Backwards into the Future

by Maddy Costa

Two warnings! One: spoiler alert for the Steve McQueen films Lovers Rock and Alex Wheatle. Two: sexual violence and police violence come up a lot.

And two acknowledgements: the title comes from this interview with Jay Bernard. And this post was originally published on the blog slow fade, on 25 January 2021; it’s been moved here by me (Maddy) as part of rethinking what I publish where.

The police car idles but doesn’t stop. Lovers Rock is unusual within the Small Axe series in that respect: in the other four films Steve McQueen looks at Britain as a police state, one quicker to criminalise and attack than it is to educate or support. But in Lovers Rock, co-written with Courttia Newland, a different kind of social organisation becomes visible: a community working together to diminish or defuse potential harm. A glimmer of abolition in action.

I’m going to admit, my knowledge of the ideas behind that word abolition is cursory: I’ve barely dipped into the work on this by Black feminists including Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and most of what I think is based on a few compelling articles published online. One was a conversation in the New Inquiry between four womxn of colour writers and community organisers who spoke of abolition hand in hand with transformative justice, the two terms explained by Mia Mingus like so:

“Abolition is the ending of prisons, the prison industrial complex, and a culture of prisons (e.g. criminalization, punishment, disposability, revenge). Transformative justice is a way to respond to violence within our communities in ways that 1) don’t create more harm and violence and 2) actively work to cultivate the very things that we know will prevent violence, such as accountability, healing, trust, connection, safety.”

Their words echo in a piece by Oonagh Ryder, found via the Abolitionist Futures reading list: “Prison abolition is often assumed to be primarily about dismantling the institution of the prison and the systems surrounding it, but even more important to abolitionists is building and transforming,” she writes. “Building networks, systems and institutions that prevent harm and support people, and transforming the structures that drive people into the criminal justice system.”

As Amahra Spence emphasises: “The implications of [abolition] far outreach the criminal justice system. Abolition calls for us to completely reimagine EVERYTHING. … A world without prisons and police allows us instead to invest in infrastructure, environments and mechanisms built on care and repair. It means public services and community safety are priority, not scraping bottom barrel to support those in need. This looks like decriminalising drugs, sex work, homelessness and public order offenses. This looks like healthy investments in people-centred support services, counselling and peacemaking. It grants us the capacity to invest in communities directly.”

This is not the landscape of Small Axe: spanning the late-1960s to the early 1980s, McQueen’s films detail an infrastructure that doesn’t care, that even deliberately breaks those who aren’t white, through public services built on class hierarchy, racism and criminalisation. Lovers Rock is a brief escape from that reality; as K Austen Collins beautifully puts it in his review for Rolling Stone: “It is an hour and change spent in the company of black immigrants doing the rich, complicated, too-long-undepicted work of living on their own terms.” And those terms include community-led approaches to dealing with instability and violence: the possibility of – to quote the title of a vital zine – A World Without Police.

There were three key moments in the film that brought abolition reading to mind for me. If you didn’t heed the spoiler alert at the beginning, seriously: step away from the writing now (and go watch on iplayer). The first moment is brief: Martha sees her friend Patty leave the party and runs into the street – only to see four white men up ahead. They immediately start taunting her, she turns back and bumps into Jabba, the party’s doorman, whose formidable presence scares them off. Trouble averted – and in a brilliant bit of sound design, a siren plays at precisely this point, lilting through the air from the sound system. If that were actual police, you know for sure it would be Jabba under suspicion, not the white thugs.

And police are cruising the area: a car passes the house just as Martha’s cousin Clifton is struggling to get past Jabba into the party. This is after Silly Games has played – a song that holds a subtle double role, the obvious one of nostalgia and romance, but also a more sardonic one, the line “no time to play your silly games” also a dismissive jibe at the Met. (I was worried I might be over-reaching with that thought, but then I read a review by Hunter Harris in NewYork Vulture that reveals: “On set, McQueen suggested that the song, in the moment, has dual meanings: The ‘Silly Games’ of courting a lover feels just as real, and as frustrating, as the silly games of cops, of courts, of neighbors, of everything outside the walls of the blues parties’ self-constructed safety, when all you want to be is free.” Of course, now it just looks like I copied it. Stupid blasted internet.) There is something magical about this space of the party: McQueen makes it charmed, secure from police intrusion.

Not that it feels charmed to birthday girl Cynthia, who is led from the dancefloor by lothario Bammy, and found by Martha crushed beneath his weight at the back of the garden. This is key moment two: when Martha forces Bammy away from Cynthia, preventing the teenager’s rape. It’s a horrible, tense, unsettling scene; Martha presses a weapon to Bammy’s throat but he could easily overpower her without Franklyn coming to find her. Again, the sound design is punctuated by sirens here: audible as Martha walks towards the back of the garden, and as she and Franklyn return to the party. Martha isn’t just preventing Bammy’s harm: she’s preventing the harm of the entire criminal justice system.

The important thing about transformative justice, adrienne maree brown says in that New Inquiry conversation, is: “it isn’t utopian”. Trouble doesn’t disappear; it’s dealt with differently. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha agrees: their vision of transformative justice in action is a community in which “everyone was trained in self-defense and de-escalation, and there were systems of atonement, reparations and healing when violence did occur”. Martha gives a glimpse of de-escalation in practise: she deals with Bammy just minutes after inserting herself between Jabba and Clifton to prevent them fighting. This is a woman having to work – even on a party night – to look after her community. (A reflection, if not quite an acknowledgement, of the justice work done by Black women, the abolition feminists already named, those who began the Black Lives Matter movement, and more.) There’s a cycle here too: Martha’s father is violent; Clifton’s father used to put himself between Martha and that violence, until her father brought schism into the family. The need for different care systems, different relationships, is palpable.

Back on the dance floor, Clifton is a liability: moving oblivious to the bodies around him, and to the glances that flicker across the room, faces silently asking each other, who the fuck is this guy? There are so many ways the group could respond: a fight could break out, they could decide to throw him out. Instead the men of Mercury Sound give Clifton the microphone. They see his energy and channel it, focus it towards chanting down Babylon. It is one of those “other ways to solve our issues” imagined in the zine A World Without Police.

It’s hard to watch Bammy in that scene, reabsorbed into the room, nothing to stop him assaulting another girl. “All conversations about prison abolition eventually come to the question of sexual violence,” writes Oonagh Ryder. But, as Mariame Kaba points out in her introduction to the zine Open Letter To the Anti-Rape Movement: “Out of every 1000 sexual assaults … fewer than 5 will lead to incarceration. If the goal is to end rape through a criminal legal process then I would say that based on the numbers, the strategy has already failed.” To the founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice, quoted in a BBC article from July 2020 on the fall in rape prosecutions in the UK, the problem with the numbers is that “men who are determined to rape” are given “a message that rape is de-criminalised”. But since when has the threat of prison stopped anyone from committing any kind of violence?

As Amahra Spence points out, it is “the underlying structures of power that lead to violence in the first place”. She advocates not retribution for rape but restorative justice, which “reduces violent reoffending by 75%, significantly eases PTSD in survivors and builds empathy. This is about transforming harm.” Whereas criminalisation, argues Kaba, is itself “inherently sexual violence. It isn’t simply co-constitutive of sexual violence. It IS state enactment of gender violence.” The intimacy of body overpowering body elsewhere in McQueen’s Small Axe films, face thrust against face, knee into groin, torsos held in vicious embrace, demonstrate the truth of Kaba’s words: “Prisons and policing abuse and violate people by design.”

In the film of the same name, Alex Wheatle is asleep in bed wearing nothing more than a thin pair of white underpants when police thunder into his room; the film opens with his upper body still bare, waiting for his regulation prison uniform to clothe himself. At school he’s tied up in a straitjacket, arms locked in a grotesque hug, punishment for fighting back when a white boy attacks him. At his care home, the white matron pushes the sheet he accidentally wet in the night into his own mouth. Violation piles on violation, reaching an apex with the New Cross Fire, an incident so severe that McQueen stops the film, drains colour from the screen, replaces his own storytelling with a sequence of black and white archive photographs and the voice of Linton Kwesi Johnson intoning his poem New Crass Massakah.

Watching that scene I had a flashback: not to Lovers Rock – the allusion is there, Cynthia in the film celebrating her 17th birthday, Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson in New Cross celebrating their 16th and 18th birthdays respectively – instead to Jay Bernard performing Surge in June 2019. The venue was the Albany in Deptford, close by the house where the fire happened; the work is a protean, shape-shifting thing that holds up a mirror to the New Cross fire and sees in it Grenfell burning. Bernard too used archive photos in their performance, includes them in the poetry collection that is another iteration of Surge. One of the poems, Songbook, follows in the footsteps of New Crass Massakah; I remember Bernard’s swaggering body delivering its opening verses, the joy of toasting, of holding court at the sound system, just like Alex Wheatle, just like the men of Mercury Sound; a stillness falling, I think, when fire struck at the heart of the poem, killing its young.

“Not rivers, towers of blood.” It’s such a simple, chilling line, and through it Bernard connects the surge of far-right populism of the late-1960s, Enoch Powell a figurehead, with that of the late-2010s, Farage, the Brexit vote, the Grenfell fire grimly totemic. A tower populated by people most impacted by economic inequality, whose deaths might have been prevented but for economic greed. One of those people was artist Khadija Saye; that “towers of blood” line ends a poem in her memory named Sentence. What a charged word that is: redolent of prison sentences, death sentences; but also, of possibility. A sentence is a construction, a series of decisions positioning words; move one and everything about it changes.

In prison Wheatle meets Simeon, a Rastafarian, who tells him that classism, not racism, is “the main thing you have to worry about in this here country”. Capitalism is the superstructure within which all other systems, from policing and prisons to education, are built. Re-education, Simeon insists, is the route to change; he gifts Wheatle a library of black history books with the words: “If you don’t know your past then you won’t know your future.” Talking about Surge with poet Kayo Chingonyi, Bernard brings a less toothsome, more troubled consideration of the same thought:

“What is history? What is it to record it? Why do you record it? Is it for its own sake? Or is it towards some other end? And if we never know the answer to what happened in the New Cross Fire, ultimately, what does that mean? Does it matter? Which I think always comes back to this idea of why write, why put it down on paper in the first place? For me, it’s because it’s always about the present. It’s always about how it feels today. What it’s like to look back today.”

Surge could catalogue despair and disempowerment at the conduits and constructions of violence, but Bernard occupies a different space: defiance, an awareness of strength. “We have transformed this country,” they note in one poem; in another they listen close to people’s voices and hear: “This century dubbed by migrants from the last.” The opening poem, Arrival, casts a spell of resistance: black people “were brought here from the clear waters of our dreams” but now “close our smoky mouths around their dreams / swallow them as they gaze upon us / never to be full”. As Bernard says in their introduction: “I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.”

The poetry collection is an incomplete document of the stage show, which sits incomplete in my memory as well; I wish I’d written about it at the time, in particular to recollect better the section of the performance when Bernard speaks towards their queerness, their gender identity, and asks what it means to turn from black womanhood, its responsibilities but also its sisterhoods. Turn away, turn down? At this distance of time I’m not sure. But I know that Bernard’s physical presence was essential to that sense of strength, surge, haunting gaze, to the feeling of stepping into, around, across history, and the possibilities in transformation – of a sentence, a body, a city, a country, time itself.

What is it to record performance? Why write about art? These are a questions I ask myself a lot, neurotically in fact, often without a satisfactory answer. In February last year I named an intention for this blog, to create some kind of ethical statement for it, a set of beliefs to write by, but I’ve struggled with a feeling of self-aggrandizement every time I tried to create it. For now I’m holding on to a conversation between Mariame Kaba and rapper Noname published late last year; they were talking about art, and Kaba says:

“There are many who don’t believe that art is most valuable when it’s put in the service of movement-building and social justice. Some argue that this is a really utilitarian view of art that limits its potential and maybe even reduces its importance. But I think that art is not only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people, but also, that oppressed people don’t have the luxury of not tying art to being in the service of movement-building and social justice.”

Appropriating these words is itself a complicated act. In the acerbic zine Chump Change, Harry Josephine Giles writes despairingly of artists who do more talking about abolition (specifically that) in safe theatre circles than participating in abolitionist organising meetings (with their “grinding interpersonal conflicts and grief of political failure”). But given that writing remains this ridiculous compulsion, doing so in the service of social justice feels like something I can at least stand beside.

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