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The trouble with NAAR

The National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR) has been around for a number of years. It has had a series of 'conferences' consisting of endless platform speeches and 'workshops' which could decide nothing. This has suited the people who dominate NAAR - self-appointed, unaccountable 'community leaders', often in with local authority positions or some form of state or charity funding.

These connections, and the political and financial support they get from the Trade Union Conference bureaucrats, mean that the media treat them as the 'official' voice of anti-racism (think how often you see Lee Jasper giving the 'black community's view' on TV!). In fact they have little base in the black or Asian communities. What authority they have with rank-and-file trade unionists and black and Asian people comes from their links to the trade union and Labour Party bureaucracy and sections of the state.

We urgently need a strong, national, integrated anti-racist movement based in the black and Asian communities, the trade unions and students. That is the aim of the Movement for Justice. To achieve that aim we will whenever possible fight racism alongside NAAR and SAAR. However, the dominant political outlook in NAAR has made it an obstacle to building a mass anti-racist movement.

The Movement for Justice campaigned for collective non-co-operation with the Immigration and Asylum Bill as soon as Michael Howard announced it. NAAR set up the Campaign Against the Immigration and Asylum Bill (CAIAB), which steadfastly refused to raise this demand. 47% of the national conference of the main public sector union, UNISON, voted for our policy, but CAIAB's line strengthened the opposition of the bureaucrats to any effective action. Their real view was that the Bill could not be defeated, so all they could do was get Labour to move some amendments.

Now that Labour is in government NAAR is even more passive. Its leaders have the possibility of talking to government ministers! - they don't want anything 'militant' or controversial to risk their 'influence'. So when asylum seeker detainees staged mass protests and hunger strikes after Labour won the election NAAR remained inactive.

It was left to the Pan-Afrikan Freedom Fighters Asylum Campaign, (PAFFAC) an alliance of refugees and their supporters which the Movement for Justice has played an active role in, to launch the lobby of parliament on 5th. November. PAFFAC wanted a public event to show the anger of refugees and anti-racist campaigners and build a united, militant struggle for asylum rights. It asked other groups including NAAR for support.

NAAR's response was to hold a meeting with the Churches' Commission for Racial Justice and the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) to call their own lobby on 19th. November! They refused to call for repeal of the Asylum Act or a total amnesty. Even their opposition to detention was not total, arguing instead for time limits and an appeals system.

They say these are 'realistic', 'winnable' demands which the TUC would support - in fact they sent NAAR representatives to the TUC conference to get this line endorsed by trade union bureaucrats! NCADC had misgivings, but was persuaded to back the lobby on 19th. November on the basis that it would get the material support of the TUC.

PAFFAC refused to give in to this intimidation and went ahead with its plans. Within a week of this decision NAAR called off its lobby, using the lame excuse that it needed the money for its AGM. It had only called a lobby to stop more militant action on 5th. November. The NCADC felt it had been taken for a ride, and is now supporting the 5th. November lobby.

In our article on the fight against the BNP in east London we explain the similar role NAAR tried to play there in September. The NAAR leadership doesn't want action that might endanger its relationships with bureaucrats, bishops and ministers. A struggle to drive the Nazis off the streets challenges the power of the authorities, so it is terribly upsetting to people who think that influencing the authorities is the only way to get anything done.

Lambeth Movement for Justice supporters have seen leading NAAR dignitary Lee Jasper play the same role in relation to the police. Supporters of his National Black Caucus and 1990 Trust control the Lambeth Police Consultative Committee. In successive meetings of the committee this summer Movement for Justice supporters, the Okoye family and members of a local black church put massive pressure on the police over their handling of the death of Oscar Okoye. The police were on the defensive, but Jasper and his cronies came to their aid, trying to stop us fighting on the issue. He pressured the family to drop any public campaign in return for finding better lawyers - and then dropped them altogether, not even turning up for the inquest, where, predictably they got nothing at all.

In the week of the Labour Party conference NAAR got its reward. Jack Straw announced legislation to make racist harassment and attacks specific criminal offences. This has always been NAAR's central demand, their answer to people who try to organise defence against racist attacks. In reality laws against racism will make little difference and can never be a substitute for building a movement that organises on the ground against all forms of racism. At best it is a gesture. There is even the danger of the police using it against black and Asian youth who defend themselves against racist attacks.

Now they have got this sop NAAR will be more determined to put a lid on real struggles while it 'influences' the drafting of the new law. But its failure to prevent anti-racists breaking up September's BNP meeting or stop PAFFAC's 5th. November lobby show that anti-racists who are prepared for a real struggle are able to build effective action, even against NAAR's obstruction. Our numbers and NAAR's difficulties will grow.

The struggles have also shown that there are people in and around NAAR and SAAR who want to fight and are sickened by the Labour government's hypocrisy. To hold the support of these people at the AGM, NAAR's leaders and their left MP allies like Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott will make critical comments about the government, preferably out of earshot of the press. This may work in a conference room, but they will find it increasingly difficult when it comes to action. We must unite in building action with those NAAR supporters who want to fight, and demand that Livingstone, Abbott and the NAAR leadership get off the fence and mobilise a serious struggle against the racist policies of the 'New Labour' government.

Updated (4/2/1998) from November, 1997 Movement for Justice magazine

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