A Black Power Spring in England: A Report on Launching the Jessica Huntley Community Garden

Photo by Markus Spiske

After three years of constant planning, strategising and pushing by coordinators of the project, Eric Huntley and Sukant Chandan with support from many others in the community saw the Jessica Huntley Community Garden (Huntley Garden) successfully launch on Monday May 1st 2023 in what attendees called a ‘beautiful and fitting tribute’ to the many grassroots legacies and works of Jessica and Eric Huntley and their wider political, social and cultural community. Well over 100 attendees of all generation from babes-in-arms, to young children, youth, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all in attendance and everyone had a direct role to play in the event. The Huntley Garden project is a radical Black Power socialist grassroots project that is seeing a relative blooming of younger people getting involved with a series of events pertaining to Black grassroots histories, those that still carry on these traditions in their older years, and concrete ‘serve the people’ and educational initiatives from the Malcolm X Movement and allied organisations and networks that is proving to give leadership in Britain.

At 2pm the skies opened up with a decent amount of rainfall, climate change is making our country drier and drier with growing water scarcity so the precipitation was welcome in a sense but it would also be nice to have some sunshine for the opening of the garden itself by St James’s Church on Leeland Terrace. At 3pm the clouds broke and the sun shone through with perfect timing. People gathered making a crowd of up to 70 attendees to conduct the first planting on the site in a collective-planting activity in which Eric Huntley concluded with a planting of two grape vines that will grow towards each other and form a united vine (a metaphor for Jessica & Eric Huntley). People of all ages planted: roses, nasturtiums, marigolds, daffodils & bluebells bulbs, sunflowers, beans, currants, and many other bulbs, cuttings and seeds were planted. The collective planting on the community garden was an important sight in the community, bringing veterans of the grassroots with the youth into the centre-ground taking responsibility of a public space to conduct our own International Day of the Working Classes on 1st of May, our own grassroots spring activity. This 1st May event will continue to happen annually as one of the leading May 1st events in Britain.

Eric Huntley’s feet firmly pressed the compost into the ground connecting the soil closely with the roots of the two grape plants. We received a free ton bag of compost courtesy of Jan Anderson from Ealing Council, and head of resident engagement Kofi Nyamah was in –attendance from Ealing Council also. The site was kindly prepared by one of our community partners of the project, Paul our neighbour on Coldershaw Road and with support from his landscape company Stanton Landscapes.

It was Eric’s idea that we should do a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Pan-Africanist colours of red, green, and gold conducted by the youngest children in attendance. In a day of many metaphors Eric and I held the children’s hands with the somewhat dull scissors guiding the process until the ribbons were cut. It was a wonderful inter-generational moment of cooperation whereby the tools aren’t always the best and ideal but it’s the unity through working through the challenges that makes the result that much more connected and meaningful. The whole day saw children as young as toddler, and all age groups upwards have a concrete role to play in the launch event reflecting the manner in which we design events to ensure that all ages of participants feel positively involved and are contributing to the success of the initiative. As Professor Gus John walked towards our planting activity he was received with a ripple of applause .Prof Gus, like Jessica and Eric and others in attendance, is six decades deep in advocating for the Black grassroots communities in this country and globally on issues including racism in education and policing. Eric said a few words to formally inaugurate the community garden and at 330pm we went into the SET art project space a few metres away on the high street.

The attendees at this section of the event were comprised of around 60-70% family and comrades of the Huntley’s, and the rest were attendees from across the country (a large contingent came from Oxford, many thanks to the MXM in Oxford and Oxford Community Action) and many local people of all ages.

I hosted the event introducing the section for short speeches explaining to the packed hall that the launch of the Huntley Garden is a result of three years of planning. That having moved to West Ealing in my last years of primary school in 1991 (the year the Walter Rodney Bookshop closed on Chigwell Place), mine and subsequent generations in the area in West Ealing had no observable manifestation of the prolific and pioneering work of the Huntleys in W13, and no organisations and projects directly connected to the work of the Huntleys to get involved in.

After we launched the Malcolm X Movement (MXM) in 2014/2015 with a big national tour and festival, we partly modelled our events on the Black & Radical Book fairs that started in 1982 until the early 1990s, just that the MXM often added a sound system culture/music section to that model. In 2011 I attended the Huntley’s event at the V&A with Keith Waithe performing and Valerie Bloom’s utterly delightful poetry reciting. In 2014 I attended the Huntley Archive event at the London Metropolitan Archives in Farringdon. In 2015 I meet close comrades of the Huntleys, Keith Waithe face-to-face at a café on Northfields Ave having followed his amazing music for decades and having a CD of his Macusi Players and having seen him live previously. In 2017 MXM delivered an event at the annual Anarchist Bookfair in Liverpool Street with Eric Huntley and founder of the pioneering Hansib publishers Arif Ali on the panel.

By the time of the first lockdown around the covid pandemic in 2020 council estate residents and I were involved in grassroots community food-growing projects on council estates in Lambeth and wider radical Black-led grassroots organising on estates as the Black youth took the leadership in that restive summer of resistance around George Floyd’s horrific police killing; the Black resistance to tear down colonial symbols in England; the Black youth on council estates resisting a spike in police harassment and brutality often facing riot police incursions onto to their estates, and the self-defence clashes on ‘BLM’ protests with violent policing and the organised far-right in Whitehall, Parliament Square and Trafalgar Squares culminating in the historic victory against the far-right on June 13th.

After discussing with Eric sometime in early 2021 or late 2020 we agreed that Leeland Terrace would be a good location for a community garden in honour of Jessica. Eric was also keen that the small concrete square on the pedestrianised section of St James’ Ave by 105 The Broadway should be used as a place to hold community events. In Feb 2021 I email our local MP Rupa Haq with the community garden idea. Her first response was to say it was ‘an inspired idea’, and she was positive and supportive from the get-go. Rupa contacted Ealing Council to facilitate access to the space, and after consistent pushing and gentle pressing: the idea bloomed and has come to its initial fruition on May 1st 2023.

After my introduction, Eric Huntley was one of two special guest speakers. Eric made a wonderful contribution, very much his style of, one of the one hand ensuring the correct and full historical contexts were conveyed, along with his sensitive and poetic touches; to quote:

“It is perhaps no accident that the space chosen for the garden is across the road from the Bookshop where much of her activities took place, including Sainsburys. Herself and friends would visit fill their shopping baskets with South African goods, go to the cashier and innocently declared they were boycotting goods because of its policy of Apartheid and deposited the basket on the counter. Holding up the queue in the process.

“St James’ Church Hall was booked for social gatherings attended organized by her, including one of the first meetings which opened the nationwide campaign to expose the manner in which the police used the SUS law to criminalise Black youth.

“Jessica organised a Karate club to the church hall, under the tutorship of Ferris and Hamzah which soon attracted both young and not so young and from far and wide.

“Her particular concern was Education of our youth and the practice of dumping them in schools for the educationally ‘sub-normal’.

“Leading her to become a founder of the Supplementary School Movement as well as teaching. The Peter Moses School was held at the Ealing Technical College in St Mary’s Road. She also taught at the Caribbean Parents Group organised by Edna and Willis Wilkie. She served on the Board of Inquilab Housing Association based in Southall. The youth were always on her mind leading her to organise a weekend Conference in Acton, entitled ‘Young People Talking to Young People’ with the older generation acting as facilitators.

“The opening of the Bookshop in 1974 brought with it new Vistas. The Publishing could have been done in Timbuctu, how ever she was what I would call a Peoples Person. A DOER.

“Ealing during the seventies was a ‘desert’ only waiting for a person like her to explore. Peoples came to the Bookshop and enquired about jobs, accommodation, to she the recent news about their various homelands, to complain about the behavior of the Police. She knew which lawyers to recommend. It was also virtually ‘an Advice Centre.’ This is a potted history of her life with us. LONG MAY SHE LIVE SPIRITUALLY WITH US.”

So much to be inspired by and to give us determination to serve the grassroots going-forward.

Rupa Haq MP spoke too at the launch event, and her support to the Huntley Garden project was warmly received by the attendees. Our friend and community partner Assiya from the Afghan Peace Library said a few words of support, she has also been part of projects with Eric Huntley locally in schools. Josh from the SET art project who kindly gave their space free to us for the event spoke in support at our event. Many thanks to Josh and Assiya for their hard work on the day of the launch and thanks also to Ellie from SET for the support and solidarity.

Local councillor and local children’s project WAPPY founder Grace Akuba performed a wonderful poem inspired by the Huntleys. Local councillor from Seven Sisters Michelle Simmons-Safo spoke of the importance of the leadership of Black women in our grassroots movements, quoting Malcolm X: “if you educate the women you educate the nation”. Nigel Carter from Oxford Community Action and a veteran of Hansib publishers amongst other things made a brilliant speech bringing a strong Caribbean-based Pan-Africanist political-cultural analysis to the event.

We have to thank Ken Fero who was in the room from United Friends & Family Campaign around deaths by police and Migrant Media. We also have to thank the formidable Arnie from London Black Revolutionaries who was in attendance, a courageous and strategic leader of the radical grassroots youth especially in the period 2013-2017. Many thanks to Brother Omowale who brought his Djembe and comrades from the Movement of the People which is Sean Kuti’s movement in Nigeria which re-established the original MOP of Fela Kuti. Coldershaw Road resident Amarjit Chandan, world renowned Punjabi poet, veteran political figure and researcher was also in attendance. Pioneering Black writer and publisher Margaret Busby was also in the room with us. The local migrant-led West Ealing Green Space (WEGS) community garden project on Seaford Road have been a local support and inspiration to us, many thanks for their support and attendance at our launch. Many thanks to all the volunteers especially the team of MXM volunteers on the day who ensured everything ran on-time and professionally.

Professor Gus John was the last feature in the speeches section of the event giving a very warmly received short lecture on the histories of the struggles against racism in the immigration regime, education and policing. Comrade Jenniah from South London as the artist ‘Sense’ completed this section of the event with two combined acapellas which lyrically explored the themes of alienation, oppression and challenges borne out of the colonial and capitalist system.

We served the curried chicken, aromatic basmati rice, daal and a raita-salad I prepared at home for everyone which was served and eaten while the wonderful True Steel Pan band played live from 530-6pm. people expressed thanks and appreciation for the delicious nourishment of the pans and food.

From 6-9pm was the live music and sound-system section of the event. An ensemble comprising world-class tabla player Aref Dervesh (who also grew up locally), Guyanese heritage and former Guyana artist-in-state flautist Keith Waithe, Brother Tuup on percussion and Brother Omowale on djembe. What a jam it was! Waithe leading in his unmistakably Guyanese-inspired style, bringing the sonic sounds of the tropical rainforest with the rolling & slamming beats of the tabla, djembe, and other percussion. We have to give a great thanks to original Reggae sound-system brother-man Father Chalky brought his sound system (many thanks Stanton Landscapes in this regards) as original Junglist bad-man DJ Garvin Dan took to the turntables to smash-out an amazing Garage and then Jungle set with MC Rebel Base combining a ‘back-to-back’ dynamic of his Junglist emceeing with the Reggae chat-down style of Chalky. The Jamaican-originating grassroots sound-system culture of Reggae, Ragga, Jungle, Garage and Grime was in full representation at the event! Jah Shaka, Skibba D, MC Fats who have all passed away recently were given honour and respect. It was a fitting celebratory end to a wonderful and important historic day, the first step and as well an additional step in a long journey and inter-woven stories of those like Jessica Huntley who were committed heart and soul to bringing relief, resistance and a liberation-oriented growing representation to the grassroots.

As we look forward, we are involving more and more local residents to the actual growing on the site of the Huntley Garden, and last night there was already talk of the next public event of the Huntley Garden project of an outdoors summer festival type event on St James’s Square. Our proverbial garden gates are always open.

Furthermore, to this event the Malcolm X Movement is pivotal to the development of radical Black-led grassroots movements in communities in Oxford, seeing the MXM deliver four sessions with high school and college students. In addition, MXM delivered a ‘Black Power Teach-Out’ in a community garden. The teach-out involved 17 young participants between the ages of 16-20yrs old in collectively preparing and cooking pizza in an outside woodfire pizza oven, using herbs harvested from the community garden itself, and then two workshops on the anti-colonial histories of West Africa and Malcolm X.

This has been followed by an event which saw some of these young people chair and deliver another MXM event on the historic community of the Black working class in Oxford on the Blackbyrd Leys council estate. At this event Prof Gus John again engaged a room of nearly 100 people in his leadership against racism in schools and policing over six decades, the event saw another 20 new participants into work at the grassroots in Oxford coordinated by the MXM. The capacity of the radical left in Britain has dwindled for decades, a process that seemed to quicken through the pandemic and related lockdowns. As the official ‘BLM’ has been inactive for years, there are new young generations of late teens and those in their 20s who have never seen what a Black Power socialist resistance looks like in their generation. MXM with its modest means but effective and efficient strategies and working styles is engaging these new generations with growing momentum leading to the blooming of a many ideas to address the direct needs of our communities and to organise for consciousness-raising which then again feeds into further capacity building of the class struggle in the most oppressed working-class council estates.

Sukant Chandan is a London-based decolonial anti-imperialist activist and analyst. He advocated justice for Libyans in visiting Libya three times during the Nato onslaught in 2011 and reports frequently on English-language news channels based in Russia, Iran, China and Lebanon on which he discusses issues pertaining to the challenges of the struggle to end neo-colonialism. He can be contacted at sukant.chandan@gmail.com.