Monday, 27 September 2010

WEST LONDON BLACK POWER COMMUNITY LEADER PASSES - FRANK CRITCHLOW RIP

The Mangrove owners during the 1970 court case: Roy Hemmings (left), Jean Cabussel and Critchlow

Frank Critchlow: Community leader who made the
Mangrove Restaurant the beating heart of
Notting Hill/Ladbroke Grove


For many years Frank Critchlow played a central role in the Notting
Hill's black community. He set up the Mangrove Restaurant, the first
black restaurant in "the Grove". This apparently innocuous activity
set him on a collision course with the local police, who equated
black radicalism with criminality. Police persecution of the Mangrove
became emblematic of the experience of the black community at large,
and Critchlow's struggle brought the British Black Power movement its
first major victory.

Critchlow was born in Trinidad in 1931. He moved to Britain at the
age of 21 and worked for a time maintaining gas lamps for British
Rail. In 1955 he took a new course, becoming band leader with The
Starlight Four. In the late 1950s Critchlow changed direction again,
setting up the El Rio, a small coffee bar in Westbourne Park Road,
Notting Dale, and then in 1968 the Mangrove Restaurant in All Saints
Road.

The Mangrove, which served the cuisine Critchlow had learned from his
mother, soon became the beating heart of Notting Hill's West Indian
community. Black people who wanted advice on housing or legal aid
went there, as did black radicals who wanted to discuss the
revolution in the Caribbean, or the fortunes of the American Black
Power movement, as well as bohemian "whitebeats" looking for an
alternative to square English culture. The community aspect of the
Mangrove was evident in the pages of The Hustler, a small community
newspaper edited by Courtney Tulloch which was produced on the
premises.

The Mangrove, like the Rio before it, gained a reputation for radical
chic. The Rio came to public attention in 1963 when it was referred
to in the Denning Report on the Profumo Affair as one of Christine
Keeler's and Stephen Ward's regular haunts. The Mangrove also saw its
fair share of big names including the black intellectuals CLR James
and Lionel Morrison, celebrities such as Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr,
Jimi Hendrix and Vanessa Redgrave, and white radicals like Colin
MacInnes, Richard Neville and Lord Tony Gifford.

But the thriving restaurant soon came under attack. "The heavy mob",
a group of officers who according to The Hustler policed Notting Hill
like a colonial army, raided the Mangrove 12 times between January
1969 and July 1970. They claimed that the Mangrove was a drugs den,
in spite of the fact that their repeated raids never yielded a shred
of evidence. The police pursued Critchlow on a host of petty
licensing charges, including permitting dancing and allowing his
friends to eat sweetcorn and drink tea after 11pm. Critchlow stood
resolutely against this persecution. "Unless you're an Uncle Tom," he
protested in an interview with The Guardian in 1970, "you've got no
chance."

Darcus Howe, who was working at the Mangrove, urged Critchlow to look
to the community for support. Together, Howe, Critchlow and the local
Panthers organised a March. On 9 August 1970, 150 protesters took the
streets, flanked by more than 700 police. Police intervention
resulted in violence and Critchlow, Howe and seven others were
charged with inciting riot.

The march sent shockwaves through the British polity. Special Branch
was called in, and files at the National Archives show that the Home
Office considered trying to deport Critchlow. Meanwhile, the Mangrove
Nine made legal history in demanding an all-black jury, taking
control of the case and emphasising the political nature of police
harassment. Police witnesses described Critchlow's restaurant in
lurid terms, as a hive of "criminals, ponces and prostitutes".
Critchlow fought back with numerous character witnesses who defended
his reputation as a respected community leader.

After 55 days at the Old Bailey Critchlow and his fellow defendants
were acquitted. What is more, 28 years before the Macpherson Report,
the judge publicly acknowledged that there was "evidence of racial
hatred" within the Met. Horrified, the Assistant Commissioner wrote
to the Director of Public Prosecutions seeking a retraction of the
judge's statement. The Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, arranged a
meeting between the judge and senior civil servants but the statement
was never withdrawn.

The case did not end institutional racism, but, as Critchlow put it,
"It was a turning point for black people. It put on trial the
attitudes of the police, the Home Office, of everyone towards the
black community. We took a stand and I am proud of what we achieved –
we forced them to sit down and rethink harassment."

In the '70s Critchlow founded the Mangrove Community Association,
which continued the work begun by the restaurant, organising
demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa, institutional
racism, and supporting national liberation movements from Africa to
the Middle East. Critchlow was also instrumental in establishing and
running the Notting Hill Carnival. According to Tulloch, while the
Carnival came from the community rather than any individual, there
was a group of Trinidadians with "a tremendous wealth of serious
musical ability", including Critchlow, who set the ball rolling. He
continued to be involved as it grew in scale, defending it for many
years from "McDonaldisation".

Police persecution of the Mangrove never wholly ceased. In 1989
Critchlow was in court once again, this time accused of drug-dealing,
and again, church leaders, magistrates, community leaders black and
white, all spoke out in his defence. Again he was acquitted of all
charges. The final victory was Critchlow's; in 1992 he sued the Met
for false imprisonment, battery and malicious prosecution. The police
refused to admit fabricating evidence but paid him a record £50,000.
Speaking at the time, he said that the money would help "in a small
way. But it is no compensation for what they did. Everybody knows
that I do not have anything to do with drugs. I don't even smoke
cigarettes. I cannot explain the disgust, the ugliness, not just for
me but for all my family, that this whole incident has caused."

Looking back, Lord Gifford commented, "Frank was determined to build
a business in and for the North Kensington Community. He persevered
in the face of adversity and harassment. His restaurant was a place
where all people of good will were welcome. He was a hard-working
pioneer who was not recognised as he should have been." For his
friend Darcus Howe, Frank Critchlow was simply, "a Caribbean man who
did ordinary things in extraordinary ways."

Robin Bunce and Paul Field

Frank Critchlow, community activist: born Trinidad 13 July 1931;
three daughters, one son; died 15 September 2010.

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