marvin Rees to write to Boris Johnson, asking “that the UK government immediately establishes an All-Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Truth & Reparatory Justice to acknowledge, apologise and instigate reparations for the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans”.

With the issue firmly on the political agenda here in Bristol, we’ve taken a deep dive into the history behind – and meaning of – reparations. We’ve spoken to the local activists who have spearheaded the movement in our city, and interviewed Lake on taking the fight to council and the next steps. 

We ask: what does reparatory justice look like in practice – and how does this relate to, and intersect with, the BLM movement?

What are reparations? 

In 1833 the barbaric slave trade was finally abolished. A few years later the Slave Compensation Act 1837 was passed. It did not, as you might assume, provide compensation to formerly enslaved people, but instead to the slave owners for their losses of land, property and people. 

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In fact that compensation – to the tune of roughly £20 million of public money, equivalent to about £16 billion today – was one of the conditions that were needed for the abolition to be accepted. As historian David Olusuga has pointed out, this poses an interesting dilemma: what was worse: allowing slavery to continue, or compensating traffickers of human life? 

Research by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College, London, revealed that a staggering 46,000 Britons received compensation under this act.

People who were trafficked from the African continent and enslaved received nothing. 

‘Making repairs’

A dictionary definition of ‘reparations’ is: “the action of making amends for a wrong one has done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged”. 

But there is also a legal framework for reparations enshrined in international law, which affirms victims’ rights to “equal and effective access to justice, adequate, effective and prompt reparation for harm suffered, and access to relevant information concerning violations and reparations”. Governments and heads of state have often expressed regret for slavery, without directly apologising – because that could, inconveniently, open up the case for states having to make serious amends for their colonial pasts. 

Esther Stanford-Xosei, a lawyer, historian and prolific reparations activist, argues that reparation means “[restoring] the victim to the original situation before the gross violation was committed”. For African-heritage people, that means asking, what would Africa have been like had its people never been kidnapped and enslaved? What would the world look like if this exploitation and dispossession of a people, the origins of racism, had not occurred? 

Returning to such a position takes far more than money. Professor Chinweizu from the ‘Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe’ – a grassroots alliance of organisations, groups and campaigns working to amplify voices of African communities – argued, back in 1993, that the financial component of reparations is “not even one percent of what reparation is about”. 

Reparation is mostly about “making repairs – self-made repairs” – mental, psychological, cultural, organisational, social, institutional, technological, economic, political and educational – “repairs of every type we need in order to recreate sustainable Black societies,” Chinweizu said.

How, then, might this look in practice? 

‘Reclaiming our history’ 

It means recognising that the aftermath of slavery and enduring racist practices have psychological impacts. Afrophobia for example, or Post Traumatic Slave syndrome and feeling ashamed of black skin and features. 

Compensating for this could mean building independent institutions of education, healthcare, spirituality and culture. Or, providing culturally appropriate medical and social care, and programmes of recovery, with a focus on decolonising people’s mindset – repairing a sense of identity. 

“A big part of our campaigning is recognising we are Afrikans,” says Esther Stanford-Xosei. “Recognise our right to exist and to call ourselves and to name ourselves and to reclaim and reconstruct that history, that culture, that heritage and inheritance that is denied to some of us.”

The transatlantic slave trade was not only the trafficking of a people – it sparked a paradigm shift in agriculture, health, arts and commerce. The experience is understood as a genocide, or the Swahili word ‘Maangamizi’, because of its twofold definition. Genocide includes not only the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group and then, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. Due to various colonial occupations by Western nations, many African countries now speak in non-indigenous languages and follow foreign religions. 

Stanford-Xosei calls for “global cognitive justice” – which means acknowledging and restoring the indigenous Afrikan system of knowledge. Even spelling Afrika with a ‘k’ – a reminder that the hard-sounding ‘c’, which did not historically exist linguistically in most of the continent, is a legacy of colonial translation – symbolises that this would be a restoration of language, spirituality and philosophy, music, art and symbolism. 

Bringing structural change

As well as the internal work, structural changes also constitute reparations. This could include state-issued official apologies, criminal prosecutions and truth-seeking, commemorative events, and the development of museums and monuments honouring Black history. 

Another key demand of the reparations campaign in the UK is the establishment of the All Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Truth and Reparatory Justice, as called for by Cleo Lake this July. 

George Floyd’s murder on a Minneapolis street at the hands of a white police officer has led to a fresh reflection on how institutional racism remains in certain sectors of our society. The deconstruction of privilege, including via reparations, is the only way to undo the social inequities experienced by Black communities – and to achieve true racial equality in society, which would properly address the historical injustices.

For more on that, let’s now hear from the Bristol-based campaigners. 

Jendayi Serwah: Seizing the moment in Bristol

Here’s Jendayi Serwah: reparations activist, community organiser, educator, consultant of the Black South West network, vice-chair of the Stop the Maangamizi campaign and co-founder of the John Lynch Education Forum. 

I think it’s unfortunate that it takes the death of an Afrikan man, in the States, in broad daylight, on camera, uncontested, to really bring attention to the UK that Afrikan-heritage lives are being snuffed out every day all around the world. 

The recent events have been an opportunity for Afrikan-heritage people to express their anger, their voice, their frustrations. For our young people, it’s a moment to galvanise and organise themselves; to reflect on their position in this society and think, what changes do they want to see. They are organising not necessarily under the banner of Black Lives Matter; they are just realising that self-determination is part of the solution to the problem. 

So, I see this moment as an opportunity for us to build whatever structures that we need to develop in order to have more power and voice in Bristol. 

It’s not just about police brutality and not it’s not just about the police. There are many ways our people are brutalised all around the world by state and non-state forces and this is what our young people – and everyone – needs to understand and get to grips with. 

The Afrikan ConneXions Consortium was established in 2016 after Marvin Rees became the Mayor. His One City Plan stated his desire and ambitions to work towards sharing power and making Bristol an inclusive city. 

So we got together as six organisations – St Pauls Carnival, Black South West Network (BSWN), Bristol Black Carers, Bristol Somali Resource Centre, Malcolm X Centre and Ujima Radio – who had wide constituencies of membership of the African-heritage communities to lobby and influence and elevate our voices in city affairs beyond tokenism. So it’s not just about being a black face in a white space. 

The Stop the Maangamizi campaign is about saying to people: you need to stop the harm, so we can begin to repair the damage. So it’s not just the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s not just our over-representation in the mental health institutions, it’s not just our excessive sentencing and over-criminalisation, it’s not just the disproportionate exclusions our young people face in schools. There are land grabs, forcible sterilisations, biological warfare, all kinds of things which are impacting on our people.

Serwah addresses the crowds at the Reparations March 2019

What’s happening with Covid 19, the so-called Windrush scandal and George Floyd’s murder are all expressions of Maangamizi criminality – a continuum from enslavement to colonialism to neocolonialism today. We are saying these things are not isolated events; they come from a history of dehumanisation and disenfranchisement of a people.

So we are saying, let’s stop the harm and start repairing. Let’s start a dialogue through the establishment of an All Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into Truth and Reparatory Justice, but also through building mechanisms, like people’s assemblies, in our own communities, so we can set up our own mechanisms to hold the state, corporations and other institutions that have soft and hard power as a result of empire, accountable. 

Komoomutjiua Hangero: What could reparatory justice look like in practice?

Meet Komoomutjiua Hangero from the Stop the Maangamizi: We Charge Ecocide and Genocide campaign in Bristol. 

Protests are good. It’s a method of demanding justice. They get people hyped up and that is a valuable means of campaigning – but after getting people on the street, what is the plan? 

Hangero at the 2019 Reparations March

I applaud, as we all must, the people who sacrifice their time and liberty by getting statues rid of in that manner. It’s commendable, they achieved what years of talk did not. But it’s not challenging the structure that kept the statue there for so long. Of course, there is room for both methods, but we have been oppressed for the best part of 600 years. When oppression is institutionalised, a statue is tokenistic. 

We need to organise ourselves and make concrete plans and galvanise a power base in the community. Without that, it won’t make a dent. 

How would this work in practice, you ask me? 

Land. We need our ancestral lands in Afrika back, land which is going to sustain us as people. Now we have been pushed into arid lands which are desert, but we used to live in areas where you could maintain crops and livestock. Without land you cannot control anything – you will struggle and continue to struggle, and you will remain powerless. 

We need our land and languages back, we need to decolonise. Colonisation meant we were denied the chance to know how to mine oil or polish a diamond – this allows the West to take our raw materials and then sell the finished product back to you. 

The Afrikan continent and Caribbean islands – what we need is to organise ourselves. I believe in the Pan-African idea of getting rid of the borders in our continent. I do not say, I am Namibian, I say I am from the Bandero-Herrero clan, I am an Afrikan.

Many of us here feel forced to leave Afrika for economic reasons. It’s hard to find jobs, decent education. We are ‘independent’, but we don’t have independent institutions – we don’t control our minerals, or even our economies. Borders being upheld don’t help because they force us to compete for contracts, rather than function as a united continent. China, Russia, Europe, America, UK – they have all imposed themselves on us. 

But what would reparatory justice look like in this country? We need space, autonomous spaces to thrive. We are misunderstood as a people. 

Hangero and Serwah march with the Afrikan ConneXions Consortium banner

We need to uphold our culture and embed it in our institutions. We believe in ‘Ubuntu’ – it means “I am because we are. We are, therefore I am.” It means I want my people to flourish – if I look at them, and see myself. 

Our cultures and traditions are supposed to inform our institutions – like healthcare for example, we could use our indigenous medicinal knowledge instead of only having the choice to use Western pharmaceuticals. We need our own organisational structures as well as the ones that already exist. For example, an Elders Council – so we can police ourselves, deal with our problems – because we know how to approach and deal with people. 

Instead of centralised governments imposing their will on us, we would return to our roots, bring back our institutions and empower them. If we had institutions informed by our own cultural knowledge, we would know that extracting resources just to sell is not sustainable. It creates ecocide – the destruction of the environment. Our Elders knew how to work in harmony with the land.

We would have a community-based financial system – every five years you could put money aside and decide together which crops to buy. But you need a piece of land you can base from – from here you can control agriculture and where you buy things. 

Would this result in a more segregated society, you say? We are already segregated! And no, I believe it will help us integrate rather than segregate. When you have your own spaces, it provides a degree of respect from people, it permits people to be proud of where they are from, and most importantly it gives a sense of belonging. 

Then, you can open up to society, rather than society imposing itself on you. The lack of space creates more misunderstanding about what people stand for. Now, we only have the illusion of inclusion. 

We need land and autonomy wherever we are, backed by power from the continent. For us to repair, we need to get every aspect back of the livelihoods we’ve lost – land so we can have a home, education and health – and money will come last. 

Living here is hard – you are always torn between multiple identities, but that can only flourish in an environment which is authentic to you, and here that is more difficult. The longer I stay, the longer I lose myself, but I cannot pack up and leave, I have developed an attachment, I have children – they like it here.

I know people will think what we are saying is radical, but it is this government that is radical and we are trying to deradicalise it.

Cleo Lake: On taking the fight to Bristol, Brixton and beyond

It’s been a busy month for former Lord Mayor and Green party councillor, Cleo Lake. 

On Tuesday 7 July, Lake submitted a motion to Mayor Marvin Rees to write to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, asking “that the UK government immediately establishes an All-Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Truth & Reparatory Justice to acknowledge, apologise and instigate reparations for the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans”.

“The motion wasn’t heard, but that was down to a technical thing,” Lake explains to me, in a spare 20 minute gap in an otherwise jam packed schedule. “Usually we hope to hear two motions but that week we just had time for one. So I put amendments forward to usher in the principles of my reparations motion, but that was rejected. My last option was to put forward questions to the Mayor. I asked him to write to the Government to set up the Inquiry and also for equity for our black led institutions in the city.”  He said he would consider it, she tells me. Meanwhile, Lake is fully intent on keeping up the pressure. 

Since then, Lake spoke at the All Black Lives Matter gathering on 12th July in Eastville Park. She used her speech to highlight the link between BLM and reparations. 

In our interview, I asked her about the relationship between the two movements, were they competing or complementary? 

“They both have a part to play, but I do see a disconnect between some of the young people involved in BLM and the reparations activists – such as the ones you’ve already spoken to. For one thing, I’m not as clear about what their demands are, whereas in the reparations campaign the demands are fully listed. 

Also, it is a bit frustrating that these grassroots movements have attracted very little support in the mainstream and virtually no funding while doing a hell of a lot of work. Some of these new BLM movements can attract millions.” 

From Bristol to Brixton

Cleo Lake marches with Afrikan Queens at last years Reparations march
Last year, Cleo Lake was chosen to hand the reparation petition to No.10

Cleo Lake tells me, she does want to see a coming together of the movements. “I hope the people behind the BLM will now go to the Reparations Rebellion planned for August 1st in Brixton.” 

This year, instead of the usual reparations march, a “lockdown” is planned. At 9am on 1st Mosiah (August) there will be a “locking down” on Brixton Road to enforce a traffic-free zone. 

“Afro-Caribbean communities have become indigenous to many communities and places around the UK: St.Pauls in Bristol, Handsworth in Birmingham, Brixton and Ladbroke Grove in London, the list goes on. These are our traditional areas and it’s about time that we stood up and reclaimed them! We need to make our presence known and drive our demands in a far more direct action kind of way.”  

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