Altheia Jones-Lecointe: British Black Panther Leader
“Enough is Enough!” Altheia Jones-Lecointe’s words resonate across the crowd as she stands on the roof of a car on 9th August 1970, leading the charge in a peaceful demonstration against rampant racism relentless police harassment and brutality that was – still is - so commonplace in the UK … despite Tory Equalities Minister Badenoch’s assertion that Britain is the best country to be Black!
Altheia Jones-Lecointe’s story, and that of her comrades, was brought to our screens recently by Steve McQueen, in his film Mangrove (2020) as part of the five-part Small Axe collection, retracing the events that led to the arrest and trial of the Mangrove Nine.
Set in the heart of Notting Hill, the Mangrove restaurant had been established by Frank Crichlow, a community activist, as a safe space for the West Indian and Black communities – away from racist attacks from the far-right and the ubiquitous ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No dogs’ signs (yes, they really and shamefully did exist in London in the 1960’s!).
The restaurant soon became a hub for local campaigners and activists, as well as the informal HQ of the Notting Hill Carnival. As it grew in popularity, it began to attract undesirable and unjustified police attention and, increasingly, raids. There were TWELVE raids, between January 1969 and July 1970, under the pretence that it was a ‘drug-den’. Yet, no drugs were ever found!
The owner, with the support of members of the British Black Panther Movement, organised a protest in response to unrelenting police harassment and disproportionate profiling. 150 protesters marched peacefully to police station. They were met by 200 police officers – with 500 ready in reserve. Violence broke out, leading to the arrest of nine protesters: Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Frank Crichlow, Rhodan Gordon, Darcus Howe, Anthony Carlisle Innis, Altheia Jones-Lecointe, Rothwell Kentish, and Godfrey Millet, most of them actively involved in Black Power organising. Between them, they were charged with a total of THIRTY NINE charges, on counts of inciting to riot and assault, inter alia. As has often been suggested, their arrest was likely part of an effort by the police and the Home Office to weaken and discredit the growing movement. The trial was a make or break moment for the survival of Black Power in the UK.
At the trial, in line with radical Black political practice, Altheia Jones-Lecointe, who was the leader of the Black Power Party at the time, and Darcus Howe decided to represent themselves – determined to stand up to and confront racist institutions. It worked. Between them and Ian Macdonald, a pioneers in anti-racist legal practice, they were able to expose police lies.
The high-profile 55-day trial was a ground-breaking moment in British legal history and the first time a judge officially acknowledged that the behaviour of the police had been motivated by ‘racial hatred’. The Nine were acquitted. Their victory was a game changer for activists and communities of colour in the UK. It demonstrated that marginalised people could stand up for their rights and win.
But what was particularly significant about the Mangrove demonstration and the Nine’s trial, was that two of the defendants were women – Barbara Beese and Altheia Jones-Lecointe. For too long, women had been relegated to secondary roles in the Black Power Movement – both in the US and the UK. Increasingly, however, they were taking leading, more visible roles in the struggle for liberation, and women like Altheia Jones-Lecointe were making history.
She orchestrated the demonstration and in court she decided to represent herself, tearing police lies apart. Many of us will have heard of Darcus Howe – but now it is time to honour Altheia Jones-Lecointe - very much in line with this year’s UK Black History/Herstory Month theme celebrating the matriarchs of the movement, Saluting Our Sisters!, and on 5th October, which is also the 52nd anniversary of the start of the trial, Altheia Jones-Lecointe will finally get a Nubian Jack Blue Plaque. The unveiling is sponsored by Black History Walks. (Please note - this event has been postponed)
Born in 1945, she arrived in the UK 20 years later to study a PhD in biochemistry at University College London. She was no stranger to grassroots organising. Through her family, she’d been politically involved in the work of Eric Williams’ People National Movement in her native Trinidad. She grew up hearing conversations about independence and post-colonialism, but she was horrified, upon arriving in London, by the extent of discrimination and institutional racism. This reignited her activist fire and she began attending British Black Panther Movement meetings.
When Nigerian playwright, Obi Egbuna, their leader, was arrested in 1968, she took on the mantle. She did not consider herself as their ‘leader’ per se, shunning hierarchical structures for a more collective approach to – what we might define today as feminist – leadership; but others saw her as the leader. She brought new energy to the movement, ensuring greater community reach and recruitment, and spearheading successful campaigns against racist violence and discrimination in education, housing, and employment.
She played a significant role in upholding the rights of women and girls, building organisational structures that would challenge misogyny. "Jones-Lecointe's authority, and her energetic pursuit of justice, unsettled Panthers who did not see anti-sexism as an intrinsic part of revolutionary praxis." W. Chris Johnson, writing in Gender, Imperialism and Global Exchanges (edited by Miescher, Mitchell and Shibusawa, 2015).
She encouraged fellow Panthers to read and study key texts, such as CLR James’ The Black Jacobins and taught Black history and anti-colonialism. That is how she recruited dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson to the Black Panther Youth League. He remembers her as “perhaps the most remarkable woman I’ve ever met.” Such was her influence.
By 1973-4, the movement had become more divided – some pushing for a focus on gender or class, others preferring it to prioritise just race - and it lost momentum. Altheia Jones-Lecointe turned to her other passion, becoming a medical research, specialising in haematology … continuing to change people’s lives.