The day I gave evidence against the police

Almost half a century ago I had my fifteen minutes of – well, not quite fame; but time in the witness box at the Old Bailey. The trial still lives in the memory, and not just mine. Last night BBC1 broadcast Mangrove, a dramatic reconstruction of the events that led to one of the great legal battles against racial discrimination by the Metropolitan Police.

At the heart of the story was the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. Run by Frank Crichlow, a Trinidadian civil rights campaigner as well as a restaurateur, it served Caribbean food to a mixture of local West Indians and anyone who enjoyed the combination of progressive politics and inexpensive fried chicken, rice and peas. As a young journalist active in the Anti-Apartheid movement, I found it the perfect place to dine.

The police were also regular visitors, but for other reasons. They conducted nine drugs raids between January 1969 and July 1970. This was odd, as the locals knew Frank was fiercely anti-drugs, and involved in programmes to rehabilitate addicts. Needless to say, no drugs were ever found. Complaints to the Home Office were dismissed out of hand. On August 9, 1970, a demonstration was held to protest against the persistent harassment of the local community and, in particular, “the persecution of the Mangrove Restaurant”.

Around 150 demonstrators turned up – together with more than 700 police officers. Despite the overwhelming police presence, things got out of hands. The police denied starting the fighting by snatching demonstrators’ placards. Whatever the detailed truth, the day ended with Frank and eight other demonstrators being charged with affray and incitement to riot.

A local magistrate heard the case, and dismissed it out of hand, dismissing the police assumption that black radicalism was evidence of criminal intent. Normally, that would have been the end of the matter. But the Director of Public Prosecutions would not let go. He reinstated the charges. Which is how the Mangrove Nine went on trial at the Old Baily and I played my tiny role in the drama.

The defence team had two objectives: to demolish the police account of the demonstration, and to persuade the jury that the defendants were not dangerous subversives but reasonable citizens with a justifiable grievance. More specifically, the defence sought to challenge the view, as PC Frank Pulley was to put it at the trial, that the Mangrove was a haunt for “criminals, prostitutes, ponces and the like” and that its customers were morally corrupt. To counter this allegation, the defence team lined up a range of respectable, white, middle-class character witnesses who had eaten there.

One was intended to be Derek Humphry, a senior colleague of mine on the Sunday Times. He was a an outstanding journalist: one of the few on a mainstream paper to report tenaciously in those days on the scandalous treatment of the black community by the police. Derek agreed to be a character witness for Frank. However, he told the defence team that if he was out of London at the time, he would be unable to appear. He suggested me as a reserve witness.

I was happy with this, but did not expect to be called and put the matter out of my mind. I was caught by surprise on the evening of November 17, 1971, when one of the defence team telephoned me at home and told that Derek was away. Could I report next morning to Number 2 Court at the Old Bailey?

My evidence was brief. I told Frank’s barrister, David Croft, an imposing, 6’ 7” figure, that I had dined a number of times at the Mangrove and had not seen anything amiss going on, and certainly nobody selling, buying or using drugs.

When Croft had finished, one of the prosecution barristers stood up. He opened a large file in front of him and asked me whether I had ever written about the police and the black community. No, I hadn’t: I had joined the paper two years earlier and wrote for Business News. The barrister paused for a moment, closed his file and said “no further questions”.

Afterwards one of the defence team told me that the file contained Derek’s articles. It was clear that, had he given evidence, the prosecution would have sought to discredit him as anti-police. In the event, the defence team were delighted that it was I who had given the evidence.

Oddly, had the prosecution done its homework, it could have painted me as a left-wing radical: not just on the Anti-Apartheid Executive, but as a student who in the late Sixties had taken part in pretty well every demonstration going – Vietnam, South Africa etc. But it seems the prosecution hadn’t researched the background of a young Sunday Times financial jouirnalist wearing a suit and tie. (Not that my political views had any bearing on the truth of my evidence; but it was probably just as well that it did not become a matter of contention in court.)

The trial lasted three months. In his summing up, the judge, Edward Clarke, said that the trial had “regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides”. Three decades before the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, it was the first judicial recognition of racism in the Metropolitan Police.

The jury met to discuss its verdict, having been reminded by Michael Hill, the lead prosecuting counsel, of the police evidence that the defendants had incited a riot. The central issue, he said, was whether the jury accepted this evidence. They didn’t. They acquitted all nine defendants of all the main charges. Five, including Frank, were found innocent of all charges; the other four were found guilty of lesser charges and received suspended sentences.

The police were plainly furious that, at the end of such a lengthy, high-profile trial, the defendants all walked free. The police were also angry at the judge’s summing-up. They asked the DPP to seek a retraction of his statement about racial hatred. Edward Clarke rightly refused.

Half a century later, progress has been made to tackle racism in the Metropolitan police – but not nearly enough. The BBC1 film is the first of a series by Steve McQueen and the Small Axe team about London’s West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s. They depict recent history; let us hope that they also prompt further action to tackle the harassment and other racist practices that persist in the Met.

This account was first published by The Independent